The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The Situation of Ability

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 8, 2012

From Scott Barry Kaufman‘s Huffington Post post (1/9/12):

A bulk of research shows that when people are put in situations where they are expected to fail, their performance does plummet. They turn into different people. Their head literally shuts down, and they end up confirming the expectations. When they’re expected to win, their performance shoots back up. Same person, difference expectations.

In recent years, this phenomenon has been studied in a variety of high-stakes testing situations. One area that has received a lot of attention is in the domain of mental rotation. Out of all the gender differences in cognition that have been reported in psychological literature, 3D mental rotation ability takes the cake. While it’s true that there’s more variability within each gender than across genders, the differences on average between males and females on mental rotation tasks are notably large, in some cases as much as a full standard deviation. (That’s a big difference.)

Psychologists have been trying for years to figure out what factors are causing this difference. And there have been no shortage of speculations, ranging from purely biological explanations, to purely environmental factors, to middle-ground psychobiological views. While a number of different factors surely play a role, recent research suggests that the difference in performance may not have to do so much with actual ability, but perceptions of that ability.

People are aware of the stereotype that females have less aptitude at math and spatial skills than men. In fact, in one study almost half of the female participants endorsed this stereotype. This awareness matters. When asked to imagine themselves as a stereotypical male, females perform much better on a mental rotation task than when they are not given such an instruction. Additionally, when women are asked to report their gender before taking a mental rotation test, they perform much worse on the test than if they identify themselves as a “private college student.” This finding has been explained by “stereotype threat” — the tendency for members of a negatively stereotyped group to underperform on tasks relevant a culturally salient stereotype. According to this account, having females report their gender before taking the mental rotation task makes the cultural stereotype more salient to them, thus causing performance-reducing anxiety.

It’s intriguing how easily these effects can be nudged, for both males and females. In another important study, both men and women completed a test of mental rotation, and were then either informed that men do better on the task, or women do better on the task. The same participants then took another test of mental rotation. Women performed significantly worse after being told men do better on the task, whereas women who were told that women do better on the task performed significantly better at the very same task. Similarly, men performed better after being told that men are better at the task and performed worse after being told that women are better at the task. What we believe is true matters. To a very large extent, our beliefs create our own reality.

But what’s the psychological mechanism at play here? Some stereotype threat researchers have proposed that confidence is playing a key role here. Perhaps the stereotype threat is impacting confidence, and it is this decrease in confidence that is impacting performance. To test whether confidence explains the gender difference in mental rotation performance, Zachary Estes and Sydney Felker conducted four recent experiments. They administered the most common test of mental rotation, the Mental Rotations Test (MRT). In this test, participants are presented with one standard figure and four alternative figures. Two of the alternative figures are rotated versions of the standard figure, whereas the other two are mirror images of the standard figure. Here’s an example:

2011-12-16-Figure165.png

Their findings are quite striking. First it should be noted that confident people, regardless of their gender, tended to be more accurate. So confidence matters for everyone. They did find statistically significant gender effects though. Consistent with prior research, males on average were more confident and more accurate than women on the mental rotation test. Note these are only averages, there were women who were more confident and performed better than men. At any rate, when confidence was taken into account, the gender difference in mental rotation scores almost completely evaporated. This is quite impressive, considering there are very few studies showing that one variable can completely account for this very large gender difference.

Of course, it’s still not super clear whether it’s really confidence, and not mental rotation ability, that is causing the gender difference in mental rotation performance. To get to the bottom of this, the researchers manipulated confidence, keeping everything else the same. The way they manipulated confidence was quite clever. The way the task is typically administered, participants can omit responses. Research does show that females tend to offer fewer responses than males on the Mental Rotations Task. The researchers wondered whether the possibility of omitting responses makes confidence an important factor in performing on the task. When participants aren’t required to respond, their confidence becomes relevant to the task, but when participants are required to respond, confidence should have less of an effect on performance since the person doesn’t have to evaluate their confidence on each trial.

To test this possibility, one group took the Mental Rotations Test, but were allowed to omit trials whenever they wanted. In contrast, another group was required to respond on every single trial. While they found the typical gender difference using the standard instructions, males and females did not differ from each other when they were required to give an answer on each trial. These findings support the idea that the gender differences on this task is specifically related to confidence, not ability. Once participants were again required to rate their confidence levels on each trial, a gender difference once again emerged on the task.

Finally, the researchers manipulated confidence prior to the experiment. First they had participants complete a difficult line judgment task. Performance on this task was near chance for both males and females. After completing the task, participants were randomly told either that their performance was above average or it was below average. Then, participants completed the Mental Rotations Task. Regardless of gender, those who were told that their performance on the line judgement task was above average performed better on the mental rotation task than those who were told they performed below average on the task. As they found in their prior studies, males on average outperformed females on the Mental Rotation Task. However, there was no difference in performance between females in the higher confidence group and males in the low confidence group.

Taken together, the researchers conclude that “the sex difference in mental rotation appears to be a difference of performance rather than ability.” Their results are definitely intriguing since confidence explained such a large part of the gender difference in mental rotation performance. Of course, there’s probably no one single cause of the sex difference in mental rotation ability. As the researchers note, few investigations combine multiple levels of analysis. This integration is important.

