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The Situation of Cultivating Conscience

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 6, 2012

At the end of last year, I was asked if I might be interested in reviewing UCLA Law professor Lynn Stout’s new book Cultivating Conscience as part of a “book club” on PrawfsBlawg.  The fun and excitement went down on Monday and Tuesday, and I suspect both the book and the commentary may be of interest to Situationist readers.

The other participants are a mix of law professors, psychologists, economists, and law professor-psychologist-economist hybrids: Chad Flanders, Brett McDonnell, Matt Bodie, Thomas Ulen, and Molly Walker Wilson.

Here’s a summary of the book:

Contemporary law and public policy often treat human beings as selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards. Yet every day we behave unselfishly–few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard, and many of us go out of our way to help strangers. We nevertheless overlook our own good behavior and fixate on the bad things people do and how we can stop them. In this pathbreaking book, acclaimed law and economics scholar Lynn Stout argues that this focus neglects the crucial role our better impulses could play in society. Rather than lean on the power of greed to shape laws and human behavior, Stout contends that we should rely on the force of conscience.


Stout makes the compelling case that conscience is neither a rare nor quirky phenomenon, but a vital force woven into our daily lives. Drawing from social psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology, Stout demonstrates how social cues–instructions from authorities, ideas about others’ selfishness and unselfishness, and beliefs about benefits to others–have a powerful role in triggering unselfish behavior. Stout illustrates how our legal system can use these social cues to craft better laws that encourage more unselfish, ethical behavior in many realms, including politics and business. Stout also shows how our current emphasis on self-interest and incentives may have contributed to the catastrophic political missteps and financial scandals of recent memory by encouraging corrupt and selfish actions, and undermining society’s collective moral compass.


This book proves that if we care about effective laws and civilized society, the powers of conscience are simply too important for us to ignore.

Sound interesting?  My review of the book is here.  Other reviews (along with Lynn’s responses) are here.


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20% off for Situationist Readers

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 31, 2012

Ideology, Psychology, and Law (the Situationist book edited by Jon Hanson and published by Oxford University Press) is now available.  Use the promotional code (30552) from the following flyer to save 20%.  Click here (or on the image below) to go to the book’s website for more information.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Ideology, Psychology, and Law – Available Now!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2012

Edited by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson, Ideology, Psychology, and Law examines the sometimes unsettling interactions between psychology, ideology, and law and elucidates the forces, beyond and beneath the logic, that animate the law.

Here is some of the glowing praise for the volume from, among others, several Situationist Contributors:

“Ideology, Psychology, and Law is a revolution in the making. Encyclopedic in its breadth, this volume captures a moment – like the early heady days of the law and economics movement – when bold, new inquiries are suddenly possible.  For those who still cling to the centrality of preferences and incentives, thisbook will be usefully threatening.”

~ Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor, Yale Law School, and author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done

“This volume is the first of its kind, employing the latest mind science research to illuminate the motivated and unconscious inspirations for ideology, law, and policy. The superbly edited and timely volume is a highly accessible, interdisciplinary collection, bringing together the perspectives and insights of many of the world’s most thoughtful and influential social psychologists, political scientists, and legal scholars. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand the psychological winds buffeting our institutions of collective governance.”

~ Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

“With this collection, Jon Hanson and the contributors to this volume have gone a long way towards breaking the iron grip that Law and Economics have held on serious legal policy analysis. By incorporating insights from psychology and other behavioral and mind sciences, this volume maps animportant and inspiring interdisciplinarity that will guide path breaking work in the future.”

~ Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier, co-authors of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy

“This volume shows what ideology is and does. The chapters written by psychologists demonstrate that there is little about the mind’s work that can be called ‘neutral.’ The legal scholars who contribute to this volume push forward to ask how the law must itself bend toward justice, if such is the case. This compendium contains facts and ideas that, if heeded, may bring the law closer to the aspiration that everybody be equal before the law.”

