The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

The Criminals that Other Criminals Punish

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 16, 2011

This week, inmates in Sao Paulo broke into a cell block where prisoners convicted of rape and pedophilia were held and killed six people, including a man, Jose Agostinho Pereira, convicted of imprisoning his daughter for twelve years and having seven children with her, two of whom he also sexually abused.  Using makeshift knives, the attacking inmates, decapitated Pereira and three of the other prisoners.

Extreme overcrowding in the prison seemed to be one cause of the violence – a number of inmates, unhappy with their poor conditions, attempted to escape, which precipitated a riot.  However, the level of brutality and the focus of the harm seem to tell another story.  Indeed, it’s important to note that the men who were killed had been kept apart from the general population for their protection, a practice which is common at many prisons both abroad and in the United States.

Once imprisoned, child sex offenders become prime targets for violence by other inmates and it’s interesting to think about how much of that abuse might be retributive in nature.

Do prisoners who decapitate child molesters feel they are delivering “justice”?  And, if so, on behalf of whom do they believe they are acting?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently working on a set of experiments with Penn cognitive psychologist Geoff Goodwin regarding intuitions about punishment and one of the recurring themes in our research (and that of others interested in retribution) is that people’s motives to punish often do not align with what legal scholars assume them to be and that there is still much left to uncover in the study of “responsive harm.”  For better or for worse, that additional research may lead us to some troubling truths.

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Related Situationist Posts:


Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Legal Theory, Morality | 1 Comment »

Law, Competition, Self-Interest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about a chapter by Mitchell Callan and Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay. In the first post on the topic (copied below), 1L student Becky Ding summarizes the chapter (forthcoming in Ideology, Psychology, and Law, edited by Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson).

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In Association between Law, Competitiveness, and the pursuit of self-interest, Mitchell Callan and Aaron Kay discuss how law and the way our legal system functions affect and shape our thinking and interpersonal relations. In particular, it fosters the assumption that people are self-interested, competitive and untrustworthy. Callan and Kay supports their theory through theories and research results from various social cognition studies.

Callan and Kay argue that one reason people associate the law with competition and the pursuit of self-interest is “legal socialization”, the acquisition of attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of the legal system and law. The overarching philosophy of our Anglo-American legal system is that truth is more likely to be exposed from confrontation, competition and each party zealously pursuing their own interests. The “you against me” and “winner takes all” mindset is a common assumption among parties involved in litigation. Aside from contact with legal authorities, process of cognitive and moral development, and instruction from friends and the larger communities, one of the primary means people come to associate the law with self-interest and competition is through the major presence of law in the media. Cultivation theory says that the repetition of images and messages “cultivates” perceptions of social reality. Frequent media portrayals of the legal system encourage “the belief that litigation is a normative means of resolving disputes.”

In addition, Callan and Kay argue that the mere existence of the aspects of our legal system (the police, system of courts, the legal profession, institution for incarceration, the enormous number of laws, etc) appear to support the assumption that people are inherently self-seeking and need to be deterred from doing bad things. As a result, people may be less able to trust one another. Surveillance and sanctioning of social behavior could have counterproductive effects.

In two initial studies, Callan and Kay find that people generally do hold implicit cognitive association between the law and competitiveness. In one study, participants who are subliminally primed with words related to the law complete more word fragments with competition words than participants primed with neutral words. Another study using the Implicit Association Test also supports this finding.

In their third study, they find that people who are subliminally primed with words related to law and are more likely to interpret the actors in an ambiguous situation as more competitive and less trustworthy. In their fourth study, Callan and Kay find that people, upon thinking about the law and the legal system, may become more against a political issue that conflicts with their self-interest. In their final study, Callan and Kay find evidence that priming the law also produces more competitive behavior. The participants who are primed with words related to law act more competitively in a prisoner’s dilemma game, even though competition is irrational and unproductive.

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Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Ideology, Law, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Divided Loyalties Symposium

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 10, 2011

Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson will give the keynote at an interdisciplinary symposium:“Divided Loyalties: Professional Standards and Military Duty Hanson’s talk is titled “Shock Therapy: Changing Unethical Behavior by Understanding its Sources.”

The symposium is being held at Case Western University Law School, and is funded in part by the Arthur W. Fiske Memorial Lectureship Fund. It it co-sponsored by: Center for Professional Ethics, Frederick K. Cox International Law Center, Institute for Global Security Law & Policy, Law-Medicine Center, and Center for Social Justice.