One potential area of integration is working memory. Working memory reflects the ability to store information in your mind while simultaneously processing or transforming other information. A few years back, I conducted a study that found that spatial working memory, but not verbal working memory, explained the gender difference in spatial ability. I thought these findings were really interesting, as it suggested that the cause of the gender difference was very specific to the storage of spatial information while processing other information, but was not generalized to more general working memory resources. The researchers of the current study cite my study, and speculate that confidence may be related to working memory. I find this suggestion a real possibility. Research does show that stereotype threat reduces the working memory resources available for solving the task at hand. Perhaps many of us — male and female alike — when faced with threatening situations, have decreased confidence, which then lowers the working memory resources specific to the task at hand.

So what can we do as a society to give people more of a chance to display their true colors? The researchers offer the following advice:

Potentially effective methods for achieving this outcome include rejecting the negative stereotype that women have poor spatial skills, encouraging women to view spatial skills as learnable, encouraging females to engage in more spatial tasks, and providing positive feedback when they do so.

Sensible advice, but I think this is sensible advice for just about everyone — male and female — and for every form of ability — math, English, artistic, musical, whatever. So much research now shows the importance of mindset, self-belief and confidence on performance. I look forward to more research that integrates multiple levels of analysis.

So many important questions are still left to answer. What does confidence buy you? . . .

Read the rest of the post (with links) here.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Trystan.org.

Posted in Education, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2012

Tomorrow (2/16) Daniel Gilbert, Situationist friend, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of Stumbling on Happiness, and host of the PBS television series This Emotional Life, returns to Harvard Law to deliver a talk entitled

“How To Do Precisely the Right Thing At All Possible Times.”

Most experts tell us what to decide but they don’t tell us how. So the moment we face a novel decision—should I move to Cleveland or Anchorage? Marry Jennifer or Joanne? Become an architect or a pastry chef?—we’re lost. Is it possible to do the right thing at all possible times? In fact, there is a simple method for making decisions that most people find easy to understand but impossible to follow. New research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics explains why.

February 16 – 4pm WCC – 2036 Milstein East C.

Posted in Education, Events, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situational Effects of Food Advertising

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2012

Pierre Chandonm and Brian Wansink recently posted their paper “Is Food Marketing Making Us Fat? A Multi-Disciplinary Review” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

Whereas everyone recognizes that increasing obesity rates worldwide are driven by a complex set of interrelated factors, the marketing actions of the food industry are often singled out as one of the main culprits. But how exactly is food marketing making us fat? To answer this question, we review evidence provided by studies in marketing, nutrition, psychology, economics, food science, and related disciplines that have examined the links between food marketing and energy intake but have remained largely disconnected. Starting with the most obtrusive and most studied marketing actions, we explain the multiple ways in which food prices (including temporary price promotions) and marketing communication (including branding and nutrition and health claims) influence consumption volume. We then study the effects of less conspicuous marketing actions which can have powerful effects on eating behavior without being noticed by consumers. We examine the effects on consumption of changes in the food’s quality (including its composition, nutritional and sensory properties) and quantity (including the range, size and shape of the packages and portions in which it is available). Finally, we review the effects of the eating environment, including the availability, salience and convenience of food, the type, size and shape of serving containers, and the atmospherics of the purchase and consumption environment. We conclude with research and policy implications.

Download the paper for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America.  For a listing of numerousSituaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Education, Food and Drug Law, Marketing | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Teaching Law and Psychology?

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 1, 2012

As Jon Hanson and I discuss in a chapter of the newly released book, Psychology, Ideology, and Law, within legal academia, there is a long history of resistance to incorporating insights from the mind sciences.  Particularly, within the last ten or fifteen years, however, there have been great advances on the scholarly front.  Every day, I seem to come across more articles and more law professors eagerly taking up evidence from neuroscience and psychology and applying it to legal problems and theories.

With more law and mind science student groups, blogs, and conferences cropping up all the time, the influence and reach of the field seems to be expanding at a remarkable rate.  But how much is the latest research finding its way into the law school classroom?

On Wednesday, my colleagues and I approved what amounts to our third dedicated law and mind sciences course (Law and Mind Sciences, Mental Health Law, and Behavioral Science and the Law).  I teach Law and Mind Sciences and Don Bersoff, the incoming president of the American Psychological Association and the director of our joint JD/PhD Law and Psychology Program, teaches the other two.  Although the course titles might suggest quite a bit of overlap in coverage, there is little if any, and we have had high enrollment.

It leads me to wonder, whether Drexel is an anomaly or whether the experiences at other schools are similar.  Are courses in the psychology/neuroscience of law being offered at your school?  I occasionally get emails from folks asking if I might share my syllabus or hear law professors tell me about how they bring implicit racial bias research into their employment discrimination class or work on risk perceptions into environmental law, but I’m interested whether dedicated courses are emerging.  If you teach one, know of one, or are thinking of teaching one, I’d love to hear about it!

