The Situationist

Archive for January, 2011

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2011

From Boston Globe (by Kevin Lewis):

The Brand-Name Ego Boost:

Researchers found that using a generic (vs. brand name) product undermines self-esteem. In one experiment, university students were asked to type out a resume, ostensibly for a recruiting event. Students used an Apple iMac to type their resumes and were told that the keyboard and mouse were new. Some students, though, were told that the keyboard and mouse were generic parts — to save money. The students who used the generic keyboard reported expecting a lower salary.  More . . .

Lower stress through writing:

Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that expressive writing before a test can boost scores.  More . . .

Higher ground:

Everyone assumes that heaven is high above the ground somewhere, while hell is down below. But why can’t heaven be below us, and hell high above? According to a new study, our brains seem to automatically link elevation with goodwill. In one experiment in a mall in mid-December 2009, researchers set up Salvation Army kettles in three locations: the top of an escalator, the bottom of an escalator, and away from any escalators. Shoppers contributed more often at the top of the escalator and least often at the bottom of the escalator. More . . .

Explaining Willow and Trig:

Let’s call it the Sarah Palin effect, in honor of Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig. A new analysis suggests that parents living on the frontier tend to give their kids unusual names. . . . These differences seem to be explained by the greater individualistic culture of the frontier. More . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Embodied Cognition | 1 Comment »

Ray Jackendoff at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2011

On Monday, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts psychology professor Ray Jackendoff entitled “The Natural Logic of Morals and Laws.”

Ray Jackendoff received his Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT in 1969.  His research centers around the system of meaning in natural language, how it is related to the human conceptual system, and how it is expressed linguistically.  This has led him to a cognitive approach to traditional philosophical issues of inference and reference, embodied in his theory of Conceptual Semantics.  In developing this approach, he has worked on the conceptualization of space, on the relationship between language, perception, and consciousness, and, most recently, on the conceptualization of such socially grounded concepts as value, morality, fairness, and obligations.  In addition, in exploring how concepts are expressed in language, he has developed new models of the architecture of the human language faculty and its evolution.

Professor Jackendoff will be speaking in Pound 10o from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.

Free burritos will be provided! For more information, e-mail

Posted in Events, Evolutionary Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Advertising By Pulling Advertising

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 28, 2011

In case you’ve been attending to important things and haven’t been keeping up on the latest MTV programing, the network has launched a new racy show, “Skins,” that depicts the wild alcohol/drug/sex-fueled world of high school — or, well, a high school (sadly, I went to a math equation/AP biology-fueled high school).

Like clockwork, various organizations like the Parents Television Council were enraged and called for protests, congressional investigations, and pitchfork rallies outside of ominous castles.

And, as these things inevitably go, a number of companies pulled their advertising from the show.

As a representative of Taco Bell explained to the Hollywood Reporter, “We’ve decided that the show is not a fit for our brand and have moved our advertising to other MTV programming.”

So what do we make of this . . . or, indeed, any instance where a company publicly drops a show or celebrity spokesman when controversy strikes?

Is it all downside?  That is certainly the story that gets told: we invested so much into the campaign centered around O.J. and then he had to go out and . . . !

But perhaps it’s not as bad as it would seem for corporate America.  In fact, perhaps these controversial “break-ups” present ripe opportunities for establishing a brand or company identity.

Accenture was the first sponsor to drop Tiger Woods as its representative after revelations of his sexual escapades were made public.

The drama that was portrayed in the media was one of a company done wrong, but I wonder about that narrative.

After all, Accenture benefited for years with Tiger coming to personify the accuracy and integrity of the firm.  When Tiger slipped up, the company swiftly acted to sever its relationship, with the implicit message that (1) Tiger did not live up to the high expectations of the company and (2) the company was so dedicated to accuracy and integrity that it would send its heavyweight spokesman packing for personal indiscretions.  The real upside, of course, was that the breakup was quite public with numerous “news” stories about the relationship gone bad.  People who knew nothing about consulting suddenly knew the name Accenture and what the company stood for.

As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do . . . but for many companies there may be some real upside from a public split.

