The Situationist

Archive for May, 2010

The Situation of Cooperation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2010

From The National Science Foundation:

Humans are incredibly cooperative, but why do people cooperate and how is cooperation maintained? A new research study by UCLA anthropology professor Robert Boyd and his colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico suggests cooperation in large groups is maintained by punishment.

The finding challenges previous cooperation/punishment models that argue punishment is uncoordinated and unconditional.

Boyd and his team report their research in the April 30 issue of the journal Science. . . .

To understand the study, let’s start with a small group of friends. In small groups, individuals often have personal connections with other group members and cooperation typically is maintained by a “you help me, I’ll help you” reciprocity system. Group members cooperate because they do not want to hurt their friends by not participating in group efforts, and also because they may want help in the future.

But in a larger group, like a tribe, those mechanisms for maintaining cooperation are lost. All group members experience the benefits of the large group, even those members who stop cooperating and become “free-riders.” Free-riders are people who benefit from the group in food sharing and protection from enemies, for example, without contributing to food collection or war. In these cases, the personal connection to the group’s members is often gone.

But it turns out that most members of large groups cooperate. Why? Boyd and his colleagues suggest cooperation is maintained by punishment, which reduces the benefits to free riding. There are tribes, for example, that punish free-riders who do not participate in warfare by not allowing them to take a bride. Thus, there is the threat of losing societal benefits if a member does not cooperate, which leads to increased group cooperation.

Previous models of cooperation assumed that punishment of free-riders was uncoordinated and unconditional. One problem with these models was that the costs associated with punishment were often higher than the gains of cooperation. Thus, the cost of one group member’s punishing a free-rider would be substantial and would not overweigh the gains achieved through increased cooperation.

Costs may be defined as loss of friendship or loss of relational closeness with other members of the group.

To address the problem, Boyd and his colleagues changed the assumptions built into previous cooperation/punishment models. First, they allowed for punishment to be coordinated among group members. In their model, group members could signal their willingness to punish someone who was not participating in the group, but punishment would only occur if it was coordinated. This meant the cost of punishing a free-rider would be distributed across members and would not be higher than the cost of gains achieved through increased cooperation.

Second, the researchers allowed for the cost of punishing a free-rider to decline as the number of punishers increased. Boyd explained that this new model was “catching up with common sense” because these two assumptions exist in reality.

Their model had three stages in which a large group of unrelated individuals interacted repeatedly. The first stage was a signaling stage where group members could signal their intent to punish. In the second stage, group members could choose to cooperate or not. The final stage was a punishment stage when group members could punish other group members.

The results of their model look a lot like what is seen in most human societies, where individuals meet and decide whether and how to punish group members who are not cooperating. This is coordinated punishment where group members signal their intent to punish, only punish when a threshold has been met and share the costs of punishing.

Boyd argues that even in societies without formal institutions for establishing rules and methods of punishment, group punishment appears to be effective at maintaining cooperation.

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Kindness,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Monkey Fairness,” “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Legal Theory | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Bystanders

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2010

ABC News‘s “What Would You Do?” series recently conducted a series of experiments testing the bystander effect.

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Most readers of The Situationist have likely seen the grainy video of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax‘s final moments on a street in Jamaica, Queens.  He was stabbed while saving a woman from a knife-wielding attacker and fell to the sidewalk, where he lay dying in a pool of his own blood for more than an hour while dozens of pedestrians passed by without calling for help.

A.G. Sulzberger and Mick Meenan wrote an excellent piece, titled “Questions Surround a Delay in Help for a Dying Man” last week in The New York Times.  The article quotes Situationist Contributor John Darley whose now classic research on the bystander effects which, unfortunately, remains as relevant today as ever.  Here are some excerpts.

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It will probably never be clear how many people realized that Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dying.

One man bent down to the sidewalk to shake the man, lifting him to reveal a pool of blood before walking away. Two men appeared to have a conversation about the situation, one pausing to take a photo of the body before departing. But the rest merely turned their heads toward the body, revealing some curiosity as they hurried along.

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On Sunday, a week after the killing, people in the area seemed mostly unshaken by its circumstances. Many were unaware that someone had died on 144th Street in Jamaica, near 88th Road, in a hardscrabble neighborhood with large populations of Central American immigrants and of homeless men.

But to the question of obligation — whether those who encountered the body should have stopped and helped the man — the answers came quickly.

Perhaps the passers-by thought he was just drunk. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants themselves, too nervous to contact the authorities. Or perhaps they had just learned a lesson that Mr. Tale-Yax so clearly had not: better to keep to oneself than to risk the trouble that comes from extending a helping hand.