Posted in Education, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

Officer Selection – Harvard SALMS

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2012

SALMS is excited to announce the opening of 2012 Officer Selection process, and to prepare for the new year with a Board meeting on Friday, 1/27 at noon in Houser 101:

1. NEW OFFICER SELECTION: In the next few weeks, SALMS will begin a transition from its current officer class to the leadership that will direct SALMS into the New Year. Tentative Officer titles and descriptions for the 2012 year include:

i. President

- responsible for setting the vision and agenda of the organization, for delegating responsibilities to the SALMS officers and Board, and for collaborating with the Vice President to manage the daily operations of the organization (including managing logistics of Speakers Series events).

ii. Vice President and Treasurer

- responsible for managing the SALMS budget and collaborating with the president to manage the daily operations of the organization (including managing logistics of Speakers Series events).

iii. Speakers Chair

- responsible for organizing and overseeing the selection process for the SALMS Speakers Series, as well as managing invitations and coordinating with speakers.

iv. Communications / Technology Chair

- responsible for updating and running the SALMS website and blog and maintaining the SALMS email list.

1Ls interested in serving in these positions should email dkorn[at]jd13.law.harvard.edu to schedule a meeting (please include a copy of your resume, though no prior mind science background is required).

2. SPRING ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING: At noon on Friday, January 27, 2012, in Hauser 101, the SALMS Board will meet to discuss the upcoming semester. In addition to dividing up responsibilities for the spring, we will look ahead to our scheduled Speakers Series events.

Posted in Education, Events, SALMS | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Historical Situation of Social Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 17, 2012

From The Association for Psychological Science:

Psychology textbooks have made the same historical mistake over and over. Now the inaccuracy is pointed out in a new article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For generations, social psychology students have read that Norman Triplett did the first social psychology experiment in 1889, when he found that children reeled in a fishing line faster when they were in the presence of another child than when they were alone.

But almost everything about that sentence is wrong. The new paper’s author, Wolfgang Stroebe of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, had recently published a handbook on the history of social psychology (with Aria W. Kruglanski) when he came across a 2005 reanalysis of Triplett’s data and dug farther.

It turned out that the children in the study were turning a reel, but not reeling in a fishing line, and that Triplett was studying whether children performed better with competition. For his study, he eyeballed the data—an acceptable scientific practice in the 19th century—and decided that some children performed better when competing, some performed worse, and others were not affected. The 2005 analysis found that these results were not statistically significant by modern standards.

So the modern textbooks have the details of the study wrong. But they’re also wrong that Triplett was the first psychologist to look at how people are affected by each other.

In the 1880s, Max Ringelmann studied whether workers pulled harder when they were together than when they worked alone. In 1894, Binet and Henri published a study of social influence among children and in 1887, Charles Féré authored a book that described experiments on how the presence of others could increase individual performance. But the field didn’t find its modern identity until 1924, says Stroebe, when Floyd Allport published a textbook defining social psychology as the experimental study of social behavior.

“I think the more interesting fact is that in the 1890s so many authors tried to answer questions relevant to social psychology with experimental methods,” Stroebe says. “This is much more important than to figure out who was really the first author.”

It’s time to fix the textbooks, Stroebe says. “I especially tried to get the article into a major journal in the hope that authors will take more notice of it than of articles published in historical journals.” He thinks his paper is important even though it isn’t at the cutting edge of research. “I was trained many decades ago in a period where one would have considered correcting the history of the origin of an important subfield of psychology to be important,” Stroebe writes in the conclusion of his article. “We even had a word for it. We called it scholarship.”

Peruse dozens of Situationist posts about classic social psychological experiments here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Education, History, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Motivated Ignorance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2011

From EENews:

For many people, ignorance is bliss when it comes to vexing issues like climate change, according to a new study.

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the report shows that people who know very little about an issue — say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves — tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance — a pattern described by researchers as “motivated avoidance.”

Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control.

“Our research suggests that this kind of overwhelmed feeling, and feeling that an issue is ‘above one’s head’ leads people to feel dependent on the government, and this dependence is managed by trusting the government more to deal with an issue, and this is managed by avoiding the issue,” explained Steven Shepherd, a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an author of the report, in an email.

“This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it,” he added.

The report used survey data from 511 participants between 2010 and 2011. “In four studies we manipulated how we framed a domain like the economy or energy (e.g., simple or complex), and in the one study, we manipulated whether or not a future oil shortage was said to be an immediate problem, or a distant future problem,” Shepherd said.

The researchers found that people who received complex information on an issue felt more helpless and more trusting in government compared to those who received relatively simple explanations. In addition, people who felt ignorant on a certain topic — especially issues with dire consequences like fuel shortages or climate change — would reject negative information.

But researchers say there’s more to it than just plugging your ears and saying “la la la.”

The trust-and-avoid ploy

Motivated avoidance stems from a phenomenon known as system justification. “It refers to a motivation that most people hold to believe that the systems that they function with are legitimate,” explained [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay, another author. Kay, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained that people working within a government agency or large institution can’t really influence the collective group on their own.

So they are inclined to conclude the group largely knows what it’s doing. “It doesn’t always imply that people think this is good, but they think it’s better than the government not being in control,” he said. To maintain this view, he noted, people will deliberately avoid information that contradicts it.

