The Situationist

Archive for September, 2011

The Low-Status Situation of Corrupting Power

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2011

From Eureka Alert:

Ever wonder why that government clerk was so rude and condescending? Or why the mid-level manager at your company always doles out the most demeaning tasks? Or, on a more profound level, why the guards at Abu Ghraib tortured and humiliated their prisoners?

In a new study, researchers at USC, Stanford and the Kellogg School of Management have found that individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others. According to the study, “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is “based on the notions that a) low-status is threatening and aversive and b) power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings.” The study was conducted by Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business; Nir Halevy, acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Adam Galinsky, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

To test their theses, the authors conducted an experiment with students who were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status “Idea Producer” role or low-status “Worker” role. Then these individuals were asked to select activities from a list of 10 for the others to perform; some of the tasks were more demeaning than others.

The experiment demonstrated that “individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.”

According to the study, possessing power in the absence of status may have contributed to the acts committed by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. That incident was reminiscent of behaviors exhibited during the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with undergraduate students that went awry in the early 1970s. In both cases the guards had power, but they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others and in both cases prisoners were treated in extremely demeaning ways.

Fast said that he and his colleagues focused on the relationship between power and status because “although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both. We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact. We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status—and the respect that comes with that status—then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings.”

Social hierarchy, the study says, does not on its own generate demeaning tendencies. In other words, the idea that power always corrupts may not be entirely true. Just because someone has power or, alternatively, is in a “low status” role does not mean they will mistreat others. Rather, “power and status interact to produce effects that cannot be fully explained by studying only one or the other basis of hierarchy.”

One way to overcome this dynamic, according to the authors, is to find ways for all individuals, regardless of the status of their roles, to feel respected and valued. The authors write: “…respect assuages negative feelings about their low-status roles and leads them to treat others positively.”

Opportunities for advancement may also help. “If an individual knows he or she may gain a higher status role in the future, or earn a bonus for treating others well, that may help ameliorate their negative feelings and behavior,” Fast said.

The researchers conclude, however, that, “Our findings indicate that the experience of having power without status, whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill.”

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Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Comparative Psychology: Cephalopods

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 29, 2011

In a previous post I discussed my struggles with anthropocentrism — and my satisfaction in having it thoroughly shaken by a short video on the otherworldly skin of certain octopuses.

After mentioning it to a friend, he pointed me to two other videos of cephalopods engaging in quite shocking (and amazing) behavior — and, it is now safe to say, I have become a cephalopod fanatic.

These invertebrates don’t seem much like invertebrates at all when it comes to their brain power and it turns out they are the focus of fascinating research in the realm of comparative psychology (some of which is discussed in the NOVA video linked below).

As I watched cuttlefish change their skin texture and tone to blend in with their environments, alter their color and shape to mimic the opposite sex (to slip by mating rivals guarding a female), navigate mazes, and learn from their mistakes, it made me wonder whether I would soon sway too far in the opposite direction from human exceptionalism.  That is always the danger with comparative psychology: the ever-present threat that we will draw connections and similarities to ourselves that simply do not exist.

When we watch an octopus climb out of its tank in a research laboratory, crawl across the floor, and climb into a neighboring tank to feast on crabs before slipping back into its own tank, it is hard not to start to see very human-like qualities:  Ah, ha!  See how he was premeditating this act and waited until late at night, when the humans had left, to make his move!  See how he knew he needed to go back into his own tank so he wouldn’t get caught!  Perhaps, but perhaps not.

On September 20, The New York Times published an article on same-sex sexual behavior and a certain species of deep-sea squid was front in center.  Reading about how the squid are quite indiscriminate in their mating behavior, the natural inclination is to analogize to homosexuality in human beings.  Look: gay squid!  But, of course, there is nothing to suggest that squid have sexual orientations like humans.  The researchers in question appear to be quite cognizant of the anthropomorphization concern, but particularly as work is translated for more popular audience the threat can reemerge.

Overall, we humans seem to struggle with keeping in the Goldilocks Zone — we vacillate between extremes: seeing animals as objects, property, or food with little similarity to ourselves or seeing animals as basically humans with fur . . . or, well, eight arms and two tentacles.

Watch the amazing NOVA program, Kings of Camouflage — Nature’s Masters of Illusion, here.

