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Neurolaw Sampler

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2008

From ForaTV, we’ve pasted  a video of the 95-minute “Battle of Ideas” panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Ideas in London and titled “My Brain Made Me Do It.

“[H]ow much can science tell us about behaviour? Do scientific findings justify the government’s many interventions into the early years of children’s lives? Should neuroscience enjoy an exalted place in the courtroom? Are policies being developed because of genuine advances in scientific knowledge – or is science being (mis)used, perhaps in the place of political conviction, to justify policies?”

The panel is composed of the following speakers: Steve Yearley; Raymond Tallis; Jeffrey Rosen; Pierre Magistretti; and David Perks.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

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A recent episode of Justice Talking, a weekly radio program of the National Public Radio network, is devoted to Neurolaw: The New Frontier:

“Some lawyers are using brain scans showing defects to argue that their clients aren’t responsible for criminal behavior. In recent years, this neuroscientific evidence has been increasingly used in our courtrooms. But some scientists argue that the imaging is still new and unreliable, while others question whether juries should be ruling on what counts as a ‘defective’ brain. As neurolaw grows in influence, it could potentially revolutionize our notions of guilt and punishment as criminals say ‘my brain made me do it.’ Might we be, one day, just a brain scan away from a form of lie detection and prediction of criminal behavior?”

The show is broken into five parts among which you can pick and choose. Guests include neurologist Dr. Larry Farwell, attorney Mary Kennedy, Professor Carter Snead, Professor Joshua Greene, Professor Stephen Morse, and Dr. Daniel Amen.

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For a few related Situationist posts, see “Law & the Brain,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “The Science of Morality,” and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Video | 3 Comments »

A (Situationist) Body of Thought

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 7, 2008

Mind Body

In a Boston Globe article last month, Drake Bennett summarized some of the recent research suggesting “that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.” The entire piece is well worth reading; we’ve excerpted a few highlights below.

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The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on — that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.

The term most often used to describe this new model of mind is “embodied cognition,” and its champions believe it will open up entire new avenues for understanding — and enhancing — the abilities of the human mind. Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting. Specialists in rehabilitative medicine could potentially use the emerging findings to help patients recover lost skills after a stroke or other brain injury. The greatest impact, however, has been in the field of neuroscience itself, where embodied cognition threatens age-old distinctions — not only between brain and body, but between perceiving and thinking, thinking and acting, even between reason and instinct — on which the traditional idea of the mind has been built.

“It’s a revolutionary idea,” says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida. “In the embodied view, if you’re going to explain cognition it’s not enough just to look inside the brain. In any particular instance, what’s going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what’s going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment.”

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. . . [T]oday, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are making much bolder claims. A few argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn’t walk upright, for example, or weren’t warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.

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Embodied cognition upends several centuries of thinking about thinking.

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In the 1980s, . . . a group of scholars began to contest this approach.Jane Goodall - Mirror Neurons Fueled in part by broad disappointment with artificial-intelligence research, they argued that human beings don’t really process information the way computers do, by manipulating abstract symbols using formal rules. In 1995, a major biological discovery brought even more enthusiasm to the field. Scientists in Italy discovered “mirror neurons” that respond when we see someone else performing an action — or even when we hear an action described – as if we ourselves were performing the action. By simultaneously playing a role in both acting and thinking, mirror neurons suggested that the two might not be so separate after all.

“You were seeing the same system, namely the motor system, playing a role in communication and cognition,” says Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology and head of the embodied cognition laboratory at Arizona State University.

This realization has driven much of the recent work looking at how moving and thinking inform and interfere with each other. For example, a pair of studies published in 2006 by Sian Beilock, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Lauren Holt, one of her former students, examined how people who were good at certain physical activities thought about those activities.

In one study, Beilock and Holt had college hockey players, along with a non-hockey-player control group, read a sentence, sometimes hockey-related, sometimes not. Then the subjects would be shown a picture and asked if it corresponded with the sentence. Hockey players and non-hockey players alike almost invariably answered correctly, but on the hockey-related sentences the response times of the hockey players were significantly faster than the nonplayers. . . . According to Beilock, the difference in response time wasn’t a matter of knowledge – after all, all of the subjects in the study got the vast majority of the questions right. What it suggested, Beilock argues, is that the athletes’ greater store of appropriate physical experiences served as a sort of mental shortcut.