And, in the case of a show like “Skins” — it’s a win-win.  MTV draws in viewers who are suddenly intrigued by talk of a show that’s so over-the-top and scandalous that Taco Bell ran the other direction and Taco Bell gets to establish that while it’s still hip and spicy (it’s not pulling its advertising from MTV completely), at heart it’s a “family-oriented” business.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Entertainment, Marketing | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – December

Posted by Gustavo Ribeiro on January 27, 2011

blogosphere image

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during December 2010 (they are listed in alphabetical order by source).

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From BPS Research Digest: “Do political scandals really distract us from important issues?”

“Barely a day goes by without some political scandal or other splashed across the papers. Critics argue this obsession with tittle-tattle distracts the electorate from more important policy issues. ‘…a fiercely independent media is the guarantor of democracy,’ Will Hutton wrote in 2000, before warning that the British media’s obsession with scandal ‘paradoxically, may be beginning to endanger it [democracy]’.” Read more . . .

From Deliberations: “A Story of Social Media Enlightenment: It’s not just for kids anymore”

“I have watched the trial consulting industry evolve slowly over the past 22 years.  However, like a scene from a Sci-Fi movie, I feel like some aspects of our field have moved at an incredible pace.  Generally, these have been associated with technology.” Read more . . .

From Jury Room: “Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice”

“We’ve written a lot about racial biases in the courtroom.  As regular readers of this blog know, we look for ways to mitigate the impact of racial biases. We believe in social justice. We also know (although we don’t like it much) that there are times when in the interests of advocacy, it is important to either fan the flame of racial prejudice or simply allow it to blossom and flower by not raising juror awareness of racism.” Read more . . .

From Psyblog: “The Illusion of Truth”

“We see ads for the same products over and over again. Politicians repeat the same messages endlessly (even when it has nothing to do with the question they’ve been asked). Journalists repeat the same opinions day after day.” Read more . . .

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

Posted in Blogroll | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Law and Race

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 26, 2011

On Friday, I took in the new Philadelphia Theater Company production of David Mamet’s Race.  The plot revolves around two lawyers, one white and one black, who take on the defense of a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman.

The acting was quite good and the play has its moments (as one would expect, the structure is ingenious and Mamet throws in a number of memorable lines), but I was left wondering whether the playwright had challenged the audience enough.  If the purpose was to spur viewers to think deeply about race, was the exchange of quick, witty quips between characters the best means?  Mamet seemed to want to shock his audience, but what he produced seemed fairly tame — and enjoyable.

Today, I came across a video on the Onion addressing a very similar topic (law and race) and was struck by how, on a certain level, it seemed to surpass Mamet’s creation in forcing viewers to confront hard truths about race in the United States.

In any case, I strongly recommend viewing both (the Onion video, “Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried As Black Adult,” is below)!

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Entertainment, Law, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Phillippe Golden on Emotions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2011

From Google Tech Talks:

The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Emotions, Positive Psychology, Video | 2 Comments »


Posted by Adam Benforado on January 24, 2011

I find it very hard to do nothing.

I think I’ve always been this way to some extent,  but each year it seems to get a little worse.

Part of the story is simply about how our lives seem to get busier and busier as we age.

Another factor in the activity narrative is the constant flow of novel technologies that promise productivity and entertainment at any time and in any place in a dozen ways at once.

I love wireless Internet, my laptop, my iPhone, my dual computer screens at work, but they do take a toll.  I feel constantly compelled to use them.

Didn’t I use to be able to sit and watch a football game without writing a blog post?  Wasn’t I once able to walk to the bathroom at a restaurant without scanning through emails on my phone or wait at a subway stop without reading op-eds or phoning a friend or listening to music?

Enter Alex Tew’s new website “Do Nothing for 2 Minutes.”

As the Huffington Post reports,

The new site shows a photograph of the ocean at sunset and plays the sound of waves crashing on a beach.  “Just relax and listen to the waves,” it instructs.  “Don’t touch your mouse or keyboard.”  If you don’t follow the instructions and begin to fidget, type, scroll, or move your mouse, the two-minute timer resets itself and a red “FAIL” appears on the screen.

