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Archive for the ‘Illusions’ Category

Derren Brown’s Invisibility Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2009

Derren Brown uses his mind-tricks to make himself invisible to a film student.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Posted in Illusions, Video | Leave a Comment »

Ugly See, Ugly Do

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2009

In an article titled “Supermarket Trolleys Make Us Behave Badly,” Anjana Ahuja summarizes a fascinating study about the subconscious effects of disorder.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

The Cialdini effect might sound like a new mind-control trick from the illusionist Derren Brown, but it is more sinister than that. It is indeed a mind-control trick, but one that requires no tricksy showman to pull it off.

If, like me, you have ever abandoned a shopping trolley in a messy supermarket car park, then you have fallen under its subtly destructive spell and you have only your subconcious to blame.

The effect takes its name from Robert Cialdini, a American psychology professor who wrote a groundbreaking book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This was no pap psychology book; it was, appropriately enough, a highly influential work that continues to shape social psychology, that mesmerising scientific discipline which examines the sometimes irrational way we behave in our relationships with others. Cialdini showed, among other things, that people do what they see others doing, even when they know they shouldn’t.

* * *

Now a Dutch study has shown that the Cialdini effect is only the start of our troubles. People can actually be steered into criminal behaviour, such as stealing, simply by tinkering with their environment. In fact, the scientists claim, if you know what psychological buttons to press, you can make antisocial behaviour spread like a contagious disease. The paper, which has gone virtually unnoticed beyond the academic community, should be read by anyone who cares how and why people disobey the rules of civil society.

It seems common sense that a litter-strewn, graffiti-spattered environment will suffer more petty criminality than a pristine one. . . . But, surprisingly, it has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt . . . .

And so Kees Keizer and a team of behavioural scientists from the University of Groningen designed some experiments that could settle the matter, all to be conducted secretly on Dutch streets. In the first set-up, they chose an alley near a shopping centre where people park their bikes. In the middle of the alley stood a large No Graffiti sign. Dr Keizer’s team looped flyers over the bikes’ handlebars; any cyclist would need to remove the flyer before pedalling away. Given there were no rubbish bins, would the cyclists take their litter home, or drop it on the ground? The scientists took up their spying positions, and waited.

When the alley walls were clean, 33 per cent of cyclists dropped the flyer on the pavement or put it on another bike (both counted as littering). When the scientists added graffiti and repeated the experiment on another day, 69 per cent of the cyclists littered, a far bigger difference than would be expected by chance. Could it be possible that one sign of disorder, graffiti, was triggering another undesirable behaviour, littering?

So they tested the theory another way, this time in a supermarket car park and using flyers shoved under windscreen wipers. When the car park was tidy, with all the shopping trolleys put away, 30 per cent dropped the flyers on the ground. When the car park looked chaotic, with four shopping trolleys strewn around (their handles smeared with petroleum jelly to deter shoppers from grabbing them and thus ruining the experiment), 58 per cent littered.

Despoiling the environment is one thing; stealing quite another. Dr Keizer’s team left an envelope hanging out of a postbox; the stamped and addressed envelope had a window through which could clearly be seen a five-euro note. How would passers-by, or those posting a letter, react when they saw it? The vast majority (87 per cent) either left it alone, or pushed it into the postbox. Only 13 per cent took it away (this was regarded as stealing).

But roughing up the environment had a dramatic effect. When the postbox was tagged with graffiti, 27 per cent of people stole the letter. When the postbox was surrounded by rubbish (but not graffitied), 25 per cent pocketed the cash.

The academics, who reported their startling results last month in Science, suggest that disorder does indeed beget disorder; when one social or legal norm is obviously violated, we are tempted to loosen our grip on others. Or, as Dr Keizer writes in the more precise language of psychology: “The most likely interpretation of these results is… that one disorder (graffiti or littering) actually fostered a new disorder (stealing) by weakening the goal of acting appropriately… The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing.”

Exactly why our capacity to act honourably melts away in nasty settings is a mystery. Dr Keizer speculates that, when the instinct to act appropriately is pushed to one side, competing instincts – such as to do what feels good or to give in to greed – take over. If we can see that bad behaviour has gone unpunished, perhaps we feel that our own lapses will go uncensured.

* * *

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. To listen to a 22-minute interview of Robert Cialdini, click here.

For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary,” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” and Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Mispredicting Our Reactions to Racism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 9, 2009

For more evidence of how of the power of situation and the illusion of disposition, read the following mashup of articles from CNN, Canadian Press, and Associated Press.

* * *

It’s one thing to hear reports of racial slurs being hurled at individuals or to see such epithets in literature or as graffiti on walls. But how would you react if someone used such language in your presence?

Shocked. Disgusted. Outraged. Even horrified, some might say. However, a Canadian-led study suggests real-life responses to prejudice don’t always reflect how people think they will react.

In the study, which appears in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, undergraduate students at Toronto’s York University took part in experiments which cast them in distinct roles: those observing racist remarks first-hand and others who read about such a scenario or watched it unfold on video.