“People with different types of motor experiences think in different ways,” she argues.

These sorts of results aren’t simply limited to thinking about sports, or other highly physical activities. A 2003 study by Michael Spivey, a psychology professor at Cornell, and his student Elizabeth Grant, found that people who were given a tricky spatial relations brainteaser exhibited a distinctive and unconscious pattern of eye movements just before they arrived at the answer. The subjects seemed to unconsciously work through the problem by enacting possible solutions with their gaze.

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Other studies have looked at non-spatial problems and at memory. Work led by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that children given arithmetic problems that normally would be too difficult for them are more likely to get the right answer if they’re told to gesture while thinking. . . .

The body, it appears, can subtly shape people’s preferences. A study led by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that subjects (all non-Chinese speakers) shown a series of Chinese Chinese Ideographideographs while either pushing down or pulling up on a table in front of them will say they prefer the ideographs they saw when pulling upward over the ones they saw while pushing downward. Work by Beilock and Holt found that expert typists, when shown pairs of two-letter combinations and told to pick their favorite, tend to pick the pairs that are easier to type – without being able to explain why they did so.

What’s particularly interesting to neuroscientists is the role that movement seems to play even in abstract thinking. Glenberg has done multiple studies looking at the effect of arm movements on language comprehension. In Glenberg’s work, subjects were asked to determine whether a string of words on a computer screen made sense. To answer they had to reach toward themselves or away from themselves to press a button.

What Glenberg has found is that subjects are quicker to answer correctly if the motion in the sentence matches the motion they must make to respond. If the sentence is, for example, “Andy delivered the pizza to you,” the subject is quicker to discern the meaning of the sentence if he has to reach toward himself to respond than if he has to reach away. The results are the same if the sentence doesn’t describe physical movement at all, but more metaphorical interactions, such as “Liz told you the story,” or “Anne delegates the responsibilities to you.”

The implication, Glenberg argues, is that “we are really understanding this language, even when it’s more abstract, in terms of bodily action.”

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“I think these findings are really fantastic and it’s clear that there’s a lot of connection between mind and body,” says Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He remains skeptical, though, that the roots of higher cognition will be found in something as basic as the way we walk or move our eyes or arms.

“Any time there’s a fad in science there’s a tendency to say, ‘It’s all because of this,”‘ Markman says. “But the thing in psychology is that it’s not all anything, otherwise we’d be done figuring it out already.”

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To read the entire article, click here. To read related Situationist posts, go to “A Closer Look at Interior Situation,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”

Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – January ’08

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 3, 2008

Josh Radovan & Digital Methods Initiative

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during January. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From In Mind: Are Stereotypes True?

“Are African Americans really better at basketball than Caucasians? Are blonds really dumber than brunettes? Are women really worse at math than men? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is no. Let me explain by focusing on the stereotype that women can’t do math. At first glance, this stereotype seems to be true. For instance, men continue to outperform women on the math sections of the SAT and GRE, and men outnumber women in college math courses and math-related jobs. Surely this is evidence that women are not as good at math as men. But as this article will explain stereotypes are self-perpetuating and not only reflect but also cause performance differences between groups.Read more . . . .

From In Mind: The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power

“Because power is something we often avoid discussing openly, its nonverbal communication is fascinating to lay people and psychologists alike. When directly asked, people interpret many different nonverbal signs as indicating high or low power – unfortunately, these ideas are often exaggerated and misguided. Likewise, social psychologists still have no good understanding of the nonverbal cues to power. This article sheds more light on what is actually underlying nonverbal communication of power. We identify two new insights: First, much of the nonverbal communication of power takes places unconsciously and is hard to control. Second, people use abstract schemas to judge power, and they not only apply these schemas to understanding body talk, but also elements of art, advertisement, and architecture.” Read more . . . .

From Laura’s Psychology Blog: Quick judgments of sexual orientation . . .

“We are remarkably good at making quick judgments of people. In an analysis of choices made during speed dating, the authors comment, ‘HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their judgments, but they mostly could be made in three seconds.’ Not too surprisingly, these quick choices are made on the basis of physical appearance. For men in the HurryDate study, choices were dominated by a woman’s thinness. Women preferred men who were physically attractive, young, medium build, and of a similar race to themselves. Nalini Ambady and Nicholas Rule have extended our understanding of these quick judgments to sexual orientation.” Read more . . . .