The symposium website summarizes the focus of the conference this way:

There has always been some tension between the ethical, legal, and professional obligations of professionals and the requirements of military service. This tension has been increased by the War on Terror. Physicians, mental health professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement/corrections officers serving in the military have been placed in situations in which their professional ethics, obligations, and legal duties may contradict military necessity or directives, or even place the role of professional in direct conflict with the role of military personnel.

As the management of armed conflict, the law of war, and the professionalization of the military has increased, this tension has similarly increased. Military professionals have been asked to bring their expertise, skills, and professional talents to the prosecution of military action not just as military personnel but as doctors, mental health professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement/corrections officers. Doctors and mental health professionals are charged with supervising and controlling interrogations, lawyers are asked to provide legal opinions and advise on the treatment of prisoners, and law enforcement and corrections officers must guard and control prisoners. While performing these duties military necessity can impose conflicting duties and concerns. The need for information, validation, or security may require different loyalties and focus than the professional duty. The need for information about an upcoming attack that could save the lives of comrades may directly contradict the need for care or treatment of a prisoner.

This symposium brings together professionals, ethicists, theorists and practitioners from medicine, mental health care, the law, law enforcement, and the military to explore these complicated and timely issues in an open and frank discussion.

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You can find more details about the symposium, the participants, and the agenda here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, Events, Ideology, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Tiger Mother

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about about system justification theory.  Here is one of those posts, written by first -year student Marty Ehlenbach.

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become a seemingly endless source of fodder for Internet blogs and discussion groups. The book, largely meant to be a memoir, recounts the author’s methods of raising her two daughters; she allowed them limited time for playdates or TV, and describes grueling methods for both study and music practice. When a short excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper fielded an enormous number of comments (7670 at this writing) expressing a wide variety of opinions on the topic. Even The Onion has weighed in on the subject.

Why does this book seem to resonate with so many people? One possible explanation is that it makes a distinction between a “Western” and “Chinese” parent in a time when many people seem to be particularly sensitive to any sort of cultural comparison. Chua’s stereotypical model of “Western” parenting describes a childhood lacking in any discipline and in some ways signifying a lack of commitment by parents to make their children into the most successful people possible. A New York Times article underscored the idea that there are many different types of skills needed to be a success, and believes that Professor Chua’s parenting style does not appropriately develop “soft skills” like communication and teamwork necessary in most business environments.

Blasi and Jost’s chapter on System Justification Theory (“SJT”) can serve to illuminate certain biases present in the story and in reactions to Chua’s assertions. The author, as a Yale professor, is admittedly a fairly elite member of our society, so she is not looking at the system from a position of disadvantage. The story clearly prescribes a particular path to success and shows an ultimate belief in the “winner’s” mantra as described by Jost:

I am deserving. My group is deserving. And, fortunately, we live in a system that has the wisdom and justice to reward deserving people.

Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence,” but this idea necessarily presupposes that with excellence will come success. It doesn’t really address the differences in educational opportunities available to many children, but seems to have faith that the current system will treat people fairly by recognizing hard work. Losers in the system are clearly “lazy, unintelligent, poorly educated, or irresponsible” as described by Jost. Jost and Blasi recognize that system justification theory can be used to analyze ideologies like the Protestant work ethic and a belief in a meritocracy: Chua’s entire child-rearing method has aspects of both.

Another interesting connection between Jost’s theory and Chua’s book is the possibility that Chua could be providing ultimate justification for the type of upbringing that she experienced. The article on SJT shows that even on a micro-level, within a particular family, people still use methods of ego and system justification to perpetuate particular social arrangements. Chua herself was clearly raised by fairly strict Asian parents; she describes her father calling her “garbage” at one point when she was disrespectful. One wonders if this book is simply a way to legitimize her own upbringing and defend her willingness to create a similar type of relationship with her own daughters. Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she “decided to be an easy child to raise”: the fact that she called it a “decision” could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors. Many of those commenting on the articles who described themselves as being being raised by parents similar to the “Tiger Mother” also spoke about how much they appreciated their parents’ tough love.

