The Situationist

Archive for December, 2009

Nicole Stephens on “Choice, Social Class, and Agency”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 31, 2009

Nicole Stephens is a Ph.D. student in Social Psychology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the ways in which sociocultural contexts – such as those delineated by social class, race, and gender – shape the experience and the consequences of choice. In one line of research, she examines how people of different social classes define and respond to choice. In a second line of research, she examines how the common American belief that individual choice drives all actions blinds people to the sociocultural sources of inequality.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2009, Stephens’s fascinating presentation was titled “Choice, Social Class, and Agency.” Here’s the abstract:

Across disciplines we tend to assume that choice is a fundamental or “basic” unit of human behavior, and that behavior is a product of individual choice. In my talk, I will present a series of lab and field studies that question these assumptions about behavior, and suggest that these assumptions reflect primarily the experiences of college-educated, or middle-class, Americans, who tend to have access to a wealth of choices and an array of quality options among which to choose. I will discuss the implications of these assumptions for the (mis)understanding of behavior across diverse contexts.

You can watch her presentation on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Blame Frame – Abstract,” “The Situation in New Orleans,”Examining Why Estimated “Costs” of Racial Inequality Vary by Race,” and “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss the problem with the illusion of choices, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of False Confessions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 29, 2009

Ian Herbert, one of the very best translators of mind science research for popular audiences, has written an informative and disconcerting article, “The Psychology and Power of False Confessions” for the latest issue of The Observer.”  Here are some excerpts.

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We know that false confessions do happen on a fairly regular basis. Because of advances in DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has been able to exonerate more than 200 people who had been wrongly convicted, 49 of whom had confessed to the crime we now know they didn’t commit. In a survey of 1,000 college students, four percent of those who had been interrogated by police said they gave a false confession.

But Why?

Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? . . . . In the November 2004 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, APS Fellow Saul Kassin looked at the body of research and described how the police are able to interrogate suspects until they confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

Generally, it starts because people give up their Miranda rights. In fact, Richard A. Leo found that a majority of people give up the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. In fact, according to self-report data, innocent suspects gave up their rights more often than guilty suspects (most told Leo either that this was because they felt that they didn’t have anything to hide because they were innocent or that they thought it would make them look guilty).

Once a suspect starts talking, the police can use a variety of techniques to make the accused feel as though they are better off confessing than continuing to deny (these include promises of leniency and threats of harsher interrogation or sentences). If a suspect feels like a conviction is inevitable not matter what he or she says, confessing may seem like a good idea.

But, in some cases, the accused comes to believe that he or she actually did commit the crime. It’s been shown repeatedly that memory is quite malleable and unreliable. Elizabeth Loftus has repeatedly shown that the human brain can create memories out of thin air with some prompting. In a famous series of experiments, Loftus, APS Past President, was able to help people create memories for events that never happened in their lives simply through prompting. She helped them “remember” being lost in a shopping mall when they were children, and the longer the experiment went on, the more details they “remembered.” The longer police interrogate a suspect, emphatic about his guilt and peppering their interrogation with details of the crime, the more likely a suspect is to become convinced himself.

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Despite the evidence that false confessions are a regular occurrence, most jurors struggle with the concept . . . . Confessions are difficult to discount, even if they appear to be coerced. Years ago, Kassin noticed that cases with confessions have an unusually high conviction rate, and since then he has dedicated his life to studying why that happens and what can be done about it.

In a 1997 study, Kassin and colleague Katherine Neumann gave subjects case files with weak circumstantial evidence plus either a confession, an eyewitness account, a character witness, or no other evidence. Across the board, prospective jurors were more likely to vote guilty if a confession was included in the trial, even when they were told that the defendant was incoherent at the time of the confession and immediately recanted what he said.

Kassin and Neumann also did two simultaneous studies to further explore the power of confessions. In one, they had people watch a trial and turn a dial to rate the extent to which evidence convinced them the defendant was guilty or innocent. The other asked potential jurors after the trial which evidence was most powerful. In both the mid-trial and post-trial ratings, jurors saw the confession as the most incriminating. Other studies have shown that conviction rates rise even when jurors see confessions as coerced and even when they say that the confession played no role in their judgment. “I don’t honestly think juries stand a chance in cases involving confessions,” Kassin says. “They’re bound to convict.”

