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Archive for the ‘System Legitimacy’ Category

John Jost Speaks about His Own Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2009

This is Part III and the conclusion of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here and Part II is here.  This segment focuses on John’s own remarkable and pathbreaking research.

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APSSC: Much of your research has focused on psychological characteristics of liberals and conservatives. What have you learned that could be applied in the increasingly partisan world of politics?

Jost: Well, that is an interview in itself, and I have given several on this topic (including one that is archived at The Situationist). The bottom line is that major differences of opinion (such as the debate over health care reform) are not easy to resolve because they are rooted in fundamental differences not only in personalities and values, but also in lifestyles, social networks, and even physiological responses, as our work has shown.

In general, liberals are more drawn to flexibility, tolerance, progress, complexity, ambiguity, creativity, curiosity, diversity, equality, and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives are more drawn to order, stability, structure, closure, discipline, tradition, familiarity, and conscientiousness. Presumably, society needs at least a little of both types of characteristics.

Democracy is an ingenious system when it works well, because it seeks to establish a set of rules and procedures that are fair and efficient by which individuals and groups are compelled to rise above relatively narrow needs and interests. My colleague, Tom Tyler, and I have written about this. How else can we resolve disputes except to require opposing sides to make the best possible case for policies that their adversaries are inclined to resist for their own social and psychological (as well as ideological) reasons? But when democratic norms are flouted or otherwise fail to protect us, we are lost. We find ourselves in very deep trouble.

APSSC: You’ve also spent a lot of time studying and developing system justification theory, which describes how one works to maintain society’s status quo, even when it’s not in one’s best interest. Do you think that system justification can be found in the field of psychology?

Jost: I think you’re trying to get me in trouble now. But, yes, as long as the science and practice of psychology is undertaken by human beings, I expect that some degree of system justification is likely, at least on occasion. Do I think that it’s easier to publish an article in one of our top journals that is largely compatible or incompatible with the status quo (i.e., past precedent and existing theory, as institutionalized in textbooks and so forth), I would bet on compatible.

The same is true of our legal system, which is heavily reliant on past precedent (stare decisis) and therefore inherently conservative. I am not saying that there are never good reasons to privilege what comes first — often there are. But if there is a bias that is built into scientific and legal systems, it is probably in favor of what has already been established (the status quo) and against what appears to challenge it. I suspect that this is part of human nature, and such a bias characterizes our way of thinking and most, if not all, of our social and cultural institutions.

APSSC: How has what you’ve learned through your research influenced how you live your life?

Jost: I suppose that because of my research I am more skeptical of decision outcomes that preserve the status quo than I otherwise would be. So when I had the chance to move to NYU a few years ago, I knew that psychological inertia would work against the move, and I tried to adjust for that. I even spent a wonderful year in a “neutral” location at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I moved to NYU. Since coming here, I have had terrific colleagues and the kinds of PhD students that one dreams of working with! I feel very fortunate. Maybe the system does work after all!

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

Jost: I have no idea, but I certainly agree with various APS luminaries who regard psychology as a “hub” science. I would like to see us do a better job of connecting to — and translating important insights from — the social and behavioral sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. And I’m sure that psychology will continue to be influenced by the biological sciences, and hopefully we can give something back to them, too.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I had asked? What would your answer have been?

Jost: Is it possible to care deeply about something, like the problem of global climate change, and still investigate it scientifically? Yes, because the rules of the scientific method, if you follow them scrupulously, actually work, and (in my opinion) the rules have nothing to do with being dispassionate or disinterested. Much as genuine engagement with and adherence to democratic norms and procedures serves to elevate discourse and action above particularized interests, so, too, does genuine engagement with and adherence to scientific norms and procedures. Following the scientific method matters far more, in my view, than the specific social or personal characteristics of any given scientist, which — at the end of the day — are irrelevant. The evidence and the quality of the argument are what matter. As Kurt Lewin noted at the outbreak of World War II, this is why science and democracy go hand in hand.

