The Situationist

Paul Bloom on the Situational Effects of Religion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2013

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University and contributing author of the 2012 Annual Review of Psychology, talks about his article “Religion, Morality, Evolution.” How did religion evolve? What effect does religion have on our moral beliefs and moral actions? These questions are related, as some scholars propose that religion has evolved to enhance altruistic behavior toward members of one’s group. But, Bloom argues, while religion has powerfully good moral effects and powerfully bad moral effects, these are due to aspects of religion that are shared by other human practices. There is surprisingly little evidence for a moral effect of specifically religious beliefs.

Find the article here.  

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Ideology, Morality | 2 Comments »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by JH on November 26, 2013

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

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

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

Mahzarin Banaji on “Group Love”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 17, 2013

SillimanLecturePoster

From Yale News (by Phoebe Kimmelman):

On Thursday evening, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji delivered a talk entitled “Group Love” where she demonstrated that the audience held an implicit bias for Yale over Princeton.

Banaji, who worked as a professor of psychology at Yale from 1986-2002 before taking a similar post at Harvard, focused in her talk on how group affiliations, or lack thereof, affect the ways in which we see the world and interact with others. In her research, Banaji has helped bring Freudian theories of the subconscious in the psychology laboratory to be empirically tested.

University President Peter Salovey delivered introductory remarks, saying Banaji had been the “heart and soul” of the Yale psychology department during her 16 years there.

“She is of those scientists who changes her field with her insights and her empirical data with a deep sense of social responsibility to her colleagues, her students and her field,” Salovey said.

In the lecture to roughly 100 people, Banaji first discussed an experiment she did in 2006 at Harvard that involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while they answered random questions about two hypothetical people, presented with only their political preferences. Neuroimaging showed that the subjects used different areas of the brain to make predictions about people with whom they agree and those with whom they disagree. Banaji used this study to introduce the idea of love of the in-group, a preference people have for a group of people who think the way that they themselves do.

Through presenting multiple studies, Banaji demonstrated the magnitude of positive bias towards the in-group in subjects ranging from sports fans to elementary school students. While we may not be able to eliminate our biases, Banaji said certain cognitive strategies can “outsmart” them. For instance, Banaji said she rotates among her computer screensavers images that defy racial and gender stereotypes.

“It’s not that we hate people of another group, but it’s love for the in-group that’s paramount,” she said.

Salovey and Banaji, who started as faculty at Yale on the very same day, were close friends and next door neighbors, he said. Salovey recalled that he and Banaji were each other’s “support systems” while writing PSYC 110 lectures together.

Banaji came to campus for this year’s Silliman Memorial Lecture, an annual speakership that began in 1888 and has brought such prominent scientific figures to campus as J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Though a committee of faculty from Yale science departments usually chooses a speaker whose research is in the hard natural sciences, committee chair and Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Joan Steitz said that her colleagues were eager to hear from Banaji this year. Though the lecture has no affiliation with Silliman College, the endowment is named for the mother of Benjamin Silliman, a scientist after whom the college is named.

“If you think about the impact that psychology and neurobiology and brain science [are] having these days, the committee did not consider it at all inappropriate to be going in that direction with this particular lecture,” Steitz said.

Since leaving Yale in 2002, Banaji has served as a professor of social ethics in Harvard’s psychology department, where she has continued her research on how unconscious thinking plays out in social situations.

Nick Friedlander ’17 said he found the lecture “eye-opening” because it revealed biases he did not know he held before.

For Zachary Williams ’17, the lecture demonstrated how little of the conscious mind controls mental processes.

“It was truly a treat to be able to sit in close quarters with such a fantastic paragon of academia and hear her talk about such relevant topics,” he said.

Banaji’s most recent book is entitled “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Implicit Associations, Morality, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors | 1 Comment »

“The Future of Equality” ACS Conference – This Weekend

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 15, 2013

The American Constitution Society Northeast Regional Student Convening will bring together lawyers and law students from across the Northeast to hear leading practitioners, government officials, judges, and academics discuss a progressive vision for the future of equality across a number of salient policy issues. Learn more here.

acs future of equality poster 2013

acs 2013 schedule

Posted in Events, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Eldar Shafir – Living Under Scarcity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2013

From TEDxMidAtlantic, 2011.  Eldar Shafir is the William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Department of Psychology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His research focuses on decision-making, and on issues related to behavioral economics, with an emphasis on empirical studies of how people make decisions in situations of conflict and uncertainty.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Video | 1 Comment »

Nalini Ambady, Stanford psychology professor, dies at 54

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2013

By Bjorn Carey (Stanford News)Nalini Ambady

Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, died Oct. 28 after a long battle with leukemia. Her passing followed a yearlong, worldwide effort by family, friends and students to find a bone marrow donor match. She was 54.

A distinguished social psychologist, Ambady was well known for her research showing that people can form accurate first impressions about others based only on seconds-long observations of their nonverbal behavior.

“Thin slices,” as these quick impressions are known, are now a staple of social science textbooks, and were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Ambady was born in Calcutta, India, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Delhi University. She came to the United States for her master’s degree in psychology, from the College of William and Mary, and later received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard. While at Harvard, she met her future husband, Raj Marphatia, who was studying at Harvard Law School.