Students were led into a room and seated in a preselected chair thinking they were waiting for an experiment to begin. They were followed into the room by two males posing as participants: one black and one white.

Shortly after, the black male remarks that he has left his cellphone in the hallway, and on his way out to retrieve it gently bumps the white male’s leg with his foot.

Once the black person has left, the white male who’s part of the experiment makes a remark that is either classified as an extreme racist comment [used the N-word], a moderate racist comment or he says nothing at all. The extreme comment used was “clumsy nigger” and the moderate racist comment was “typical, I hate it when black people do that.”

Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to rate their feelings in the moment and then asked to select a partner to complete a task.

Those who read about or watched the scenario were asked to predict how someone seeing this happen would feel, and whether they would select the white male or black male as a partner.

This group of observers – dubbed “forecasters” – believed people who heard the slurs would be very upset and more likely to pick the black person over the white person.

But in reality, the racist remarks didn’t affect those who heard them first-hand – called “experiencers” – and they were more likely (63 per cent) to select the white person as their lab partner.

“We definitely were surprised,” said lead author and York psychology professor Kerry Kawakami.  “It’s like these nasty racist comments aren’t having an effect.”

“We thought that people would have positive illusions about how they would respond to racism, so that they would predict that they would be much more upset than they were and that they would avoid the white racist more. But we were surprised that it had no impact at all.”

“It didn’t affect them emotionally at all and it didn’t affect their choice of who they wanted to work with at all. Those findings are shocking to everyone in my lab.”

* * *

Kawakami said they are exploring several possibilities as to why individuals would react with such indifference to racist remarks.

One theory is perhaps the nature of the situation was so threatening for participants they simply suppressed all thoughts and emotions. Another is that while people think they’re not prejudiced on a controlled level, on a non-conscious, internal level, they may actually have a lot of negative associations with blacks, she said.

“You’re not going to react negatively towards that person because they’re saying things that you wouldn’t say but that you still might somehow – at least on a non-conscious level – think are true.”

Eliot Smith, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, co-wrote a commentary on the study with Diane Mackie, a psychology professor at University of California, Santa Barbara.

The pair suggest the findings are an example of what is referred to as “a failure of affective forecasting” – people who improperly predict how they would feel and therefore act in imagined or future situations.

Research by Smith and Mackie has explored how emotions affect memberships of social groups that are important to individuals, such as a woman who feels pride if another woman gets a promotion. Smith said it struck them that the new study’s results might be a reflection of that process.

“We definitely found the result very interesting and surprising . . . and we just wanted to put this little twist on it, the idea that sometimes when our emotions do surprise us, it’s a way that we can learn kind of maybe for the first time, what identity we’re in in a particular situation.”

Research also reveals situational cues like things in the environment or that people say can also lead people to switch from one identity to another, he said.

* * *

The study is consistent with decades of psychology research pointing to the same thing: People are really bad at predicting their own actions in socially sensitive situations.

“That point is getting renewed attention as researchers develop more extensive evidence establishing reasons to distrust self-report measures concerning racial attitudes,” said Anthony Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who was not involved with the study.

The racism study harkens back to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment that began in the early 1960s, in which most people obeyed orders to deliver electric shocks to an innocent person in the next room. Many psychiatrists had predicted that the majority of subjects would stop when the victim protested, but this was not the case.

“The failure of people to confront or do anything about racist comments is pretty widespread in the real world,” said . . . Smith . . . . “People may feel uncomfortable if someone makes a remark like this, but it’s rare they will actually confront them.”

More recent work by Greenwald and colleagues shows that most people — between 75 and 80 percent — have implicit, non-overt prejudices against blacks.

What is responsible for these attitudes? Experts say one culprit is images in television, news and film that portray blacks in a negative light.

“I don’t think what’s in people’s heads is going to change until the environment that places these things in their head has changed,” Greenwald said.

* * *

“It’s important to remind people that just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States,” Kawakami added.

* * *

To learn more about implicit associations, click here. To review previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here. For a collection of Situationist posts discussing Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Illusions, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2008

Tierney Lab ImageEarlier this week, John Tierney had a nice article, “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories,” in the New York Times about the situation of eating.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

If you’re a well-informed, health-conscious New Yorker who has put on some unwanted pounds in the past year, it might not be entirely your fault. Here’s a possible alibi: The health halo made you do it.

I offer this alibi after an experiment on New Yorkers that I conducted with Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox. Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?

Dr. Chandon’s answer, derived from laboratory experiments as well as field work at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, is that Americans have been seduced into overeating by the so-called health halo associated with certain foods and restaurants. His research made me wonder if New Yorkers were particularly vulnerable to this problem, and I asked him to help me investigate.

Our collaboration began in a nutritionally correct neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose celebrated food co-op has a mission statement to sell “organic, minimally processed and healthful foods.” I hit the streets with two questionnaires designed by Dr. Chandon, a professor of marketing at the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. Half of the 40 people surveyed were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi. . . . On average, they estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink.