From Mind Hacks: Mapping emotions onto the city streets

“Christian Nold maps cities. But instead of mapping their physical layout, he maps their emotional geography. He uses a technique he invented called biomapping where participants walk the area connected to a system that measures galvanic skin response – a measure of the electrical resistance of the skin which is known to give a rating of arousal and stress.” Read more . . . .

From Neuromarketing: Why Choose This Book? (Book Review)

Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions by Read Montague sounds like the perfect read for neuromarketing and neuroeconomics enthusiasts. In fact, the book does provide some interesting insights but the overall density of actionable information, at least for marketers, is fairly low. The title might lead one to believe that the book is a distillation of consumer purchasing behavior, but in fact it is a wide-ranging discussion of the neuroscience of human decision making.” Read more . . . .

From OrgTheory: violence, individual or relational?

“Violence is a gritty topic. Movies and books often glorify violence and treat it as an individual feat. Some individuals are violent, most are not. This common view of violence – seeing it as an individual outcome – easily leads us to see violence as causally determined by innate tendencies or characteristics, some of which may be products of genes or hormonal differences. Thus, we can say with some confidence that men are more violent than women because of differences in biological makeup. Randall Collins’s new book from Princeton University Press, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, challenges this conception of violence. . . . [A] predisposition is not a sufficient cause for violent behavior. If it were, we’d see much more violence than we actually see. Violence as a behavior is relatively rare and tends to be concentrated in particular kinds of situations.” Read more . . . .

From PsyBlog: The double edged sword of the cabbies’ hippocampi

“With all the conferences that are going on lots of us are starting to look forward to the new 2008 specifications: what are the studies like; what else have the authors done? One of the new studies in the physiological psychology module of the AS is Maguire’s research into the size of London cabbies’ hippocampus. Through the use of MRI scanners her and her team have studied the hippocampi of London cabbies to investigate if their choice of vocation has had any cognitive or physiological effect on their brain. Read more . . . .

From PsyBlog: Is Modern Self-Help Just a Massive Money-Making Scam?

“From humble beginnings, self-help books have now colonised huge and ever-growing areas of bookshops. Best-selling titles like ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus‘, or ‘Don’t Worry, Make Money‘ promise to teach us how to fix our relationships and live ‘more fully’. But are these, and other come-ons, just empty assurances designed to sell a product?Read more . . . .

From Research Digest Blog: The type of interrogation likely to lead to false confessions

“Not surprisingly, confessions are extremely persuasive in court, but according to Jessica Klaver and colleagues, all too often these confessions are false, leading to the wrong person being found guilty. Now Klaver’s team have used an elegant laboratory task to compare two types of interrogation technique and found that it is so-called ‘minimising’ questions and remarks – those that downplay the seriousness of the offence, and which blame other people or circumstances [i.e., situation] – that are the most likely to lead to a false confession.Read more . . . .

From The Splintered Mind: Rationalizing Emotions and The Moral Behavior of Kantians

“I’ve recently been enjoying Joshua Greene’s “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul” (penultimate manuscript available here). Greene’s research suggests that the moral judgments of Kantian deontologists (who focus on such things as rights, duties, and “respect for persons”) tend largely to be rationalizations of evolutionarily-selected emotional responses, while the moral judgments of utilitarians and consequentialists (who focus on such things as maximizing the good of everyone) tend to be more rationally driven (or at least less driven by emotional “alarm systems”). The sorts of cases on which Kantians and consequentialists tend to disagree are cases where maximizing the good violates what we might perceive as someone’s rights. Should you push someone in front of a runaway trolley, thereby killing him, if that’s the only way to save five other innocent people? Should you smother your baby to death if that’s the only way to prevent yourself, your baby, and several other people from being found and killed by Nazis? The Kantian impulse (with caveats and complications, of course) is to say no in such cases, the consequentialist to say yes.Read more . . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin. Finally, we want to wish Michael Connelly all the best with the time that he will now spend not blogging. He has “turned out the lights” on his excellent blog Corrections Sentencing, which will be missed.