“Climate change is a global issue that, seemingly, is beyond the efforts of any one individual. … I think a lot of people feel unable to do anything about it,” said Shepherd. “The next best thing is to either deny it, or defer the issue to governments to deal with it. … In our research we find that one easy way to maintain that psychologically comforting trust that an issue is being dealt with is to simply avoid the issue.”

The authors also speculate that political leanings play into whether people want to trust politicians handle climate change. “I think we see this in the recent ‘Occupy’ movements, and among those pushing for governments to do more about climate change,” Shepherd said.

“People who simply distrust the government to begin with, or libertarians who prefer to have as little government involvement in their lives as possible, are also unlikely to respond to feeling dependent on the government by trusting in them more.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Environment, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Pinker on the Changing Situation of Violence

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 21, 2011

From the Harvard Gazette:

Steven Pinker wants you to know that violence has declined.

Despite civil wars in Africa and the Mideast, ongoing strife in Afghanistan, and the barrage of local and national crimes reported on the nightly news, people are living in a much more peaceful era than they might think.

“During the thousands of years humans spent as hunter-gatherers, the average rate of violent death was higher than the worst years of World War II, and about five times higher than the rate of death from all wars, genocides, and human-made famines in the 20th century,” said Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and Harvard College Professor.

“Believe it or not … today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” wrote Pinker in his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” which takes its title from that age-old dichotomy: the devil on one shoulder, whispering temptation, enticing us to act on sinister urges, and the angel on the other shoulder, holding us back with caution and consequence.

“Human nature is extraordinarily complex, and includes both bellicose and peaceable motives. Outbreaks of violence or peace depend on which is more engaged in a given time and place,” said Pinker. “Among the better angels of our nature — the psychological faculties that caused violence to decline —  are self-control, empathy, and a sense of fairness.”

But, Pinker added, “My most surprising discovery was that the most important better angel may be reason: the cognitive faculties with which we understand the physical and social world. It was an ironic discovery, given that cognition and language are my research specialty.”

What historical forces have been engaging these better angels? Pinker cites “the outsourcing of deterrence and revenge to a disinterested third party, including the police and court system; the growth of commerce, which replaces zero-sum plunder with positive-sum trade and reciprocity; the forces of cosmopolitanism, such as mobility and literacy, which encourage people to take other vantage points and hence consider their interests; and the growth of education, public discourse, science, and abstract reasoning, which discourage parochial tribalism and encourage people to treat violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.”

To put this all in context, Pinker shows that homicide rates in Europe have declined 30-fold since the Middle Ages. Human sacrifice, slavery, punitive torture, and mutilation have been abolished around the world. And, he said, “Great powers and developed countries have stopped going to war. And in the world as a whole, deaths in warfare may be at an all-time low.”

In his research, Pinker’s favorite discovery was learning that “every category of violence — from deaths in war to the spanking of children to the number of motion pictures in which animals were harmed — had declined.” That, he admitted, “makes the present less sinister, the past less innocent.”

He believes that “forms of institutionalized violence that can be eliminated by the stroke of a pen — such as capital punishment, the criminalization of homosexuality, the callous treatment of farm animals, and the corporal punishment of children in schools — will continue to decline, because decision-making elites will continue to be swept by the humanitarian tide that has carried them along for centuries.”

* * *

“. . . . ‘Better Angels’ made me appreciate the forces of civilization and enlightenment which have made our lives so much more peaceable than those of our ancestors: the police, a court system, democracy, education, literacy, commerce, science, the Enlightenment, and the forms of secular humanism that grew out of it — which are easy to take for granted.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

One series of posts was devoted to the situational sources of war.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Education | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Penn State Bystanders

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 14, 2011

Many blame-laden fingers have been pointed at those who didn’t act immediately and decisively to stop the sexual atrocities that took place at Penn State.  We all know what the right thing to do was, and we are all confident that we would have done it.

But should we be?

To state the obvious, what transpired within the Penn State football system was wrong on many levels.  We know that rape is wrong, that rape should never happen, that if a rape does occur, it should be stopped from happening again.   We know that pedophilia is wrong, that using power to exploit the vulnerable is wrong, that turning a blind eye to misdeeds is wrong. Still, wrong happens.

Perhaps going forward many of us may be more likely to “do the right thing” after this media frenzy than we would have been had we never been confronted with this story.  But I’m interested in a slightly different question:  would we ourselves, in the precise situation of those we are judging, really have acted so differently?  Would we have immediately, vocally, and publicly intervened, protested, and contacted the police?

As this blog routinely highlights, for more than a half century, social psychology has been dismantling the notion that we can accurately predict our own behavior in strange situations.   The names of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Phil Zimbardo are all familiar because of what their research reveals: We often fail where we expect we would succeed.

And yet that lesson doesn’t stick; the illusion of our own imagined heroism remains robust.  Even many of us familiar with the countless experiments illustrating the power of situation and the illusion of disposition manage to exempt ourselves from those lessons and assign blame to those who did not measure up to our standards.

We easily assign blame when they found ways to diffuse responsibility.  We see with clarity where they saw ambiguity.   We wonder how could they be so blind and so immoral and conclude that they are not like us.