Kassin says he doesn’t blame jurors. He travels around the country lecturing on the psychology of false confessions and he says “the most common reaction I get from a lay audience is, ‘Well, I would never do that. I would never confess to something I didn’t do.’ And people apply that logic in the jury room. It’s just that basic belief that false confessions don’t occur.” What’s more, the evidence juries are given in conjunction with the false confessions is very damning, Kassin says. False confessions of guilt often include vivid details of how a crime was committed — and why. Confessions sometimes even come with an apology to the family. It’s no wonder jurors have trouble discounting them.

What confessions rarely include is an explanation of why the person confessed. In most states, police are not required to videotape the interrogations, just the confessions. So juries don’t get to see any potential police coercion and they don’t get to see the police planting those vivid details in the minds of the suspects.

And that may be just the tip of the iceberg. Kassin believes that confessions can have a dramatic impact on trials even if they never make it into a courtroom. They can influence potential eyewitnesses, for example, and taint other kinds of evidence.

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To read the entire article, including a section discussing Kassin’s fascinating research with psychologist Lisa Hasel testing the effect of confessions on eyewitnesses, click here.  To visit Ian Herbert’s superb blog, We’re Only Human, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Legal Situation of the Underclass,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” The Painful Situation of Guilt,” A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” 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 Choice Myth, Illusions, Law | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

The Spicy Situation of Food, Flavor, and Taste

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 27, 2009

With holiday feasts now behind us, we thought this might be a good time to post some portions of Linda Bartoshuk’s article, “Spicing Up Psychological Science,” from the September issue of The Observer.  Here are some excerpts.

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The anatomy of spice perception involves illusion. We seem to perceive spices both with the senses of taste and smell, but in reality, smell does most of the work. Consider cinnamon . . . . Even with our eyes closed, the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls grabs our attention. Sniffing draws the cinnamon volatiles (chemicals that evaporate at low temperatures and make their way into our nostrils as vapors) up into our noses; the volatiles pass through a tiny opening at the top of the nasal cavity called the olfactory cleft. When odorants pass through the cleft, they gain access to the olfactory mucosa, the tissue that contains olfactory receptors. This process is technically called “orthonasal olfaction,” but we commonly call it “smell.”

But there is a second kind of olfaction. When we bite into a cinnamon roll and chew and swallow, the cinnamon volatiles are forced up behind the palate into the nose; because of the backward route by which the volatiles enter the nose, this process is called “retronasal olfaction.” The combination of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) and retronasal olfaction is called “flavor.” Note that we do not use “flavor” as a verb to describe our perceptions of flavor in the same way we use “taste” as a verb to describe our perceptions of taste. To flavor food means to add flavor to food rather than to perceive the flavor of food. But this does not bother us because we use “taste” in everyday conversation to refer to our perceptions of flavor. One of the reasons that we do not notice this linguistic slip is because flavor is perceptually localized to the mouth. This trap caught even Aristotle. He listed olfactory sensations perceived from food in the mouth as tastes.

Why do we experience this illusion of localization? We are not sure, but we know that touch and taste both play roles. The brain knows the route by which an odorant gets to the olfactory receptors. Sniffing may provide the cue that says “orthonasal olfaction.” Oral touch and taste sensations may provide the cues that say “retronasal olfaction.”

In any case, olfactory information goes to different brain areas and is processed in different ways depending on which route was detected. For example, retronasal olfaction can be intensified by taste. Food companies make good use of this intensification. If you market a beverage like grape juice and you would like to intensify the grape flavor of the juice, just add sugar (another reason why we are bombarded with sweetened drinks). Incidentally, supertasters, those individuals with the most taste buds, perceive the most intense tastes, and because of the connection between taste and retronasal olfaction, supertasters also experience the most intense flavors . . . .

Current thinking is that the pleasure we experience from spices is learned. Cinnamon produces pleasure because it was previously paired with experiences our brains are programmed to view favorably (e.g., calories, sweetness of sugar). On the other hand, pair cinnamon with nausea and it will become unpleasant. One of the volatiles in cinnamon, eugenol, is also found in cloves. Cloves and cinnamon do not smell exactly the same, but their odors are similar. Oil of cloves is a natural analgesic and was used by dentists in an earlier era. I associate the odor of cloves with sickness associated with visits to my dentist; I do not share the enthusiasm of those lined up at Cinnabon for the overpowering scents of those calorie-rich rolls. Incidentally, the degree to which learning with one kind of olfaction generalizes to another is not yet clear. Love of cinnamon is learned through retronasal experience but clearly generalizes to cinnamon sniffed. On the other hand, some odors are pleasant with one kind of smell (e.g., cut grass is pleasant when sniffed) but not with the other (I can’t imagine a cut-grass flavor).

The person most responsible for explaining how we learn to love or hate flavors is Paul Rozin . . . .