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53.1%: Precognition or Statistical Fluke?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 28, 2011

From The Epoch Times, here are some excerpts from an excellent summary of Daryl Bem’s intriguing research on precognition and reactions to that research:

Social psychologist Daryl Bem of Cornell University created quite a buzz in the field of parapsychology last year when he claimed he had evidence that future events can reach back in time to affect a person’s behavior.

. . . [B]elievers and cynics had already been fussing over his findings and debating the general existence of psi, the umbrella term for any process of information or energy transfer that is inexplicable with currently known physical or biological principles.

In the paper, Bem details nine experiments that he led, all involving well-established procedures utilized in the field of social psychology. The critical point, however, was that Bem “time-reversed” the procedures, meaning that instead of exposing participants to a stimulus (usually considered the cause of a person’s behavior) and then measuring the reaction (the effect), Bem recorded participants’ behaviors first and then supplied the stimuli.

In Bem’s first experiment, the major focus point of mass media, participants were presented with an image of two curtains on a computer screen and asked to guess which curtain was concealing a picture. In actuality, the image and its position were only determined by the computer’s randomization program after the participant made his decision.

“From the participants’ point of view, this procedure appears to test for clairvoyance,” according to the article. “In fact, however, neither the picture itself nor its left/right position was determined until after the participant recorded his or her guess, making the procedure a test of detecting a future event (i.e., a test of precognition).”

Bem found that in cases where the computer had later generated an erotic image, participants had guessed the correct position 53.1 percent of the time. Although small, the difference between his finding and 50 percent (the expected percentage of correct guesses based purely on chance), is statistically significant, argued Bem, which suggested that, overall, participants’ correct guesses were at least partially due to something other than chance.

Across seven of his other eight experiments, Bem obtained similar data supporting the existence of psi. Skeptics, however, have raised the concern that Bem’s anomalous findings are merely statistical flukes.

In a critique published alongside Bem’s article, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam advocated for a more “conservative” statistical test to evaluate Bem’s data. According to their analysis, the majority of Bem’s experiments actually provided either “anecdotal” or “substantial” evidence in favor of the non-existence of precognition.

However, at the same time, they did find that three of Bem’s experiments provided “anecdotal” justification of his claims, and that the results of his ninth experiment were “substantial.”

Bem’s ninth experiment tested for “retroactive facilitation of recall.” Participants were shown 48 nouns one at a time, and then told to type as many of the words as they can recall. Half of the words were randomly selected by the computer and displayed to the participants one at a time again. Next, the same subset of words were presented altogether while the participant had to click on the words to place them into categories and type them.

The point was to see if this future exposure and practice trials of typing the subset of words would correlate with higher recall of the selected words at the expense of the non-selected words. Bem concluded that his results support psi phenomenon, and even Wagenmakers found that the results were “substantial.”

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Stephen Colbert interviews Daryl Bem:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From ABC News:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Sian Beilock and Allen McConnell on Stereotype Threat

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 27, 2011

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Dr. Steven Hyman at Harvard Law Tomorrow

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2011

Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) Speakers Series:
Dr. Steven E. Hyman, “Addiction as a Window into Volition”
Tuesday, 9/27, 12-1 pm, Pound 101
SALMS serves lunch: Free Burritos!

How should the law confront the “choices” of an addict? Though neuroscience research into addiction has advanced dramatically, few lessons have been incorporated into legal doctrine.  Dr. Steven Hyman, former Harvard Provost and founding member of the Governing Board of the Project on Law and Neuroscience, will present recent neuroscience findings to shed light on the legal concepts of addiction and self-control.

After leading the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1996–2001, Dr. Hyman served as Provost of Harvard University from 2001–2011. Prior to his position at NIMH, Dr. Hyman was Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Psychiatry Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He also taught neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and was the first faculty Director of Harvard University’s Interfaculty Initiative in Mind, Brain and Behavior. Dr. Hyman received his B.A. from Yale in 1974 (summa cum laude) and his M.A. from the University of Cambridge in 1976, where he was a Mellon fellow studying the history and philosophy of science. He received his M.D. from Harvard Medical School (cum laude) in 1980. Following an internship in medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a residency in psychiatry at McLean Hospital and a clinical fellowship in neurology at MGH, he was postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in molecular biology. Dr. Hyman is currently a scholar in residence in the Psychiatric Disease Program at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.  Read more at the SALMS website..