It’s depressing to think that I need the help of a website and a timer to take two minutes out of my day to contemplate, but perhaps I should just face up to the fact that I’m sick, sick man.  And maybe with a little practice, I can build in a few spontaneous pauses into my routine . . .

Try the new site out for yourself right here.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Life | 1 Comment »

Register Now for the 2011 Conference

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2011

The time to register for the Fifth Law and Mind Sciences Conference, “The Psychology of Inequality,” is upon us.

The conference will be held on February 26, 2011 at Harvard Law School. To register, click on the image above or here for the online registration.

For more information about the conference, click here.

Posted in Events, Ideology, Morality | Leave a Comment »

Paul Rosenberg Answers: Palin is a Naive Cynic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2011

Last week The Situationist asked this question: Was Sarah Palin exhibiting the naive cynicism dynamic in her remarks about the shooting in Tucson (see video)?

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Several readers responded thoughtfully in brief comments, but Paul Rosenberg provided an outstanding, painstakingly thorough response over at Open Left. We highly recommend his post.

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For some related Situationist posts, see:

You can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Secondhand Smoking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 20, 2011

From EurekaAlert:

Seeing actors smoke in a movie activated the brain areas of smokers that are known to interpret and plan hand movements, as though they too were about to light a cigarette, according to a new study in the Jan. 19 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Habitual smokers repeat the same hand motions, sometimes dozens of times a day. In this study, researchers led by senior investigator Todd Heatherton, PhD, and graduate student Dylan Wagner of Dartmouth College set out to determine whether the parts of the brain that control that routine gesture could be triggered by simply seeing someone else smoke.

The authors found that seeing this familiar action — even when embedded in a Hollywood movie — evoked the same brain responses as planning to actually make that movement. These results may provide additional insight for people trying to overcome nicotine addiction, a condition that leads to one in five U.S. deaths each year.

“Our findings support prior studies that show smokers who exit a movie that had images of smoking are more likely to crave a cigarette, compared with ones who watched a movie without them,” Wagner said. “More work is needed to show whether brain activity in response to movie smoking predicts relapse for a smoker trying to quit.”

During the study, 17 smokers and 17 non-smokers watched the first 30 minutes of the movie “Matchstick Men” while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers chose the movie because it prominently features smoking scenes but otherwise lacks alcohol use, violence, and sexual content.

The volunteers were unaware that the study was about smoking. When they viewed smoking scenes, smokers showed greater brain activity in a part of the parietal lobe called the intraparietal sulcus, as well as other areas involved in the perception and coordination of actions. In the smokers’ brains specifically, the activity corresponded to the hand they use to smoke.

“Smokers trying to quit are frequently advised to avoid other smokers and remove smoking paraphernalia from their homes, but they might not think to avoid a movie with smoking content,” Wagner said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that exposure to onscreen smoking in movies makes adolescents more likely to smoke. According to their 2010 report, tobacco use in films has decreased in recent years, but about half of popular movies still contained tobacco imagery in 2009, including 54 percent of those rated PG-13.

Scott Huettel, PhD, of Duke University, an expert in the neuroscience of decision-making who was unaffiliated with the study, said scientists have long known that visual cues often induce drug cravings. “This finding builds upon the growing body of evidence that addiction may be reinforced not just by drugs themselves, but by images and other experiences associated with those drugs,” Huettel said.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Marketing, Neuroscience | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

A Horror Movie for Palinites?

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 19, 2011

Despite my love of cinema, I tend to always fall behind on catching the latest movies.

Case in point: during the past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to see The King’s Speech, which my own grandmother watched and wrote me about . . . last year.

As a sort of New Year’s resolution, I’m attempting to be a bit more up-to-date on this front, and, thus, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to a film that hasn’t even been released yet, but that should be of interest to Situationist readers.

What caught my attention about the preview for the film was that it seemed as if it could easily be modified into a Sarah Palin 2012 political advertisement.