. . . . Rozin described the “omnivore’s dilemma.” Somehow species like humans (and rats) that consume a large variety of different foods must take in important nutrients and avoid poisons. Rozin and his students have revealed how we do it (Rozin & Hormes, 2009). Our brains note the effects a given food has on us and make us like or dislike the sensory properties of those foods according to its notion of what is good or bad for us. For example, suppose we want to create a food item that will have great appeal. Begin with sources of calories (fat, carbohydrates), add sugar (for its hard-wired effect), and label the mixture with a salient odorant that will endow the item with a retronasal olfactory punch: I give you a brownie. On the other hand, let’s watch an undergraduate on his first alcohol binge get violently ill on screwdrivers. He will likely find screwdrivers distasteful the next day (and possibly for life). Further, the aversion may generalize to orange juice, orange candy, and a lot of other substances flavored with orange. The power of such conditioned aversions has even been used clinically to treat alcoholism . . . .

. . . [Consider one study designed] to explore the affective reactions to odorants in one and two-year olds . . . . The children, seated on their mother’s laps, were allowed to play with toys on a table in front of a picture with holes in it. While the child was engaged with a toy, an odorant was sprayed through one of the holes, and the child’s reaction was rated as pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant by observers in another room viewing the experiment through a one-way mirror. Two odorants were tested that are pleasant to most adults: amyl acetate (pears) and lavender. (To be honest, I don’t know how to describe lavender odor. It’s sold as a spice so there are samples in supermarkets. I suggest you try it.) Two odorants were tested that are unpleasant to most adults: dimethyl disulfide (garlic-like) and butyric acid (vomit-like). There were no significant differences in the reactions of the children to the four odorants. However, by age three, children begin to show preference reactions like those of adults (Engen, 1982; Schmidt & Beauchamp, 1988).  The lack of affect at two years along with the appearance of affect over time supports the learning of olfactory affect.

But another issue has yet to be considered: biological benefits of spices. Flavor volatiles in many of the plants we consume are derived from important nutrients; thus, those volatiles could serve as cues to the presence of those nutrients . . . . Further, the subset of plant volatiles that we call spices have been explicitly associated with health benefits. . . .

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The health benefits of spices suggest that we reconsider the possibility of hard-wired liking of at least some spices. For example, is it possible that during evolution some of our ancestors began using turmeric? If turmeric prolonged their lives could this have ultimately contributed to the proliferation of turmeric-likers?

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Harold McGee . . . is most famous for drawing back the curtain and revealing the chemistry behind what we do in our kitchens. . . . McGee [recently] reviewed efforts to find the origin of the burn of chili. He cited work suggesting that higher altitudes seems to produce chilis with greater burn, possibly because the climate at those altitudes may stress the plants, which might make the chilis more vulnerable to attack . . . . Since the burn appears to act as a deterrent to predators, the increase in burn may better repel those predators. This attention to the burn of chilis is a reminder that burn (produced by capsaicin) is a part of what we think of as spices, but it is not a retronasal olfactory sensation; rather, burn is mediated by the trigeminal nerve (which also mediates temperature and touch sensations).  Note that the oral burn that probably originated to repel predators can be transformed into a positive sensation in humans. Rozin recently commented that, “many innately negative stimuli . . . become highly desired and emerge as really important foods.”

How does this “hedonic reversal” occur? Some have argued that the biological benefits of chilis (e.g., antimicrobial properties, presence of vitamins A and C) somehow lead to our love of them. Whether or not this is so, children in cultures where chilis are an important part of the diet appear to learn the preference socially; that is, chili initially takes on positive value by association with intake by family and friends. Interestingly, it has proved difficult to induce animals to acquire a preference for chili. Rozin noted that some pets can acquire the preference through the social interaction of pet and owner, but attempts to condition preferences for chili in most animals have met with only modest success. However, one of Rozin’s students, Bennett Galef, was able to condition a mild preference for chili in naïve rats socially by exposing them to rats that had eaten the spice  . . . .

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To read the entire article or review its references, click here. To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Snacking,”The Situation of Eating – Part II,” The Situation of Eating,” “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.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Life | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of the Known Universe

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 25, 2009

The American Museum of Natural History has created a truly amazing video which shows the Universe as we know it.  While we all know the Earth is very small relative to the rest of the Universe, that point is graphically made–and perhaps more dramatically than you would expect–in this video.  We hope you enjoy watching it.

