The Situationist

Archive for April, 2011

On Money and Motivation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2011

This lively RSAnimate, adapted from Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA, examines some the ways that money doesn’t always buy motivation.

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To review a collection of Situationist posts exploring the causes and consequences of happiness, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Illusions, Life, Marketing, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Blog to Be Renamed! Meet the Situationist 24

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 28, 2011

After coming across a reference on the Harvard Business Review site to new research by Dan King and Chris Janiszewski, I immediately contacted the Grand Executive Steering, Directing, and Pointing Committee of the Situationist.  An emergency meeting was held last evening and the Committee has an announcement:  effective immediately, the blog is being renamed “The Situationist 24.”


Well, let’s have Professors King and Janiszewski explain (in an executive summary):

  • Brand names use numbers to label levels of a product line (e.g., Nikon D40, D50, D70, D80; Canon PowerShot A430, A530, A630), inform the consumer about product performance (e.g., Miller Beer’s MGD 64, Heinz 57, Intel Core 2 Duo), and facilitate brand trademark recognition (e.g., Levi’s 501, Toyota MR2 Spyder, X-14 Cleaner). Each of these applications assumes that numbers in brand names are an important source of information. It is also possible that numbers in brand names are a source of affective responses; that is, certain numbers are more liked, and in turn, this liking increases the liking for the brand that incorporates the number into its name.
  • The authors find that the source of number liking is the ease with which the number is processed. This ease of processing, similar to a feeling of familiarity, can come from two sources. First, numbers that are encountered more often are more familiar and liked. For example, smaller magnitude numbers (e.g., 1, 2, 3) are encountered more often than large magnitude numbers (e.g., 1001, 1002, 1003) and rounded numbers (e.g., 10, 100, 1000) are encountered more often than nonrounded numbers (e.g., 11, 101, 1001), Second, numbers that are generated more often are more familiar and liked. Numbers that are sums and products are more frequently generated than other numbers under 100. Thus, brands that incorporate these numbers into their names have the potential to be more liked.
  • A series of experiments documents the influence of numbers on the liking of brands. For example, an imaginary brand name for anti-dandruff shampoo (Zinc) is more liked when it includes a common product number (e.g., Zinc 24) than when with includes a prime number (e.g., Zinc 31). The research also shows that the presence of the operands responsible for the sum or product further enhance the liking of a brand name. For example, not only is a Volvo S12 more liked than a Volvo S29, but liking is further enhanced when an advertisement for a Volvo S12 includes a license plate with the numbers 2 and 6. The operands 2 and 6 make 12 more familiar because they encourage the subconscious generation of the number 12.
  • The influence of available operands on liking for the number brand extends to advertising claims. The authors conducted a study in which consumers were asked to make a choice between V8 and Campbell’s tomato juice. Some consumers saw a V8 advertisement that stated, “Get a full day’s supply of 4 essential vitamins and 2 minerals with a bottle of V8” whereas other saw an advertisement that stated “Get a full day’s supply of essential vitamins and minerals with a bottle of V8.” More consumers chose the bottle of V8 when the number 4 and 2 were explicitly mentioned in the claim. Creating similar advertisements for Campbell’s tomato juice did not influence preferences for Campbell’s.

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Posted in Marketing | 3 Comments »

Richard Hackman on “What Makes for a Great Team”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.
Harvard University professor Richard Hackman spoke in March at Harvard Law School.Professor Hackman has studied the secrets of effective teams ranging from airplane cockpit crews to musical ensembles. In his talk, sponsored by the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences, Professor Hackman summarized the conditions that increase the likelihood of creating teamwork “magic.” For a brief introduction to Professor Hackman’s recent research on teamwork, check out this Harvard Business Review article on “sand dune teams.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Education, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Altruism – Part 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 24, 2011

From :

Christopher Boehm, Steve Frank, and Christophe Boesch explore the biological basis of the evolution of cooperation, how and why societies organize to suppress the “free-rider” and how the ecology of societies influence the evolution of cooperation and altruism Series: “CARTA – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny”

Posted in Altruism, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Power of Word Choice: “Lifestyle” Diseases

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 23, 2011

As readers will note, I’ve been blogging a lot about the situation of obesity recently and so I read Mark Bittman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times,  “How to Save a Trillion Dollars,” with special attention.