~ Mahzarin R. Banaji, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

“Insightful, comprehensive, boundary-spanning. Hanson pulls together research and ideas from multiple disciplines to create a new way of looking at the most important legal questions of our time.”

~ Sheena S. Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing

Purchase information here.

Posted in Book, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Robert Sampson on the Situational Effects of Neighborhoods

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2011


Karen Sternheimer (USC) conducts an interview with Robert Sampson (Harvard) about neighborhood effects and his latest book, GREAT AMERICAN CITY (Chicago 2011).

From University of Chicago Press:

For over fifty years numerous public intellectuals and social theorists have insisted that community is dead. Some would have us believe that we act solely as individuals choosing our own fates regardless of our surroundings, while other theories place us at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. These two perspectives dominate contemporary views of society, but by rejecting the importance of place they are both deeply flawed. Based on one of the most ambitious studies in the history of social science, Great American City argues that communities still matter because life is decisively shaped by where you live.

To demonstrate the powerfully enduring impact of place, Robert J. Sampson presents here the fruits of over a decade’s research in Chicago combined with his own unique personal observations about life in the city, from Cabrini Green to Trump Tower and Millennium Park to the Robert Taylor Homes. He discovers that neighborhoods influence a remarkably wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, health, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, leadership networks, and immigration. Even national crises cannot halt the impact of place, Sampson finds, as he analyzes the consequences of the Great Recession and its aftermath, bringing his magisterial study up to the fall of 2010.

Following in the influential tradition of the Chicago School of urban studies but updated for the twenty-first century, Great American City is at once a landmark research project, a commanding argument for a new theory of social life, and the story of an iconic city.

Related Situationist posts:

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Dan Kahneman on Fast and Slow Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 22, 2011

From :

@Google Talks is proud to welcome hero of psychology, Daniel Kahneman.

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.

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Psychic Numbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2011

Situationist Contributor, Paul Slovic and his co-authors (including Situationist friend, Andrew Woods) just posted their superb chapter, titled “Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity” (in  The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, E. Shafir, ed., Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2011) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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The 20th Century is often said to be the bloodiest century in recorded history. In addition to its wars, the century witnessed many grave and widespread human rights abuses. But what stands out in historical accounts of those abuses, perhaps even more than the cruelty of their perpetration, is the inaction of bystanders. Why do people and their governments repeatedly fail to react to genocide and other mass scale human rights violations?

A chapter in Eldar Shafir’s edited volume, The Behavioral Foundations of Policy, forthcoming from the Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press. Posted on SSRN in advance of publication with kind permission from Princeton University Press.

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Download the chapter for free.

Related Situationist posts:

For related scholarship, see Paul Slovic’s Book, The Construction of Preference.

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Allegations of Ideological Bias are Anti-Scientific

Posted by John Jost on September 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read full review here.

Related Situationist posts:

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Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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


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

Related Situationist posts:

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Do Doctors Lack Empathy?

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2011

Shortly after I finished Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, I spoke to one of my friends who had just had an extremely bad interaction with a doctor.  The friend had just received a frightening diagnosis and when she went to ask more questions, the doctor was blunt and emotionally-disengaged.  As I spoke to the friend, it occurred to me that, while there were some very important exceptions, I’d actually had a lot of similar experiences with doctors.  Might it be true that doctors have less empathy than other people?

Coincidentally, with the help of the gnomes of the World Wide Web, I found an interesting recent article by Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz in Scientific American, which describes two experiments by Jean Decety and his collaborators at the University of Chicago that shed a bit of light on the answer:

In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others.  The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response.

This finding raised a further question. Perceiving pain in others typically involves two steps. First people engage in the emotional sharing of pain with another person, and then they make a cognitive appraisal of the emotion. Do physicians automatically feel empathy for the pain of others, but then quickly suppress it? Or is the cognitive suppression of empathy even deeper; has it become more automatic? Is it possible that the physicians no longer even experience the first step of empathy for pain that regular people show on their brain scans?