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You can listen here to a fascinating related lecture recently delivered by John Jost at NYU about some of the sources, correlates, and antecedents of ideology.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of John Jost

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2009

The Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus recently conducted fascinating interview of Situationist Contributor, John Jost.    Here are some excerpts.

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APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

Jost: . . . . I knew at age 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a psychologist, but, like many others, I expected that I would become a clinical psychologist. The reason for that was that as a child and adolescent, I was very close to someone (an extended family member) who had a serious mental illness. I thought — quite unrealistically, of course — that I could understand him better than other people and that I could somehow help him. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I would rather try to fix the “holes” in the social system than force individual “pegs” into them. So I gravitated toward social, personality, and political psychology.

APSSC: How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

Jost: I suppose that they have a personal and familial basis as well. From an early age, I was aware of differences between people in terms of political and religious attitudes. The fact that the Nixon administration spied on my father for teaching university courses on the philosophy of Karl Marx probably forced the issue. I grew up in a relatively liberal enclave of a largely conservative community and was attuned to social class and other differences — especially ideological differences. Later, when I (and others) tried, mostly in vain, to organize a union of beleaguered graduate students, I became intrigued by the question of why so many people fail to support social change efforts that are designed specifically to help them and their fellow group members. This is really the focal issue addressed by system justification theory.

How have these research interests influenced me personally? They have inspired me by setting ambitious goals that (I think) are meaningful and ultimately beneficial to society as a whole. They have also, at times, dispirited me, because I have come to see society as (under the best of circumstances) progressing by taking two steps forward and one step backward.

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We’ll post other portions of the interview, including Jost’s advice to young mind scientists, over the next several days.  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see A System-Justification Primer,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”

Posted in Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Aaron Kay, “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 19, 2009

Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Professor Kay’s research has focused on the integration of implicit social-cognitive processes with the study of broad social issues. In his primary line of work, he investigates the myriad ways by which people cope with, adapt to, and rationalize social inequalities. At the moment, this research program addresses questions such as: (1) How do people rationalize and justify their good fortune and bad fortune, others’ good fortune and bad fortune, and the social systems that dictate these outcomes? (2) What are the psychological tools employed in aiding people to cope with the internal conflict produced from participating in social systems that are, in many objective ways, unfair and capricious?

At the second annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2008, Professor Kay’s remarkable presentation was titled “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo.”  Here’s the abstract:

Although people tend to view their beliefs, values, and ideology as entirely the product of thoughtful deliberation, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a view is largely mistaken. In this talk, I will describe how the motivation to perceive the current status quo as just, legitimate, and desirable — an implicit motive known as “system justification” — exerts powerful and consequential effects on social perception and judgment.  My remarks will focus particularly on the role of system justification in maintaining social inequalities.

His talk was videotaped (though with poor lighting), and you can watch it on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,”Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” Cheering for the Underdog,”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss system justification motive, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A System-Justification Primer

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2009

Here is a worthwhile Blogging Heads clip in which Josh Knobe interviews Situationist Contributor John Jost regarding the success of George W. Bush.

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To review a related set of Situationist posts, see The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!“  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Ideology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 10, 2009

From GRITtv: “Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book looks at the downside of looking on the bright side, which she says has undermined America.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Jim Sidanius, “Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence and ‘The Law’”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 3, 2009

plms-logo2

Jim Sidanius is a Professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University.  His primary research interests include the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.

At the second annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2008, Professor Sidanius’s fascinating presentation was titled ““Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence and ‘The Law.’” Here’s the abstract:

While instances of inter-communal violence and genocide are obvious and immensely tragic, what is not as readily appreciated is the widespread extent and ferocity of the intergroup violence that is channeled through legal and criminal justice systems.  Given the fact that the legal and criminal justice systems are disproportionately controlled by members of dominant rather than subordinate social groups, social dominance theory argues that a substantial portion of the output of the criminal justice system can be seen as a form of intergroup violence, the function of which is to maintain the structural integrity of group-based social hierarchy.

His talk was videotaped (though with poor lighting), and you can watch it on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the March 2008 PLMS conference, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Ideology, Life, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Painful Situation of Guilt

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2009

From Eureka Alert:Ice Cubes

The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.

Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then “tortured” by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.

The research, published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” says Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.”

Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.

“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” says Gray. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.”

The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”

The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture.

“Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture,” says Gray. “Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods.”

The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.

The case is still open on whether torture actually makes victims more likely to tell the truth. This research suggests instead that the mere fact that someone was tortured leads observers to think that the truth was found.

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You can download a copy of that paper here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Pain,” Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” “The Situation of Death Row,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2009

Desert DaisyBarbara Ehrenreich’s terrific, highly situationist, new book is now on the shelves, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

From a related Time Magazine article here’s a brief sample of her writing on the topic of optimism.

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If you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a news magazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like Happynews.com, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”

Or of course you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales. . . .

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Americans have long prided themselves on being “positive” and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic, it was a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller The Secret promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world. . . .

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Below are some excerpts from the introduction of her new book explaining that, optimism notwithstanding, Americans are not necessarily better off.

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Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people’s responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.

When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of “well-being,” taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of “happiness” is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.

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Bright-Sided CoverBut of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the “best” or the “greatest.” Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt.

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

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You can read more about the book and purchase it here.   You can listen to an excellent, half-hour Talk of the Nation interview of Barbara Ehrenreich about the book here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 23, 2009

Bomb ItAaron C. Kay, Danielle Gaucher, Jennifer M. Peach, Kristin Laurin, Justin Friesen, Mark P. Zanna, and Steven J. Spencer have recently published their article, “Inequality, Discrimination, and the Power of the Status Quo: Direct Evidence for a Motivation to See the Way Things Are as the Way They Should Be” (97 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 421– 434 (2009).  Here’s the abstract.

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How powerful is the status quo in determining people’s social ideals? The authors propose (a) that people engage in injunctification, that is, a motivated tendency to construe the current status quo as the most desirable and reasonable state of affairs (i.e., as the most representative of how things should be); (b) that this tendency is driven, at least in part, by people’s desire to justify their sociopolitical systems; and (c) that injunctification has profound implications for the maintenance of inequality and societal change. Four studies, across a variety of domains, provided supportive evidence. When the motivation to justify the sociopolitical system was experimentally heightened, participants injunctified extant (a) political power (Study 1), (b) public funding policies (Study 2), and (c) unequal gender demographics in the political and business spheres (Studies 3 and 4, respectively). It was also demonstrated that this motivated phenomenon increased derogation of those who act counter to the status quo (Study 4). Theoretical implications for system justification theory, stereotype formation, affirmative action, and the maintenance of inequality are discussed.

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In 2008, Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay presented some of research underlying that article at the Second Annual Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference at Harvard Law School.  Below you can watch videos of his presentation in three parts.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts see “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss system justification motive, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 3, 2009

Expulsion from Eden

I recently stumbled upon a really provocative paper by Anders Kaye entitled, “The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law.” Given that one of the key issues addressed in  the paper is whether compatibilist theories of free will–which focus very heavily on dispositional traits and conscious mental states–can accommodate situational forces that are criminogenic (e.g., poverty and early childhood abuse).  According to Kaye, compatibilist theories of free will and responsibility have been used by contemporary legal retributivists such as Michael Moore and Stephen Morse to shield the criminal law from developments in behavioral science, criminology, etc. that might otherwise lead to a less punitive justice system as well as a more egalitarian society.  In short, Kaye suggests that compatibilism is not a “politically innocent” theory of free will.  Here is the abstract:

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Many criminal theorists say that we have a ‘compatibilist’ criminal law, by which they mean that in our criminal law a person can deserve punishment for her acts even if she does not have ‘genuinely’ free will. This conception of the criminal law harbors and is driven by a secret politics, one that resists social change and idealizes the existing social order. In this Article, I map this secret politics. In so doing, I call into question the descriptive accuracy of the compatibilist account of the criminal law, and set the stage for a franker discussion of criminal punishment – one that recognizes that the perpetual struggle to say just who ‘deserves’ punishment is driven as much by brute politics and the competition to allocate power and resources in society as by any independent moral logic.