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The Wacky, Wonderful McGurk Effect

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 25, 2011

When I was a law clerk working on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit several years back, a case came up involving the competency of blind jurors.  I wasn’t assigned to the case — and, as a result, don’t remember any of the details — but the general question of when someone’s disability ought to be grounds for excluding him or her as a judicial decision-maker continues to intrigue me.

Overall, I remain skeptical of attempts to disallow participation.  Part of my skepticism stems from psychological evidence suggesting that we naively believe that we see the world as it actually is and that those who do not, must necessarily have some dispositional flaw.  Dan Kahan, David Hoffman, and Donald Braman’s 2009 Harvard Law Review article on the impact of cultural cognition in interpreting the facts of a police chase video provides an excellent example of the dangers of when judges determine that there is only one reasonable view of a case (and that those who see things differently cannot participate in the judicial assessment process).  It turns out that we’re not always very good at judging others’ disqualifying biases (for a situationist critique of Kahan, Hoffman, and Braman’s article click here).

The second reason that I’m wary is that there is good evidence that having complete use of one’s facilities doesn’t necessarily improve perception of key information.  Research on lie detection suggests that people are often mislead by focusing on visual cues (like whether someone is averting his or her gaze).  Perhaps the best demonstration of how our eyes can lead us astray is the McGurk Effect (demonstrated in the brief video below).  What I love about the McGurk Effect is that even though I am fully aware of what is going on (i.e., that my eyes are leading me astray) and desperately try to control for it, I can’t.

Take a look for yourself!

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Seeing the Situation of Animals

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 24, 2011

From birding with my father as a young boy to doing research in the Smithsonian’s Invertebrate Zoology Laboratory years later (before heading off to college), I have always been fascinated and amazed by the diversity of life on this planet.

Yet, when push comes to shove, I find it very hard to shake my anthropocentrism.  As a human, I feel very special, indeed.  And all around me there seems to be evidence to prove my special status: skyscrapers, airplanes, televisions, poetry, and music!

Though I wish it were otherwise, it really takes something unique to break me from the myth of human exceptionalism.

Well, here is just such a video.

I highly encourage you to watch it all the way through.

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Allegations of Ideological Bias are Anti-Scientific

Posted by John Jost on September 22, 2011

Author’s prologue: In science, it doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or not; whether you are Black or White, a man or a woman; whether you are a religious person or an atheist; whether you are liberal or conservative, a socialist or a libertarian. The scientific community agrees to consider your truth claims on the merits, according to conventional standards of reason and evidence. Scientists do not—or at least they should not—simply engage in reflexive ideological critique. But increasingly, I encounter students and, more disturbingly, professors, journalists and others suspending their critical faculties and doubting or rejecting scientific findings on the basis of something they think they know about the ideological leanings of the researchers (either as individuals or as a community).

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from a book review I wrote for Science magazine (click here to access the review in its entirety). This excerpt specifically addresses Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” from his latest book, The Believing Brain, but I think that it applies much more widely to the rudderless post-postmodern predicament in which we find ourselves. The time has come for advocates of the social and behavioral sciences to stand by their methods and renounce allegations of ideological bias—whether they are sincerely offered or cynically proffered—as anti-scientific.

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Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” opens with an attack on a paper that I co-authored (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), so the author will not be surprised to learn that I found it to be the worst chapter in his book by far. He could have rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the now abundant scientific literature documenting significant differences between adherents of leftist (or liberal) and rightist (or conservative) belief systems in terms of personality and cognitive and motivational styles (e.g., Gerber Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009) as well as neurocognitive and other physiological structures and functions (Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Kanai, Feilden, Firth, & Rees, 2011; Oxley et al., 2008). Instead, he besmirches the entire enterprise of political psychology, perpetuating canards from the right-wing blogosphere and lazy, empirically unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias.” For example, Shermer writes:

Why are people conservative? Why do people vote Republican? The questions are typically posed without even a whiff of awareness of the inherent bias in asking it in this manner—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Much as medical scientists study cancer in order to cure the disease, liberal political scientists study political attitudes and voting behavior in order to cure people of the cancer of conservatism.

In passages such as this, Shermer is not merely hyperbolic, inflammatory, and wrong about the specifics of the scientific articles he purports to critique. (Given the above characterization, one doubts he even read them.) By resorting to ideological deconstruction and essentially ad hominem forms of attack, Shermer violates his own intellectual standards—succumbing to the tendency, which he scorns in others, to reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.