The investigators repeated the same experiment but rather than looking for changes in brain blood-flow by using fMRI, they assessed the brain’s event-related potentials (ERP). Results showed that when viewing the painful needle sticking, the physicians did not even show the early empathy response. The physicians had apparently become so good at empathy suppression that there was no early response to worry about.

Why might these effects exist? It could be that, compared to other professions, the people that gravitate to healthcare tend to be less empathic. This seems unlikely. Furthermore, studies of physicians show that they are often the most empathic and caring towards the beginning of medical school, and that they become steadily less empathetic with more clinical training. The more likely culprits are therefore the nature of medical training and the intrinsic demands of the profession.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Book, Emotions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

The Science of Evil

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 27, 2011

Following up on my review of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, I just finished reading the other new offering in the world of “psychopath studies”: Simone Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.

Baron-Cohen’s central theory is that evil is critically tied to lack of empathy.  It’s a thought-provoking notion and I was very intrigued by the connections that he made between various “empathy deficient” conditions from psychopaths, to narcissists, to borderlines, to those on the autism spectrum.

At points, I think he gets so carried away considering the particular dispositions of his “zero negatives” (those, like psychopaths, whose lack of empathy brings about “unequivocally bad” results) and “zero positives” (those, like Asperger’s sufferers, whose lack of empathy is not inherently harmful) that he misses the power of our situations to inform “evil” behavior.  Indeed, at these moments Baron-Cohen would have done well to pan out and emphasize that many of us (even those of us testing high on the Empathy Quotient questionnaire in the book’s Appendix) can be influenced to be less empathetic, with disastrous results.

These criticisms aside, and despite not feeling totally convinced by his argument, it’s an interesting book and worth a read.  I found myself continuing to ponder Baron-Cohen’s insights long after I’d set the book back on shelf.

One of these musings, I’ll share in my next post . . .

Posted in Book, Morality | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychopath Test

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 18, 2011

It is late summer and the time of year when I get to catch up on books that have been piling up in my office.

One of these, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, had been on my radar since I read a positive review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times a couple months ago and knowing Ronson’s other work (including The Men Who Stare at Goats), I was eager to dive in.

Ronson has a talent for picking out quirky characters and fringe topics and knitting them together with sharp (and, frequently, cutting) prose.  In The Psychopath Test, he mingles with Scientologists, denizens of Broadmoor (an English psychiatric hospital once known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum), David Shayler (the former MI5 spy turned conspiracy theorist turned messiah), and numerous other intriguing individuals.  Although he describes himself as highly anxious, Ronson does not shy away from awkwardness in his interviews or skewering those with whom he disagrees.

This makes for entertaining reading, but I worry that it may lead to distortions and this is where my main issue with the book comes.  Ronson’s central goal seems to debunk (or at least) unsettle the psychiatric establishment.  He aims to show that the insiders of what he refers to as “the madness industry” are themselves mad and that fairly normal people end up being labeled and destroyed by a system riddled with problems.  But Ronson doesn’t use the tools of science to accomplish his task.  Indeed, his account is profoundly unscientific.

Rather than really engaging the research, Ronson relies on interviews with scientists, patients, and others—and it often seems that he uses these interviews to build support for his preset conclusions, rather than allowing his investigations to drive his theory, or lets his theory be driven by his personal reactions to the players involved (i.e., this guy is a jerk, therefore his research is rubbish).  Consider Ronson’s epiphany concerning “what a mutually passionate and sometimes dysfunctional bubble the relationship between therapist and client can be.”  The spark and proof for this statement is the fact that one psychiatrist, Gary Maier, who he interviewed “sounded mournful, defensive, and utterly convinced of himself” when arguing that psychopath patients who later reoffended after his treatment program was shut down did so because the dissolution of the program suggested to them that the therapy was ineffective.  Ronson may be right about the “sometimes dysfunctional bubble” but he hasn’t made his case at all.