The other half of the Park Slopers were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, bringing it to 1,034 calories, but their presence skewed people’s estimates in the opposite direction. The average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.

Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal.

* * *

To read the entire article, which includes further discussion of this experiment and also summarizes some additional, related research, click here.  For additional related work by John Tierney, visit the TierneyLab.

For other Situationist posts on the situation of eating and obesity, click here. The American obesity paradox is explored at some length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Marketing | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Hanson’s Chair Lecture on Situationism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 11, 2008

Hanson Chair Lecture Image SmallEmily Dupraz wrote a nice summary (for the front page of the Harvard Law website) of Situationist contributor Jon Hanson’s recent lecture at Harvard Law School. Here are some excerpts (as well as a link to the webcast of the lecture).

* * *

Individual free choice, an idea that permeates common sense and legal theory, assumes that actions reflect the stable preferences of individual actors. Individuals are responsible for their actions (that is, their preference-driven choices), and laws can therefore be designed on that assumption.

But if that assumption is wrong, says Harvard Law School Professor Jon Hanson, then laws built upon it may not be advancing the ends they purport to serve. And Hanson’s view, steeped in interdisciplinary study in the mind sciences, is that the assumption of indvidual free choice is faulty. The decisions people make, he says, are often determined by influential factors in the situation—that is, non-salient and often invisible external and internal factors that influence, not only how we behave, but also how we make sense of our behavior.

This is what Hanson calls “situationism.” Using social psychology and related mind sciences to help understand law and legal theory, he suggests that people, ideologies, and laws are shaped by forces quite different from those they imagine. While varying versions of the individual-choice model have served as the basis for most laws, policies, and mainstream legal theories, Hanson says, social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and related social scientific fields have uncovered many ways in which that model is detrimentally incorrect.

Hanson explored some of those ideas in an October 29th lecture at HLS entitled, “The Human Animal, Ideology, the Law, and other Situational Characters.” The lecture commemorated his appointment as the Alfred Smart Professor of Law. (Watch the webcast). The chair was endowed by the Smart Family Foundation, in honor of Alfred Smart, a 20th-century publishing entrepreneur who helped launch Esquire magazine and other publications.

Among those in the audience was Hanson’s colleague, Professor Alan Stone, a psychiatrist and interdisciplinary expert in law and the mind sciences and a renowned film critic. When Stone retires from the HLS faculty, the Smart chair will become the Alan Stone Professorship. Alfred Smart was Stone’s father-in-law.

In his lecture, Hanson incorporated several movie clips to help illustrate his arguments and to recognize Alan Stone’s love of cinema. Referring to a famous dream sequence from Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” Hanson said: “Our ideology is like a car—it’s an instrument or tool that enables us to get around and gives us the feeling that we’re in control, in the driver’s seat of our lives. [But] we are far more situationally constrained than we ever imagined. Consequently, we’re unable to get where we want to go . . . . In my view, a necessary condition for making better laws is first understanding who we are, what moves us, and what purposes and subconscious motives our ideologies are actually serving.”

Hanson said that the mind sciences behind “situationism” have complex implications for the legal system, and that the law-making process must do a better job of taking into account how individuals make decisions.


Hanson joined the HLS faculty in 1992 after receiving a law degree from Yale. Hanson is is an expert in tort and corporate law with a background in law and economics. He is co-director and creator of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at HLS and contributes regularly to a blog that discusses the legal implications of human decision-making – The Situationist. Hanson received the 1999 Sacks-Freund Award for excellence in teaching and was a finalist in both 2000 and 2006.

In her introduction of Hanson, Dean Elena Kagan ’86 said: “His deep appreciation and concern for the students of this law school knows no real bounds. He is teacher, mentor, and friend to so many students – possibly to more than any other faculty member at this law school.”

In honor of Alan Stone’s interdisciplinary expertise, the chaired professorship is to be given to someone who has “distinction in scholarship related to the intersection of legal studies and one of the following: psychiatry, psychology, medicine, and literary and film studies.”

Stone is currently the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry, a joint appointment held with HLS and the Harvard Medical School. Kagan hailed him as “one of the earliest and one of the best interdisciplinary scholars at Harvard,” having forged his interdisciplinary paths among law and psychiatry and law and film studies for almost four decades.

In addition to his work exploring the intersection of law and psychiatry, Stone is a movie critic for the Boston Review, and he recently published a book entitled, “Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.”

* * *

To watch the webcast of the video, click here.  To read a Harvard Law Record article summarizing the lecture, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Events, Ideology, Illusions, Legal Theory, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 3, 2008

Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have shown that, although we expect the outcomes of presidential elections to significantly influence how happy we feel, the evidence indicates otherwise.  As with most things, our affective forecasting is not to be trusted.  Gilbert summarizes one study this way:

Democrats predicted they’d be devastated if Bush won the last presidential election, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted . . . , and yet several months later they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors.

Our miswanting and misremembering reinforce our continued inability to forecast our own happiness.

But what do you think?  Is this election different?  Will your happiness level be seriously influenced by the outcome of this election?  Answer the questions below.