To reach such a conclusion, we  place more faith in our rage than we do in the lessons of social science.  A mountain of research shows that we  have much more in common with those we judge harshly than we want to believe.  Among those similarities is the motive to see ourselves, our groups, our systems, and our world in affirming ways.  The tendency to see “them” as different and ourselves as superior is a symptom of the same nonconscious motivational force that allowed “them” to see themselves as doing enough.

We should resolve to do the right thing both when we encounter wrongdoing and when we judge others who encounter wrongdoing.  That is not only the honest and empathetic approach, it is our best hope to gird ourselves against the strong currents of our own situation.

* * *

The following 37-minute video was assembled hastily to introduce a small group of my students to the events unfolding at Penn State.  It contains video clips that depict, among other things, the integral role that football has long played at Penn State, the legendary and iconic status of Joe Paterno at that university, the different perspectives taken of those events and of Joe Paterno, and the various ways in which public and private law and the media have shaped the coverage and the reaction to the unfolding events.  The video also includes several clips from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” series hosted by John Quiñones.  Those clips might help remind viewers of some of the ways in which we tend to overestimate our own propensity to speak up, to resist, to get involved, or to fight back and underestimate our readiness to sit on our hands, to turn away, to opt for rose-tinted spectacles, or to go with the flow.

The video, be warned, has many problems (e.g., quality, editing, organization, redundancies); it did, however, provide useful fodder for what I thought was an illuminating discussion.  Because of that, I decided to include it here in case others might find it useful.  Though credits are not included, the vast majority of the videos can be found on Youtube.

A Sample of related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Bystander Effect at Penn State

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2011

From Time:

The grand jury investigation that resulted in 40 counts of child abuse against Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, has raised profoundly unsettling psychological and moral questions about the actions — or lack thereof — of others involved in the case.

Head football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the university on Wednesday for his failure to intervene upon learning about the alleged long-running abuse. But many more questions center on Mike McQueary, who is still employed by Penn State; he witnessed child rape firsthand in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant coach, but did not alert the police.

How is it that a powerfully built ex-quarterback could watch the rape of a 10-year-old boy and do nothing to stop it? Why did he neglect to report what he saw to legal authorities for nearly a decade, even knowing that the perpetrator spent much of his time with at-risk youth? And why did the team and the university fail to act at every possible step?

McQueary, who is now a wide receivers coach at Penn State, did tell his superior, Paterno, about the attack he witnessed eight years ago, but he did not call the police or get help for the boy at the time. (Now reportedly the focus of death threats, McQueary won’t be coaching Saturday’s game against Nebraska.) McQueary isn’t the only alleged witness to do nothing: a Penn State janitor witnessed a separate assault on a child two years earlier, and similarly failed to contact police.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

* * *

. . . Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., * * * says that group dynamics do influence our actions, but not exactly the way we think. His own research has shown that being with others doesn’t always — or even typically — reduce altruistic behavior. However, the type of group we’re in and the relationships we have with its members, and with outsiders, do tend to influence how likely or unlikely we may be to help.

When the actions of a group are public and visible, insiders who behave in an unacceptable way — doing things that “contravene the norms of the group,” Levine says — may actually be punished by the group more harshly than an outsider would be for the same behavior. “It’s seen as a threat to the reputation of the group,” says Levine.

In contrast, when the workings of a group are secretive and hidden — like those of a major college football team, for instance, or a political party or the Catholic priesthood — the tendency is toward protecting the group’s reputation by covering up. Levine suggests that greater transparency in organizations promotes better behavior in these situations.

“It’s the norms and the values of the group that are important,” Levine says, noting that this fact doesn’t reflect very well on Penn State. Indeed, the riot that broke out after the firing of revered coach Paterno — who appears to have covered up for his former colleague, Sandusky, or at least looked the other way, rather than reporting him to the police — suggests that group solidarity with the football team still takes priority over support for abused children at the school.

Another factor that may have prevented action by McQueary and others is denial. Social psychologist Stanley Cohen identified several forms of denial that may cause people to ignore atrocities. There’s the denial that commonly occurs in response to difficult situations like receiving a cancer diagnosis or becoming addicted to drugs: the simple repressing of information and refusal to admit that the problem exists or has occurred.

In McQueary’s case, however, there seems to have been another type of denial at play, which Cohen labeled “interpretative.” “You don’t deny that something happened, but try to transform the meaning of it,” says Levine, explaining that a witness might minimize the significance of a crime or try to see it as something other than it was.

McQueary may well have been psychologically unable to accept that a man like Sandusky, someone he admired, had actually committed the abhorrent crime he witnessed. Research suggests that when people are faced with situations that threaten their view of the world as relatively fair and decent, rather than revising their own perspective, they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.

* * *

A third factor that influences the likelihood that people will intervene in violence is whether they feel their actions will be supported by others in the community around them. Levine studied the case of James Bulger, a 2-year-old who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by two older boys in 1990 in Liverpool. Many witnesses saw the boys with the bleeding toddler, but since the boys claimed to be the victim’s brothers, no one confronted them.

* * *

While it is not clear exactly how the norms or values of Penn State may have affected the lack of action by its leadership in response to such vile abuse, it is clear that something went very wrong. A pedophile should not have been allowed to operate with impunity, especially after having been caught in the act twice.

Understanding the psychology of these situations can help increase the chances that bystanders will step up when people need assistance, but it does not excuse the failures of those who do nothing.