Perhaps more worrisome is the haphazard way Ronson goes about wielding the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist noting whenever he comes across someone—an arrogant CEO, a reviewer who crossed him, etc.—who seems to show signs of one item or another.  Certainly that’s part of the point (that such checklists can be used haphazardly), but I often got the sense that Ronson genuinely believed, after having taken a three-day course, that he was now able to spot the psychopaths in our midst.  And overall I thought he gave short shrift to the training and experience that go into wielding the DSM.  A layperson flipping through the manual will immediately diagnose his spouse with 15 conditions; a trained psychologist will not.

So, my final verdict?  Check out one of Ronson’s other books instead — he’s a talented writer but this book left me feeling cold (which may or may not make me a psychopath).

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Sample of other Situationist book reviews:

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Barry Schwartz on the Choices that Matter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2011

Related Situationist posts:

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The Situation of the Vancouver Riot Kiss

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2011

From the Ottawa Citizen (article written by Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist at the University of Texas and author of The Science of Kissing):

The man and woman appear oblivious of the chaos swirling around them. When anarchy erupted on the streets of Vancouver last week, the couple exchanged an ephemeral kiss that will last forever on our cultural landscape. Photographer Richard Lam inadvertently captured the embrace on his camera, and the image quickly made headlines around the world. It’s a striking contrast of furious energy and tender pause that will be analyzed, criticized, and admired for decades to come. Scott Jones and Alex Thomas were the calm in the eye of a storm.

Many wonder whether the scene has been photo-shopped or staged. Who are these people and what would inspire such seemingly inappropriate behaviour under dire circumstances? Yet a glimpse at some of the science behind why we kiss suggests that the lip lock was, in reality, a very natural response to being involved in an unfamiliar, frightening situation as emotions ran high.

There’s no doubt that being caught up in a riot would lead to increased levels of adrenalin, which boosts our heart rate and makes us sweat. Adrenalin causes our blood vessels to dilate, quickens the pulse, flushes our cheeks, and can even make breathing irregular. This important chemical is involved in readying our bodies to anticipate what might occur next. A passionate kiss can cause the same response because it also boosts adrenalin. And during an extremely tense situation, it’s easy to understand why sensations can be confused, blurring perceptions of passion and anxiety.

In the flurry of interviews that followed the photograph’s publication, Jones told reporters that he kissed his girlfriend in order to calm her down after police knocked them to the ground. Surely this was a split-second decision, but the odds are good that this strategy worked thanks to the cocktail of chemicals coursing through our bodies that regulate the way we feel and behave.

A kiss can be soothing for myriad reasons, and has been documented to reduce levels of the “stress hormone” known as cortisol. When we experience stress, cortisol is responsible for raising blood sugar and blood pressure while suppressing the immune system. It is part of the body’s regulatory system that amps us up to perform well under pressure. The right kiss from someone we love lowers levels of this hormone, thereby reducing the uneasiness we feel. In other words, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, Jones’s kiss likely served its intended purpose.

Of course, cortisol and adrenalin do not act alone. They are just two soldiers in an army of chemicals that guide our actions. Kissing also raises levels of the “love hormone” oxyto-cin, which reaffirms the special bond we share with those who matter most to us. And it is not all about romance either. When parents intuitively press their lips to a child’s scraped knee and say “all better,” it can actually decrease the perception of pain and discomfort.

Our brains are also primed to associate kissing with feelings of love and security. A newborn’s earliest feeding experiences involve similar movements and mouth pressure, laying down the neural pathways in his brain that will be continue to be important in other relationships throughout his life. On top of that, our lips are packed with sensitive nerve endings, so even the slightest brush sends a cascade of information to our brains that often feels very good.

It should be no surprise that kissing acts like a drug by stimulating the natural chemicals in our bodies because it has inspired poets, musicians, and lovers over millennia. And no matter what particular mix of neurotransmitters, hormones -and perhaps, bit of magic -led to that moment in Vancouver, it serves as an indelible reminder of the single most universal and humanizing practice we all share: The kiss.