If you think that this election will significantly influence your happiness level, please feel free to leave a comment explaining why.

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Illusion of Wall Street Reform

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2008

The following op-ed was co-authored by Situationist contribtor Jon Hanson and a Situationist fellow. In crisis, beware illusion of reform” was published in the Providence Journal.

* * *

IN CASE you missed it, global financial markets have been rocked by a series of unsettling events. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the $700 billion government bailout package are only the latest in a string of shocks — a string that, if investors’ worst fears are realized, represents the beginning of a much more dramatic unraveling of the global financial fabric.

Seven years ago, American markets were in similar turmoil. Such companies as Enron were using “aggressive accounting,” “special-purpose entities” and other balance-sheet tricks to hide risks and represent themselves as healthier than they were.

The accounting scandals of the early 2000s and the reform that followed have much to teach us about our approach to the current crisis. Then, as now, the problem stemmed from convoluted financial instruments that few people could disentangle. Then, as now, corporate behemoths that had seemed invincible came crumbling down (Enron was the biggest bankruptcy in history until WorldCom, which was the biggest bankruptcy in history until Lehman Brothers).

Then, as now, virtually everyone agreed that a big part of the solution was to be found in some sort of additional regulation. Today, Barack Obama calls for “regulatory reform,” while John McCain (a long-term proponent of deregulation) has called for “comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the full.”

It was that sort of regulatory impulse that, in Enron’s aftermath, gave us the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”), which President Bush called the most far-reaching overhaul of America’s business practices since the Great Depression.

Sure sounded promising. The latest bailouts and scandals will no doubt lead to similar reforms, some of which are already in the works. An important question, then, is what those reforms should be — a topic that will occupy many scholars, policymakers and commentators in the upcoming months.

Unfortunately, there is a good chance that those reforms will not have much long-term effect. The real risk is that we get the illusion of reform, not meaningful, substantive and lasting reform. Calls for change come loudly when a crisis rears its head. Inevitably, however, the fervor fades, as workaday duties, dentist appointments, American Idol and the pennant races distract the public and, in turn, policymakers.

While the rest of us turn to other matters, the regulated entities themselves will maintain a steady focus on one question: existing regulations and how to weaken them.

In the aftermath of Enron and WorldCom, corporations, to maintain their legitimacy, initially expressed outrage and wholeheartedly supported new regulations. Members of the Business Roundtable were “appalled, angered and, finally, alarmed” about the problem. President Bush was right, in their view, to berate the bad-apple business executives and to call for more rigorous regulatory standards for all. “We must and will be at the forefront of supporting these reforms,” the Roundtable concluded.

Riding the wave of that consensus, lawmakers took a series of steps, patted themselves on the back, and moved onto other matters, and we all assumed the problem was solved. With that, what had been implicit resistance turned to explicit pressure from the business community to minimize and undo the “reform.”

Consequently, the post-Enron reforms never lived up to the post-Enron rhetoric, and the regulatory teeth that Sarbanes-Oxley initially flashed have been blunted by pro-business revisions. Some provisions never made it into SOX, such as a requirement that lawyers report to the Securities and Exchange Commission if a company’s board failed to respond to warnings about misconduct.

Other provisions exist only on paper, such as Section 404’s “assessment of internal controls,” the compliance date for which has been repeatedly delayed (for nonaccelerated filers) and now stands at Dec. 15, 2009. The Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, with the blessing of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and in the name of “U.S. competitiveness,” has promoted several reforms that make it harder for companies to be sued and more difficult for the SEC and others to regulate.

The committee’s members include heavy hitters from the world of business and finance, including Thomas A. Russo, the vice chairman and chief legal officer of Lehman Brothers.

If history is any guide, the same sort of dynamic will unfold this time around. The reforms that we see will be largely procedural, not substantive — check this, sign that, certify here, jump a hoop there — and they will not fundamentally change the situation that produced this crisis. The reform will look sweeping, because it will be broad-based and ballyhooed as “tough.” Soon enough, the business elite will complain that, indeed, it is too tough. We will learn that small-business owners and entrepreneurs, not to mention Fortune 500 firms, are being tangled and tripped up in overregulation and needless compliance costs.

The mantra of “markets good, regulation bad” and the primacy of shareholders will return. Erstwhile concerns about third parties — such as the taxpayers who are bailing out companies — will gradually be eclipsed by claims that those very groups are the most harmed by the new regime. After all, these burdensome regulations go too far and “hurt American competitiveness,” “drive business, jobs and tax revenues overseas,” “increase costs for consumers,” and so forth.

Such is the “law of unintended consequences,” which apparently applies to only regulations and regulators, never markets.

The reform, which might look promising initially, will be rolled back, whittled away and watered down (corporate lobbyists are already positioning themselves to grab a piece of the $700 billion bailout).

That’s the thing about illusions: What appears to exist doesn’t. To address the financial crisis, regulatory reform is certainly needed. But no less important will be mechanisms for girding those regulations against the influence of the regulated. Beware the illusion of reform.