Posted in Life | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Juliet Schor, “Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 23, 2009

With the disappointing Copenhagen Climate Summit just behind us and with the most consumption-heavy holiday before us, there is no better time to hear Juliet’s Schor’s analysis of, and insights regarding, how we are living and what we might do differently.

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University for 17 years, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies. Schor’s latest book is Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Born to Buy is both an account of marketing to children from inside the agencies and firms and an assessment of how these activities are affecting children.

Schor is author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Schor is also the author of Do Americans Shop Too Much? (2000), co-editor of Consumer Society: A Reader (The New Press 2000) and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century (2002). She is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans’ lifestyles.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2009, Professor Schor’s remarkable  presentation was titled “Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies.”  Here’s the abstract:

Mainstream economic theory claims that a competitive market equilibrium delivers optimal levels of consumption and well-being. The reasoning relies on a number of invalid assumptions, including the crucial premise that individuals’ preference structures are independent. If consumption is social, as considerable social science research shows, then the market delivers excessive levels of consumption, too many hours of work, and too much ecological degradation. (This is in addition to the well-known argument that ecological goods are externalities.) In this talk I discuss the implications of what has become a profound market failure, and how we can rectify it.

You can watch her presentation on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Juliet Schor on the Situation of Consumption,” “Economist Stephen Marglin Thinking about Thinking Like an Economist” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Life, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – November, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2009

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

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From Neuronarrative: “Thinking You’re in Control Can Lead to an Impulsive Demise”

“[…] A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated the dynamics underlying why we repeatedly convince ourselves that we’ve overcome impulsiveness and can stop avoiding our worst temptations.  This particular tendency toward self-deception is called restraint bias, and four experiments were conducted under this study to test the hypothesis that it’s rampant in our bias-prone species.” Read more . . .

From Psyblog: “Our Minds Are Black Boxes – Even to Ourselves”

“We all have intuitive theories about how our own and other people’s minds work. Unfortunately psychological research demonstrates that these theories are often wrong. The gulf between how we think our minds work and how they actually work is sometimes so huge it’s laughable.” Read more . . .

From Psyblog: “Ads For Unhealthy Foods Increase Children’s Consumption 45%”

“Nowadays the word ‘obesity’ is rarely seen in print without its partner-in-crime, ‘epidemic’. The developed world seems to be intent on eating itself to death and no small proportion of the newly obese are children: one-third in the US, with a further third at risk.” Read more . . .

From Sam Sommers Psychology Today Blog: “Fort Hood Fallout”

“Psychologists call it illusory correlation. The idea is that when we think about others, we tend to overestimate the association between groups and actions that are distinctive. It’s one of the ways in which societal stereotypes are perpetuated and endure over time. And it’s exactly what has many an American Muslim concerned in the wake of this week’s tragic shooting spree at the Fort Hood Army base.” Read more . . .

From We’re Only Humans: “Some of my best friends are pawns”

“[…] University of Waterloo psychologist Grainne Fitzsimons is interested in the interplay of personal goals and stereotypes. We are all motivated by goals, from big ones like career success to more modest ones […]. We also categorize people. We all do, whether we like it or not, simply because we need to find order in the world’s complexity. […] Given that personal goals and stereotyping are both so basic to our psychology, Fitzsimons reasoned, is it possible that our goals actually influence how we pigeonhole people?” Read more . . .

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

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

Situationist Comedy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 19, 2009

How would the behavior of 100 people influence you?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Solomon Asch’s Famous Compliance Experiment,” Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment . . . Today,” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “Gender Conformity,” “The Situational Effect of Groups.”

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

Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 18, 2009

Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan posted his recent paper, “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to form beliefs about societal dangers that reflect and reinforce their commitments to particular visions of the ideal society. Cultural cognition is one of a variety of approaches designed to empirically test the cultural theory of risk associated with Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. This commentary discusses the distinctive features of cultural cognition as a conception of cultural theory, including its cultural worldview measures; its emphasis on social psychological mechanisms that connect individuals’ risk perceptions to their cultural outlooks; and its practical goal of enabling self-conscious management of popular risk perceptions in the interest of promoting scientifically sound public policies that are congenial to persons of diverse outlooks.

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You can download a copy of the paper here.  To review a sample or related Situationist posts, see “Construing ‘Acquaintance Rape’,” The Cultural Situation of the HPV Vaccine – Abstract,” “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition – Abstract,” “The Second National Risk and Culture Study – Abstract,” and “Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe?.”

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Steven Pinker Speaks at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2009

From HLS in Focus (describing the new student group working with the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) at Harvard Law School and the fascinating talk that Stephen Pinker recently gave there).