I agreed with a lot of what Bittman said about how changing our diets is one of the keys to reducing healthcare costs in the United States, including his ultimate conclusion:

The best way to combat diet-related diseases is to change what we eat. And if our thinking is along the lines of diet improved = deficit reduced, so much the better. If a better diet were to result only in a 10 percent decrease in heart disease (way lower than [Dr. David] Ludwig[, author of “Ending the Food Fight,] believes possible), that’s $100 billion project savings per year by 2030.

This isn’t just fiscal responsibility, but social responsibility as well. And the alternative is not only fiscal catastrophe but millions of premature deaths.

However, I thought that Bittman seriously undermined his message by referring to obesity-related afflictions, like diabetes and heart disease, as “lifestyle diseases.”

It seems like a minor point — and it’s true that the term has been adopted by certain individuals in the public health sphere — but I think we all need to be more careful about our word choices because the terms we use can have a powerful impact on our policy debates (e.g., are they “freedom fighters” or “terrorists”?  are they “taxes” or “dues”?).

The term “lifestyle disease” implies that obesity boils down to personal choice—people choose to be skinny, just as they choose to live by the beach or own dogs.

This has been the mantra of big food companies trying to avoid regulation and litigation for over a decade, but it is contradicted by a growing mountain of evidence that our obesity epidemic is the product of a toxic food environment.  If the incidence of Type 2 diabetes is characterized as the product of bad lifestyle choices then it is hard to advance the case for intervention at the societal level: people should just exercise personal responsibility and if they chose not to, they get what they deserve.

By way of comparison, imagine if Bittman had written an op-ed calling malaria and Guinea worm “lifestyle diseases.”  Technically, he would have been right: “they’re preventable, and you prevent them the same way you cause them: lifestyle.”  If you don’t want to get malaria, you should choose to live in an area of the world that doesn’t have malaria-carrying mosquitoes or you should choose to never venture out of your air conditioned home.  If you don’t want to get Guinea worm, you should only drink water that has been piped from fresh sources.   Change you lifestyle and you can greatly reduce your likelihood of getting these debilitating diseases.

But, of course, that frame is misleading and problematic.  Many of the people who suffer from malaria and Guinea worm have no meaningful control over their situations — they are trapped in communities where clean water and mosquito nets are in short supply.

Could the same be said for many obese people in the United States who suffer from heart disease and diabetes?

Don’t they, too, face significant situational constraints?  And if we actually want to reduce the incidence of obesity-related diseases shouldn’t we acknowledge that fact?

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Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Unconscious Racial Attitudes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2011

David Kairys posted his article, titled “Unconscious Racism” (forthcoming Temple Law Review, Vol. 83, 2011) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

This article is the introduction to a law review symposium on unconscious racism and social science and statistical evidence of bias as bases for race discrimination claims, focusing concretely on discrimination in employment and housing. The article starts with an example of unconscious racism in the bail-setting court in Philadelphia. Two drunk-driving cases about a week apart were identical in all respects except the races of the defendants, but the judge, who was not an overt or self-perceived racist, showed empathy to the white drunk driver while his reaction to the black one was dominated by fear.

Unconscious racism specifically, and the biases and motivations of alleged discriminators in general, were not of much interest in civil rights law or litigation until the Supreme Court began, in the mid-1970s, to require specific proof of purposeful discrimination to make out a constitutional violation (less-demanding proof is required for certain statutory violations). The article presents a historical perspective on the development of perceptions of racial wrongdoing in law and in society generally, starting with the relatively recently accepted understanding that racism is wrong. About 50 or 60 year ago, racism on the part of government, private institutions and individuals became socially, morally and culturally wrong. Before that, racism in words and deeds was acceptable and not unusual, if not something like the norm.

However, deep-seated notions about race from slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation were still very much alive and persist today – notions of inferiority and superiority and racially attributed, stereotyped characteristics, like intelligence, perseverance, morality, tendencies to violence and sexual promiscuity. But in the legal realm and in society generally, we wound up focusing our attention almost exclusively on overt, explicit and formal inequality. Once they were banished, we declared a pre-mature victory in the struggle for racial equality. Explicitly racist and overtly segregationist measures were banned, and racial epithets became taboo. But we left in place the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, and the remaining racism – the deep-seated, unconscious parts that do not just go away because a court declares explicit racism wrong. Progress was hindered further by a multi-faceted retrenchment by the courts. The adoption of the purposeful discrimination rule in the mid-1970s, which requires specific proof of a racial purpose or motive to establish a discrimination case, made it near impossible for minorities to win. The Supreme Court embraced a formal insensitivity to minority claims, even in circumstances that resemble the worst forms of the discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans that characterized the pre-civil rights past. Then a hypersensitive version of the purposeful discrimination rule was applied to invalidate good-faith affirmative and remedial action, by taking any consideration of race – even if done in good faith to open opportunities and eliminate discrimination – as sufficient proof of purposeful discrimination. Alongside and not unrelated to these legal developments, non-explicit forms of discrimination against African Americans and other minorities grew in number and significance, and became more easily non-explicit.