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There is already a heated debate about Kaye’s novel line of reasoning over at The Garden of Forking Paths.  However, it would be nice to see an active comment thread here at The Situationist as well.  So, please take a look at the paper and then give us your thoughts!

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “The Legal Brain,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Philosophy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Human Trafficking – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 12, 2009

Human TraffickingJonathan Todres has recently posted a fascinating article, titled “Law, Otherness, and Human Trafficking” (49 Santa Clara Law Review 605-672 (2009) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.

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Despite concerted efforts to combat human trafficking, the trade in persons persists and, in fact, continues to grow. This article suggests that a central reason for the limited success in preventing human trafficking is the dominant conception of the problem, which forms the basis for law developed to combat human trafficking. Specifically, the author argues that “otherness” is a root cause of both inaction and the selective nature of responses to the abusive practice of human trafficking. Othering operates across multiple dimensions, including race, gender, ethnicity, class, caste, culture, and geography, to reinforce a conception of a virtuous “Self” and a devalued “Other.” This article exposes how this Self/Other dichotomy shapes the phenomenon of human trafficking, driving demand for trafficked persons, influencing perceptions of the problem, and constraining legal initiatives to end the abuse. By examining human trafficking through an otherness-aware framework, this article aims to elucidate a deeper understanding of human trafficking and offer a prescription for reducing the adverse effects of otherness on both efforts to combat human trafficking and the individuals that now suffer such abuses.

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You can download the article for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Effect of Groups,” The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Ideology, Morality, Public Policy, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Think Progress or Die

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 30, 2009

Winter Cemetery - by andy in nycTom Jacobs, on Miller-McCune has a helpful summary, titled “Fearing Death? Think Progress,” of fascinating research on terror management theory.  Here are some excerpts.

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[M]ost of us cling to the notion of human progress, insisting that our children will inhabit a more just society, or that our own contribution will make the world a better place. Why? Three social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam have come up with a reason: It makes it easier to accept the reality of our own deaths.

Not unlike religious faith, “belief in progress provides a protective existential buffer,” according to a paper just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Expanding on the ideas of Terror Management Theory, lead author Bastiaan T. Rutjens argues that the belief in progress, which can be traced back to such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Hume, is “a secular faith” that is “one way of pervading our world with meaning.”

The researchers tested this thesis with three experiments. In the first and most central of these, 33 female participants wrote a short essay describing their thoughts and feelings about one of two subjects: dental pain, or their own deaths. After performing several additional tasks, they read an essay arguing that human progress is an illusion.

Finally, they were asked a series of questions to determine the extent to which they agreed with the anti-progress argument. Those who had thought about their own mortality were significantly less likely to accept the argument than those who had opined about toothaches.

The researchers consider this particular defense mechanism a reasonably healthy psychological response. After all, they note, previous studies have found that when people are confronted with their own mortality, “they tend to rate individuals with different cultural beliefs as less intelligent” in an attempt to forge a feeling of solidarity with people of their own ethnicity or nationality.

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The entire article is here.  For some related Situationist posts see “Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream” and “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error – Abstracts

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 26, 2009

Law Books - by F.S.M. on FlickrSituationist fellow, Goutam Jois recently posted a fascinating, situationist paper provocatively titled, “Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error” on SSRN:  Here’s the abstract.

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For hundreds of years, the practice of stare decisis – a court’s adherence to prior decisions in similar cases – has guided the common law. However, recent behavioral evidence suggests that stare decisis, far from enacting society’s true preferences with regard to law and policy, may reflect – and exacerbate – our cognitive biases.

The data show that humans are subconsciously primed (among other things) to prefer the status quo, to overvalue existing defaults, to follow others’ decisions, and to stick to the well-worn path. We have strong motives to justify existing legal, political, and social systems; to come up with simple explanations for observed phenomena; and to construct coherent narratives for the world around us. Taken together, these and other characteristics suggest that we value precedent not because it is desirable but merely because it exists. Three case studies – analyzing federal district court cases, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and development of American policy on torture – suggest that the theory of stare decisis as a heuristic has substantial explanatory power. In its strongest form, this hypothesis challenges the foundation of common law systems.