In the opening frames, we watch Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) as he first crosses paths with the ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt).  There is clearly an attraction, but, as the film website explains, “just as he realizes he’s falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart.”

Who are these mysterious men?

“[T]he agents of Fate itself—the men of The Adjustment Bureau—who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together.”

As one Adjustment Bureau agent explains, “We are the people who make sure that things happen according to plan.  We monitor the entire world.”

David (er, Matt) is then faced with a momentous decision: “let her go and accept a predetermined path . . . or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.”

In the trailer, David explains, “All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her,” as the following lines scroll across the screen:

If you believe in free will.

If you believe in chance.

If you believe in choice.

Fight for it.

So . . . yes, perhaps I’m off my rocker (watch the trailer below for yourself), but I think the narrative of the film could have been pieced together straight from Palin’s tweets: (1) Americans are rational actors who can make their own choices and should be allowed to pursue freely their own conceptions of the good; (2) the agents of big government are extremely dangerous and are intent on controlling our environments; (3) Obama’s regulatory state (including the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection) is a paternalistic nightmare; . . . and, of course, (4) we must let our values and guts tell us what is right, and not allow regulators with their misguided “science” and “reason” to direct us (in one of my favorite moments in the trailer, one of the agents of the Adjustment Bureau is heard saying, “Remember we tried to reason with you.”).

Okay, readers, consider yourselves provoked.  What do you think?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Patriots Loss = “poetic justice”

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on January 17, 2011

Sal Paolantonio interviewed Bart Scott after the Jets beat the Patriots and Scott describe the win as  “poetic justice” that showed “what kind of defense, what kind of team this was.” Scott warned anyone who’s going to “talk crap about us” that they’ll play for it.  The video is here.

Those comments, as well as Deione Branch’s description of the Jets as “classless” put us in mind of the following Situationist post, published originally on February 5, 2008 (here).

Tom Brady

In case you hadn’t heard, the New England Patriots played their worst game of the season last night. A team that had savored, not merely defeating, but blowing out their opponents failed in their quest for perfection. For at least a little longer, the 1972 Miami Dolphins will hold onto their place in NFL history as the last team to end a season with a perfect record.

For Pats fans, like us, last night’s defeat was as shocking as it was untimely. And, really, who in their right mind would have thought that the Giants would win? Sure, some of the Giants players and die-hard fans were confident (or at least claimed to be), but the folks betting in Vegas certainly weren’t: the Pats were favored to win by 12 points. It sort of reminds us of another big and recent Super Bowl upset: the up-start and “lucky” Patriots defeating the allegedly indomitable St. Louis Rams back in 2002 in Super Bowl XXXVI. That one felt good, though.

But, if sports bloggers and commentators are to be believed, perhaps we should take heart. Apparently, much more is revealed by the outcome of this football game than simply the fact that Belichick’s boys are not the best team in the history of the sport. The team’s lackluster performance allegedly proved something far more important than that.

According to these commentators, by losing the Super Bowl in nail-biting fashion, the Patriots revealed that behind imperfection is a deeper and more affirming perfection: the universe is just.

One blogger writes: “We all saw something inexplicable, incredible and possibly supernatural when Eli Manning completed a spellbinding drive with a TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.”

Consider the evidence.:

The Patriots got busted for cheat[ing] during the first game of the season, and when the season came down to it, after Asante Samuel drops an interception that would have ended the game, Eli Manning miraculously escaped the grasp of 200 Patriots pass rushers and heaved a prayer over David Tyree’s head that he pinned against his own helmet and kept from hitting the ground as his body nearly split in two at the waist. If you were rooting for the Patriots, as I was, when that play happened you said to yourself, “uh oh.”

And another asks:

Who ever heard of a helmet-catch? What kind of a play was that where Eli Mannning escaped from the grasp of several Patriot pass-rushers, and then tossed the ball downfield so his receiver could catch it on his helmet? Is that normal? Well, not according to the receiver, David Tyree, who said about the play, “This was all supernatural.”