More.

Posted in Education, Illusions, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Studying the Situation of Drinking among College Students

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 11, 2011

From Eureka Alert:

Perceptions of peer drinking of alcohol may be the strongest predictor of excessive alcohol use among college students according to new research by Clayton Neighbors, a professor and director of the social psychology program in the department of psychology at the University of Houston (UH).

Neighbors is the principal investigator for a $2.8 million grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) titled, “Social Norms and Alcohol Prevention (SNAP)” to address problem drinking among college students. The five-year study involves 2,000 UH students and three universities, including UH as the primary site of the research study, Loyola Marymount University and the University of Washington.

“College students drink more alcohol than any other segment in the population, leading at times to negative consequences from missing class, risky sexual behavior, depression, driving under the influence, trouble with authorities, injuries and even fatalities,” Neighbors said. “We have established in previous research studies that students overestimate drinking by their peers, and that influences their own drinking. If you can change those perceptions, you can change their drinking.”

The research study starts in January 2012 and will collect campus-wide norms of drinking behavior by screening 2,000 UH students. The students will be invited to participate in the study by e-mail and asked to take a brief computer-based survey to report their demographic characteristics, personality traits and typical drinking behavior, and related experiences. Students who meet the criteria for the study will be asked back to participate in a longer battery of questions. Information gathered from this survey will be used to develop personalized normative feedback (PNF), a brief individualized intervention whereby the students are given feedback in person regarding their own drinking, their perceptions of other students’ drinking and other students’ actual drinking.

“Most students actually drink no more than three or four drinks per week. But most students think their peers are drinking much more than that and their own drinking is based in part on their exaggerated perceptions of their peers’ drinking. Students drink what they perceive to be a ‘normal’ amount, but most overestimate the actual “normal” amount. Students also overestimate how much their peers gamble.” Neighbors said. “The extent to which you have these exaggerated perceptions, the more likely you are to engage in heavy behavioral problem drinking, gambling or whatever the behavior is, so that’s an area we think about in terms of intervention. We have a chance to change the behavior and also inform people of what the actual normal behavior is, so we can give them real factual, truthful information about their peers. We show them what is reality, with the hope of bringing down the problem behavior.”

Neighbors notes this study is unique in that it builds on previous research studies and refines the measure of perceptions of drinking in college students to better understand what social and individual factors lead to their drinking. The overarching goal of the proposed research is to improve the understanding of why, for whom, and under what conditions personalized normative feedback is most effective. “If you are going to use social influence interventions, you really go to know who these people care about,” Neighbors said. “That’s what we’re suggesting, and that is what this data will tell us at the end of five years.”

Image from Flickr.

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Posted in Education | 1 Comment »

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison and Kingsfield’s Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 31, 2011

Last week, Phil Zimbardo delivered another remarkable lecture at Harvard Law School — this time tracing his journey from studying evil to inspiring heroism.  We hope to post that video in several weeks.  For his introduction, Situationist Editor Jon Hanson assembled this short video comparing Professor Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment and Professor Kingsfield’s Harvard Law School (The Paper Chase), both of which reached their 40th anniversary this year.

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Posted in Classic Experiments, Education, Events, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Miss Representation – Premieres Tonight on OWN

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2011

The documentary explores how the media’s misrepresentation of women has led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence. It will premiere in the US tonight at 9pm ET.

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Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Education, Entertainment, Marketing, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Lee Ross on the Power of Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2011

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Judge Nancy Gertner on her Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 2011

On Joining the Harvard Law Faculty:

On Life After the Bench:

On Being a Passionate Advocate:

On Women and the Law:

Insights from the Federal Bench:

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An Eye for Detail: Reforming Witness Identification Procedures

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 4, 2011

As a number of Situationist contributors have chronicled, bringing research from psychology and neuroscience to legal problems has been met with quite a lot of resistance over the years.  One of the major impediments has been that this research often tells us things about ourselves and our system that we do not want to hear.

That said, there have been some success stories and it is interesting to think about the particular circumstances that brought them about.  The eyewitness identification revolution is just such an example and, as I’ve argued in a recent article, I think the growing advances in this regard have a lot to do with the ability of eyewitness identification researchers “to apply the insights in concrete ways that do not entirely destabilize or threaten the system”:

In a number of cases, legal scholars have managed to negate the anxiety and discomfort entailed in research that calls into question the legitimacy of our existing institutions, structures, or process of justice, by offering the findings cautiously (such that the footings of our legal system are shaken, but not irreparaly cracked) and by translating studies into readily implementable changes that police departments, courts, and others can implement without throwing their operations into disarray.  For example, researchers challenging naïve models of how memory works and suggesting that existing eyewitness identifications were deeply flawed, were subsequently able to offer a set of reforms shown to significantly increase identification reliability, including introducing sequential lineups as an alternative to simultaneous lineups, choosing foils that all match the witness’s initial description of the perpetrator, and having police officers use open-ended questions rather than leading ones.