Posted in Blogroll, Choice Myth, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Law, Life, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Pinker on the Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2008

NYTimes Magazine CoverIn Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steven Pinker’s cover story includes an accessible synthesis of some of the recent work in the mind sciences on the sources, consequences, types, meaning, and implications of morality. The entire article is worth reading. Here is a taste of what Pinker has to say.

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It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. That is why an older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the lines of reasoning that guided people to moral conclusions. But consider these situations, originally devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

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Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

The gap between people’s convictions and their justifications is also on display in the favorite new sandbox for moral psychologists, a thought experiment devised by the philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson called the Trolley Problem. On your morning walk, you see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost everyone says “yes.”

Consider now a different scene. You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge? Both dilemmas present you with the option of sacrificing one life to save five, and so, by the utilitarian standard of what would result in the greatest good for the greatest number, the two dilemmas are morally equivalent. But most people don’t see it that way: though they would pull the switch in the first dilemma, they would not heave the fat man in the second. When pressed for a reason, they can’t come up with anything coherent, though moral philosophers haven’t had an easy time coming up with a relevant difference, either.

When psychologists say “most people” they usually mean “most of the two dozen sophomores who filled out a questionnaire for beer money.” But in this case it means most of the 200,000 people from a hundred countries who shared their intuitions on a Web-based experiment conducted by the psychologists Fiery Cushman and Liane Young and the biologist Marc Hauser. A difference between the acceptability of switch-pulling and man-heaving, and an inability to justify the choice, was found in respondents from Europe, Asia and North and South America; among men and women, blacks and whites, teenagers and octogenarians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and atheists; people with elementary-school educations and people with Ph.D.’s.

Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.

By itself this would be no more than a plausible story, but Greene teamed up with the cognitive neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen and several Princeton colleagues to peer into people’s brains using functional M.R.I. They sought to find signs of a conflict between brain areas associated with emotion (the ones that recoil from harming someone) and areas dedicated to rational analysis (the ones that calculate lives lost and saved).

When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.

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When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

Stick a pin into your palm.

Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.

Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant. Most of the moral illusions we have visited come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of community led people to frown on using an old flag to clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the people who judged the morality of consensual incest and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of extreme purity lead people to venerate religious leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of chastity and asceticism.

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All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

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The entire article is worth the read (click here). To give you a sense of what we’ve omitted, here is Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

For those with more time still to spare, we’ve included the video below of Steven Pinker’s 75-minute talk at Google about his book, The Stuff of Thought.

If you’re interested in previous Situationist posts discussing the situation of morality, check out “Your Brain and Morality,” “Why We Punish,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Science of Morality,” “Another Century of Genocide?,” and “Law & The Brain.”

Posted in Conflict, Life, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | 4 Comments »

Your Brain and Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2007

Bosch Painting

William Saletan of Slate has a thought-provoking piece on how activity in brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with social-emotional responses, indicates to what extent one will regard a belief or action as moral or immoral. Saletan’s piece is based on a fascinating study published in last week’s issue of Nature on how damage to the prefrontal cortex has been found to make one more “utilitarian,” or more caluclated in logic and less cognizant of the emotional and social implications of one’s decision-making. We have excerpted portions of Saletan’s piece below.

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Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They’re in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby’s face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it?

If you’re normal, you wouldn’t, according to a study published last week in Nature. But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would. In the study, people were given hypothetical dilemmas: Would you throw a fatally injured person off a lifeboat to save everyone else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most normal people said no. Most people with VMPC damage said yes.

It’s easy to dismiss the damaged people as freaks. But the study isn’t really about them. It’s about us. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain isn’t a single organ. It’s an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete. If you often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out, that’s because, in fact, they are.

Some of those fights are about morality. Maybe abortion grosses you out, but you’d rather keep it safe and legal. Or maybe homosexuality sounds icky, but you figure it’s nobody’s business. Emotion tells you one thing; reason tells you another. Often, the reasoning side makes calculations: Letting old people die is tragic, but medical dollars are better spent on saving kids. Throwing the wounded guy off the lifeboat feels bad, but if it will save everyone else, do it.

* * *Picture of Brain

What’s moral, in the new world, is what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit.

The catch is that what’s normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit can change. In fact, it has been changing throughout history. As our ancestors adapted from small, kin-based groups toward elaborate nation-states, the brain evolved from reflexive emotions toward the abstract reasoning power that gave birth, in this millennium, to utilitarianism. The full story is a lot more complicated, but that’s the rough outline.