Chua’s story has important implications, I believe, for our legal system as pertains to victims of abuse. I do not mean to suggest that Chua’s methods constitute abuse; her goal was clearly to help her children be successful, and as one article described, shows a fear that success is becoming difficult to obtain in a world of increasing competition and a less than robust job market. This is a legitimate worry. Furthermore, I cannot pretend to understand the complex relationship between another parent and child, because they are quite unique and often complicated. However, recognizing that this justification can satisfy “needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty” as described by Blasi and Jost, and analyzing one woman’s story through this lens, leads one to wonder how the legal system could account for a demonstrable bias towards the status quo. Before a real abuse victim can come forward, she or he must be able to recognize that she does not actually deserve the behavior to which she is being subjected, and SJT posits that this recognition is not automatic. Furthermore, we don’t want to believe that our system is corrupt, but in many cases it is not the most hardworking who become successful, and frequently injustice is neither obvious nor easily corrected.

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Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Book, Conflict, Education, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Paul Rosenberg Answers: Palin is a Naive Cynic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2011

Last week The Situationist asked this question: Was Sarah Palin exhibiting the naive cynicism dynamic in her remarks about the shooting in Tucson (see video)?

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Several readers responded thoughtfully in brief comments, but Paul Rosenberg provided an outstanding, painstakingly thorough response over at Open Left. We highly recommend his post.

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For some related Situationist posts, see:

You can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Sarah Palin a Naive Cynic?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson have written extensively about a dynamic they call “naive cynicism.”

Their work explores how dispositionism maintains its dominance despite the fact that it misses so much of what actually moves us. It argues that the answer lies in a subordinate dynamic and discourse, naive cynicism: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss situationist insights and their proponents. Without it, the dominant person schema – dispositionism – would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema – situationism – less easily and effectively attacked. Naive cynicism is thus critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day.

Naive cynicism often takes the form of a backlash against situationism that involves an affirmation of existing dispositionist notions and an assault on (1) the situationist attributions themselves; (2) the individuals, institutions, and groups from which the situationist attributions appear to emanate; and (3) the individuals whose conduct has been situationalized. If one were to boil down those factors to one simple naive-cynicism-promoting frame for minimizing situationist ideas, it would be something like this: Unreasonable outgroup members are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.

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Is Sarah Palin exhibiting that dynamic?  Below the video of her remarks you can read some excerpts from the transcript.

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It’s inexcusable and incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day.

There is a bittersweet irony that the strength of the American spirit shines brightest in times of tragedy. We saw that in Arizona. We saw the tenacity of those clinging to life, the compassion of those who kept the victims alive, and the heroism of those who overpowered a deranged gunman.

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President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

The last election was all about taking responsibility for our country’s future.

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Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions.  And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

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As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, “We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.” Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box – as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

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No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

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America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.

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You can review a list of related Situationist links in the following post: “The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?.”

In addition, here are few more:

Finally, you can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

The Power of Suggestion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

In the wake of the massacre in Tucson one of the debates has been over whether a toxic environment might have contributed to the assailant’s behavior.  Social psychology has demonstrated countless times the power of seemingly trivial situatonal forces to encourage hostility and violence.  One of the classics is a 1975 study of the effects of dehumanization.

Here is a 1999 summary of that study by Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo.

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My colleague, Albert Bandura, and his students contnued this line of research by extending the basic paradigm here to study the minimal conditions necessary to create dehumanization (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975). What they manipulated was only the actors’ perceptioin of their victims–no authority pressures, no induced anonymity. A group of college students expected to help train another group of students from a nearby college by collectively shocking them when they erred on the task.

Just as the study was about to begin, the participants overhead the assistant tell the experimenter one of three phrases–Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here.” Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem ‘nice.'” Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here, they seem like ‘animals.'” Mind you, they never saw those other students, or heard anything directly from them, it is only this label that they had to go on in imaging what they were like.

On trial one, the manipulation failed to have a differential effect on their aggression, and had the researchers ended the study there, we would conclude that dehumanizing labels have no behavioral impact, but as the study wore on, it had a major impact. The boys, who imagined their victims as “animals,” progressively elevated their shock levels over each trial after the first, significantly more than the neutral control. Humanizing labels helped to reduce the aggression significantly below the level of the neutral control.

When the participants were interviewed subsequently about why they behaved as they did, what the researchers found was that the experimental condition enabled them to become morally disengaged, to activate a set of psychological mechanisms that minimized the evil of their deeds, while justifying it in a variety of ways. So a one-word label can create a stereotype of the victim, of the enemy, that also lowers the height of that line between good and evil and enables more good people to cross over and become perpetrators.

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Work cited:  Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 253-269 (pdf here).