The practical results have been impressive.  In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an 8000-word national guide on the collection and preservation of eyewitness evidence.  Some major police departments, like those in Denver and Dallas, have taken aggressive steps to combat the problem.  And in mid-August, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a sweeping 134-page decision that honestly acknowledged the scope and gravity of the problem:

Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications.  From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real.  Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country

As a result, the Court ordered judges to consider numerous problematic factors that can impact of the reliability of witness identifications and to inform jurors of the risks of misidentification.

New Jersey is a leader in the area of criminal law and the hope is that this decision will have a cascading effect.

I am hopeful that the evidence has just become too overwhelming to ignore and that national change is on the horizon.  In the last three decades, there have been more than 2,000 studies on eyewitness identifications and the best estimates suggest that roughly a third of the 75,000 annual eyewitness identifications turn out to be wrong.  Indeed, University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett has found that there were 190 mistaken eyewitness identifications out of the first 250 DNA exonerations.

Those are shocking statistics, but, in truth, the battle for meaningful reform has a long way to go.  The U.S. has more than 16,000 independent law enforcement agencies that deal with eyewitness identifications and many of them are still doing things exactly as they have always done things.  The Supreme Court is set to take up its first eyewitness identification case in 34 years this November, but it’s on a limited issue and presents a poor case for the type of sweeping national agenda-setting that is necessary to truly protect the accused.

* * *

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The Scalability of Cities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2011

From TedTalks:

Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

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David Brooks, the Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2011

From New York Times:

Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen a number of gigantic policies produce disappointing results — policies to reduce poverty, homelessness, dropout rates, single-parenting and drug addiction. Many of these policies failed because they were based on an overly simplistic view of human nature. They assumed that people responded in straightforward ways to incentives. Often, they assumed that money could cure behavior problems.

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications.

* * *

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

Let’s say you want to reduce poverty. We have two traditional understandings of poverty. The first presumes people are rational. They are pursuing their goals effectively and don’t need much help in changing their behavior. The second presumes that the poor are afflicted by cultural or psychological dysfunctions that sometimes lead them to behave in shortsighted ways. Neither of these theories has produced much in the way of effective policies.

Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard have recently, with federal help, been exploring a third theory, that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits.

A quick question: What is the starting taxi fare in your city? If you are like most upper-middle-class people, you don’t know. If you are like many struggling people, you do know. Poorer people have to think hard about a million things that affluent people don’t. They have to make complicated trade-offs when buying a carton of milk: If I buy milk, I can’t afford orange juice. They have to decide which utility not to pay.

These questions impose enormous cognitive demands. The brain has limited capacities. If you increase demands on one sort of question, it performs less well on other sorts of questions.

Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.

Princeton students don’t usually face extreme financial scarcity, but they do face time scarcity. In one game, they had to answer questions in a series of timed rounds, but they could borrow time from future rounds. When they were scrambling amid time scarcity, they were quick to borrow time, and they were nearly oblivious to the usurious interest rates the game organizers were charging. These brilliant Princeton kids were rushing to the equivalent of payday lenders, to their own long-term detriment.

Shafir and Mullainathan have a book coming out next year, exploring how scarcity — whether of time, money or calories (while dieting) — affects your psychology. They are also studying how poor people’s self-perceptions shape behavior. Many people don’t sign up for the welfare benefits because they are intimidated by the forms. Shafir and Mullainathan asked some people at a Trenton soup kitchen to relive a moment when they felt competent and others to recount a neutral experience. Nearly half of the self-affirming group picked up an available benefits package afterward. Only 16 percent of the neutral group did.

People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

More.

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Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Heroism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 7, 2011

From NPR’s Morning Edition:

In 1971, at Stanford University, a young psychology professor created a simulated prison. Some of the young men playing the guards became sadistic, even violent, and the experiment had to be stopped.

The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that people tend to conform — even when that means otherwise good people doing terrible things. Since then, the experiment has been used to help explain everything from Nazi Germany to Abu Ghraib.

Now, in a new project, [Situationist Contributor] Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who created the prison experiment, is trying to show that people can learn to bring out the best in themselves rather than the worst.

An Unwanted Legacy

Four decades after he created the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo says he’s still hearing about it.

“I hate the idea that the Stanford prison study is the main thing most people know me for,” he says.

Zimbardo has done many things. He was a professor of psychology at Stanford University for 40 years. He’s been president of the American Psychological Association. He’s written a book about the psychology of time and established a clinic for shy people. But he says his other achievements are often overlooked.

“Soon as people meet me, I go around the world, ‘Oh you’re the prison guy,’” he says.

Here’s how the experiment worked: Zimbardo recruited 24 male college students and paid them $15 a day to spend two weeks in a fake prison in a basement on the Stanford campus. Half the students were assigned to be guards, the others were prisoners.

As an educational video made about the experiment put it, “What happened surprised everyone, including Zimbardo. The illusion became reality. The boundary between the role each person was playing and his real personal identity was erased.” Some of guards in the experiment became abusive, and prisoners showed signs of mental breakdown. After six days, Zimbardo shut the experiment down and sent everyone home.

‘Here I Am, This Evil Scientist’

His reputation was sealed: He was the guy who had revealed that normal people can do very bad things — if you expose them to wrongdoing, even evil, they’ll join in.

“So here I am, this evil scientist, creating this situation where evil is dominating good,” he says.