* * *

For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Illusion.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Illusions, Law, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Merchants of Discontent – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 25, 2008

Tamara Piety has posted her excellent article, “‘Merchants of Discontent’: An Exploration of the Psychology of Advertising, Addiction and the Implications for Commercial Speech” (25 Seattle University Law Review 377 (2001) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

The commercial speech doctrine allows the government to regulate commercial speech so as to prevent advertising that is false or deceptive while forbidding suppression of truthful commercial information that is based on nothing more than misplaced paternalism. However, this limitation is largely illusory in the realm of traditional advertising because the processes by which advertisers convey their messages employs means such as pictures, symbols, and music, making it virtually impossible to try to test such advertising for its truth. Objections to commercial advertising or calls for stricter regulation often invoke the response that there is no harm in advertising and any regulation of it would be an imposition of elitist sensibilities, or furthermore, a slippery slope to totalitarianism. But we should not treat commercial advertising as largely harmless, argues Prof. Piety. Commercial advertising is a pervasive force which blankets our society and plays a noticeable hand in promoting harmful behavior or attitudes. Given its pervasiveness in the culture it is disturbing to note many parallels between the psychology of commercial appeals and that of addiction. Both appear to involve retreat to fantasy, escapism, a quick fix to problems, a numbing down or increased tolerance from overexposure, and the institution of a vicious cycle wherein consumption fails to really satisfy but sets up a dynamic into which satisfaction rests just out of reach with the next fix or the next purchase. Prof. Piety examines three areas in particular where values of equality or definitions of autonomy clash with First Amendment protection for advertising such as this: the advertising of addictive substances, advertising directed at children, and advertising that undermines goals respecting equality for women and suggest that the doctrine may need to be revisited in light of these issues.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Illusions, Law, Marketing | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2008

Joel Garreau and Shankar Vedantam have a nice article, “Dealing with Scary Mr. Market,” in Tuesday’s Washington Post about the human tendency to see human tendencies in non-humans.  The inclination to anthropomorphize is, in our view, better understood as another example of the inclination to dispositionalize — a misleading bias even when directed at the human animal.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

* * *

A rough beast prowled yesterday. If you read the business press, the market woke up with “jitters” after playing “a game of chicken.” It wound up suffering from “dizziness,” recoiling from a “campfire” possibly turning into a “forest fire,” or a destructive “tsunami.”


The market has a personality? Intentionality? A psychology? It can save us with transcendent behavior or ruin us like a demon?

What’s up with the way we anthropomorphize markets — the way we tell stories about them as if they are creatures with minds of their own?

“We do it for everything. We see clouds in skies and we can’t help but see patterns,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke and the author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.”

“We did a study in which we had random shapes on a computer screen bouncing around. Within two minutes, people had stories. The circle was evil and was chasing the little triangle, eating him up. Some other shape was protecting him. It’s incredibly natural for us to do it,” Ariely says. “We want to see causality. We want to understand the world. We want to see order. If things are just random, it’s not comfortable. We find patterns when there are no patterns. We’re really, really good at this. It’s important to our psychological well-being. If we thought we had no control and no understanding of what’s happening, it would be very tough.”

Making amorphous forces into characters we can grapple with has a long history. The Greeks made the idea of wisdom into the goddess Athena. To this day, we name our storms: Hanna, Ike.

Our markets, in turn, have invisible hands, bulls and bears, even “animal spirits,” as John Maynard Keynes in 1936 called the optimism or pessimism that can drive economics.

* * *

The greater the unpredictability of a system, the more likely people are to ascribe volitional qualities to it, says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.

Rocks or billiard balls don’t move unpredictably. But if a billiard ball were suddenly to move on its own, we no longer would have an explanation for what we are seeing and would ascribe intentionality to the ball.

Epley has also found that people are more likely to anthropomorphize when they are feeling lonely. It is as though seeing humanlike qualities in inanimate objects and systems can give us a sense of social connection.

* * *

“In the same way being deprived of food makes you hungry, and eating makes you feel better, so, too, when you are deprived of predictability and social connection, anthropomorphism can be satisfying,” Epley says.

“The most impressive aspects of the human brain involve making sense of our social environment,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s natural when we confront the inherently incomprehensible. We often talk about countries as if they are individuals.

* * *

In an unusual set of experiments published earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Columbia University business school professor Michael Morris showed that up markets are more likely to be given human characteristics than crashes.

We have the Dow “fall like a brick” but “climb to a new high.” You see the financial markets “drop off a cliff” — an inanimate object moving as a result of gravity — but “recovering lost ground.”

“There is a lot of evidence that our brains categorize something as animate or alive to the extent it moves in ways that a physical object can’t,” Morris says. “One cue that something is alive is if it moves uphill. Rocks never roll uphill. If you see something rolling uphill, you make an ontological judgment that the thing is alive.”