The use of social science and statistics to prove unconscious racism presents a possibility of dealing with at least some of these problems in the current context.

Download the article for free here.

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The Situation of Altruism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 21, 2011


Explore the variety of approaches being used to understand the evolution of human altruism, how the mammalian brain contributes to the development of social behaviors and how the concepts of trade and markets apply to understanding the development of cooperation in humans.

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Posted in Distribution, Video | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Louis Hyman on Manufacturing Debt

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 20, 2011

Louis Hyman will speak today on how debt became a good investment.  The event is sponsored by Sickle (Jon Hanson’s corporations class) and HALB and open to the public.  Lunch will be served.

Posted in Events, History | Leave a Comment »

The Informational Situation of Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 19, 2011

Michele Margolis and Anthony Fowler, have posted their paper, “The Bias of Uninformed Voters,” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Survey researchers and political pundits bemoan the lack of political information within the American electorate. Not only do Americans fail to meet the democratic ideals of an informed electorate, but this lack of knowledge also has political consequences. An empirical analysis of survey data finds that informed voters are more likely to vote for Republican candidates; however, these correlational findings may be plagued by reverse causation and omitted variable bias. We present a model of an election with uninformed voters and experimentally test the effect of political information. Our results suggest that the lack of information in the American electorate typically biases election results toward the Republican Party. When uninformed citizens receive political information, they systematically shift away from the Republican Party.

* * *

Download the paper for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Education, Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

Situationist friend, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, describes the psychological impulses that make it difficult for humans to confront the threat of global warming.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Posted in Emotions, Environment, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Illusion of Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2011

From Time:

If a box of chocolate cookies had an “organic” label, would you feel less guilty about eating them? Would you think they were more nutritious, or tastier?

Economists who study social psychology refer to something called the “halo effect,” a bias in judgment that causes you to assume that one positive attribute comes packaged with a bunch of others. For example, you might perceive your attractive coworker as being more capable as well.

According to a new study by Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the halo effect extends to food too: if people are told a food is “organic,” they’re also biased to believe it’s more nutritious and better tasting.

Lee’s study involved 144 people, recruited at a local mall for a taste test: Lee presented shoppers with chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt and potato chips, each in two varieties — “conventional” or “organic.” In reality, there was no difference between the food pairs; everything was organic.

Participants used a nine-point scale to rate various attributes of each food, including overall taste and estimated fat, fiber and calorie content. Tasters also estimated the price of each food.

Uniformly, the participants reported preferring the taste of the foods labeled “organic,” and believed them to be lower in fat, higher in fiber and lower in calories than the conventional alternatives. They also judged the organic foods to be higher in price.

Even in the cases of the cookies and chips — which wouldn’t be considered healthy under any circumstance — most participants believed that the organic versions were more nutritious.


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Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Marketing | 1 Comment »

Gut Reactions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 14, 2011

From the Guardian:

The adage that justice depends on what the judge ate for breakfast may not be far from the truth, according to a study of more than a thousand court decisions.

The research, which examined judicial rulings by Israeli judges who presided over parole hearings in criminal cases, found that judges gave more lenient decisions at the start of the day and immediately after a scheduled break in court proceedings such as lunch. Jonathan Levav, associate professor of business at Columbia University, who co-authored the paper, said: “You are anywhere between two and six times as likely to be released if you’re one of the first three prisoners considered versus the last three prisoners considered.”

The authors of the peer-reviewed paper looked at more than 1,000 rulings made in 2009 by eight judges. They found that the likelihood of a favourable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day, steadily declining over time from a probability of about 65% to nearly zero, before spiking back up to about 65% after a break for a meal or snack.