Here’s a video of Sheril Kirshenbaum discussing her book:

Related Situationist posts:

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Preference, Principle, & Casuistry

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2011

From our sister blog, Law & Mind, here is an excellent post by Harvard Law LL.M. candidate David Simon. Simon summarizes a fascinating chapter by Situationist Contributors Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto (forthcoming in “Ideology, Psychology, and Law” (Jon Hanson, ed., 2011).

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[T]he attribution of principle or its absence is more than an evaluative stance; it is also a lay-psychological hypothesis concerning the causes of another’s behavior.

Eric D. Knowles & Peter H. DittoPreference , Principle, & Casuistry

We often value people who act on their principles  more than those who act solely on their preferences. In other words, we value behavior that is justified by reasons rather than emotions. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. It’s ostensibly why people don’t like politicians who “flip-flop,” whether they be “liberal” or “conservative.” So, when people make decisions based on emotion, rather than reason, we think they are “biased” or “irrational.” (Knowles and Ditto call this the principle-preference dichotomy.) What’s strange, though, is that we often view our political opponents as emotional decision-makers, while we view people of our own political leanings as principled decision-makers.

The question Knowles & Ditto want to answer is, why?

They offer two reasons. First, they  argue that this results from the “actor-observer bias”: the tendency to see one’s own actions as based on beliefs and others’ as based on desire. Imagine, for example, Political Candidate is running for office. Her platform is to “make government smaller by cutting taxes and entitlement programs.” When Margo decides to support Political Candidate, Margo thinks she does so because of her beliefs about small government. Jim, on the other hand, views Margo’s behavior as merely reflecting her desires. Jim might say that Margo supported Political Candidate merely because she will receive more money in tax breaks while Margo might claim she dislikes lots of government regulation. The reason for the discrepancy, according to the authors, is one’s access to mental states: Margo has access to her own mental states (sort of), and Jim does not. Margo’s view of her own behavior is therefore privileged; Jim’s is epistemologically impoverished. As a result, she views her own choice as one of principle while Jim views it as one of desire.

Further reinforcing this view is individuals’ desire to see themselves and members of their group positively. As the authors note:

[T]he preference-principle dichotomy is powerfully reinforced by individuals’ desire to hold a positive view of themselves, as well as of others who share their attitudes and group memberships.

To achieve this end, people become “naive realists,” perceiving themselves as  “reasoned and free from bias.” In other words, individuals view their own attitudes as “reasoned,” “objective,” and, therefore, principled. That provides them with a much more flattering picture of themselves than one in which they make decisions based (solely) on preferences. Forget the somewhat false dichotomy for a moment and just ask yourself: Do you see yourself as someone who makes reasoned, as opposed to emotional, judgments? Do you see those who disagree with you differently?

There’s still a problem, though. Individuals often seem to be seeking self-interested goals while offering principled reasons. This

should, at least in principle (no pun intended), destroy the “objectiveness” people purport to adhere to when making decisions. Put another way, one must at least appear to be objective to gain credibility (with themselves or others). Preserving this appearance happens in two ways. First, we approach judgments “without an explicit sense that we are trying to construct a justification for one conclusion over another.” Instead, our “preferences” are part of cognitive structures: satisfying them produces greater coherence than not satisfying them. So, many times our interpretation of information produces preference-satisfying conclusions.

Second, our cognitive structures can lead us to preference-satisfaction in another, sometimes unconscious way: “‘shifting the standards’ by which a preferred conclusion is defined.” Because we do this somewhat intuitively and seemingly without pretense, Knowles & Ditto call it implicit casuistry.  By this they mean there are “circumstances in which individuals unwittingly select principles that happen to provide intellectual justification for preferred conclusions.” We are not good at being conscious reaonsers, always assessing problems objectively. Our brains select principles that cohere with our preferences. The principles–by way of implicit casuistry–serve in some ways to mask our preference-seeking behavior.