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, Education, Emotions, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2011

The unfolding news and debates about causes and consequences of yesterday’s tragic violence are raising many of the issues and themes common to this blog.  We hoped our readers would weigh in and share their thoughts and reactions to the events themselves and media discourse that has followed:  Bad Apple? Disposition? Context?  Situation? Spiraling conflict? Naive cynicism?

Below you’ll find some excerpts from today’s Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh programs.  What do you think?  Please comment.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics | 1 Comment »

Blood & Race

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2010

From the Harvard Gazette:

The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry.

So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Many commentators have argued that the election of Barack Obama, and the increasing number of mixed-race people more broadly, will lead to a fundamental change in American race relations,” says lead author Arnold K. Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard. “Our work challenges the interpretation of our first biracial president, and the growing number of mixed-race people in general, as signaling a color-blind America.”

In the United States, the “one-drop rule” — also known as hypodescent — dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport.

“One of the remarkable things about our research on hypodescent is what it tells us about the hierarchical nature of race relations in the United States,” says co-author James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force within American society.”

Ho and Sidanius, along with co-authors Mahzarin R. Banaji (Situationist Contributor) at Harvard and Daniel T. Levin at Vanderbilt University, say their work reflects the cultural entrenchment of America’s traditional racial hierarchy, which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom.

Ho and colleagues presented subjects with computer-generated images of black-white and Asian-white individuals, as well as family trees showing different biracial permutations. They also asked people to report directly whether they perceived biracials to be more minority or white. By using multiple approaches, their work examined both conscious and unconscious perceptions of biracial individuals, presenting the most extensive empirical evidence to date on how they are perceived.

The researchers found, for example, that one-quarter-Asian individuals are consistently considered more white than one-quarter-black individuals, despite the fact that African Americans and European Americans share a substantial degree of genetic heritage.

Using face-morphing technology that presented a series of faces ranging from 5 percent white to 95 percent white, they also found that individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white. Furthermore, on average, black-white biracials had to be 68 percent white before they were perceived as white; the comparable figure for Asian-white biracials was 63 percent.

“The United States is already a country of ethnic mixtures, but in the near future it will be even more so, and more so than any other country on earth,” says Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. “When we see in our data that our own minds are limited in the perception of those who are the products of two different ethnic groups, we recognize how far we have to go in order to have an objectively accurate and fair assessment of people. That’s the challenge for modern minds.”

The team found few differences in how whites and non-whites perceive biracial individuals, with both assigning them with equal frequency to lower-status groups. The researchers are conducting further studies to examine why Americans continue to associate biracials more with their minority parent group.

“The persistence of hypodescent serves to reinforce racial boundaries, rather than moving us toward a race-neutral society,” Ho says.

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Arnold Ho is one of the confirmed presenters at the 2011 PLMS conference on “The Psychology of Inequality.”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Fifth Annual PLMS Conference – Save the Date,” “Jim Sidanius ‘Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law’,” “The Palliative Function of Ideology,” The Blame Frame – Abstract,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” The Situation of Political and Religious Beliefs?,” Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,” Colorblinded Wages – Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Speaking Truth to the Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2010

This week’s This American Life was titled “Last Man Standing,” which included three outstanding “stories about people who feel compelled to keep going, especially when everyone else has given up,” including:

  • a story about the only Juror on the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who believed he was innocent of trying to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat;
  • the story of Duke Fightmaster, who refused to give up his simple dream: to replace Conan O’Brien; and
  • a story about God and extraterrestrials.

It’s a terrific show, which you can listen to for free here.

Also this week at Harvard, an event at the Carr Center featured “four stories of dissent.”  A story about the event is posted below.

Lecture-goers were so intrigued last night (Dec. 2) by “The Razor’s Edge” that they stayed beyond the allotted time to try to get all their questions in. The talk, by four people who risked their careers and even their lives to stand up for principles they believed in, was sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and was the final event of a daylong conference on principled dissent.

First to speak was Col. Ann Wright, who resigned on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stating that without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, the war would be in violation of international law. Wright, who had been in the Army for almost three decades and had then served around the world in the diplomatic corps, was one of only three U.S. government officials to resign in protest to the Iraq war. “You never know when your conscience is going to get you,” she said.