And evolution doesn’t stop here. Look around you. The world of touch, tribe, and taboo is fading. Acceptance of homosexuality is spreading at an amazing pace. Trade is supplanting war. Democracy and communications technology are forcing governments to promote the general welfare. Utilitarians welcome these changes, and so do I. But utility unchecked can become a monster. The Internet is liberating us from visual and physical contact. Economic globalization is crushing resistance to the bottom line. Companies are sending employees to get cheap medical care abroad. Brokers are buying organs in slums. In a utilitarian world, you do what it takes. It’s all about helping people.

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Posted in Emotions, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Coalition of the Will-less

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 26, 2007

Michelangelo - Fall From Grace - Sistine Chapel

Searle Freedom & NeurobiologyThis weekend’s Financial Times has a cursory but helpful review by Stephen Cave of three recent books all on the topic of “free will”:

John Searle‘s Freedom & Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power;Blackmore Conversations on Consciousness

Susan Blackmore‘s Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think About the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to be Human; and

Four Views on Free WillJohn Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, and Manual Vargas‘s Four Views on Free Will.

Cave begins where many writers begin when trying to raise doubts about the nature of human will – by pointing to a couple of the now-classic experimental demonstrations of how that that “feeling of will” (what Dan Wegner aptly describes as that familiar internal “oomph” that seems to determine our conduct) is only that: a perception that we are exercising conscious control over our behavior and choices. (That “oomph,” as Jon Hanson and David Yosifon have argued, is one of the factors that leads us to put the dispositional spin on situational influences.)

Specifically, Cave loosely summarizes Benjamin Libet’s fascinating (though not uncontroversial) studies finding:

that before every such movement, there is a distinctive build-up of electrical activity in the brain. And this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious “decision” to move your arm. So by the time you think, “OK, I’ll move my arm,” your body is halfway there. Which means your conscious experience of making a decision – the experience associated with free will – is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.

// likens this finding to discovering that, “after years of driving around in your car, . . . the steering-wheel is not attached to anything, and the car has been steering by itself.” Cave also summarizes related research finding that,

when asking [subjects] to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.

Thus, even when someone else is driving our car, we attribute the car’s movements to our control. “Every time it turns left, you just move your toy steering wheel and think, ‘Ah yes, I want to turn left.’”

Those sorts of findings, Cave claims, have been further clarified with the aid of “modern neuro-imaging technology,” which has demonstrated that “our minds – our conscious, mental lives – are a product of activity in the brain,” and that, “even when we have the conscious experience of deciding, our brains have really already taken the decision for us. Free will is an illusion.”

That, according to Cave, is the point of departure of each of the three books: each “tackle[s] the question of whether we are free and what it means if we are not.”

Cave’s brief overviews of the three books are short enough already that we cannot do much to digest them further for our readers. But Cave’s ultimate conclusion is worth reiterating, as it corresponds closely with the premises that motivate The Situatonist and the scholarship of its contributors (among many others): [T]here is no doubt that as we learn more about the mechanics of the mind, we will need to rethink some of our deepest beliefs about ourselves and our society.”

* * *

P.S. Through Michael Meltzer’s excellent blog, Pooh’s Think, we learned an illuminating post and terrific set of comments reacting to Cave’s article on yet another superb blog, The Garden of Forking Paths.

Posted in Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

Thinking the Situation into Legal Theory: The Promise of Experimental Parable

Posted by David Yosifon on February 8, 2007

In law – legal theory, practice, and education – we find that a powerful way to deepen our understanding of fundamental legal principles is to examine and review their operation in past cases. One of the great benefits of the case method is that it provides the legal community with a common reservoir of elaborate stories showing human lives intersecting with abstract principles, stories that we all draw on when talking (or aruging) with each other about how fundamental principles should be applied to the myriad of unmapped circumstances upon which legal thinking is called to attend. The cases that do this work are not necessarily the most “important” cases in the sense of being landmark or doctrinally innovative. Often the most powerful cases in legal discourse derive their potency – or their frequent use, anyway – from their dramatic fact patterns, from the funny, peculiar parties that inhabit them, or their exquisite exegesis in the hands of a gifted jurist. (Lawyers think of your own favorites, Vosberg v. Putney, Meinhard v. Salmon, any of the greats).