Morris found that anthropomorphizing markets has serious risks. Volunteers who heard market movements described in human terms were more likely than those given inanimate descriptions to believe that market trends were likely to continue.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “Seeing Faces.”  Situationist contributors, Jon Hanson and Michael McCann argue in their forthcoming article “Situationist Torts” (downloadable here) that the tendency to dispositionalize situational characters distorts our understandings of everything from people to law and from legal theory to legal pedagogy.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Virtual Bias

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2008

From Science Daily:

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Americans are spending increasing amounts of time hanging around virtual worlds in the forms of cartoon-like avatars that change appearances according to users’ wills, fly through floating cities in the clouds and teleport instantly to glowing crystal canyons and starlit desert landscapes.

Simply fun and games divorced from reality, right?

Not necessarily so, say two social psychologists from Northwestern University who conducted the first experimental field studies in the virtual world.

They found that avatars in these elaborate fantasylands responded to social cues to help one another — and revealed racial biases – in the same ways that people do in the real world.

The study’s co-investigators are Northwestern’s Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, associate professor of psychology and member of Northwestern’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior.

In both of the classic social psychology experiments used for the study, one avatar tried to influence another to fulfill a request.

The way the door-in-the-face (DITF) experiment works: the experimenter (in this case an avatar) first makes an unreasonably large request to which the responder is expected to say no, followed by a more moderate request.

As expected, the avatars — similar to people who participated in the same experiment in the real world — were more likely to comply with the moderate request when it was preceded by the large request than when the moderate request was presented alone. They exhibited a psychological tendency to reciprocate the requester’s “concession”: the change from a relatively unreasonable request to a more moderate request.

The experiment’s moderate request: “Would you teleport to Duda Beach with me and let me take a screenshot of you?” In the DITF condition, that request was preceded by a request of the avatar to have screenshots taken in 50 different locations — requiring about two hours of teleporting and traveling.

In one of the most striking findings, the effect of the DITF technique was significantly reduced when the requesting avatar was dark-toned. The white avatars in the DITF experiment received about a 20 percent increase in compliance with the moderate request; the increase for the dark-toned avatars was 8 percent.

“For decades, research has shown that the outcome of that reciprocity-inducing technique is affected by how the requester is perceived, whether a person — or in this case an avatar — is deemed worthy of impressing,” said Gardner.

The finding is consistent with studies in the real world as well as the few in the virtual world that clearly demonstrate that physical characteristics, such as race, gender and physical attractiveness, affect judgment of others.

The study was conducted in, a relatively unstructured online virtual world that brands itself as an online getaway where users can hang out with friends and explore an immense and unusual landscape.

Even in the surreal environment, users, who were unaware that they were part of a psychological study, succumbed to very down-to-earth effects of social influence.

“You would think when you’re wandering around this fantasyland, operating outside of the normal laws of time, space and gravity and meeting all types of strange characters, that you might behave differently,” Eastwick said. “But people exhibited the same type of behavior — and the same type of racial bias — that they show in the real world all the time.”

Numerous studies done in the real world show that people are more uncomfortable with minorities and are less likely to help them.

The study also employed a foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique to boost compliance to the moderate request to be teleported to Duda Beach to participate in a screenshot. Opposite of the door-in-the-face technique, an avatar was first asked to comply with a small request (Can I take a screenshot of you?) followed by the moderate request. The psychology behind this technique is that a person who does a small favor for a stranger is likely to see himself or herself as being helpful and be more likely to fulfill the following larger request. In this case, the skin tone of the requesting avatar didn’t matter, because the elicited psychological effect is related to how a person views herself, and not others.

In at least one sense, worries may be inflated about virtual world users spending too many hours alone at their computers, cut off from reality.

“This study suggests that interactions among strangers within the virtual world are very similar to interactions between strangers in the real world,” Eastwick said.

The study suggests that users in online virtual environments routinely extend their social selves to inhabit their online avatars.

“People are increasing the amount of social interaction that takes place online, whether through participation in virtual worlds or other online communities or even just social networks like Facebook or Twitter,” Gardner said. “And all these environments present potentially fertile testing grounds for new psychological theories.”

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For a sample of some related Situationist posts, see “Judging One by the Actions of Another,” “Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior,” and “The Situation of First-Person Shooters.”  To review a collection of Situationist posts on racial bias, click here.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Implicit Associations, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Categorically Biased – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 3, 2008

Ron Chen and Situationist contributor Jon Hanson recently posted their article, “Categorically Biased: The Influence of Knowledge Structures on Law and Legal Theory” (77 S. Calif. L. Rev. 1103) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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This Article focuses primarily on one slice of social psychology and social cognition research, namely the vast and vibrant field examining the integral role that knowledge structures play in the way we attend to, remember, and draw inferences about information we encounter and, more generally, the way we make sense of our world.