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“SALMS” is a recently formed group whose acronym stands for: Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences. They are interested keeping the law school community informed about research in the mind sciences that has profound implications for law and policy making. The group is currently in the process of creating a journal that touches on the same topic. If they are successful, it will be the first journal of its kind in the country.

The event that I attended was a lecture by Harvard College Professor, Steven Pinker. The title of the talk was: “A History of Violence: How We Became Less Violent” Professor Pinker explained that research indicates that although public perception is that we live in a dangerous and violent society, the facts back up a different theory. Society is becoming less violent. This statement is made based on data that span hundreds of years. Over this period of time, there have been less murders and overall violent crimes, fewer deaths from all kinds of war and much less capital punishment for non-violent crimes.

Professor Pinker also offered some reasons for why people might think that we live in a more violent period than ever before. The first is the availability heuristic. We think that society is more violent now because when asked, more recent examples are easier to remember and news of violent crimes spreads faster and farther than ever before. The second is a tendency to think that society is in a state of moral decay. We idealize the past and think that the present represents a departure from morals and values. The third is the fear that saying that violence is declining will make us too complacent rather than proactive about our own safety.

The evidence presented suggests that our inclinations toward violence have not changed over time but that societal constructions keep us from killing each other. For example, most of civilized society no longer approves of killing for revenge or honor. People still feel like they want to kill for these reasons but there is less incentive to go through with it and the consequences and probability of getting caught are just too high. We also have ample opportunity to live vicariously through the violence we get from the television, movies and videogames. The final reason for the decline in violence may be that people have become more valuable to us alive than dead. This is especially true on the national scale where countries depend on each other for different trade commodities.

Sitting in on this discussion made me realize that I was mistaken before when I thought that my undergraduate major in psychology would be irrelevant. Understanding the mind sciences can be a great help when it comes to understanding people’s behavior, the incentives they respond to and how we can shape law and policy in a way that helps enable the best outcomes. I really hope this group gets their journal off the ground. I can’t wait to attend their next event.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Steven Pinker at Harvard Law School,” “Law Students Flock to Situationism,” The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” Another Century of Genocide?,” “Steven Pinker’s Ted Talks on ‘The Stuff of Thought’,” “The Situation of Violence,” and “Time Changes Mind.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Events, History, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Marc Hauser on the Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 16, 2009

Below you will find three parts of an edited lecture by Harvard Professor Marc Hauser. The first part moves from various philosophical theories of morality to social science research into moral dilemmas, leading up to the philosopher’s classic, the “trolley problem.”

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In the second part, below, Professor Hauser completes his description of the trolley problem and conclusions based on his research into how humans make moral decisions.

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In the final part, below, Professor Hauser discusses the impact of religious belief on moral decision-making.

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For a collection of related Situationist posts, see “Marc Hauser on the Situation of Morality,” The Situation of Innate Morality,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” and “The Science of Morality.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Morality, Philosophy, Video | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Legal Ethics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 15, 2009

Kath Hall recently poster her situationist paper, “Why Good Intentions are Often Not Enough: The Potential for Ethical Blindness in Legal Decision-Making” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This chapter takes as its starting point the question of how otherwise experienced and principled lawyers can make blatantly unethical decisions. As recent research has shown, lawyers can become involved in legitimizing inhuman conduct just as they can in perpetuating accounting fraud or hiding client scandal. To an outsider looking at these circumstances, it invariably appears that the lawyers involved consciously acted immorally. Within the common framework of deliberative action, we tend to see unethical behaviour as the result of conscious and controlled mental processes.

Whilst awareness is always part of our actions, this chapter challenges the pervasiveness of assumptions about the power of conscious processes in ethical decision making. Drawing on a range of psychological research, it focuses on two important findings: first, that automatic mental processes are far more dominant in our thinking than most of us are aware; and second, that because we do not generally have introspective access to these processes, we infer from their results what the important factors in our decision making must be. These findings challenge the notion that individuals can be fully aware of what influences them to act ethically or unethically. It also suggests that we need to concentrate upon those conscious processes that we do know influence decision making in deepening our understanding of how to improve ethical awareness.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Lawyers’ Complicity,”Gatekeepers Inside Out – Abstract,” “The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law,” Law, Chicken Sexing, Torture Memo, and Situation Sense,” The Situation of John Yoo and the Torture Memos,” “Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct?,” Part I, Part II, and Part III, “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “On the Ethical Obligations of Lawyers: Are We Snakes? Are We Supposed to Be?.”

