The Situationist

Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2007


A study published in the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine suggests that certain types of pharmaceutical advertising may be harmful to our health. According to the report, “American television viewers see as many as 16 hours of prescription drug advertisements each year.” All that tv time doesn’t come cheap, and it reflects a growing trend. Pharmaceutical expenditures on such commercials escalated from $654 million in 2001 to $1.19 billion in 2005.

The researchers, led by UCLA psychologist Dominick Frosch, “coded ads shown during eveninglunesta-small.jpg news and prime time hours for factual claims they make about the target condition, how they attempt to appeal to consumers, and how they portray the medication and lifestyle behaviors in the lives of ad characters.” And here is what they found:

“Most ads (82%) made some factual claims and made rational arguments (86%) for product use, but few described condition causes (26%), risk factors (26%), or prevalence (25%). Emotional appeals were almost universal (95%). No ads mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though some (19%) portrayed it as an adjunct to medication. Some ads (18%) portrayed lifestyle changes as insufficient for controlling a condition. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining control (85%) over some aspect of life and as engendering social approval (78%). Products were frequently (58%) portrayed as a medical breakthrough.”

According to the researchers, the ads do not seem intended for educational purposes given that they provide only “limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk.” Instead, the advertise tend to focus on “characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication.” So what is their purpose? The ads seem primarily designed to tap into what Susan Fiske calls our “core social motives,” nexium.jpegincluding belonging, self-enhancement, and controlling.

Put differently, the pharmaceutical industry is betting billions on the idea that those of us who watch the nightly news — a shrinking group, to be sure — are situational characters and not the reasoning choosers we prefer to see ourselves as. And they succeed in part by selling us on the hope of improving ourselves and gaining control of our lives through choice — a choice to buy their product.

To listen to an NPR story about the report, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Food and Drug Law, Marketing | 2 Comments »

The Situationist Launches

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 28, 2007

quotations-image.jpgThe Situationist went live this morning. Part of a larger effort, including the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (website forthcoming), this blog will provide commentary by social psychologists, law professors, policy analysts, practicing attorneys, and others connected to law and mind sciences. Our posts–several of which are already up–will address current events and law and policy debates, informed by what social scientists are discovering to be the causally significant features around us and within us that we believe are irrelvant or don’t even notice in explaining human behavior, that is “the situation.”

Situationism” represents a striking contrast to the dominant conception of the human animal as a rational, or at least reasonable, preference-driven chooser, whose behavior reflects stable preferences, moderated by information processing and will, but little else. Different versions of the rational actor model have served as the basis for most laws, policies, and mainstream legal theories, at the same time that social psychology and related social scientific fields have discovered many ways in which that model is wrong.

The Situationist, then, will be a venue in which the powerful, influential, but incorrect conceptions of the human animal come up against more accurate, if surprising and unsettling, realizations about who we are and what the law is and ought to be. Its content will reflect an emerging interdisciplinary trend in legal scholarship, as exemplified by the work of scholars such as Mahzarin Banaji, Gary Blasi, Martha Chamallas, Susan Fiske, Jerry Kang, Linda Hamilton Krieger, Lee Ross, David Yosifon and many others.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Jack Bauer and Growing Up Rich

Posted by Michael McCann on January 28, 2007

jack-bauer.jpgJack Bauer may be the greatest American ever. An agent of the United States government, his selflessness, patriotism, and intrepidness go unmatched. Yet perhaps his most inspiring characteristic is his willingness to sacrifice his life—and to endure a lot of accompanying pain—for the safety and well-being of the American people. Indeed, he never allows the situation to change his priorities; he is the true dispositional hero, one who unfailingly views his nation’s interests as paramount and whose behavior and choices always reflect that.