“It’s bad,” said Alexis Perez, 29, the superintendent of two buildings on the block where the stabbing occurred. “But I live here, so I know what it’s like. There are a lot of alcoholics who drink and then they fall down and they’re laying on the ground. People say to themselves, ‘I don’t know them so I won’t get involved.’ ”

At the Iglesia Cristo Peniel, a small brick assembly hall bursting with Spanish hymns, Uber Bautista, 37, a heavy-machinery operator who identified himself as a church elder, said that he believed the inaction might have stemmed from illegal immigrants’ trying to escape detection.

“So they’re going to be very afraid to call the authorities if they see something,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t care.”

Juan Cortez, himself the victim of several assaults, offered another theory as he collected cans from the trash nearby. “People mind their own business,” he said.

Regardless of the explanation, the death has become another unfortunate case study in bystander behavior in emergencies, a psychological field that developed after the notorious 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed to death at an apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, where a large number of neighbors heard her screams but did not call the police.

The death of Mr. Tale-Yax is all the more dramatic because police say that he was stabbed as a result of his apparently trying to help a stranger.

“I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a situation of people failing to help, and the failure appears to be a moral failure,” said John Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who has written about bystander response to emergencies. “He did what you’re supposed to do, and we let the person, who did what he was supposed to do, die.”

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To read the article in its entirety, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation,” “Thinking the Situation into Legal Theory: The Promise of Experimental Parable,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” “The Situation of Helping,” and “The Situation of Gang Rape.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Not Just Whistling Vivaldi

Posted by Emily Pronin on May 1, 2010

One of the great social psychologists of our time, Claude Steele, was recently on NPR discussing his new book Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The book is a moving personal account and a compelling scientific discussion of how stereotypes shape the thoughts, feelings, and actions of those whom they target. Steele is the originator of “stereotype threat,” an idea that has spawned countless experiments around the world and profoundly impacted the way that we think about the racial achievement gap in American schooling.

Stereotype threat is a situationist concept if ever there was one. The idea goes like this:  In certain situations, all of us are subject to negative stereotypes because of identities we have (as a professor, we might be stereotyped as absent-minded, as a lawyer as argumentative, or as an African American as violent). The experience of stereotype threat occurs when a person becomes aware that, in a particular situation, he or she may be judged according to a negative stereotype, or may even confirm that stereotype via his or her actions. For example, an African American high school student might experience stereotype threat when taking a standardized test of “intellectual ability.” I sometimes experience stereotype threat when I’m stopped on the street for driving directions (and fear that any error or imprecision could contribute to the stereotype that females lack spatial ability).

Steele and others have found that this experience can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. African American college students who have shown equal math ability to their white peers perform worse on standardized math test problems when they are told that those problems measure intellectual ability (a claim that makes the race stereotype relevant), but they perform equally well when told that those same problems measure problem solving in general—and are not a test of intellectual ability. Whites perform worse at golf putting than African Americans when they are told that it involves innate athletic ability (something that whites are stereotyped to have less of than their African American peers)—but perform better than African Americans when they are told it taps into “athletic intelligence.” And, the effects of stereotype threat go beyond test performance. Women in math and science cut off aspects of their feminine identity when they walk into math class or science lab, in order to avoid being subject to negative stereotypes about their abilities (full disclosure: I was a student of Steele, and this finding was from our research together – pdf).

So why is the book entitled Whistling Vivaldi?  The somewhat mysterious reference is inspired by a story once told by Steele’s friend Brent Staples, a writer for The New York Times. Staples described how, as a young African American graduate student living in Chicago, he found that whites sometimes seemed fearful as he approached them while walking down the street. Over time, he found himself whistling Vivaldi as he walked past, as a way to prevent others from seeing him through the lens of a negative stereotype about young African American men and proneness to violence. His whistling of classical music suggested that the stereotype did not apply to him, and that he was a man of education, “culture,” and “class.” The story is a moving one. It captures the burden of being in situations where we are subject to stereotypes, and also the remarkable capability we have to function in the face of them, albeit at a cost for our mental and psychic resources. Vivaldi probably couldn’t have composed the “Four Seasons” (or solved any difficult math problems) if he’d had to whistle Corelli at the same time.

–Emily Pronin

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To read more about Whistling Vivaldi or purchase the book, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Effects of a Black President,” “The Nerdy, Gendered Situation of Computer Science.” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’,” Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” The Gendered Situation of Chess,” The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “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 Book, Classic Experiments, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 7 Comments »

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