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As Josh Alper explains: “If you’re a karmic sort, . . . you can’t help but think the Patriots did their fair share to help [the Giants] along.” So, no, this was no mere coincidence. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t exactly skill either . . . . This was divine or cosmic intervention intended to even the scales of justice. Writing for the Denver Post, Mark Kizla is downright giddy about the game’s implications:

The only thing that left the Super Bowl undefeated was karma. For everyone who believes in truth, justice and a great American underdog story, the New York Giants kicked New England in the asterisk with a stunning 17-14 victory. Talk about your perfect ending. Sorry, Pats. Cheaters never prosper.

The 18-0 Patriots lost because they deserved to. In the end, writes another blogger, “[i]t was a team not worthy of perfection.” In a post titled “Karma Kicks Patriots In The Butt,” Madhava Gosh lays out the case this way:

Early in the season, [the Patriots] were caught videotaping the defensive signals of their opponents in a game. This is illegal and considered cheating. The results of the game were let stand, but the coach was fined 1 million dollars and the Patriots lost a draft choice in the 2008 draft.


Now, it seems to me, that the perfect season up to the Super Bowl was simply Krishna setting them up, as karma for their cheating, for the ultimate pain — losing not only the Super Bowl but the chance at a historical 19-0 season.


If you wanted to cause the team an enormous amount of pain for the cheating, what better way than to let them get so tantalizingly close. They had the lead with only 2 minutes left in the game, and then victory was snatched from their jaws by the Giants’ game winning miracle drive.


Anyone who has played in a meaningful game knows what the pain of defeat can be, and in this case it was amplified to a huge degree.


The cheating was nectar in the beginning that became poison in the end . . . . Karma is inexorable.

Just like that, the poison of losing a football game is transformed into the sweet nectar of justice. As Kizla puts it: “Karma won. The Patriots lost. No matter how you pour it, there’s nothing so sweet as the taste of justice.”

Yet another commentator sums up the karma effect as follows: “The Bradshaw fumble, holding penalties, false starts, running up the score, Spygate and yes, even the tuck rule from years ago finally caught up to the Patriots. They had a great regular season but at the end of the day, Karma bit the Pats in the ass!”

And still another describes the “karmic payback” this way:

If there was any moment that summed up why the Patriots deserved to lose this Super Bowl, it was Bill Belichick deciding not to remain on the field for the final second of the game.


It was a classless move by a classless coach, but there was also much more to it than that. It was a microcosm of the entire Patriots season. Because . . . the truth is that this year’s Patriots team, and their fans, pushed the envelope like no team ever has before. And in the end, it came back to nail them in crushing fashion.

Just as the single moment was a microcosm for the season, the football season is a microcosm for life. So take heart Patriots fans. Take heart Giants fans. Take heart everyone! What goes around, comes around. If not sooner, then sometime later—perhaps even in the final seconds of the last quarter of the ultimate contest—good will triumph over evil.

Or so the human animal likes to believe.

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To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by J on January 15, 2011

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

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Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”


So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person’s] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Can You Remember?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2011

Social scientists sometimes distinguish between two general types of thinking – quantitative and qualitative. This web-based experiment is focused on memory and, more specifically, how making qualitative judgments influences quantitative memory.  To participate in the ten-minute survey, click here.

Posted in Online Experiment | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Retail Discrimination

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 13, 2011

Here is another segment from John Quinones’s excellent ABC 20/20 series titled “What Would You Do?” — a series that, in essence, conducts situationist experiments through hidden-camera scenarios. This episode asks, “How would you respond to blatant retail discrimination?

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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

Sarah Palin a Naive Cynic?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson have written extensively about a dynamic they call “naive cynicism.”

Their work explores how dispositionism maintains its dominance despite the fact that it misses so much of what actually moves us. It argues that the answer lies in a subordinate dynamic and discourse, naive cynicism: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss situationist insights and their proponents. Without it, the dominant person schema – dispositionism – would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema – situationism – less easily and effectively attacked. Naive cynicism is thus critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day.