The human system of processing information is, in many cases, an efficient means of understanding our worlds and ourselves. Classification of people, objects, and other stimuli is often both indispensable and ineluctable. Still, as social psychologists have demonstrated, “virtually any of the properties of schematic functioning that are useful under some circumstances will be liabilities under others.” The categories and schemas that operate, usually automatically, influence all aspects of information processing – from what information we focus on, to how we encode that information, to which features of that information we later retrieve and remember, and to how we draw inferences and solve problems based on that information. Given the unconscious and biasing influence of our schemas, combined with the fact that our schemas themselves will often reflect our unconscious motives, we should be mindful, even distrustful, of our schemas and the conclusions that they generate. These effects, the processes that drive them, and the biases they engender are the primary subject of this Article. A central goal is to offer a broad understanding of how individuals utilize categories, schemas, and scripts to help make sense of their worlds. In doing so, we serve another main objective: to provide a comprehensive (yet manageable) synthesis of a vast body of social psychology literature. This overview shold transform how we make sense of our laws and legal-theoretic world.

Part II of this Article is devoted to describing the significance of knowledge structures. Part III briefly summarizes how legal scholars have thus far applied insights about knowledge structures and argues that their most profound implications have yet to be appreciated. Part III then provides a set of predictions regarding the influence of knowledge structures and the biases they likely engender for legal theories and laws.

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To download a copy of the paper for free, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, Illusions, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Spinning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2008

In which direction does the dancer in the image appear to be spinning? The answer:  It depends on your situation.

From Neurologica Blog:

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These kinds of optical illusions . . . reveal . . . how our brain processes visual information in order to create a visual model of the world. The visual system evolved to make certain assumptions that are almost always right (like, if something is smaller is it likely farther away). But these assumptions can be exploited to created a false visual construction, or an optical illusion.

The spinning girl is a form of the more general spinning silhouette illusion. The image is not objectively “spinning” in one direction or the other. It is a two-dimensional image that is simply shifting back and forth. But our brains did not evolve to interpret two-dimensional representations of the world but the actual three-dimensional world. So our visual processing assumes we are looking at a 3-D image and is uses clues to interpret it as such. Or, without adequate clues it may just arbitrarily decide a best fit – spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. And once this fit is chosen, the illusion is complete – we see a 3-D spinning image.

By looking around the image, focusing on the shadow or some other part, you may force your visual system to reconstruct the image and it may choose the opposite direction, and suddenly the image will spin in the opposite direction.

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For a collection of other Situationist posts providing and discussing illusions, click here.

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

The Situation of Eating – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2008

Monday’s Boston Globe had a nice article, titled “Environmental cues affect how much you eat,” by Judy Foreman on the Situation of Eating. We’ve included the introduction below.

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Next time you sit down to dinner, dim the lights – but not too much. Both bright light and dim light may make you eat more. Watch the background music, too. If it’s too fast, you’ll eat fast, and therefore more; too slow and you’ll keep eating. And think small for plates – a portion that looks skimpy on a dinner plate looks ample on a salad plate.

The more that researchers study obesity, the more they are finding that portion control is key to successful weight loss. Often, people think they’re eating much less than really are. And these perceptions can be influenced, often outside our conscious awareness, by environmental cues, including lights and music.

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The article also includes this situationist gem of a quote by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think:

“The big danger . . . is that we all think we are too smart to be influenced by environmental cues. . . . The good news is that it is very easy to reverse these cues and to just as mindlessly eat less.”

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To access the entire article, including tips on what might be done to influence the situation that is otherwise influencing us, click here.

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Below is six-minute interview of Brian Wansink in which he discusses several situational factors influencing what we eat and how much we enjoy it.

For a a more complete description and analysis of the situation of eating, see the law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion.

In case you missed Morgan’s Spurlock’ 2004 Academy-Award-Nominated documentary, Supersize Me, which explores some of the situational sources of obesity, you can watch the 100-minute movie below.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For those interested, here is a list of related Situationist posts to date: “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15’,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Life, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Some Reflections on Reflections

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2008

Natalie Angier has a terrific piece in today’s New York Times titled “Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.” The article is worth reading in its entirety. Here is a taste of what you’ll find.

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[R]esearchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

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In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

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To link to the entire article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy” and “Self-Serving Biases.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Illusion

Posted by J on June 25, 2008

Magician - from NYPL GalleryIn a paper that Ronald Chen and I wrote a few years ago (part of our “Illusion of Law” series), we summarized a few of the ways that “magic” happens and the key role played by “the way people think.” Here’s an excerpt from that paper (note: we are quoting Nathaniel Schiffman’s book, Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use To Deceive Their Audience (1997)).

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Explanations that are outside of our schemas – what we believe or what we want to believe about the things we see – will rarely be activated. It is often the case that we simply cannot fathom that the magician might be doing what he is doing:

. . . when Blackstone did his famous birdcage vanish (a cage with a live bird vanished from his bare hands) he would hold his arms outright in front of him, seemingly presenting the cage to the audience for their inspection. . . . The cage was specially designed to collapse on command. At the appropriate time, Blackstone would toss it forward, and the collapsed cage would be pulled up his sleeve – bird and all. Savvy adults watching the show might shake their heads and say, ‘Nah, it couldn’t go up his sleeve because he wouldn’t want to injure the bird.’. . .