I believe that this extraordinarily powerful method can and should be deployed by legal theorists who are concerned with bringing the lessons of social science – and the “mind sciences” in particular – to legal analysis. We can develop and deploy a canon of particularly evocative studies that provide through their constant re-telling and continual re-examination a deep and shared understanding of the meaning of “situational influence” as we might want to make use of the concept in legal analysis. Consider the parable of the Good Situation, an experimental case I have featured in the Law and Behavioralism seminar I am presently teaching at Santa Clara.

You may be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the more famous parables told by Jesus in the New Testament. That story actually emerges in the Gospel of Luke during a dialogue in which Jesus is fielding questions put to him by “a scholar of the law.” The scholar asks Jesus to define who counts as a “neighbor” for the purposes of applying the principle that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus replies with the parable: a man was beat up by thieves and left on the road hurt and helpless, a priest came by and kept right on walking, a second man came by and walked on as well. Finally came a man from Samaria, who helped the injured man (even put him up in an inn). “Which of these three . . . was neighbor to the victim?’ Jesus asks. Well, the Good Samaritan, of course. (The scholar of laws answers that it was “the one who treated him with mercy,” to which Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.”).

Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Good Samaritan” (1846)

The moniker “Good Samaritan” itself is not in the gospel, yet the familiarity of that term in our own society well signifies the dogged human tendency to attribute a person’s actions to their individual disposition (their inherent “goodness” or “fairness” or “selfishness”), often to the exclusion of appreciating the potent influence of external situation in accounting for people’s conduct. That potent influence can be grasped when we turn from the Good Samaritan to the parable of the Good Situation, which comes to us from a study John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson did in 1973: three groups of seminary students were told that they were to give a brief sermon on a chosen topic to a group that was waiting in a building on the other side of the campus. The first group of seminarians was told that they had to hurry across campus, that they were already late. The second group was told to head right over because they were expected in just a few minutes. A third group was told that they weren’t expected for a little while, but that they might as well head over early. Along the path that the seminarians had to walk to reach their appointment laid a man, hurt and needing help (feigning, for he was a collaborator in the study under way). Now who was the neighborly one?

Of the seminarians in the “high hurry” and “medium hurry” situation, just 10 percent stopped to help the wounded man. But among those in the “low hurry” situation more than 60 percent stopped to help. Who was the neighborly one? The experimental parable reveals that rather than inquire about whom among us is good, we might do better to inquire into which situations are good, in the sense of influencing neighborly behavior.

In the biblical parable, the authority for discerning that the Samaritan was good and that the others were not is confidently given over to common sense and intuition. Jesus had only to ask his interlocutor who the neighborly one was, and the interlocutor gets it right immediately. Who couldn’t? Indeed, the point of the Good Samaritan parable as Jesus told it appears to be that it should be (and is) obvious to the “scholar of laws” what it means to act neighborly. (Indeed, the scholar easily gets its right despite the traditional enmity felt between Jews and Samaritans in the scholar’s society, a rich layer of the biblical story that is largely lost in our contemporary appreciation of the tale). Yet the parable of the Good Situation suggests that discerning the contours of moral (and legal) principles may be much more difficult than our intuition would leave us to believe. If we want to understand neighborliness, it turns out, we’re going to have to talk about the neighborhood, and not just the neighbors. The authority for the conclusion this time comes not from intuition, but from science. Indeed, this parable presses the importance of holding intuition in suspicion in order to detect the influence not only of situation, but of situational manipulation – for consider the pivotal part played in the parable by the experimenters’ framing of the errand, and by the collaborating wounded man. The parable well reveals that situation is not only more powerful than we tend to appreciate, but also that situation can be influenced, harnessed, and deployed in potent and predictable ways to shape human behavior that most of us, using common sense and intuition would tend to attribute to disposition. And in law we may be called upon to examine the influence of situation more perniciously or exploitively deployed than in the controlled social science evident in our parable.

Just as in conventional legal analysis, the examination of particular situations will always require reference to particularized cases and studies, operationalizing broader understandings. But sometimes a broad orientation helps to identify which narrower cases should be examined, and from which angles. Evocative tales like the Good Situation can help think such a situationist orientation into law.

Posted in Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Philosophy, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

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