Unfortunately, Jack Bauer doesn’t really exist. He is a fictional character played by Kiefer Sutherland in the television series 24. And despite what Jack Bauer evidences on our TV screens, the human mind, even inside those most heroic, is deeply affected, often in unappreciated ways, by the surrounding situation. That is not to say that a Jack Bauer-type person cannot exist, but if he or she is out there, our nation should quickly turns its lonely eyes and find’em.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t look so quickly. After-all, the latest episode of 24 casts a slight shadow on this shining star. In the episode we learn that Jack apparently grew up in a highly-affluent family. Jack, who had not spoken with his father for over nine years, has to call him. But guess who answers the phone? “Sam”–an older man who Jack clearly knew and who appeared to be the Bauer family butler. Butler or not, it seemed highly probable that Jack’s dad was of profound wealth.

It was a surprising scene. Jack had seemed like the quintessential All-American hero, and until that scene, there was no evidence that he might have grown up with a silver spoon. Just the opposite, actually, his “toughness” and “resiliency” seemed to suggest that he might have come from an Oliver Twist kind of childhood. The resulting disappointment, ever so slight, has been evidenced on blogs and message boards alike.

But why should we care if, in fact, Jack grew up rich? Does that change the fact that (spoilers to follow) he was willing to endure 20 months of torture in a foreign prison in order to not spill state secrets? Or that his torture only ended because he was willing to endure worse torture and likely execution at the hands of a foreign terrorist because that was the only way to stop terrorist attacks in the U.S.? Or that he was willing to kill himself by flying a plane containing a nuclear bomb—one that was set to go off in Los Angeles—into the Mojave Desert? Or that he was willing to become a heroin addict as part of an undercover mission to prevent an Ebola-like virus from being released? Or that he was willing to kidnap the President of the United States upon learning that the President was a murderer? (end of spoilers) I could go on. If you watch the show you could come up with numerous other examples. The basic storyline is almost always the same: Jack breaks the law, thereby exposing himself to some combination of pain, incarceration, and condemnation, and he does so only because it is in the nation’s best interests.

So why should we care about his parents’ wealth? Why can’t the greatest American hero grow up rich and enjoy the same level of admiration? Like all of us, he didn’t select the circumstances in which he was born. Why do we need certain life stories to validate how we feel about someone’s accomplishments?

One explanation might relate to John Jost’s work on system justification theory. Jost has identified that we all have a powerful motive to embrace and justify the social systems to which we belong. He finds that people, even those disadvantaged by social systems, “justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social arrangements are perceived as fair and legitimate, perhaps even natural and inevitable.” Two of the more prominent ideologies in the U.S. are the “meritocractic ideology,” the idea that our system “rewards individual ability and motivation, so success is an indicator of personal deservingness” and “belief in a just world,” the idea that “people deserve what they get.”work-and-win.jpg

These system-justifying ideologies certainly seem observable when thinking about our social systems. We are culture that values the American Dream, the idea that hard-work, pluck, and determination can enable anyone to rise to success. Because of that, we tend to latch onto endearing narratives and vignettes of those Americans who intrepidly rose from poverty to wealth (and thus fulfilled the Horatio Alger story), while we tend to ignore aggregate statistics that confirm the more common difficulty of moving out of poverty in spite of work ethic. In that same vein, we have always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with wealth. Just consider how we believe firmly in equal opportunity, and yet we paradoxically loathe the estate tax (i.e., “the death tax”).

Of course, Jack Bauer isn’t the first person whose privileged upbringing attracts notice, and he won’t be the last. And more generally, perhaps we don’t like children of the rich because we can so obviously see that they didn’t “earn” it. But what about less obvious recipients of “situational support”? Bill Gates’ dad was a prominent lawyer; Warren Buffet’s dad was a Congressman; Michael Dell’s dad was an orthodontist. That is not say those three sons didn’t “earn” their success, but they didn’t exactly begin two touchdowns down, either. In fact, I suspect most of those who become successful get a lot of breaks along the way, and yet we tend to focus on their apparent dispositional qualities—work ethic, brains, doggedness etc. Perhaps we downplay their situational support because the more we recognize the power of situation, the less legitimate differences in wealth and status seem. And Jack Bauer or no Jack Bauer, that wouldn’t sound like the American Dream anymore.

Posted in Entertainment, Life, System Legitimacy | 6 Comments »

FDA Wants Informed Choice

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on January 25, 2007

The Food and Drug Administration intends to use the Internet to help people better understand food labels. The concept is admirable, but will it make a difference?