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

John Jost Speaks about His Own Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2009

This is Part III and the conclusion of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here and Part II is here.  This segment focuses on John’s own remarkable and pathbreaking research.

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APSSC: Much of your research has focused on psychological characteristics of liberals and conservatives. What have you learned that could be applied in the increasingly partisan world of politics?

Jost: Well, that is an interview in itself, and I have given several on this topic (including one that is archived at The Situationist). The bottom line is that major differences of opinion (such as the debate over health care reform) are not easy to resolve because they are rooted in fundamental differences not only in personalities and values, but also in lifestyles, social networks, and even physiological responses, as our work has shown.

In general, liberals are more drawn to flexibility, tolerance, progress, complexity, ambiguity, creativity, curiosity, diversity, equality, and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives are more drawn to order, stability, structure, closure, discipline, tradition, familiarity, and conscientiousness. Presumably, society needs at least a little of both types of characteristics.

Democracy is an ingenious system when it works well, because it seeks to establish a set of rules and procedures that are fair and efficient by which individuals and groups are compelled to rise above relatively narrow needs and interests. My colleague, Tom Tyler, and I have written about this. How else can we resolve disputes except to require opposing sides to make the best possible case for policies that their adversaries are inclined to resist for their own social and psychological (as well as ideological) reasons? But when democratic norms are flouted or otherwise fail to protect us, we are lost. We find ourselves in very deep trouble.

APSSC: You’ve also spent a lot of time studying and developing system justification theory, which describes how one works to maintain society’s status quo, even when it’s not in one’s best interest. Do you think that system justification can be found in the field of psychology?

Jost: I think you’re trying to get me in trouble now. But, yes, as long as the science and practice of psychology is undertaken by human beings, I expect that some degree of system justification is likely, at least on occasion. Do I think that it’s easier to publish an article in one of our top journals that is largely compatible or incompatible with the status quo (i.e., past precedent and existing theory, as institutionalized in textbooks and so forth), I would bet on compatible.

The same is true of our legal system, which is heavily reliant on past precedent (stare decisis) and therefore inherently conservative. I am not saying that there are never good reasons to privilege what comes first — often there are. But if there is a bias that is built into scientific and legal systems, it is probably in favor of what has already been established (the status quo) and against what appears to challenge it. I suspect that this is part of human nature, and such a bias characterizes our way of thinking and most, if not all, of our social and cultural institutions.

APSSC: How has what you’ve learned through your research influenced how you live your life?

Jost: I suppose that because of my research I am more skeptical of decision outcomes that preserve the status quo than I otherwise would be. So when I had the chance to move to NYU a few years ago, I knew that psychological inertia would work against the move, and I tried to adjust for that. I even spent a wonderful year in a “neutral” location at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I moved to NYU. Since coming here, I have had terrific colleagues and the kinds of PhD students that one dreams of working with! I feel very fortunate. Maybe the system does work after all!

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

Jost: I have no idea, but I certainly agree with various APS luminaries who regard psychology as a “hub” science. I would like to see us do a better job of connecting to — and translating important insights from — the social and behavioral sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. And I’m sure that psychology will continue to be influenced by the biological sciences, and hopefully we can give something back to them, too.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I had asked? What would your answer have been?

Jost: Is it possible to care deeply about something, like the problem of global climate change, and still investigate it scientifically? Yes, because the rules of the scientific method, if you follow them scrupulously, actually work, and (in my opinion) the rules have nothing to do with being dispassionate or disinterested. Much as genuine engagement with and adherence to democratic norms and procedures serves to elevate discourse and action above particularized interests, so, too, does genuine engagement with and adherence to scientific norms and procedures. Following the scientific method matters far more, in my view, than the specific social or personal characteristics of any given scientist, which — at the end of the day — are irrelevant. The evidence and the quality of the argument are what matter. As Kurt Lewin noted at the outbreak of World War II, this is why science and democracy go hand in hand.

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You can listen here to a fascinating related lecture recently delivered by John Jost at NYU about some of the sources, correlates, and antecedents of ideology.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

John Jost on Studying Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 13, 2009

This is Part II of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here.  This portion of the interview focuses on John’s experience, and advice about, studying psychology.

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APSSC: What suggestions do you have for choosing an area of study within a field as large and diverse as psychology?

Jost: . . . Study something that you are passionate about. It can be something about human behavior that inspires you (like language or creativity or wisdom) or worries you (like our capacity for self-destruction) or simply fascinates you. It should be a fairly big issue or set of questions, but not so big as to be intractable. To sustain yourself over the years, it seems to me that you cannot be working on something just because it hasn’t quite been done yet, nor should it be something that you can imagine being bored by. It may not be part of the stereotype of a scientist, but I think that passion is crucial. My colleague, Yaacov Trope, calls it “fire in the belly.”