Bakyt Beshimov had a very different story, having opposed the ruling body as leader of the Social Democratic Political Fraction in his native Kyrgyzstan. Beshimov’s liberal views and criticism toward two administrations led to detainment, interrogation, and ultimately to assassination attempts. “It was my dream to make my country better,” said the historian, later recalling the Oscar Wilde quote that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Beshimov, who sought asylum in the United States, is a Scholar at Risk at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “Last year I fled my country after the second attempt on my life,” he said. “Before me was just two ways: Stay and be killed, or leave.”

Darrel Vandeveld is a former military advocate who for a time prosecuted Guantanamo detainees. “My frame of mind was I wanted to secure as many convictions as possible,” he said, and make sure that the guilty received the maximum sentences, including the death penalty. “I was outraged, I was angry, I wanted revenge.” After seeing rampant abuses of the system, Vandeveld said, he resigned as a prosecutor and was “vilified” by the Army. He is now a defense attorney, standing up “for the rights of the poor and those unable to defend themselves.”

The final speaker was Carne Ross, who worked for the British Foreign Office, including serving as the U.K. delegation’s expert on the Middle East at the U.N. Security Council. He said he had a reputation as a “vicious Rottweiler” in defending his country’s policies until testifying in the British government’s Butler Review of 2004 that the U.S. and U.K. knew Iraq posed no threat to its neighbors and did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

“I couldn’t believe my government was doing this,” Ross said. He drafted letters of resignation but never sent them because “I was afraid. Afraid that if I held my hand up and said this isn’t right, somehow I would be crushed.” His fears were justified, it turned out, when another whistleblower, his friend and colleague David Kelly, was questioned aggressively regarding his decision to go to the press with what he knew, and later committed suicide.

“I realized that the government and the public in Britain were inoculated against the next person who put his hand up,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t be destroyed, because they had already destroyed David.”

He resigned, sending his evidence of government lies to the Foreign Office. “It took a long time to reconstruct a professional career for myself,” he said.

He ultimately founded an advisory group called Independent Diplomat, though he said he felt that he “did as much bad as I did good,” and warned against thinking of whistleblowers as heroes rather than human beings often at the mercy of “chance and circumstance.”

Much of the question-and-answer period focused on recent news regarding the website WikiLeaks and rape allegations made against its founder, Julian Assange. The panel was divided over whether the site was justified in releasing thousands of secret government documents, leaning toward the side of government by citing the need for secrecy in many cases and comparing WikiLeaks’ actions unfavorably with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ultimately, however, “the crucible of experience is the best teacher for making these kinds of decisions,” said Vandeveld.

Wright agreed. “Always second-guess,” she said. “Always be suspicious. Most of the time you kind of know right from wrong. It’s in your stomach. It’s in your headaches. Don’t dismiss those.”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Devil You Know . . . ,” and “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Life, Morality | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Perceived Intentionality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 23, 2010

There are many potential situational factors that can contribute to the fundamental attribution error and the sinister attribution error.  Recent research shows that intoxication is among them.  Why?  Because, much like dispositionist default, people tend automatically to see intention behind others’ behavior and must exert cognitive effort to consider other possibilities.  Such an effort is more difficult (and thus less likely) for a mind impaired by intoxication.  Here’s the abstract for the recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin summarizing that research.

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The intentionality bias is the tendency for people to view the behavior of others as intentional. This study tests the hypothesis that alcohol magnifies the intentionality bias by disrupting effortful cognitive abilities. Using a 2 × 2 balanced placebo design in a natural field experiment disguised as a food-tasting session, participants received either a high dose of alcohol (target BAC = .10%) or no alcohol, with half of each group believing they had or had not consumed alcohol. Participants then read a series of sentences describing simple actions (e.g., “She cut him off in traffic”) and indicated whether the actions were done intentionally or accidentally. As expected, intoxicated people interpreted more acts as intentional than did sober people. This finding helps explain why alcohol increases aggression. For example, intoxicated people may interpret a harmless bump in a crowded bar as a provocation.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” and “The Sound Situation of Beer Drinkers.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Education | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Creating a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 15, 2010

In the wake of the worst economic crisis in the United States since the Great Depression, there has been a drive to reconfigure the regulatory state and renegotiate the relationship between Americans, business, and government.

In a new article, just posted on SSRN, I argue that the ultimate formulation of that relationship turns, to a significant degree, on our basic attributional tendencies, particularly where we look to assign causal responsibility when things go wrong.

Who or what engendered the shanty town that appeared in Sacramento, California in 2008?  Who blackened the pelican and closed the beach of Pensacola?  What lies behind the rise in diabetes in elementary school students?