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You can download the paper for free here.

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Blaming Rihanna

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 17, 2009

Rhianna - Umbrella Mix Urban Call - Rihanna FlickrFrom the LAPD detective’s notes and Fox News via the Boston Globe:

After Rihanna read a text message on [Chris] Brown’s phone from a woman, he tried to force Rihanna out of the car, but couldn’t because she was wearing her seatbelt. Brown then allegedly slammed Rihanna’s head against her window, and when Rihanna turned to face him, he punched her.

The notes said blood spattered on Rihanna’s clothing and the interior of the Lamborghini.

Rihanna also called her assistant, according to FOX 11, leaving a message saying, “I am on my way home. Make sure the cops are there when I get there.”

Brown then reportedly replied, “You just did the stupidest thing ever. I’m going to kill you,” and proceeded to punch and bite Rihanna. He allegedly put her in a headlock so long that she almost lost consciousness.

Rihanna, who turned 21 a few weeks after the incident, was beaten severely enough to require hospitalization. Brown, 19, who reportedly had a history of violence toward Rihanna, turned himself in and was charged with two felonies.

From Wikipedia:

[The just-world hypothesis] refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is “just” so strongly that when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault.

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In . . . [one] study, subjects were told two versions of a story about an interaction between a woman and a man. Both variations were exactly the same, except at the very end the man raped the woman in one and in the other he proposed marriage. In both conditions, subjects viewed the woman’s (identical) actions as inevitably leading to the (very different) results

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From Boston Public Health Commission:

A survey conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission on the dating violence incident involving pop music idols Chris Brown and Rihanna revealed that nearly half of Boston youths surveyed said she was “responsible” for what happened while 52 percent said they were both to blame.

“The story of Chris Brown and Rihanna may have happened 3,000 miles away, but it is very much a Boston story,” said Casey Corcoran, director of the Public Health Commission’s new Start Strong program.

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Corcoran’s program, housed in the Commission’s Division of Violence Prevention, surveyed 200 Boston youth ages 12 to 19, between Feb. 13 and 20, using the Chris Brown-Rihanna case to gauge their attitudes toward teen dating violence; 100 percent of those surveyed had heard about the incident.

Among the findings:

  • 71% said arguing was a normal part of a relationship
  • 44% said fighting was a normal part of a relationship
  • 51% said Chris Brown was responsible for the incident
  • 46% said Rihanna was responsible for the incident
  • 52% said both individuals were to blame for the incident, despite knowing at the time that
    Rihanna had been beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment
  • 35% said the media were treating Rihanna unfairly
  • 52% said the media were treating Chris Brown unfairly

In addition, a significant number of males and females in the survey said Rihanna was destroying Chris  Brown’s career, and females were no less likely than males to come to Rihanna’s defense.

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For a related Situationist post, see “Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape.”

Posted in Conflict, Entertainment, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2009

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At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, John Jost’s presentation was titled “System Justification and the Law.” Here is the abstract for his talk.

Although there can be little doubt that individual and group self-interest motivate human behavior to a considerable degree, research in social psychology has revealed a quite different and often powerful motive: the motive to defend and justify the social status quo. This motive is present (at least to some degree) even among those who are seemingly most disadvantaged by the status quo; in some cases, in fact, this motive is strongest among those who are the most severely disadvantaged. System justification theory seeks to elucidate the nature of this motive and the situations in which it operates.

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Dr. Jost will summarize recent theory and research concerning the various  manifestations, antecedents and consequences of the system justification motive. He will also address its implications for the law, arguing that system justification motives sometimes result in behaviors that current legal thinking would not otherwise anticipate. For example, victims of discrimination or abuse complain less often than self interest would predict, and employees conceal evidence of corporate wrongdoing even at their own peril. The theory also speaks to the power of “framing” and suggests ways in which legal advocates can either amplify or dampen the system-justifying motives of those whom they would persuade. The existence of system justification poses significant psychological obstacles to social change in general and legal change in particular.