The perception of obesity as the consequence of choice rather than of situation (or situationally constrained choices) is a clear The public health community has uncovered many of situational sources of obesity. Food Fight (by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Horgen at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders) and Broken Scales detail many of those findings — everything from portion size and advertising to human biology, the economy, and agricultural policy seem to play a role. And the more scientists scrutinize, the more subtle causal forces they discover .

Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has has recently conducted several studies suggesting that part of the cause might even be microbes. Yes, microbes. But not just any microbes. Hungry microbes bacteria.jpgthat live in our stomachs and share our food with us, while simultaneously helping us to digest it. As Dr. Gordon explained in an interview on NPR, scientists have had the ability to learn what lives in a person’s digestive tract only within the last few years. Today, with the help of genetic probes, they are able to take a census of each person’s stomach. What they have discovered is that the types of microbes — some of which are more effcient, effective calorie harvesters than others — vary depending on the weight of the person. Although there is much still to learn, Dr. Gordon’s research does suggest that “a large part of the difference between fat people and thin people may come down to” these hitchhiking, free-riding gut microbes.

Bacterial causes or not, if the situationists are correct, and if weight is influenced significantly by many factors beyond “choice,” then internet guidance on how to translate food labels is unlikely to have much effect. True, it could be of some use to those individuals with thetom-toles-cartoon-3.jpg opportunity and ability to visit the website and alter their consumption patterns significantly. But it could also hurt inasmuch as it further assures those who attribute obesity rates to individual choice, that the problem of, and solution to, obesity is to be found in each individual’s will or character. More or better information, in other words, may contribute to the “take personal responsibility” mantra that has been gaining volume in this country at roughly the same rate as many Americans have been. Changing those trends will require taking situation seriously.

Posted in Food and Drug Law | 2 Comments »

The Situational Character Goes to the Mall

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 25, 2007

In last week’s New York Times, John Tierney has a humorous article, “The Voices in My Head Say ‘Buy It!’ Why Argue?,” in which he summarizes some of the fascinating work being done by economic behavioralists and neuroeconomists, including Brian Knutson, Elliott Wimmer, Drazen Prelec, Cynthia Cryder, and George Loewenstein. The research is devoted to understanding why we buy some things and pass up others and on why spendthrifts are prone to the former, while tightwads do more of the latter.


With the aid of a functional M.R.I. machine, economic behavioralists were able to witness the neurological circuitry behind the “i gotta have it” and the “no way!” reactions. If looking into the black box is at all revealing, it seems many shopping choices are not exactly motivated by the utility-maximization calculations that neo-classical economists long imagined. Instead, something much simpler, though not exactly rational, is happening.

People buy those things that activate neurons in the pleasure center of their brains (thejohn-tierney-image2.jpg nucleus accumbens) and eschew products that activate the pain centers (the insula). No doubt, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure seems pretty rational, but the point is that the positive and negative arousal that lead us to anticipate rewards and pain are often manipulable and inaccurate. They lead to regret — or at least would, were we not such expert ex post rationalizers of bad outcomes. It appears that shoppers are not choosing based on anticipated long term pain and pleasure or, put differently, on stable preferences. No, it’s the on-the-spot affective responses that seem to determine our “choices.”

(That wide gap between who we imagine ourselves to be – preference-driven, thinking, willing choosers – and who science reveals us to be – situational characters – is at the heart of the situationist approach to law and policy.)

Tierney’s article is worth the read — it will stimulate your nucleus accumbens, without creating reader’s remorse. (Those who crave more detailed accounts of the research can access it here and here.)

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Marketing | 1 Comment »

Behavioral Realism Symposium

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 24, 2007

The California Law Review recently published an excellent collection of behavioral realist articles. The Situationist highly recommends the thoughtful and groundbreaking articles in the collection. (Some of the articles can be downloaded here or here and the close relationship of behavioral realism to situationism is discussed here.)