The answers that we give drive our remedial responses and our prophylactic measures—and in doing so, define the interactions between our regulatory institutions, business entities, and members of the public.

If you believe that business causes—or, at least, significantly contributes to—a lot of these types of harms in society, then you are likely to want a government that gets tough and restrains corporations to protect the public.  If you think that business is largely blameless, then you are likely to be in favor of free markets with little or no regulation.

The Article begins by summarizing evidence from the mind sciences concerning our basic attributional framework, before investigating its value to business as a ready means to (1) manipulate our environments to encourage profitable consumer behavior and (2) avoid regulation and liability.

As a case study of the ways in which corporations play on our basic attributional proclivities to manage negative outcomes, the Article focuses on the intense – and often nasty — recent battle over the creation of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Download a free copy of the article here!

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For a sample of related Situationist posts see “Attributional Divide – Top 10,” Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “The Great Attributional Divide – Abstract,” “The Situation of ‘Common Sense’,” The Situation of Political Animals,” and Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Ideology, Legal Theory, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors | 2 Comments »

Susan Fiske Discusses her Work on Different Types of Prejudices

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2010

Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske discusses her research on stereotypes and prejudice and the systematic principles that influence how groups are treated in society.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Objectification,” Women’s Situational Bind,” Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” and “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Precision-Targeted Ads

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 21, 2010

Robert Wright posted an interesting commentary on the New York Times Opinionator last night in which he argued that the arrival of HTML 5, which “will allow sites you visit to know your physical location and will make it easier for them to keep track of your browsing and shopping history,” may be “the salvation of journalism.”

As he explains, “The willingness of advertisers to spend the money that sustains journalists has always depended on having information about the reader.”  And modern technology, with its ability to track individual consumer behavior, has made it possible to tailor and target ads towards specific individuals.  In Wright’s words,

What if God [or Google or Yahoo], knowing exactly who every Slate reader is, and what kinds of products and services he’s after, shared that information with advertisers?  And what if advertisers, rather than buy ads for a particular section of Slate, served ads to the subset of Slate readers — and Salon readers and New York Times readers — who meet criteria like “single guy making more than $100,000 a year who is attracted to S.U.V.’s but is eco-conscious.”

For Wright, the answer is that online journalists would suddenly be flush with cash – and, thus, he finds it ironic that some journalists are concerned about the privacy implications.

Personally, I’m deeply skeptical of Wright’s argument, aside from the privacy implications, because I think that he ignores the core mission of journalists to educate, to broaden our horizons, and to provide us with not just what we want to hear, but with what we need to hear.  As I argued in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun last year, consumer tracking and targeted advertizing technology is dangerous because it has a tendency to create and reinforce insular communities.  The article is reprinted below . . .

Segregating Markets — And People

What do people interested in recent conservative attacks on federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor buy? Portable pet carriers, moisturizing liquid hand soap, and flat screen televisions. The fact that I know this is not something I find comforting.

Let me explain. After I wrote a recent op-ed, a friend drew my attention to something at the bottom of the online version of the article. I have grown used to advertisements with my news and links to “most read articles,” but this seemed to raise the stakes. Alongside the helpful recommendation of other articles the newspaper imagined the reader might like based on her decision to read an op-ed on Supreme Court nominations was a list of “paired” products that other readers of the piece had purportedly purchased.

The list ought to be reassuring, I suppose: I would hate to think that readers were only purchasing catamarans and caviar. Still, I am not sure that this is an encouraging development.

True, the various technologies that make product linkage possible are not particularly mysterious or menacing. In a typical scenario, when you visit a Web site, a tracking “cookie” may be placed on your computer. These cookies store data about the places you have visited on the Internet. By collecting such information for millions of people, advertisers know what individuals with an identical browsing history subsequently looked at and can direct you to the same page.

I wonder if it is good to assist individuals in this way – and, more specifically, for newspapers to be involved in this process.

Desire can be manufactured. Hummers can be sold to Manhattan housewives. Water that is by all measures inferior to that flowing out of the tap for free can be bottled and priced at $4 a pop.

Maybe readers of my op-ed do not really need or want a new flat screen TV, but what is the problem with a newspaper encouraging them to buy one? The paper makes a little revenue; Sam’s Club sells a TV; and the reader gets a fun status symbol.