Below you can watch the videos of Jost’s fascinating presentation (roughly 30 minutes total).

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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here) or visit PLMSTube.

For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Implicit Associations, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2009

In the Colorado Springs Gazette, Debbie Kelly has a nice article about the changing situation of Thomas Pyszczynski, a well known psychology professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (“UCCS”) who is one of several scholars behind terror management theory.

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Two decades ago, Thomas Pyszczynski’s ideas about how people use their cultural beliefs and values to shield themselves from anxiety about death — and how that plays out in international conflict — were viewed as kooky at worst, interesting at best.  9/11 changed all that.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pyszczynski, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was catapulted to visionary status. Words like “provocative” and “persuasive” replaced the doubts about his research, which led to a hypothesis he developed with two colleagues called “terror management theory.”

“He’d been bouncing around as a visiting assistant professor at two or three schools, and no one would hire him on a tenure track because his theories were iffy. We did. We thought he was going to be a star because he had a vision of a new way that social psychology would evolve. It turns out, he was absolutely right,” said Bob Durham, who was chair of the university’s psychology department in 1986, when Pyszczynski was hired.

Pyszczynski’s expertise on the social psychology of terrorism recently earned him one of the University of Colorado system’s highest honors: the title of distinguished professor. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to an academic discipline. In the 43-year history of UCCS, only one other faculty member has been bestowed the title from the board of regents, the university’s governing body.

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Pyszczynski’s ideas give insight into the connections between self esteem and human behavior, including ethnic violence and war.
And in the face of attack, his research showed, people tend to coalesce against a common enemy.

“So many of the things we’d seen happen in laboratory experiments played out in reality after 9/11,” he said.

“When Americans were faced with a dramatic reminder of death and vulnerability at the hands of people challenging our culture and values, we tried to discredit those people and get rid of them, and we became more enthusiastic about our own beliefs. The majority of Americans became more patriotic and Bush’s approval ratings almost doubled in a week.”

His terror management theory, developed in the mid-1980s, has been the basis for more than 350 studies in 20 countries, examining aggression, stereotyping, the need for meaning and structure, phobias, political preferences, martyrdom, group identification and related topics.

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At a recent reception in honor of Pyszczynski’s award, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said she is appreciative of the previous administrators who took a chance on hiring him “when he was not particularly mainstream.”

Then, she asked Pyszczynski, “How does it feel to be mainstream?”

Pyszczynski’s reply: “A little scary.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Ideology – Part II.”

For those unfamiliar with terror management theory, you may find the following three videos worthwhile (three parts of one interview of Jeff Greenberg by Steve Paikin, approximately 25 minutes total).

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Posted in Emotions, Ideology, Politics, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 2

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 26, 2009

Curtis Hardin is one of the authors of Shared Reality, System Justification, and the Relational Basis of Ideological Beliefs, an article that examines the relationship between affiliative motives and ideology.  I recently spoke with Professor Hardin about that work.  (For additional background on this research and shared reality theory, see Part 1.)

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Al Sahlstrom: Could you please briefly discuss the background of this research – 
what is social tuning and in what contexts have psychologists 
previously studied it?

Curtis Hardin: The observation that people can and do tune their attitudes toward the ostensible attitudes of others is an old and persistent one—dating at least to the dialogues of Plato (including The Republic and others). It is there at the inception of empirical psychology in the work of Wundt and Freud and James. It is there at the beginning of social psychology in the work of Sherif, Adorno, Lewin, Allport, and Asch. The problem of tuning in opinion surveys about racism, for example in which respondents expressed less racism toward black than white interviewers in the 1960s and 1970s, is arguably the precipitating finding that inspired the development of unobtrusive measures of prejudice including measures of implicit and automatic prejudice. The use of the term “tuning” was coined (I believe!) by Tory Higgins and colleagues in their “communication game” work that formally situated individual information-processing in social dynamics. Tuning and “anti-tuning” of this type as well as tuning-like phenomena captured in the classical social psychological literature formed one kind of evidence we have argued supports shared reality theory (Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Hardin & Conley, 2001).