Shermer ought to know better, but he is enabled (and led considerably astray) by Jonathan Haidt, whose non-peer-reviewed internet provocation entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” provides the only data Shermer considers and, at the same time, a title to which he can object. What happened to the relentless thirst for empirical evidence and the evaluation of such evidence according to rigorous, established scientific criteria? When push comes to shove—as it often does with politics—Shermer sets the evidence aside and trades in stereotypical assumptions about the ideologies and personal backgrounds of the investigators. Consequently, the origins and dynamics of political beliefs will forever remain an unsolved mystery to readers of The Believing Brain.

The broader point, which I think is crucial to the future success of the social and behavioral sciences, is not that scientists themselves are somehow immune to cognitive or other sources of bias. It is that the scientific community is and should be ruthlessly committed to evaluating claims and settling disputes through the inspection and analysis of empirical data and through meaningful discussion and debate about how to properly interpret those data, using agreed upon methodological standards—and not through ideological deconstruction or all too convenient allegations  of bias. Resorting to such means is not only unscientific; it is profoundly anti-scientific.

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Read full review here.

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Posted in Book, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Money Priming

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 21, 2011

From the BBC’s “Bang Goes the Theory Team.”

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Harvard Law School Highlights The Situationist Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2011

From Harvard Law School Website:

The Situationist blog, run by the Project on Law and Mind Science at Harvard Law School, recently received the 2011 Media Prize awarded by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, an international organization of scholars devoted to social and personality psychology.

Harvard Law School Professor Jon Hanson established the Situationist with Vermont Law School Professor Michael McCann LL.M. ’05 to share the work of the Project on Law and Mind Science, which Hanson directs.

“It is terrific to see this recognition of the wonderful work being done by Jon Hanson and others writing on this innovative, cross-disciplinary blog,” said Dean Martha Minow. “The cross-pollination between theory and practice illuminates law, the mind sciences, and the human experience with powerful implications for how we make decisions, solve problems, and design institutions.”

The project seeks to identify and understand the implications of social psychology, social cognition, and other related mind sciences for law, policymaking, and legal theory. Hanson and the PMLS team have run an annual conference since 2008 on topics such as “The Psychology of Inequality” in 2011 and “The Free Market Mindset” in 2009. Many of the speakers at the conferences are regular contributors to the blog.

In their article “The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture” Hanson and Santa Clara Law Assistant Professor David Yosifon ’02 define “Situationism.”

“Situationism is premised on the social scientific insight that the naïve psychology—that is, the highly simplified, affirming, and widely held model for understanding human thinking and behavior—on which our laws and institutions are based is largely wrong. Situationists (including critical realists, behavioral realists, and related neo-realists) seek first to establish a view of the human animal that is as realistic as possible before turning to legal theory or policy. To do so, situationists rely on the insights of scientific disciplines devoted to understanding how humans make sense of their world—including social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and related disciplines—and the practices of institutions devoted to understanding, predicting, and influencing people’s conduct—particularly market practices.”

Read more about “Situationism” on the award-winning blog.

Hanson is editor of a collection of articles titled “Ideology, Psychology, and Law,” which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in November.

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Read more about awards and praise for Situationist Blog here.

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Lee Ross on the Power of Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2011

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Judicial Mindsets

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2011

Victor D. Quintanilla recently posted his situationist paper, “Judicial Mindsets: The Social Psychology of Implicit Theories and the Law” (forthcoming Nebraska Law Review) on  SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

This article introduces Dr. Carol Dweck’s seminal and significant line of psychological research on the phenomenon of implicit theories and draws on this research as a lens through which we might better understand judicial decision-making. In particular, the article focuses on the implications of two types of implicit theories – whether people believe that phenomena are static and fixed versus dynamic and malleable. By introducing this research, this article aims to forward a research agenda designed to examine how social, contextual, and situational forces influence judicial behavior.

An entity theory reflects the mindset that phenomena are fixed and unlikely to change. An incremental theory reflects the mindset that phenomena are malleable and can be developed. Humans hold entity or incremental implicit theories about, for example, human nature, social institutions, and society. These theories, or “mindsets,” affect perception, judgment, and decision-making and strongly shape how people organize their experience in, knowledge about, and transactions in the world. When an entity theory is salient, people expect that phenomena are fixed, immutable and unchangeable. However, when an incremental theory is salient, humans believe that phenomena are malleable, changeable, and affected by contexts and situations. Whether one holds an entity theory versus an incremental theory is often driven by situations, contexts, and social influences.