* * *
The exact reason for the shift from parole approval to a “default” outcome of denial is not clear, but the paper speculates that breaks may replenish mental resources by providing “rest, improving mood or by increasing glucose levels in the body”.

Levav said: “I don’t measure the judge’s mood. I don’t measure the judge’s glucose level. It’s just a very consistent empirical regularity.

“It’s a quite robust effect, and it really doesn’t matter how you cut the data you get to reproduce it,” he added.


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Memory Biases as Source of Prejudice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2011

From Miller-McCune:

A recent poll finding nearly half of Mississippi Republicans disapprove of interracial marriage is a disturbing reminder of the continuing prejudice faced by minority groups in 21st-century America. Why is such bias seemingly immune to eradication, and why does it seem to be more prevalentamong social conservatives?

A fascinating new study from Italy suggests at least part of the answer can be traced to the way we process information and form political attitudes. Psychologists Luigi Castelli and Luciana Carraro of the University of Padua present evidence that our perception of minority groups is often distorted due to inaccurate recall of information.

This phenomenon, they add, is more pronounced among social conservatives.

Presented with a series of facts about members of two groups, “Conservatives developed more negative impressions towards the minority group,” which were reinforced by ”consistent memory biases,” they report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Strikingly, the researchers found this effect without making reference to race, religion or sexual orientation. All it needs to be activated, it seems, is the presence of a larger group and a smaller one.

In their first experiment, 234 students read a series of 39 sentences, each of which described an action of some sort. The person engaging in this behavior was identified as either a member of Group A or Group B.

Twenty-seven of the sentences described positive behavior (Jim gives up his seat on the bus to an elderly woman), while 12 described negative behavior (James often tells many lies).

Twenty-six of the sentences referred to someone from Group A, while only 13 referred to a member of Group B. The ratio between positive and negative behavior was the same for each group: 18 positive and 8 negative for Group A, 9 positive and 4 negative for Group B.

After reading the sentences, participants evaluated the two groups, rating the applicability of such adjectives as “intelligent,” “sociable” and “lazy.” They were then provided with all the sentences and asked to estimate how many of the described actions were performed by members of each group, and how many of each group’s actions were negative.

Finally, the students’ level of social conservativism was measured by having them give their views on five hot-button topics, including immigration and gay marriage.

The researchers found “an illusory association between Group B and negative behaviors.” Specifically, “the perceived proportion of negative behaviors” was significantly higher for Group B, although in fact the two groups were identical in this regard.

“Increased levels of social conservativism were associated with more negative evaluations of Group B as compared to Group A,” the researchers add. “The illusory correlation between Group B and negativity was accentuated among conservatives.”

The researchers then performed the experiment a second time, with one change: The proportions were reversed, . . .


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Cut the “Natural-Cut”

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 12, 2011

Wendy’s has a new product: french fries. 

Okay, sure, technically fries have been around a while . . . but, according to Wendy’s, not like this.  Meet “Natural-Cut French Fries”:

Let’s face it—everybody’s got fries. Wendy’s has got something special. Naturally-cut from whole Russet potatoes, cooked skin-on, and served hot and crispy with a sprinkle of sea salt for a taste as real as it gets.

Wow!  Finally, healthy, all-natural French fries!

Sound too good to be true?

It is.

A large serving of the new product packs in 25 grams of fat, 630 mg of sodium, and 520 calories.

But wait, you said they came from whole Russet potatoes . . . you said that they had their skins on . . . you told me they were naturally-cut . . . you said sea salt!

These sounded “good” for me.  Or at least healthier than the McDonald’s alternative.  But are they?

Nope.  A large fries at McDonald’s has 25 grams of fat and 500 calories.  Moreover, that “sprinkle” of sea salt at Wendy’s dwarfs McDonald’s 350 mg of sodium.

And so begins yet another food scam from our friends in the fast food industry: creating a profitable perception in consumers that they know to be both inaccurate and potentially harmful to health.

I dream that one day there will be regulators with the resources, authority, and backbone to crack down on exactly this type of corporate behavior, but I fear that that day is a long way off.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Stereotype Threat

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 11, 2011

From Wikipedia:

A stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. First developed by social psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues, stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of African-Americans taking the SAT, due to thestereotype that African-Americans are less intelligent than other groups.Since its introduction into the scientific literature in 1999, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology. Stereotype threat is often discussed as a potential contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. However, stereotype threat may occur in any situation in which an individual has the potential of confirming a negative stereotype.