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Actually, in many cases the bird was injured or killed.

Convinced that the magician would never rely on a method that might harm the bird, audience members were unable to see the trick. Their “knowledge” that the magician was not the type to harm a bird simply for the purposes a magic trick blinded them to what was the most obvious explanation for the illusion.

Our inability to see the magician as a particular type of person –- capable of, and willing to do, the unexpected in order to achieve magic –- is, like magic, no coincidence. Relying on our schemas, we make assumptions about the magician and her willingness to follow what we might consider to be the “unwritten Fra Diavolo image from NYPL Galleryrules” of magic. Audiences at a magic show

expect the magician to perform his magic in front of them, in full view, while misdirecting away from those certain actions that constitute the trick-to-the-trick. The audience probably doesn’t realize they are making those assumptions, because they have no reason to believe their assumptions are being broken. But very often a magic trick works because the magician has broken the unwritten rules of theatrical performing.

For psychics or “mentalists,” the unwritten rules include the following: first, the assumption “that the man on stage alone is performing the magic”; second, “that all the magic is done in ‘real time’ as the performance is happening”; and, third, “that the magic is done on stage.” The mentalist’s trick is often in breaking those rules – for example, having assistants eavesdrop on conversations in the audience; collecting juicy morsels of information prior to the time the show begins (and sometimes days before); relaying surreptitiously gathered information from off-stage. Doing unglamorous, tedious detective work prior to the show is often exactly the way that the trick is done.

In the end, magic succeeds when the audience believes what the magician wants them to believe: the idea that “[their] act is so awe-inspiring and mystical and magical that how in the world could that amazing magic be due to such lowly subterfuges as microphones and assistants transmitting information?”

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The July issue of Harper‘s includes a remarkable article by Alex Stone, “The Magic Olympics.” Stone’s first-hand account of The World Championships of Magic is stunning, but I want to focus on just a few of his paragraphs that describe a particular illusion (similar to an illusion that we published in a post two weeks ago and re-publish in this post) and that further illustrates the message in the passage above.

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[W]e’re entertained . . . by a . . . hair-raisng sawed-in-half effect. I’v seen hundreds of bisections, but nothing like this. Dressed as a doctor, he chainsaws his patient in half, and then an attractive nurse wheels the torso around on an ersatz gurney, waving her arms hrough the void where his legs ought to be. No box. No curtains. No mirrors. Nothing. What the hell?

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Take a look at the brief Youtube video below.

Social psychology and related fields have demonstrated repeatedly that what we are prepared to see strongly constrains what we can and do see. Those constraints on our thinking leave us vulnerable to manipulation and victims of many illusions in including, as the following excerpt from Stone’s article suggests, the illusion of an illusion

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I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. After a week of biblical astonishments, I feel hardened. Nothing can faze me. But as I file through business class, I see something for which I am wholly unprepared. In the first row sits the illustionist of last night’s sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in th aisle seat, is a slender dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing. I can’t help but stare, and for a moment I wonder if anyone can hear my mind snap.

Magicians will go to great lengths in pursuit of the ultimate illusion, concealing silk inside a thumb tip, or doves in a coat, or any number of small objects within the delicate folds of a well-hemmed topit. But concealing an entire man–or rather, half a man–and flying him across the glove in service of a five-minute routine is something else entirely, something far stranger, something brilliant, yes, but also sad. Did the half-man, kept hidden in a hotel room, see nothing of Stockholm? What sort of non-disclosure agreement had he signed? Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?

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Assuming that Stone’s revelation helps to explain the same trick that is captured in the video above (and it may not), how does your reaction compare to Stone’s? Please comment.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Rubber Hand Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2008

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For related Situationist posts, see “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and “A Closer Look at the Interior Situation.”

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Arthur Shapiro’s Situationist Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2008

Arthur Shapiro has posted another of his remarkable illusions this week on his outstanding blog, Illusion Sciences.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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This illusion has special significance to us because, it is a “situationist illusion.” As Professor Shapiro explains:

One of my favorite places on the web is The Situationist, a blog that explores how the “situation” (or context) affects interpretation. The site has numerous examples of how objects, people, and events in one context are interpreted differently from the same objects, people, and events placed in another context.

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The visual display above presents an example of the effects of the visual “situation.” In one situation (vertical orientation for the disks), the viewer interprets the disks with reference to the background context (i.e., the two curtains). One disk looks like a shadow on the curtain, and the other looks like a spotlight. The disks are therefore interpreted as a dark spot and a lighter spot on the curtains. In another situation (horizontal orientation), the viewer is able to separate the disks from the context of the curtains and therefore will identify the disks as having the same shading.

To learn why the disks look different or similar to one another depending on whether they are oriented vertically or horizontally, or to look at more of Professor Shapiro’s award-winning illusions, click here.

Posted in Blogroll, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Slight of Head

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2008

Posted in Illusions, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ten Optical Illusions – and an Ad

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2008

Posted in Deep Capture, Illusions, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kevin James Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 13, 2008

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