The reason implicit casuistry seems to work so well is because all ideologies seems equally susceptible to it. Indeed, small changes in factual situations can influence the way people use different standards. The authors give examples where subjects use either deontological (or rights-based) standards and consequentialist standards to justify certain behavior or conclusions. They show that people, regardless of their political preferences, will employ these reasoning strategies depending on the outcome that best accords with their political preferences.

Moving into the legal realm, Knowles & Ditto note that people’s views of judicial decisions often correlate with the extent to which the decision satisfies their preferences. They also note that judges may manipulate canons of constitutional interpretation to server various preferences. That, of course, is in line with a mature body of scholarship on judicial behavior. Scholars like Lee Epstein, Thomas Walker, Michael Giles, Ryan Owens, Ryan Black, et al. have shown that judges often seek policy preferences when deciding how to resolve a particular case.

Of course, casuistic reasoning occurs in other domains as well. Knowles & Ditto show how casuistic reasoning occurs in the context of race. Political preferences influence how people react to and justify their decisions when race becomes an issue. They note that frequently scholars disagree about why people hold particular racial attitudes. Some scholars claim disagreements of principle cause rifts; others claim that the disagreement results from claims to competing claims for finite goods (e.g., wealth, education). Knowles & Ditto argue it’s both:

The illusion of contraction may fade if one adopts a casuistic-reasoning model in which principles are frequently brought to bear dynamically in support of preferences.

In other words, people may use principles to justify their racial preferences. “Colorblindness,” for example, may serve as the principle that justifies an opposition to affirmative action.

In concluding, the authors note that casuistic judgments may have temporal effects. That is, using one principle may increase the probability of using that principle in the future. In lawyer speak, we might say people have a built-in stare decisis mechanism; it’s just not clear how strongly it operates in various situations or across time. Knowles & Ditto also are careful to explain that casuistic judgments are not per se illegitimate. (Here they venture into philosophy, essentially taking an hedged intuitionist stance.) Their claim is that attitudes are likely based on some form of intuition, and that intuition isn’t–in and of itself–a reason to reject a claim. For this reason, they argue that casuistic judgments may be legitimate.

Posted in Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Book, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kennedy and Pronin on the Spiral of Conflict

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2011

A group of  Harvard Law students are blogging over at the Law & Mind Blog.  Here is one of their posts about a chapter by Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin and Kathleen Kennedy (forthcoming in from Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson’s  book, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law”).  The post is authored by HLS student Michael Lieberman.

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In their chapter, Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict, Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin examine what they see as a major cause of breakdowns in negotiation, both small- and large-scale: a tendency of each side to view the other side’s position as biased and preference-driven (rather than based on objective facts). Kennedy and Pronin explain that we tend to see signs of bias all around us – some even posit that United States Supreme Court justices fall short of impartiality in their decisions. The only place, it seems, where the tendency to detect bias is weak is in ourselves: people have a tendency to perceive others as susceptible to the influence of biases while at the same time viewing themselves as relatively unaffected by those biases. That asymmetry has been referred to as a bias blind spot. One example of this bias blind spot with particular relevance to those of us in law school is the widespread disagreement over the validity of high-stakes standardized tests, such as the LSAT. High performers are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of poor performers who claim that the test is invalid and should not be used; poor performers, by contrast, are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of high performers who champion the tests’ use.

The first component of Kennedy and Pronin’s bias-perception conflict spiral is that disagreement leads to an even stronger perception that the other side is biased. That is, when people disagree, they view those with whom they disagree as biased or, more specifically, as unable or unwilling to view things as they are in “objective reality.” The reason is clear: “people generally have complete faith in the veridicality of their perceptions, and thus are suspicious of those who fail to share their perceptions.” Kennedy and Pronin offer support for this component with a review of several experimental and real-world cases of the tendency to perceive bias in action, including an experiment conducted among partisans involved in the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, in the wake of the “Good Friday Agreement” that established the conditions for peace in that region. Consistent with their hypothesis, partisans in the conflict tended to feel that those who led the opposing side were more prone to these biases than were those who led their own side.