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The Disorderly Situation of Stereotyping

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 10, 2011

From Los Angeles Times:

Picture yourself in a well-kept room — pictures neatly hung on walls, books organized on a shelf, floors clear of junk. Now sit yourself in a room with crooked pictures, scattered books and dirty laundry on the floor. Feeling any different?

In the second room, you might be more apt to keep your distance from a person of another race, believe that Muslims are aggressive or think that gay people are creative, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The idea, said researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, is that people in messy environments tend to compensate for that disorder by categorizing people in their minds according to well-known stereotypes.

Testing the relationship between disorder and discrimination in real-life situations was no easy feat, said social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the study’s lead author. But he got lucky — the cleaners at the bustling Utrecht train station went on strike, leaving disorder in their wake.

“It looked like a terrible mess,” said study coauthor Siegwart Lindenberg, a cognitive sociologist. “Lots of paper cups, chewed-up pieces of pizza, napkins, apple cores — you name it — just lying around.”

It was the perfect setup. The two researchers canvassed the station, asking 40 travelers (all of them white) to fill out surveys about Muslims, homosexuals and Dutch people while in the messy train station. Respondents were asked to rate how accurate they thought both positive and negative stereotypes were for each group.

The researchers asked the travelers to sit down while filling out the survey, noting how far the survey-taker chose to sit from a man positioned at one end of the row. That man was either black or white.

When the strike ended a few days later, the researchers repeated the experiments in the newly tidy station.

The result: When the station was messy, travelers agreed with stereotypes — both positive and negative — about 10% more strongly. They also sat about 25% farther from a black man than they did from a white man.

To pinpoint whether it was disorder or dirtiness that heightened people’s affinity for stereotypes, the researchers went to an affluent neighborhood. They loosened pavement tiles, parked Stapel’s old red Subaru Legacy with two wheels on the sidewalk and left a bicycle lying on the ground, as if abandoned. They asked 47 passersby the same questions about Muslims, gays and Dutch people. They also asked people to donate to a “Money for Minorities” fund.

They repeated the experiment after replacing the tiles, reparking the car and righting the bicycle. Again, they found that people in the disorderly environment stereotyped more. They also gave less money to the minorities fund — 1.70 euros, on average, compared to 2.35 euros for people approached when the street was tidy.

Lab experiments further confirmed that when faced with images of chaos — be it a messy room or a random scattering of triangles and circles — volunteers rated themselves higher on a scale measuring their personal need for structure. When they were allowed to express stereotypical feelings immediately after seeing those disordered pictures, however, their “personal need for structure” scores were lower. Stereotyping satisfied that need, Stapel said.

“This need for order matters a lot more than we might have thought,” said [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay, a social psychologist at Duke University who was not involved in the study. Disorder pushes people to find more structure in their lives, he said, noting: “Fishermen who fish on more treacherous seas are more likely to believe in a spiritual God.”

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Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Environment, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Shocking for Money

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 8, 2011

From Science News:

When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.

The results . . . serve as a reminder that hypothetical scenarios don’t capture the complexities of real decisions.

Morality studies in the lab almost always rely on asking participants to imagine how they’d behave in a certain situation, study coauthor Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge University said in her presentation. But these imagined situations are missing teeth: “Whatever you choose, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

But in FeldmanHall’s study, things actually happened. “There are real shocks and real money on the table,” she said. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (a little over a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although these shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)

When researchers gave a separate group of people a purely hypothetical choice, about 64 percent said they wouldn’t ever deliver a shock — even a mild one  — for money. Overall, people hypothetically judging what their actions would be netted only about four pounds on average.

But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed. A lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash. “Three times as much money was kept in the real task,” FeldmanHall said. When participants saw only the hand of the person jerk as it got shocked, they chose to walk away with an “astonishing” 15.77 pounds on average out of a possible 20-pound windfall. The number dipped when participants saw both the hand and the face of the person receiving the shock: in these cases, people made off with an average of 11.55 pounds.

People grappling with the real moral dilemma — as opposed to people who had to choose in a  hypothetical situation — had heightened activity in parts of the insula, a brain center thought to be involved in emotion, the study shows. FeldmanHall said that insula activity might represent a sort of visceral tension that’s going on in the body as a person pits the desire for money against the desire to not hurt someone. These visceral conflicts within a person seem to be missing in experiments with no real stakes, she said.


