Ideology, Psychology, and Law (the Situationist book edited by Jon Hanson and published by Oxford University Press) is now available. Use the promotional code (30552) from the following flyer to save 20%. Click here (or on the image below) to go to the book’s website for more information.
Archive for January, 2012
Posted by J on January 20, 2012
A former student of mine, Brett Murphy, has co-authored a fascinating and sophisticated paper on the roots of psychopathy, which you can download on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.
“Psychopathy” is a psychopathological construct involving a diverse set of affective deficits and behavioral disinhibitions that result in substantial antisocial behavior, and includes traits such as extreme egocentricity, profound lack of empathy, and limited ability to experience guilt and remorse. The costs that “psychopaths” impose on society are enormous. Researchers have estimated that they comprise more than 15 percent of the adult prison population and are even more highly represented among repeat violent offenders. Although psychopaths are not necessarily violent, when they do commit violent offenses, their violence is very often coldblooded, predatorial, and instrumentally employed in the pursuit of another goal, such as money, sex, or power.
This unpublished manuscript extensively reviews and summarizes much of the psychological and neurobiological literature related to “psychopathy.” In addition to reviewing the existing findings regarding psychopathy and the prominent hypotheses regarding its etiology and unifying characteristics, this manuscript also offers a novel theory of the primary form of psychopathy, the “power assessment” hypothesis. This “power assessment” hypothesis argues: (1) that much of human behavior and cognition is causally influenced by bioregulatory mechanisms related to internal, subconscious assessments of power; and (2) that abnormalities in these mechanisms, when present starting early in childhood, may generate the cognitive, attentional, and behavorial characteristics of primary psychopathy.
Download the paper for free here.
Related Situationist posts:
- The Low-Status Situation of Corrupting Power
- Shocking for Money,
- Psychology of Inequality,
- Jim Sidanius “Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law,”
- The Psychopath Test,
- The Embodied Situation of Power, and
- The Situational Power of Appearance and Posture.
Image from Flickr.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 18, 2012
Experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood illustrating how human vision works (from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2011).
Related Situationist posts:
- Beau Lotto on the Situation of Sight,
- The Situation of Sight,
- Brain Magic,
- Magic is in the Mind, and
- The Situation of Illusion
Click here for a collection of posts on illusion.
Posted by J on January 15, 2012
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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.
King’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.”
“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 to 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’ . . . .”
And 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.”
* * *
For a sample of related Situationist posts, see
- “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,”
- “Al Gore – The Situationist.”
- “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,”
- “Black History is Now,”
- “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,”
- “What does an Obama victory mean?,”
- “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,”
- “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,”
- “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and
- “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”
Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2012
- Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School – Tuesday, January 31, 2012
- John Jost, NYU Psychology – Monday, February 6, 2012
- Paul Bloom, Yale Psychology – Monday, February 20, 2012
- Jenn Lerner, Harvard Kennedy School – Monday, March 5, 2012
- Joshua Buckholtz, Harvard Psychology – Friday, March 23, 2012
- Daria Roithmayr, USC Law School – Monday, April 2, 2012
- Go to the SALMS website here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2012
From The Daily Princetonian:
Failure in the part of the brain that controls social functions could explain why regular people might commit acts of ruthless violence, according to new study by a University research team.
A particular network in the brain is normally activated when we meet someone, empathize with him and think about his experiences.
However, MRI technology showed that when a person encounters someone he deems a drug addict, homeless person or anyone he finds repulsive, parts of this network may fail to activate, creating a pathway to “dehumanized perception” — a failure to acknowledge others’ thoughts and experiences.
According to the study, this process of dehumanizing victims could explain how propoganda portraying Jews as vermin in Nazi Germany and Tutsis of Rwanda as cockroaches led to genocide.
“We all dehumanize other people to some extent,” psychology professor [and Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske said in an email, noting that it is impossible to delve into the mind of every person we pass.
“That being said, we have shown that people can rehumanize a group they might normally ignore, just by thinking about their preferences, as when a soup kitchen worker thinks about a homeless person’s food preferences.”
Earlier work from the team dealt with social cognition or how individuals perceive the thoughts of others with a study that had individuals think about a day in the life of another person.
The new research attempted to build upon this idea further to include the network in the brain charged with disgust, attention and cognitive control.
To collect their data, the scientists had 119 undergraduates at the University complete judgment and decision-making surveys as they looked at images of individuals such as a firefighter, female college student, elderly man, disabled woman, homeless woman and male drug addict.
This exercise sought to study how the network in the brain involved in social cognition reacted to common emotions shared by participants about the people in the images.
The researchers found that parts of the network in the brain did not activate when participants viewed the images of drug addicts, homeless people and immigrants.