The second component of the model is that the perception of the other side as biased leads to competitive and aggressive action, as opposed to cooperative and peaceful action. When dealing with an opponent whom one views as unable or unwilling to see things objectively, one may conclude that cooperative efforts (such as sitting down to talk things out, or providing relevant facts and arguments) are unlikely to be successful. The authors again cite several studies supporting the idea that people are likely to choose their responses to their opponents based at least in part on their assessment of the other side’s capacity for objectivity versus inclination towards bias.

Having outlined the framework of the bias-perception conflict spiral, Kennedy and Pronin proceed to apply their concept to the field of negotiation, both explaining when and how the spiral rears its ugly head and offering potential ways to stop it in its tracks. As the above outline would suggest, people seem to view their adversaries in negotiation as prone to bias, and that perception of bias leads them to act competitively in a way that interferes with efficient dispute resolution. After reviewing the weaknesses of strategies suggested by past research (perspective taking, epistemic motivation, and social grouping) Kennedy and Pronin suggest three strategies of their own to help achieve increased success in negotiations (strategies that may require bringing in a third-party mediator):

1. Non-counterarguing listening – Counterarguing listening, which the authors suggest most people engage in, involves thinking about ways in which one’s own position is superior and preparing counterarguments while an opponent is speaking. that can be leveled against the opposition when it is one’s chance to reply. An alternative to that listening approach would allow individuals to truly hear the other person by suppressing impulses to counterargue that content, so that individuals might reach a better understanding of their opponent’s actual position and of its underlying subtleties.

2. Introspective education – This strategy works to induce individuals to see themselves as less objective. By recognizing their own capacity for bias, individuals might be better equipped to resolve their conflicts peacefully once they realize that the other side, while biased, is no more biased than oneself and, therefore, likely has some rational reasons for believing what they believe. A mediator can implement this strategy by educating individuals on the psychology of implicit biases and providing them with concrete demonstrations of their own implicit attitudes (by administering the IAT, for example).

3. Temporal distance – Kennedy and Pronin explain: “Manipulating adversaries’ temporal distance from a conflict situation may also work to alleviate the bias-perception conflict spiral. Temporal distance (how far into the future an event is), as well as physical and social distance (how geographically distant or socially removed an event is), can increase the extent to which individuals see events in more global, indirect, or abstract terms,” which allows adversaries to adopt a cooler perspective toward the situation, including toward the disagreement itself and the opposing party. which might lead them to be more open to acknowledging both their own biases and their adversaries’ objectivity. Resulting reductions in individuals’ perceptions of either the size of their disagreement or the extent to which they are uniquely objective could interrupt or prevent the bias-perception conflict spiral.

In sum, Kennedy and Pronin’s framework focuses on the tendency of individuals to impute bias to others, especially others who disagree with them, and on the consequences of that tendency for conflictual behavior. Their examination of the psychological forces behind the conflict spiral, as well as their suggestions for overcoming it, offers valuable insight to the field of negotiation and mediation, which is particularly useful in a world that is so often divided into opposing interests and groups.

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Go to the Law and Mind Blog here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Conflict, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Situationist Contributors, 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 »

Chris Chabris and the Invisible Gorilla

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 7, 2011

Tom Vanderbilt Reviews The Invisible Gorilla:

“Do you remember when you first saw–or more likely, didn’t see–the gorilla? For me it was one afternoon a number of years ago when I clicked open one of those noxious-but-irresistible forwarded emails (“You Won’t Believe Your Eyes!”). The task was simple–count the number of passes in a tight cluster of basketball players–but the ensuing result was astonishing: As I dutifully (and correctly) tracked the number of passes made, a guy in a gorilla suit had strolled into the center, beat his chest, and sauntered off. But I never saw the gorilla. And I was hardly alone.