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Body Image and Materialism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 7, 2011

From PsychOrg:

Psychological research has consistently shown that women feel unhappy with their body after looking at images of thin, idealized models, which are typically represented in the media. However, today’s consumer culture and media promote not only the ideal of perfect beauty, but also that of the material affluent lifestyle, both of which are commonly depicted together, and highlight the benefits of beauty and of owning material goods to one’s personal success and fame. A new study from the British Journal of Social Psychology is the first to examine the impact of materialistic messages and values – the desire for financial success and an affluent lifestyle on women’s feelings about their own body.

Lead author Eleni-Marina Ashikali: “Not all women are affected in the same way by looking at idealized media models, and it has therefore been important for research to identify factors that make some women more vulnerable than others to feeling negative about their body when exposed to such media images. We found that women focus more strongly on their appearance when materialistic values are highlighted momentarily to them through priming. At the same time, their awareness of how their bodies fall short of the idealized image is heightened during this priming process, particularly for women who are already materialistic. This means that the influence of materialism is a further factor that makes women more vulnerable to negative body image.”

This research suggests that materialism, both as an internalized value and as a depiction in the media, should be taken into account for media literacy interventions and policy changes in the advertising industry.

Ashikali: “Women would benefit from gaining greater awareness of current marketing strategies, as well as becoming more critical of the images and messages conveyed by materialistic media. Our work highlights the need for less emphasis on materialistic messages in the marketing of goods and products, as well as on the promised unrealistic benefits of owning a particular good.”


(“The Effect of Priming Materialism on Women’s Responses to Thin-Ideal Media.” Eleni-Marina Ashikali & Helga Dittmar. British Journal of Social Psychology. Published Online: April 5, 2011.)

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Marjorie Kelly Speaks at Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2011

Marjorie Kelly, Senior Associate at the Tellus Institute, speaks today at Harvard Law School.  The event is sponsored by SICKLE (Jon Hanson’s Corporate Law Class),

Title: “What Comes Next? The demise of shareholder primacy and the seeds of new corporate design.”
When: Wednesday, April 6, 12:15-1:15 PM
Where: Langdell South

Here’s a bio of Marjorie Kelly:

Marjorie Kelly is a modern revolutionary who wants to democratize economics. She argues that our current economic system is an aristocracy run by corporations that pay shareholders as much as possible and employees as little as possible—while ignoring the public good. CEOs aren’t all bad guys, Kelly says, they’re just operating in a system that forces them to put profits above everything else. That’s what she aims to change with her groundbreaking book, The Divine Right of Capital, which offers ideas on how to move toward a more humane, democratic corporate design.

Kelly’s book is already a modern classic that reveals the mechanisms that lead capitalism to create social ills. She shows how the wealth gap, corporate welfare, and industrial pollution are merely symptoms; the real illness is shareholder primacy—the corporate drive to create more wealth for the rich, regardless of the cost. She says that 99 percent of “investing” is speculation benefiting the financial elite, not small investors.

Ordinary citizens can spur change, Kelly says, by pushing for reform on laws that govern the way corporations operate. “We must design a corporate system in which all economic rights are equally protected, not only the rights of shareholders,” Kelly says. To that end, she advocates two key areas of reform: requiring corporations to be responsible to the public good, and putting more wealth into the hands of those who generated it—the employees.

Kelly isn’t a dreamy-eyed idealist. She is the co-founder and editor of Business Ethics, a leading publication on socially responsible business, and a Missouri-born, third-generation entrepreneur (her grandfather started Anderson Tool & Die in his basement during the Depression). David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World, calls Kelly “our Thomas Paine for the new millennium.”

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Posted in Deep Capture, Distribution, Events, Law | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Canons of Confabulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 4, 2011

From the Law and Mind Blog, here’s an excellent post by Michael Lieberman about a chapter (forthcoming in Ideology, Psychology, and Law (ed, Jon Hanson, 2011) authored by Situationist Contributors Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto.

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Knowles and Ditto’s chapter on Preference, Principle, and Causistry – detailed elsewhere on this blog – bears a striking resemblance to Karl Llewellyn’s famous critique of the use of canons of construction in judicial opinions.  Given the title of this blog, how can we not explore such a clear intersection of the mind sciences and the law?