Vol. 94, No. 4 – July 2006california-law-review.jpg


Symposium on Behavioral Realism



Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations

94 CALIF. L. REV. 945 (2006)

Anthony G. Greenwald & Linda Hamilton Krieger



The Law of Implicit Bias

94 CALIF. L. REV. 969 (2006)

Christine Jolls & Cass R. Sunstein



Behavioral Realism in Employment Discrimination and Law:

Implicit Bias and Disparate Treatment

94 CALIF. L. REV. 997 (2006)

Linda Hamilton Krieger & Susan T. Fiske



Fair Measures:

A Behavioral Realist Revision of “Affirmative Action”

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1063 (2006)

Jerry Kang & Mahzarin R. Banaji



System Justification Theory and Research:

Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1119 (2006)

Gary Blasi & John T. Jost



Discrimination and Implicit Bias in a Racially Unequal Society

94 CALIF. L. REV. 1169 (2006)

R. Richard Banks, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, & Lee Ross


Posted in Events, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Accidentally Us

Posted by J on January 23, 2007

david-linden.jpgIn March, Harvard University/Belknap Press will release David Linden’s new book, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and has been studying and writing about neural function for many years.

His new book promises to reveal how, contrary to popular opinion, “the brain is not an optimized, general-purpose problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad-hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history” and, in turn how this evolved, path-dependent collection of quirks we know as the brain “have ultimately led to almost every transcendent human foible.

In a promotional interview, Linden had this to say about the inaccuracy of our self-perceptions:

In everyday life we behave with the implicit assumption that our sensory information is “raw data” and, if necessary, we can evaluate this datathe-accidental-mind.jpg dispassionately and, only then, make decisions and plan actions based upon it. This feeling that we have about our senses, that they are trustoworthy and independent reporters, while overwhelming and pervasive, is simply not true. Our senses are not built to give us an accurate picture of the extenal world at all. Rather, they have been designed to exaggerate certain features and aspects of the sensory world and to ignore others. Your brain then blends this whole sensory stew together with emotion to create a seamless ongoing story of experience that makes sense. We cannot experience the world in a purely sensory fashion, because by the time we are aware of sensory information, it’s already been filtered, molded, and deeply intertwined with emotions and plans for action.

It’s another version of the same message that again and again social psychology and the mind sciences are providing us: We are not who we perceive ourselves to be. That gap between perception and reality is precisely the gap that the neo-realists or situationists hope to bridge.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by J on January 22, 2007

mlk1.jpgLast Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Posted in System Legitimacy | 2 Comments »

Conference: The Troubling Language of Rape

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2007


The Judicial Language Project at the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England School of Law Announces its First Conference:

The Troubling Language of Rape: how eroticism, gender myths and victim blaming affect social and legal discourse.

Language affects all aspects of our lives – socially, culturally and legally. Rape myths and the use of erotic and sexualized language continue to permeate the discourse surrounding sexual assault, in both the media and the courtroom. This conference will bring linguists, social scientists, and legal scholars together to take a critical look at the language used in sexual assault discourse.


The conference is offered by the Judicial Language Project (JLP) at the Center for Law and Social Responsibility. The JLP, the only project of its kind in the country, uses socio-linguistic research to identify problematic language in judicial opinions for the purpose of focusing the attention of the judiciary, the bar, community activists and the public on its harmful impact. In doing so, participants in the JLP hope to reduce the use of needlessly erotic, sexist, minimizing or “blaming” language to describe sexually violent behavior, and to thereby affect society’s perceptions of sexual assault.

When: Saturday March 24, 2007 – 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM

Where: New England School of Law, 154 Stuart Street, Boston, MA 02116judicial-reporters.jpg

Confirmed Presenters:

Tory Bowen, Victim Advocate

Ross Cheit, Brown University

Linda Coates, Okanagan College

Justice Robert Cordy, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Lisa Cromer, SUNY Medical

Susan Ehrlich, York University

Toni Irving, University of Notre Dame

Wendy Murphy, New England School of Law

Penny Pether, Villanova Law School

Jonathan Saltzman, Boston Globe

Registration is free, but space is limited – Registration begins on January 16, 2007.

Posted in Choice Myth, Events, Legal Theory | Leave a Comment »

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