AS: How does social tuning occur?  Is it something that everyone does? 
Is it limited by situation or subject matter?

CH: Social tuning is so ubiquitous that many explanations have been forwarded for it, ranging from bald conformity all the way to tacit, automatized management of common ground in face-to-face conversation. It is certain that depending on the circumstance, any number of explanations could be in operation. That said, from the perspective of shared reality theory, social tuning of the type captured in the research we’ve shown you now is ubiquitous. According to shared reality theory, being engaged in an interpersonal relationship requires modulation of “shared reality” (which is evidenced by social tuning). The direction and magnitude of this kind of social tuning is very much determined by the quality of the relationship as well as which attitudes and experiences are either situationally or chronically relevant to that relationship. Our group hasn’t systematically studied subject matter as a potential moderating variable, but we do find that the degree to which the particular attitude is perceived to be relevant to the effective relationship very much qualifies whether tuning will occur and the direction in which it occurs.

AS: Your research approaches political ideology as something that is 
influenced by motivational processes.  How does social tuning fit into 
this?

CH: In my view, research animated by system justification theory has focused most on epistemic and existential motivations. What we have begun to do—both in the Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin paper as well as experiments currently being done in my lab—is explore the possibility that another motivation for system justification may be relational. Corresponding to shared reality research, we’re starting to find evidence of both chronic relationship concerns in system justification as well as new or situationally relevant relationship concerns.

AS: Please tell me a little about the research you’re currently 
conducting on social tuning and political ideology.  What exactly are 
you looking at and what have you found so far?

CH: Broadly, many experiments in my laboratory are exploring how individual experience at a given moment reflects a kind of tension among more than one interpersonal relationship, including immediate relationships and long-term relationships. We’ve been working on this in a variety of ways. For example, we’ve found that automatic homophobic attitudes are greater after an interaction with an ostensibly gay than straight experimenter but only for participants who say they have no gay friends. In another line of experiments, we’ve found that unconscious threats to religious experience reduce explicit religious commitment, but only for participants who believe that they do not share their religious experience with their fathers. For participants who do perceive their religious experience to be shared, the unconscious threat is met with increased religious commitment. In yet another line of experiments, we’ve found that although people will become more anti-black when they’ve been included versus excluded in a game played with ostensible racists, the effect reverses when participants have been experimentally induced to be extra motivated to engage with the racists. We’ve found analogous effects on self-judgment as a function of the ostensible gender traditionality of people who include versus exclude participants.

AS: What do you think might be the limits of these effects?  How stable 
are they?  What factors might amplify or mitigate these effects (e.g. 
duration and consistency of exposure to the tuning group)?

CH: Very interesting questions we’ve not yet explored systematically. According to shared reality theory, social engagement (e.g., affiliative motivation) elicits shared reality (e.g., social tuning). Our research shows that such effects of an immediate relationship are moderated by the relation between that shared reality and potentially competing shared realities held in chronic or long-term relationships. But we haven’t attempted to study what makes some relationships more or less “strong” vis-à-vis shared reality. There would be a variety of ways to model this. My preference—that is, until it proves untenable!—would be that the strength of a given attitude would be determined by some simple function of (a) the number of relationships in which the attitude is shared, (b) the stability of the relationships involved, and (c) the salience of those relationships. For example, sharing reality in a new relationship would be inhibited to the degree that that shared reality is incompatible with existing relationships and to the extent that the existing relationships are stable and to the extent that those relationships are cognitively salient. As for the duration of social tuning effects, evidence across social psychology suggests to me that they are unlikely to be very stable. People are very adaptable to changing social circumstances—from situation to situation, relationship to relationship, and even within situations and particular relationships as they evolve.

AS: I think it’s safe to say many of us assume that ideology is 
something that we develop rationally.  What implications would you say 
your research has on this idea?