Naive cynicism often takes the form of a backlash against situationism that involves an affirmation of existing dispositionist notions and an assault on (1) the situationist attributions themselves; (2) the individuals, institutions, and groups from which the situationist attributions appear to emanate; and (3) the individuals whose conduct has been situationalized. If one were to boil down those factors to one simple naive-cynicism-promoting frame for minimizing situationist ideas, it would be something like this: Unreasonable outgroup members are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.

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Is Sarah Palin exhibiting that dynamic?  Below the video of her remarks you can read some excerpts from the transcript.

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It’s inexcusable and incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day.

There is a bittersweet irony that the strength of the American spirit shines brightest in times of tragedy. We saw that in Arizona. We saw the tenacity of those clinging to life, the compassion of those who kept the victims alive, and the heroism of those who overpowered a deranged gunman.

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President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

The last election was all about taking responsibility for our country’s future.

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Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions.  And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

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As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, “We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.” Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box – as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

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No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

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America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.

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You can review a list of related Situationist links in the following post: “The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?.”

In addition, here are few more:

Finally, you can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

The Power of Suggestion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

In the wake of the massacre in Tucson one of the debates has been over whether a toxic environment might have contributed to the assailant’s behavior.  Social psychology has demonstrated countless times the power of seemingly trivial situatonal forces to encourage hostility and violence.  One of the classics is a 1975 study of the effects of dehumanization.

Here is a 1999 summary of that study by Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo.

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My colleague, Albert Bandura, and his students contnued this line of research by extending the basic paradigm here to study the minimal conditions necessary to create dehumanization (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975). What they manipulated was only the actors’ perceptioin of their victims–no authority pressures, no induced anonymity. A group of college students expected to help train another group of students from a nearby college by collectively shocking them when they erred on the task.

Just as the study was about to begin, the participants overhead the assistant tell the experimenter one of three phrases–Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here.” Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem ‘nice.'” Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here, they seem like ‘animals.'” Mind you, they never saw those other students, or heard anything directly from them, it is only this label that they had to go on in imaging what they were like.

On trial one, the manipulation failed to have a differential effect on their aggression, and had the researchers ended the study there, we would conclude that dehumanizing labels have no behavioral impact, but as the study wore on, it had a major impact. The boys, who imagined their victims as “animals,” progressively elevated their shock levels over each trial after the first, significantly more than the neutral control. Humanizing labels helped to reduce the aggression significantly below the level of the neutral control.

When the participants were interviewed subsequently about why they behaved as they did, what the researchers found was that the experimental condition enabled them to become morally disengaged, to activate a set of psychological mechanisms that minimized the evil of their deeds, while justifying it in a variety of ways. So a one-word label can create a stereotype of the victim, of the enemy, that also lowers the height of that line between good and evil and enables more good people to cross over and become perpetrators.

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Work cited:  Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 253-269 (pdf here).

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, Education, Emotions, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2011

The unfolding news and debates about causes and consequences of yesterday’s tragic violence are raising many of the issues and themes common to this blog.  We hoped our readers would weigh in and share their thoughts and reactions to the events themselves and media discourse that has followed:  Bad Apple? Disposition? Context?  Situation? Spiraling conflict? Naive cynicism?

Below you’ll find some excerpts from today’s Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh programs.  What do you think?  Please comment.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | 1 Comment »

Gearing Up for the Launch! Be a Participant!

Posted by Adam Benforado on January 10, 2011

As we mentioned recently, the Project on Law and Mind Sciences is currently in the final stages of designing an online study clearinghouse where researchers can post studies and find participants, and interested members of the public can, well, participate!

We believe that this will be a great new resource for all those interested in the broad Situationist endeavor.

In gearing up for the launch, here is a link to a new experiment that I’m running along with two researchers at Cambridge aimed at better understanding how people process information.

Participate today!  Here!

Posted in Online Experiment, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Upstream on Environmental Health and Justice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 9, 2011

Upstream website recently published the above sample of interviews that makes clear how situational or environmental factors are contributing to disease and inequality (Upstream blog here).

Some related Situationist videos:

Posted in Distribution, Education, Environment, Public Policy, Video | Leave a Comment »

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