APSSC: How did you go about selecting a graduate program?

Jost: Well, that was fairly haphazard. I was an undergraduate student at Duke University at a time (the late 1980s) when there were very good clinical, cognitive, and developmental psychologists but virtually no social psychologists. So I had to rely on pretty indirect advice, and I was only 20 years old when I applied for graduate school. Given all of that, I was tremendously fortunate to have been accepted for admission at Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Cornell.

Most faculty members I knew at the time advised me to go to Princeton or Michigan, and they had very good reasons for giving that advice. But I felt something especially exciting and worldly and hungry and, yes, passionate when I visited Yale, so I decided to go there, and I’m so glad that I did! In terms of senior faculty, I studied with Bill McGuire (who eventually became my dissertation advisor), Bob Abelson, Leonard Doob, and Bill Kessen, all of whom provided tremendous historical as well as scientific grounding for my thinking. They were brilliant teachers and very different from one another. And the junior faculty at the time included Mahzarin Banaji and Peter Salovey, both of whom were so inspiring, even as assistant professors!

APSSC: What were the most rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?

Jost: There were so many things. It turned out to be a fantastic time to be at Yale in social psychology, although it might not have seemed that way from the outside. The particular constellation of faculty was well-suited to my interests; for instance, there was an interdisciplinary group of political psychologists that met almost weekly for talks, discussions, and group projects.

I was told before going to graduate school that I would learn almost as much from my fellow graduate students as from my professors, and that turned out to be true. At Yale, I “overlapped” with Curtis Hardin, Alex Rothman, Irene Blair, Chris Hsee, Buju Dasgupta, and Jack Glaser, among many others who have gone on to have very successful careers. During the summers (when we were not playing softball), we organized our own reading groups to absorb and discuss 19th and 20th century classics in psychology and philosophy. I think that we were all trying to figure out how we could contribute something lasting.

APSSC: How does a graduate student work toward becoming a first-rate researcher?

Jost: I suppose that it’s some elusive, sublime combination of following the best and most heartfelt advice of one’s mentors; trusting one’s own abilities and insights, even when others do not (yet); asking for help when necessary; identifying interesting and worthwhile problems; persisting stubbornly in a prolonged attempt to solve those problems; and just plain luck.

APSSC: What are some of the common mistakes you see graduate students and young professionals making?

Jost: I would say chasing disciplinary fads instead of engaging a truly interesting and important problem, taking on too many projects before they are ready, discounting the advice of mentors because it differs from their own intuitions or from the advice of fellow students, and thinking they know it all already. I suffered from a few of those mistakes myself.

APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who want to have careers in academia?

Jost: Choose research topics that you think will be interesting to you in 5, 10, or 20 years, because it might take that long to obtain profoundly satisfying answers. And prepare yourself to withstand withering criticism until then. Above all, hang in there when you do receive criticism, and figure out what it is that you have to say to the world and how to say it so that people will listen.

APSSC: Writing and publishing are often anxiety provoking events for graduate students. You already have a lot of experience as a writer, editor, and reviewer; what do you know now about this process that you wish you would have known earlier in your career?

Jost: That the first draft is usually the hardest one, that you are not incompetent or necessarily even wrong just because a paper gets rejected, and that persistence and tenacity really pay off in the long run.

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Tomorrow we’ll post a third portion of the interview, including Jost’s discussion of his own pathbreaking research .  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part I, Part II, and Part III,” andThe Bar Exam Situation.”

Posted in Education, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of John Jost

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2009

The Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus recently conducted fascinating interview of Situationist Contributor, John Jost.    Here are some excerpts.

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APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

Jost: . . . . I knew at age 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a psychologist, but, like many others, I expected that I would become a clinical psychologist. The reason for that was that as a child and adolescent, I was very close to someone (an extended family member) who had a serious mental illness. I thought — quite unrealistically, of course — that I could understand him better than other people and that I could somehow help him. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I would rather try to fix the “holes” in the social system than force individual “pegs” into them. So I gravitated toward social, personality, and political psychology.

APSSC: How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

Jost: I suppose that they have a personal and familial basis as well. From an early age, I was aware of differences between people in terms of political and religious attitudes. The fact that the Nixon administration spied on my father for teaching university courses on the philosophy of Karl Marx probably forced the issue. I grew up in a relatively liberal enclave of a largely conservative community and was attuned to social class and other differences — especially ideological differences. Later, when I (and others) tried, mostly in vain, to organize a union of beleaguered graduate students, I became intrigued by the question of why so many people fail to support social change efforts that are designed specifically to help them and their fellow group members. This is really the focal issue addressed by system justification theory.