The answer is that although “funneling” might be fairly harmless when it comes to being guided to other albums while shopping for a CD, the same may not be true on the broader scale. What does it mean for society when individuals who read the same articles are, as a result, encouraged to go to the same movies, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, vacation in the same resorts and eat in the same restaurants?

Creating and reinforcing insular communities is likely to hurt us in the long run. Humans may gravitate toward those most like them, but we should resist the impulse to help the process along.

If I am going to be swayed into buying a product or watching a show, I would like to think that, at least, everyone else is being moved in the same way. In a country still deeply divided along racial, religious, economic, and ideological lines, wouldn’t it be nice if the liberal, black teenager in L.A. was encouraged to read the same book as the conservative, white soccer mom in Nashville?

How will we ever close the gaps, if we are constantly steered to opposite sides of the lunch counter?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Us & Them Politics,” Without the Filter.” A Convenient Fiction,” and “The Situation of Swift-Boating.”

Posted in Conflict, Deep Capture, Education, Ideology, Politics, Situationist Contributors | 1 Comment »

Jim Sidanius “Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law.”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2010

In his fascinating presentation at Harvard Law School on September 12, 2010, Professor Sidanius discussed ways in which the legal system has been, and continues to be, used as a means to effectuate intergroup violence, particularly through the criminal justice system.  Here is a video of that that talk [Duration: 54:10].

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Professor Sidanius, a Harvard University professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies, focuses his research on the political psychology of gender, group conflict, and institutional discrimination, as well as the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice. He runs the Sidanius Lab in Intergroup Relations, which conducts research regarding intergroup relations, social inequality, hierarchy, stereotyping, ideology, and prejudice.

You can review previous Situationist posts discussing Jim Sidanius’s work here.

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Robert Reich on the Unequal Situation of the Great Recession

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2010

From Youtube:

Robert Reich on the ideas in his new book, “Aftershock.” The economic recession we are in is a structural problem rooted in an economy where wealth is as unequal as any time since in the great depression. That inequality leaves us susceptible to political extremism unless we fix it.

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In the following videos, Robert Reich discusses his book at length at Strand Bookstore.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Even monkeys know when they’re being treated unfairly,” “Robert Reich on the Situation of Health Care Reform,” Monkey Fairness,” “A Discussion about (In)Equality,” “The Interior Situational Reaction to Inequality,” “The Situation of Money and Happiness,” “Nicole Stephens on ‘Choice, Social Class, and Agency’,” “The Situation of Mortgage Defaults,” “Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist,” “Warren on the Situation of Credit,” The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” and “Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Distribution, Politics, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Jim Sidanius Returns to Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2010

On Monday, September 12th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Professor Jim Sidanius entitled “Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law.”

Professor Sidanius, a Harvard University professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies, focuses his research on the political psychology of gender, group conflict, and institutional discrimination, as well as the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.  He runs the Sidanius Lab in Intergroup Relations, which conducts research regarding intergroup relations, social inequality, hierarchy, stereotyping, ideology, and prejudice.

Professor Sidanius will be speaking about ways in which the legal system has been, and continues to be, used as a means to effectuate intergroup violence, particularly through the criminal justice system.

Professor Sidanius will be speaking in Pound 100 from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.. Free burritos will be provided!

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For more information, e-mail

For a sample of previous Situationist posts discussing Professor Sidanius’s remarkable scholarship, see “Jim Sidanius, ‘Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence, and The Law’,” and “The Project’s Second Conference – ‘Ideology, Psychology & Law’.

Posted in Conflict, Deep Capture, Distribution, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Forgiveness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 31, 2010

Ryan Fehr, Michele Gelfand, and Monisha Nag, recently posted their paper, “The Road to Forgiveness: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of its Situational and Dispositional Correlates” on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Forgiveness has received widespread attention among psychologists from social, personality, clinical, developmental and organizational perspectives alike. Despite great progress, the forgiveness literature has witnessed few attempts at empirical integration. Toward this end, we meta-analyze results from 175 studies and 26,006 participants to examine the correlates of interpersonal forgiveness (i.e. forgiveness of a single offender by a single victim). A tripartite forgiveness typology is proposed, encompassing victims’ cognitions, affect, and constraints following offense. Hypotheses are tested with respect to 22 unique constructs that have been measured across different fields within psychology. We also evaluated key sample and study characteristics including gender, age, time, and methodology as main effects and moderators. Results highlight the multifaceted nature of forgiveness. Variables with particularly notable effects include intent (r̅ = -.49), state empathy (r̅ = .51), apology (r̅ = .42), and state anger (r̅ = -.41). Consistent with previous theory, situational constructs are shown to account for greater variance in forgiveness than victim dispositions, although within-category differences are considerable. Sample and study characteristics yielded negligible effects on forgiveness, despite previous theorizing to the contrary: the effect of gender was non-significant, r̅ = .01 and the effect of age was negligible, r̅ = .06. Preliminary evidence suggests that methodology may exhibit some moderating effects. Scenario methodologies led to enhanced effects for cognitions; recall methodologies led to enhanced effects for affect.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” and The Situation of Revenge,”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Tolerating Hostility in the Workplace