Canons of construction are interpretive tools invoked by judges to discern the meaning of statutes.  To couch this in Knowles and Ditto’s terms, the universe of canons exists as a menu of principles upon which judges can draw in seeking guidance in matters of statutory interpretation.  For example, imagine a statute that allows tenants to withhold rent upon the discovery of “rats, mice, termites, or other pests.”  The ejusdem generis (“of the same kind”) canon teaches that “other pests” refers to pests of the same kind as those listed before it; thus, a tenant could not withhold rent due to an annoying next-door neighbor who could also be described as a “pest” in the dictionary sense of the word.

This formulation seems to imply a rational, objective process of decision-making: judges confronted with an ambiguous statute resolve that ambiguity by selecting the applicable principle (i.e. canon), applying it to the statute, and, voila, a resolution emerges (ambiguity -> principle -> answer).  Llewellyn, however, like Knowles and Ditto, is not quite so optimistic about the decision-making process.  Llewellyn argues that there are two opposing canons on almost every point, and as such, the canons serve as (in the words of Knowles and Ditto) post hoc intellectual justifications of one’s initial intuitions. Choosing which canon to apply is not the objective, detached process that the above description would suggest.  Instead, judges determine the answer first, guided by their internal preferences, and then select the canon capable of justifying the conclusion they find most emotionally satisfying (ambiguity -> answer -> principle).

On this view, then, the canons are widely utilized not for their helpfulness in ascertaining answers, but rather for their utility in justifying answers.  Why do judges go through this dance, then?  Knowles and Ditto point to a psychological need to view one’s self as objective and rational: “we are clearly sensitive to the plausibility of our beliefs and work to maintain what some researchers call an ‘illusion of objectivity’ about the nature of our judgments.”  As my fellow blogger put it, we all want to be the hero of our own story, and as such, we do not want to acknowledge that our decision-making process may be driven by emotion and intuition rather than consistent, objective principles.  Additionally, notions of the role of the judiciary as an objective branch of government that interprets (rather than creates) the law requires, at the very least, an appearance of objectivity.

How, then, do judges convince themselves that they are being objective when, according to Knowles & Ditto, their selected principles/canons are mere confabulations?  The answer lies in the process – judges do indeed look to principles to make their decisions, but they go about the process in a biased fashion such that certain principles are ‘favored’ in a given judgment context because they are consistent with, and provide intellectual support for, the conclusion that is most preferred in that context.  That is to say, judges may attempt to follow the first formulation of the decision-making process (ambiguity -> principle -> answer), but when searching the menu of principles/canons, will subconsciously place more value on the ones that support their favored outcome.  Through this process, judges can “select the [canon] capable of justifying the conclusion they find most emotionally satisfying—while at the same time preserving the view of self as a logical and well-meaning thinker.”

Does this insight lead to the inescapable conclusion that the use of canons in statutory interpretation is inherently invalid?  Not exactly.  First, abolishing the use of canons would do nothing to solve the “problem” of results-based reasoning—judges could simply rely on other tools, such as legislative history, to provide post hoc rationalizations of their preference-based decisions.  Legislative history is subject to the same critiques as the canons of construction; namely, that there is often legislative history support both sides of a debate, allowing judges to, as Justice Scalia put it,“look over the heads of the crowd and pick out your friends.”  This argument is somewhat defeatist in that it seems to concede that the human decision-making process is inherently flawed.  However, decision-making on the basis of intuition is not inherently invalid, and may actually “reflect adaptive insights accumulated over the course of human evolution.”

Further, our system requires judges to do more than simply declare “yes” or “no.”  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires judges to explicitly state their findings of fact and conclusions of law; this rule has three important ramifications to our topic.  First, the very act of committing their reasoning to paper may reveal a judge’s logical inconsistency or suboptimal use of a canon to him or herself.  Second, writing an opinion allows dissenting judges to file their own opinions in response; these dissents may reveal stronger arguments to judges in the majority.  Finally, our appellate system allows incorrect legal conclusions made at the lower levels of the court system to be corrected by the high courts.  This doesn’t entirely overcome the defeatist position, as having many biased decision-makers arguing about differing biased decisions solves very little in a search for an objective truth, but that stance presupposes the very existence of an “objective truth” – a topic far beyond the scope of this post.  For now, we can take solace in the fact that even if Knowles and Ditto are correct in that the individual decision-making process isn’t quite as objective as we’d like, any judge’s individual decision must survive several rounds of checks and balances before becoming law.

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