How have these research interests influenced me personally? They have inspired me by setting ambitious goals that (I think) are meaningful and ultimately beneficial to society as a whole. They have also, at times, dispirited me, because I have come to see society as (under the best of circumstances) progressing by taking two steps forward and one step backward.

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We’ll post other portions of the interview, including Jost’s advice to young mind scientists, over the next several days.  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see A System-Justification Primer,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”

Posted in Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – November, Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 11, 2009

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

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From Art Markman Psychology Today Blog: “When cigarette warnings backfire”

“[…]  There are two classes of measures that have been taken to fight smoking (and related public health problems like alcohol and unhealthy eating). One is to make smoking less attractive in the short-term to counteract the positives of smoking. The other is to provide warnings about the dangers of smoking. […] A paper by Jochim Hansen, Susanne Winzeler, and Sascha Topolinski in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examined the effectiveness of these warnings on the attitudes of smokers toward smoking.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest: “When a police line-up with six one-eyed men is better than a line-up with none”

“You’re mugged by a man with a patch over one eye. You describe him and his distinctive appearance to the police. They locate a one-eyed suspect and present him to you in a video line-up with five innocent “foils”. If this suspect is the only person in the line-up with one eye, prior research shows you’re highly likely to pick him out even if, in all other respects, he actually bears little resemblance to your mugger. So the challenge is: How to make police line-ups fairer for suspects who have an unusual distinguishing feature?” Read more . . .

From Everyday Sociology: “Losing Confidence: Americans and Social Institutions”

“Do you feel less confidence in the government? In corporations? In the press? If so, your feelings reflect a general trend found in the most recent data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey taken every other year of American attitudes on a variety of issues. Since 1973 the survey has asked respondents how much confidence they have in a variety of American social institutions. Their 2008 survey results suggest that the public has less confidence in every major social institution (except the military) compared with 2006.” Read more . . .

From Joachim I. Krueger Psychology Today Blog: “Self-control: When optimism is self-defeating”

“The Little Engine that Could is a classic story about the virtue of optimism. In this tale, the eponymous locomotive is challenged to carry freight over a steep mountain top. The little engine struggles in climbing the mountain, but ultimately succeeds in his mission. As the engine falters on its journey, it repeats the self-empowering mantra: “I think I can; I think I can.” The little engine’s message to readers is clear – maintain positive beliefs and you can accomplish great things. The utility of optimism is supported by research on social cognition.” Read more . . .

From John Tauer Psychology Today Blog: “Monday Morning Quarterbacking: The Case of the Hindsight Bias”

“In last week’s blog, we analyzed Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th down and 2 late in the game vs. Indianapolis. This was an unconventional but statistically sound decision. When the move didn’t work, Belichick received considerable criticism. Many called it the worst coaching decision he had ever made. That’s a large statement, given the length of Belichick’s coaching career and the fact that the decision was logical and data driven. Why is it that coaches receive so much criticism when their decisions don’t turn out well?” Read more . . .

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

Posted in Blogroll | 2 Comments »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 10, 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 Implicit Associations | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Kindness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2009

Yamin Anwar wrote an interesting press release about recent and ongoing research at University of California, Berkeley suggesting that the kindest, and not just the fittest, survive.   Here are some excerpts.

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Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it “survival of the kindest.”

“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

Empathy in our genes

Keltner’s team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.

Informally known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.

“The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.

The more you give, the more respect you get

While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, “How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?”

One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the “public good.” The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.

“The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

“Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,” he added.

Cultivating the greater good

Such results validate the findings of such “positive psychology” pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.

While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.

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The sympathetic touch

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body’s organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

“Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

“This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Caring,” 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 Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Climbing Stairs

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 8, 2009

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To read a related Situationist post, see “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation” “Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “Changing Choices by Changing Situations.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Video | 1 Comment »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2009

Laura Sanders wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

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Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

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You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

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

Beau Lotto on the Situation of Sight

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 6, 2009

From TedTalks: “Beau Lotto’s color games puzzle your vision, but they also spotlight what you can’t normally see: how your brain works.  This fun, first-hand look at your own versatile sense of sight reveals how evolution tints your perception of what’s really out there.”

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Visit for amazing illusions from Beau Lotto. For more Situationist posts see, “The Situation of Sight,”Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and the “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

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

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