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 1, 2010

From EurekaAlert:

She never gets invited to lunch with the rest of her co-workers. He always gets publicly criticized for his mistakes.

But according to research by Kansas State University psychologists, neither of these workers is likely to leave the job.

Meridith Selden, a K-State doctoral graduate in psychology, and her adviser, Ron Downey, K-State professor of psychology, studied workplace hostility. They found that among workers reporting hostility in the current position, almost half — 45 percent of them — had no definite plans to leave their current job. In addition, 59 percent indicated that they either liked or did not dislike their current job.

And this research took place well before the economic downturn.

“They might like the job, just not certain elements of it,” Downey said. “That really surprised us, that people weren’t ready to jump ship. We talk about the new workplace where people don’t stay at the same job forever, but getting a job is difficult and people don’t like to do it.”

Selden and Downey presented the research in April at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference in New Orleans.

The researchers had gathered the data through online surveys that participants found through a Web site, Web searcher or word of mouth.

“Companies don’t want to talk about workplace hostility,” Downey said. “This is a common methodology when they don’t want to let researchers in.”

He and Selden asked workers about non-physical hostile behaviors that they experienced in the workplace. That included hostile behaviors that were both exclusionary and interfering. For example, exclusionary hostility is being reprimanded in front of others, having your contributions ignored or being excluded from activities like coffee breaks. Interfering hostility prohibits you from doing your job, such as being gossiped about or having your equipment sabotaged.

“Exclusion issues are the ones that bother people considerably,” Downey said. “It’s like if everyone goes to lunch routinely but doesn’t invite you.”

The researchers found that workers feel equally harmed by this hostility whether it comes from co-workers or supervisors.

“You would think that hostility from the supervisor would cause more worry, but it didn’t here,” Downey said. “Many people still thought that their supervisor was helpful and were no less satisfied with the supervisor.”

Downey, whose other research has centered on workplace stress, said that the ramifications of hostile behaviors could be experienced later, even if workers remain positive for the time being.

“These kinds of behaviors just arouse stress for people at work,” he said. “If you’re talking about stress and get feelings of being upset while at the job, that leads to burnout. That’s when you leave the job.”

Downey said that many employers have specialized staff — whether in the company or on contract — who can mediate in these situations.

“By the time it gets to them, it has probably gotten way out of control,” he said.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Women’s Situational Bind,” “Brenda Cossman on the Situation of Women in the Workplace,” and “The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract.”

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Conflict, Life | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Attributional Divide – Top 10

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 30, 2010

Situationist contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson’s article “The Great Attributional Divide: How Divergent Views of Human Behavior are Shaping Legal Policy,” (57 Emory Law Review, 2008) recently made the SSRN all-time top-ten list for or Journal of Law & Society: Private Law – Discrimination Law eJournal. Here’s the abstract.

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This article, the first of a multipart series, argues that a major rift runs across many of our major policy debates based on our attributional tendencies: the less accurate dispositionist approach, which explains outcomes and behavior with reference to people’s dispositions (i.e., personalities, preferences, and the like), and the more accurate situationist approach, which bases attributions of causation and responsibility on unseen influences within us and around us. Given that situationism offers a truer picture of our world than the alternative, and given that attributional tendencies are largely the result of elements in our situations, identifying the relevant elements should be a major priority of legal scholars. With such information, legal academics could predict which individuals, institutions, and societies are most likely to produce situationist ideas – in other words, which have the greatest potential for developing the accurate attributions of human behavior that are so important to law.

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To download the article for free, click here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “The Great Attributional Divide – Abstract,” “The Situation of ‘Common Sense’,” The Situation of Political Animals,” “Do NOT Read This Post!,” Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,”Your Brain on Politics.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Ideology, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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