CH: Good questions. I don’t think ideology is rational in the sense that for most people it is logically coherent. Nor do I believe that ideology is rational in the sense that it primarily a product of deep or broad conscious thinking. I do believe ideological thinking is rational in the sense that it is adaptive for humans in evolutionary senses. That said, I do not think research I’ve personally been involved in bears terribly strongly on these questions. To show that unconscious processes influence ideology does not preclude ideology from operating consciously as well. To show that ideology is somewhat malleable is not to show that it is either illogical or evolutionarily adaptive. Those would be interesting avenues to pursue, however.

AS: What purpose does tuning serve in this context?  Do you see it as 
having a positive or a negative impact?

CH: 

We’ve identified some of the functions of social tuning in the research discussed above. Whether it’s positive or negative depends on who is tuning to whom on what dimension to what effect for whom! Like any other aspect of human psychology, it’s both positive and negative. One of the burdens of the scientist is to identify as clearly as possible the who-what-when-why of it.

AS: What research do you have planned for the future?

CH: One thing I’m very interested in is extending research we’ve done suggesting that religious experience is animated by shared reality processes to cases in which religion operates ideologically.

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Curtis D. Hardin, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.  His research focuses on the interpersonal foundations of cognition, including the self-concept, social identification, and prejudice.  He recently authored an article with John Jost and Alison Ledgerwood discussing the relational basis of ideological beliefs (available in PDF here).

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 25, 2009

The dominant view of ideology is that it is something that individuals consciously, rationally form.  In this mold, ideology is something pure that exists for its own reasons.  It is not a means to an end, unless that end is implementation of policy that reflects the most accurate evaluation of the world around us.  It does not, or at least should not, change based on different situations.  Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that unconscious, automatic processes and social psychological factors are connected to ideology.

One theoretical perspective that sheds light on this connection is shared reality theory.  Shared reality theory proposes the idea that particular cognitions are founded on and regulated by particular interpersonal relationships, and that particular cognitions in turn regulate interpersonal relationship dynamics.  In other words, there is evidence that our associations with others might have a meaningful impact on our internal thought processes and vice-versa.  Our social interactions may in fact serve a crucial psychological function by creating a common (or shared) view of reality that lends a sense of objectivity to otherwise transitory and subjective individual experience.  One theoretical means through which we establish shared reality is “social tuning,” through which we bring relationship-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into harmony with those of others with whom we either wish to be close or must be close.  Ideology is particularly implicated in these processes, both due to its salience and because ideologies can function as “prepackaged” sets of beliefs that are useful for establishing where we stand in relation to others and their perspectives.

While shared reality theory and the possibility that people might actually “tune” their beliefs based on their relationships does not mean that ideology is arbitrary, it does undermine traditional dispositionist assumptions about the centrality of the individual as a rational decision-maker.  Our responses to situations that implicate our religious or political views involve automatic processes that are permeable and susceptible to the influence of those around us.  Our level of commitment to a given idea can vary depending on how we are experimentally primed.  Rather than occupying a consecrated position above other opinions, trends, and inclinations, it is possible that ideology can be as unconsciously driven and impacted by situational pressures as preferences that are given considerably less weight.  The full impact of these phenomena is likely to become clearer as social psychologists continue to explore our need for shared reality with others and its relationship with our view of the world around us.

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For more on the relationship between affiliative processes and ideology, read Part 2, which contains my interview of Curtis Hardin.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Networks” and “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil.”

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Tom Tyler on “Strategies of Social Control” – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2009

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At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, Tom Tyler’s presentation was titled “Strategies of Social Control: Motivating Rule Adherence in Organizational Settigings.” Here is the abstract for his talk.

Recent examples of abuse of authority have occurred in two types of organizational settings: corporations and the armed forces.  What strategies can be used to bring behavior in such settings into line with rules and policies about appropriate conduct?  Dr.  Tyler will talk about the value of self-regulatory approaches, examining whether they work and how to make them effective.  He will illustrate his arguments using data collected in two contexts: in a multinational corporate bank and among agents of social control (e.g., police officers, federal agents, and infantry soldiers). 

Below you can watch a video of Tyler’s fascinating presentation (in 3 roughly 9-minute videos).

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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here).

For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Law, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by JH on January 18, 2009

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

 
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