Implicit theories affect how jurists find facts, draw inferences, and impose punishment. Research on implicit theories, moreover, can enrich our understanding of how jurists apply the common law, engage in statutory interpretation, and construe the Constitution, offering novel insight into a timeless legal debate: whether American law is static versus dynamic. The article sets forth a research agenda that will form a line of psychological experiments to examine these processes.

Download the paper for free here.

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Sheldon Solomon on Ernest Becker and Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2011

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Life, Video | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bad Apologies

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2011

Topman has withdrawn the t-shirt pictured above (and another that suggested that women are dogs).

The shirt is intended to be humorous.  It would appear that Topman is attempting to point out  how apologies offered by batterers to their victims are often  disingenuous.  By adumbrating the standard set of meaningless apologies on a handy checklist to be worn on a shirt, Topman seems to be saying

“Ha ha guys!  We’ve all been there, right?.  You get carried away and, next thing you know, you are pummeling your girlfriend.  Then, of course, your girlfriend wants you to be all sorry and everything.   Recognize any of these excuses fellas?  lol!”

Whatever the interpretation, it seems clear that the shirt is trivializing (even condoning) domestic violence.

Now comes Topman’s (Facebook) apology:

“We have received some negative feedback regarding two of our printed T-shirts. Whilst we would like to stress that these T-shirts were meant to be light-hearted and carried no serious meaning, we have made the decision to remove these from store and online as soon as possible. We would like to apologise to those who may have been offended by these designs.”

It seems that the public relations team behind that apology is engaging in the same sort of worthless apologizing depicted on the shirt itself.

In response, we have designed a t-shirt.



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Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2011

From the Atlantic, here is a review of Situationist Contributor Tim Wilson’s latest book:

In our ceaseless quest for self-improvement and our relentless pursuit of happiness, most of us have had some brush with the world that lives on the spectrum between self-help books and legitimate clinical psychotherapy. But a compelling new (non-self-help) book suggests many of these methods might be derailing rather than propelling our progress. In Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, social psychologist Timothy Wilson reveals insights from three decades of empirical evidence indicating that what is true of culture is also true of individuals: Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves, and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.

Let’s pause here and observe that this seems pretty commonsensical. What’s more, most of us believe that our character and circumstances are so unique that the universal human psychological flaws, biases, and shortcomings we are keenly aware of simply don’t befall us personally. Yet, in one domain of life or another, we find ourselves stuck in thought patterns and behavioral cycles we lack the tools to escape. This, Wilson demonstrates, is a pathological storytelling problem based on the stories we’ve led ourselves to believe and the behaviors that stem from them.

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has ever dabbled in cognitive-behavioral therapy — an entire branch of psychotherapy designed to address precisely that. But Wilson argues that there’s a new way to redirect people’s personal interpretations, one that doesn’t require one-on-one sessions and can address a wide array of personal and social problems, from severe trauma to everyday distress.

This new approach is based on the work of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 40s, and is rooted in three specific psychological interventions: story-editing — a set of techniques designed to reshape people’s narratives about themselves and the world in a way that results in lasting behavioral change (cue in the famous words of Susan Sontag, one of my big heroes: “I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of my process of becoming.”); story-prompting — redirecting people down a particular narrative path with subtle prompts; and do good, be good — an approach that dates back to Aristotle, premised on changing people’s behavior first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are based on the kinds of things they do. Wilson shows how these story-editing techniques have been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavioral problems, and even reduce the racial achievement gap in schools.


Here is a related video of Timothy Wilson speaking (in an RSA talk) about Redirect.

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Sheldon Solomon (Briefly) on Terror Management

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2011


As graduate students at the University of Kansas in the late 1970s Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and I were interested in understanding the psychological underpinnings of prejudice and ethnic conflict as well as the nature and function of self-esteem. In 1980, I accidentally stumbled across the work of the late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who in books such as The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962), The Denial of Death (1973), and Escape From Evil (1975) argued that the uniquely human awareness of death, and the denial thereof, guides and directs a substantial proportion of human behavior. According to Becker, culture consists of humanly created (albeit quite unconsciously) beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groups to reduce or eliminate the potentially overwhelming terror engendered by the awareness of death by providing a sense of meaning and value that in turn confers the possibility of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Terror management theory resulted from our efforts to translate Beckers ideas into a formal theory that could be subjected to empirical scrutiny.