The video, which went on to become a global viral sensation, brought “inattentional blindness”–a once comparatively obscure interest of cognitive psychologists–into striking relief. Here was a dramatic reminder that looking is not necessarily seeing, that “paying” attention to one thing might come at the cost of missing another altogether. No one was more taken with the experience than the authors of the original study, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, as they recount in their new–and, dare I say, eye-opening–book, The Invisible Gorilla. “The fact that people miss things is important,” they write, “but what impressed us even more was the surprise people showed when they realized what they had missed.”

The Invisible Gorilla uses that ersatz primate as a departure point (and overarching metaphor) for exploring the myriad of other illusions, perceptual or otherwise, that we encounter in everyday life–and our often complete lack of awareness as we do so. These “gorillas” are lurking everywhere–from the (often false) memories we think we have to the futures we think we can anticipate to the cause-and-effect chains we feel must exist. Writing with authority, clarity, and a healthy dose of skepticism, Simons and Chabris explore why these illusions persist–and, indeed, seem to multiply in the modern world–and how we might work to avoid them. Alas, there are no easy solutions–doing crosswords to stave off cognitive decline in one’s dotage may simply make you better at doing crosswords. But looking for those “gorillas in our midst” is as rewarding as actually finding them. “

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The Invisible Gorilla website is here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts (including several containing of the illusions excerpted out of the, see

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Illusions, Video | 1 Comment »

The Political Situation of the Economic Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 6, 2010

In Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of Berkeley argue that America’s money-addicted and change-resistant political system is at the heart of the enormous and rapidly growing income inequality that they say is undermining America’s economic and political stability.

Posted in Book, Deep Capture, Distribution, Politics, Public Policy | 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 »

Performing Under Pressure

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 22, 2010

Situationist friend Sian Beilock’s highly anticipated new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, is now out.  As someone who has had both great successes and great failures under pressure, I’ve been very excited to read Choke since Sian first mentioned it to me.  What exactly happened in that 8th-grade piano recital when my mind went blank halfway through that Bach three-part invention?  Mom, I finally have an answer . . .

Here’s a description of the book:

It happens to all of us. You’ve prepared for days, weeks, even years for the big day when you will finally show your stuff—in academics, in your career, in sports—but when the big moment arrives, nothing seems to work. You hit the wrong note, drop the ball, get stumped by a simple question. In other words, you choke. It’s not fun to think about, but now there’s good news: This doesn’t have to happen.

In lively prose and accessibly rendered science, Beilock examines how attention and working memory guide human performance, how experience and practice and brain development interact to create our abilities, and how stress affects all these factors. She sheds new light on counter-intuitive realities, like why the highest performing people are most susceptible to choking under pressure, why we may learn foreign languages best when we’re not paying attention, why early childhood athletic training can backfire, and how our emotions can make us both smarter and dumber. All these fascinating findings about academic, athletic, and creative intelligence come together in Beilock’s new ideas about performance under pressure—and her secrets to never choking again. Whether you’re at the Olympics, in the boardroom, or taking the SAT, Beilock’s clear, prescriptive guidance shows how to remain cool under pressure—the key to performing well when everything’s on the line.

Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science, reveals in Choke the astonishing new science of why we all too often blunder when the stakes are high. What happens in our brain and body when we experience the dreaded performance anxiety? And what are we doing differently when everything magically “clicks” into place and the perfect golf swing, tricky test problem, or high-pressure business pitch becomes easy? In an energetic tour of the latest brain science, with surprising insights on every page, Beilock explains the inescapable links between body and mind; reveals the surprising similarities among the ways performers, students, athletes, and business people choke; and shows how to succeed brilliantly when it matters most.

Read an excerpt from Choke here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Your Group is Bad at Math,” “The Bar Exam Situation,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

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