“We all have the capacity to engage in dehumanized perception; it’s not just reserved for serial killers,” Harris said in an email. “There are many routes to dehumanization, and different people may use different routes.”
One such route, according to Harris, may be to avoid thinking about the suffering of others — people who dehumanize homeless people may do this.
Another route could be to view someone as a means to an end. Sports fans may engage in this when they think about trading a favorite player to another team.
Fiske and Harris plan to replicate the study on imprisoned psychopaths, and are continuing to explore the different routes to dehumanized perception.
For a collection of related Situationist posts, see The Interior Situation of Atrocities.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 3, 2012
The outstanding Wray Herbert has a terrific piece on The Huffington Post about research done by Situationist Contributor, Geoffrey Cohen.
Dieting and weight control are really pretty simple. We gain weight and have trouble losing it because we eat too much and move too little. If we can switch that around, most of us should be able to maintain a sensible weight without resorting to unhealthy gimmicks.
But that’s just the biology of weight control. What about the psychology? Why do we habitually take in too many calories, even when we know those calories are a ticket to obesity and all sorts of chronic diseases?
There are two major reasons for unhealthy weight, according to experts. One is a simple lack of self-control. We live in a society where every day we confront an abundance of high-calorie foods. Not overeating in this environment requires extraordinary discipline. The second is an inability to cope with stress. Struggling with ordinary but constant life stresses can drain the cognitive energy needed for discipline, weakening our resolve. Stress-related eating packs on unhealthy calories, contributing to weight gain — and over time to obesity.
What if there were a simple psychological intervention that addressed both of these issues at once — bolstering self-control and buffering against everyday stress?
I know. It sounds like one more gimmick, too good to be true. Perhaps, but in a new study, two psychological scientists propose just such an intervention — along with some preliminary evidence to back it up. Christine Logel of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University describe a brief and simple way to give people the tools for resisting temptation and coping with life’s pressures.
It’s called “values affirmation,” and it’s done with a simple writing exercise. The theory is that focusing on one’s core values triggers a cascade of psychological processes: It bolsters a sense of self-worth and personal integrity. It underscores our higher values rather than our impulses, and by reminding us what’s really important in life, it buffers against mundane stresses. Since stress saps our limited cognitive resources, such an affirmation frees up these resources for willpower and self-discipline.
At least that’s the theory, which Logel and Cohen tested in a simple experiment. They recruited a group of young women (apparently, women are more prone to stress-related overeating), recording their baseline weight and body mass index, or BMI. The women were representative of North American women in general. That is, nearly 60 percent were overweight or obese, the rest normal. Notably, all were dissatisfied with their current weight.
Then half of the women wrote an essay about their most cherished values — religious beliefs, relationships, whatever they considered most important to them. The remainder, the controls, wrote about something they did not prize particularly, and why it might be important to someone else. Importantly, none of the values in the exercise had to do with weight or health.
That’s it. That’s the entire intervention. Then the scientists waited for about 2.5 months, at which point they called all the volunteers back into the lab. They again measured their weight and BMI, and also their waistlines. They also gave the volunteers a test of working memory, which is one of the cognitive processes crucial to self-control. Reducing stress should theoretically boost working memory capacity, and consequently discipline.
The results, reported online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and quite dramatic. The control subjects gained 2.76 pounds on average, and this gain boosted average BMI as well. Anyone who has ever struggled with weight knows that this is a huge weight gain in just 2.5 months. It’s the equivalent of more than 13 pounds in a year — for no particular reason. By contrast, those who had completed the values affirmation lost an average of 3.4 pounds — also huge — and trimmed their BMI in the process. Women in the values intervention also had smaller waistlines, independent of BMI. And these women also had better working memory, suggesting that it was indeed their enhanced cognitive function that bolstered their self control. Even the most seriously overweight women experienced these dramatic results after the brief writing exercise.
Losing even a few pounds and keeping them off can be maddeningly difficult. So how could one brief intervention like this have such long-term results? The scientists believe that people can get stuck in repeating cycles, in which failure to lose weight impairs psychological functioning, which in turn increases the risk of more failure. Even a quick and simple intervention has the power to disrupt this destructive cycle.
Related Situationist posts:
- Geoffrey Cohen on “Identity, Belief, and Bias
- The Situation of the Achievement Gap,
- The Project’s Second Conference – ‘Ideology, Psychology & Law’,
- The Implicit Value of Explicit Values,
- Fitting In and Sizing Up,
- The Situation of Weight and Fitness on the Campaign Trail,
- The Policy Situation of Obesity,
- The Situation of Eating – Part II,
- The Situation of Eating,
- Our Situation Is What We Eat,
- The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,
- The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,
- Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil, and
- Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.
Image from Flickr.