According to terror management theory, people “manage” the potential terror associated with death through a dual-component anxiety-buffer consisting of a cultural worldview (beliefs about the nature of reality that provide a sense that the universe is meaningful, orderly, and stable and that provisions for immortality) and self-esteem (the perception that one is living up to the standards of value associated with the social role inhabited by individuals in the context of their culture, and hence rendering them eligible for safety and security in this life and immortality thereafter).

Thus, while cultures vary considerably, they share the same defensive psychological function in common: to provide meaning and value and in so doing bestow psychological equanimity in the face of death. All cultural worldviews are ultimately shared fictions, in the sense that none of them are likely to be literally true, and their existence is generally sustained by social consensus. When everyone around us believes the same thing, we can be quite confident of the veracity of our beliefs.

But, and here’s the rub, when we do encounter people with different beliefs, this poses a challenge to our death-denying belief systems, which is why people are generally quite uncomfortable around, and hostile towards, those who are different. Additionally, because no symbolic cultural construction can actually overcome the physical reality of death, residual anxiety is unconsciously projected onto other groups of individuals as scapegoats, who are designated all-encompassing repositories of evil, the eradication of which would make earth as it is in heaven. We then typically respond to people with different beliefs or scapegoats by berating them, trying to convert them to our system of beliefs, and/or just killing them and in so doing assert that “my God is stronger than your God and we’ll kick your ass to prove it.”

In order to test terror management theory, we designed what we call the mortality salience paradigm, which basically entails asking people to think about their own death (e.g., by asking them to respond to some questions about dying, or by subliminal exposure to death-related words, or being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor) and then asking them to make judgments about people or events that either bolster or threaten important aspects of the individuals cultural worldviews. We hypothesize that to the extent that culture serves a death-denying function, then making mortality salient should increase affection and altruistic behavior toward those who share or uphold cherished cultural beliefs, as well as increase hostility and disdain to those who disagree with cherished beliefs, or merely hold different ones.

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Judge Nancy Gertner on her Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 2011

On Joining the Harvard Law Faculty:

On Life After the Bench:

On Being a Passionate Advocate:

On Women and the Law:

Insights from the Federal Bench:

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Edward P. Schwartz at Harvard Law Tomorrow (Tuesday)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2011

The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (or SALMS) kicks off its fall Speakers Series this upcoming Tuesday, September 13 when Edward P. Schwartz will present his talk: “Facing the Fearful Jury: Terror Management Theory in the Courtroom” in Pound 101 at noon.

As part of our campus remembrance on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, SALMS invited Mr. Schwartz, a nationally recognized jury consultant, to share his insights into the psychology of juries in terrorism trials, with a particular emphasis on the upcoming trial of Tarek Mahenna in Boston federal court. Anyone interested in trial litigation, jury psychology, or the law of terrorism should particularly enjoy Tuesday’s talk. Check out Mr. Schwartz’s blog entry about the talk here and see a full description here.

Come for the talk, for the community, and for the free lunch – by popular demand, SALMS will again serve free Felipe’s burritos this year!

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Related Situationist posts:

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9/11 Remembered

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2011

A number of Situationist posts have discussed the causes an consequences of the 9/11 attacks or have been related, sometimes only implicitly, to the war on terror.  Here is a sample:

One series of posts was devoted to the situational sources of war.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here. For a list of posts discussing how people attribute causation, responsibility, and blame, click here.

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The High of Dying

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 10, 2011

On my way back from North Carolina yesterday afternoon, I read several articles on the central role of mortality concerns in human social behavior.

What did I learn?

Thinking about death and personal vulnerability is a stupid thing to do on a turbulent flight right before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Luckily, this morning, Jaime Napier (via Facebook) provided the perfect tonic to my existential malaise:

A new article by Alexander Wutzler, Paraskevi Mavrogiorgou, Christine Winter, and Georg Juckel entitled, quite promisingly, Elevation of Brain Serotonin During Dying.

As the abstract of the article explains,

Death and dying are central events in the life of an organism, but neurobiological changes during this process are still rarely understood. Extracellular levels of serotonin, one of the phylogenetically oldest neurotransmitters, were measured continuously during dying. Serotonin levels increased threefold, while the EEG recorded simultaneously went down to a zero-line of no activity. This could be caused by the neuroprotective activity of brain serotonergic system, which subjectively makes dying easier due to the mood enhancing function of this neurotransmitter.

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