The problem is, Zimbardo doesn’t see himself that way. He sees himself as a force of good in the world, not evil. And so now, retired from teaching at the age of 78, he has a new project, one that aims to change his legacy in a dramatic way: to turn regular people into heroes.

Not comic book heroes. But, rather, someone who would have helped Jews escape the Holocaust. Or even something more ordinary, like standing up for a classmate who’s being bullied.

“Heroes are not extraordinary people,” he says. “They’re ordinary people who do an extraordinary thing, step out of themselves, put their best self forward in service to humanity. And it starts with internalizing heroic imagination, namely — I could do it.”

So he’s calling it the Heroic Imagination Project. It’s a nonprofit training organization based in San Francisco. One of the first programs has been to teach heroism at a charter high school, called ARISE, in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Oakland, Calif.

Over the course of the year, Clint Wilkins been teaching students in the heroism course to recognize how their environment can shape their behavior. “As you can see,” he tells his students, “there are two kinds of ways of conforming, right? Do you guys remember which they are?”

Heroes Needed

Conformity is not an abstract concept to these students. Two years ago, the bystander effect happened not far from here. A 16-year-old girl was gang-raped by at least six men during a homecoming dance. Dozens of kids watched, some sent texts to their friends, telling them to come check it out. It took two hours before anyone called the police.

So this class is about training kids to break away from the pack, to be the person who defies conformity and does the right thing.

“They had to see the girl, you know?” says Phillip Johnson, a senior in the heroism class. “They had to see that girl go in the back with all those guys. Like if I see a group of guys in a circle, or something, I’m going to be like, what’s going on here? It’s like, oh. Woah. But that didn’t happen, apparently.”

The other students fall silent. Like Phillip, they’d like to think they would have been the one to call the cops. But if there’s one lesson to be learned from this class, it’s this: You aren’t always the person you think you’re going to be. Being able to imagine a different life for yourself is part of this school — and it’s the point of this heroism course.

It seems to be taking hold in Brandon Amaro. He’s a sweet-faced, 16-year-old kid who grew up in a farm town in southern California. Brandon says sometimes he feels like he could do something really exceptional with his life, something even his parents might not know he’s capable of. But then he starts having doubts.

He says it’s as if there are two Brandons. “The good one,” he says, “is like an over-energetic bee in my ear, always buzzing and buzzing, telling me, ‘You can do it, you can do it. Go for it.’” Then there’s the bad one, “who’s kind of like someone pressing down on your shoulders. He sees something good, he says, ‘No, you can’t try.’”

Brandon says when he imagines himself grown up, he’s just not so conflicted anymore. “The older me is going to be much more mature, more confident,” he says. “He’s going to walk and everybody’s going to just know it’s him. He’s going to know who he is.”

Can Courage Be Taught?

Zimbardo says he sees himself in these kids. After all, he grew up poor, too. “Growing up on welfare, in poverty, in the ghetto, in the south Bronx, amidst evil, drugs, prostitution and gangs and violence — I rose above that,” he says. “In some mystical way, I have always been the leader.”

But the question is, why did Zimbardo rise above? Why does anybody become a leader, or a hero, and someone else becomes a follower, or worse? And do we have a choice? Zimbardo’s class is teaching the students that they do.

But other social psychologists believe humans are more hard-wired than that. For example, they say criminal behavior comes from individual differences in personality, things like lack of self-control. These are differences we’re either born with or things we never learned as children.

Augustine Brannigan, who studies criminal behavior at the University of Calgary in Canada, is one of these people. When asked what he thinks of the idea of a heroism class, he replies, “Whether you can teach them to be heroes? No. What you can do is you can expose them to the narrative about heroes. If it takes, it takes. If it doesn’t, they still have the narrative, and they can respect it. But that doesn’t mean you’ve changed their behavior.”

Zimbardo aims to prove this thinking wrong. He’s betting that by studying heroic narratives, learning about human nature and taking on community service projects, the students will actually change the way they act.

A Practical Lesson

One afternoon, while the students are in heroism class, a fight breaks out in the hallway. Not students, but some neighborhood kids, possibly gang-affiliated, drift in from the street and start causing trouble. A teacher calls 911.

The students in the heroic imagination class cluster in the doorway, craning their necks to get a better look. And when they return to their seats, they begin to wonder: Maybe this was exactly one of those opportunities they’d been talking about, a chance to step up and be a hero. But it all happened so fast, and no one did anything.

“Students could have been, like, you know, someone come get this person,” remarks senior Phillip Johnson. “It shouldn’t have been a group of people watching.” On the other hand, other students argue, maybe having a teacher call the police was exactly the right thing to do.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when it is the right time to do something extraordinary, they say, and when it’s better to just stay on the sidelines.

* * *

Listen to the story here.

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Posted in Altruism, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Education, Ideology, Life, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

HIP on NPR!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2011

The Heroic Imagination Project, directed by Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo, is excited to announce that we will be featured on NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday July 4, 2011.

The piece will run during Morning Edition’s weekly “Your Health” segment, and will focus on the idea of teaching Heroism. The program features Dr. Zimbardo and several of the students from ARISE high school.

Please check your local listings to find out when Morning Edition will be airing in your region. Schedules and stations are available here.

Posted in Education, Events | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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