After earning her PhD in 1991, she quickly joined the ranks of academia by accepting a position as an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross; she would go on to become an associate professor at Harvard and a professor at Tufts University. Ambady joined the Stanford faculty in 2011, becoming the first person of Indian origin to teach in Stanford’s Department of Psychology.

The importance of nonverbal communication

Ambady’s work on thin slices was fueled by her passion for nonverbal behavior. She argued that nonverbal behavior is important because it is a quick, efficient and relatively effortless way of obtaining information about others. At birth, humans respond to and produce nonverbal cues and nonverbal behavior that can serve as a primary mechanism of socialization across the lifespan. As she put it, “Nonverbal behavior offers a means of adapting to the social world.”

She put these concepts to the test in one of her first publications, in 1993. She created 30-second, silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never seen the professors before to assess their teaching effectiveness. Remarkably, the scores from independent raters fell in line with those of students who had actually spent an entire semester in the professor’s class. The results held even when she shortened the clip to 10, 6 and 2 seconds.

The work demonstrated that perceptual judgments made on the basis of very brief observations of nonverbal behavior can be surprisingly accurate and can influence a person’s long-term impressions. The findings challenged established wisdom that intuitive reasoning is typically wrong and became a basis for the growing appreciation of the usefulness of nonconscious or “fast” thinking.

Ambady believed that even without conscious awareness, initial evaluative impressions can influence whom we sit next to in a subway, whom we hire for a job and, perhaps, even whom we marry. Her follow-up studies showed that similar snap evaluations can accurately predict a person’s sexual orientation or political affiliation or a CEO’s company profits.

In 1999, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton in recognition of this work. In February, she will be posthumously awarded the prestigious Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, a recognition give by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to scholars whose work has added substantially to the body of knowledge of the field.

A generous mentor and colleague

As a researcher, Ambady had a reputation for being collaborative and encouraging a very collegial lab space.

“Nalini had incredible energy, a very positive spirit,” said Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology. “She was brilliant and held herself and others to very high standards. She loved social psychology so much that people were very attracted to working with her.”

Ambady made her students and research assistants feel as though they were an extension of her family. When a first-generation college student from a low-income family was having difficulties getting to campus, Ambady took her to buy a bike. She bought a textbook for a struggling student who couldn’t afford it. And when she learned that some of her lab members either lived too far away or couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, she invited them to dinner at her house.

She took immense pride in her students, said Marphatia, her husband, and was thrilled to see them rise to tenured professorships throughout academia. When her leukemia returned last November, she stayed deeply involved with her students’ work. She met with students at home and in the hospital while she was receiving treatment, and insisted on helping researchers with their grant proposals.

“Even though she was sick, she had this tremendous focus toward others,” said Brent Hughes, a postdoctoral scholar in Ambady’s lab. “She would stay on top of us in a really deeply caring way to make sure that we had everything we needed to do well.”

Upon coming to Stanford, one of her priorities was establishing a research center called SPARQ, designed to bring social psychological answers to real-world questions.

“She was the galvanizing force behind SPARQ,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. “We now have a clinic which pairs practitioners with researchers and an online solutions catalog which describes effective interventions for a variety of social and environmental problems. This all happened within a year of Nalini coming to Stanford, and she continued to push hard on it until days before the end of her life.”

“She said, ‘Let’s take our academic research and findings and see if we can apply it to make changes in the real world,'” said Marphatia. “SPARQ is one thing that she was really looking forward to working on with her colleagues, and it is particularly disappointing that she won’t have a chance to work on that.

“It was the joy of her life to be at Stanford,” he said. “She thought it is such a wonderful environment to do research, with people inspiring each other and collaborating. It brought out the best of her professional abilities.”

A lasting legacy

One of the first projects that SPARQ-affiliated scientists will engage on will be done with Ambady in mind: A “Be the Match” initiative will aim to develop actionable ways to increase participation in bone marrow donor programs.

Ambady was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, but treatment drove the disease into remission. When it returned last November, doctors told her that she needed a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, South Asians – and minorities in general – are severely underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries in the United States.

Students and friends began fundraising drives, including Nalini Needs You, to purchase and distribute the cheek swab kits used to identify potential donor matches, both in the United States and near her birthplace in India, where doctors believed there might be a better chance of locating a genetic match.

These efforts identified previously unregistered matches for seven other people in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, for which Ambady was exceptionally pleased. Of the roughly dozen people who were potential matches for Ambady, however, half turned out to be incompatible or only superficial matches.

The others chose not to donate, a result that is common in bone marrow transplant cases. There are many reasons people ultimately decide not to donate, including cultural taboos or fears of pain or inconvenience. (Donating bone marrow is only slightly more complex than donating blood, though it requires multiple visits.) Some people’s contact information simply falls out of the system, especially the case with college-age donors who frequently change addresses.

Eberhardt and Markus said that SPARQ will partner with bone marrow registries to develop strategies for enrolling more people, and especially minorities, to participate in cheek swab tests, and also to encourage people to actually donate later on when they are identified as a match.

Ambady is survived by her husband, Raj Marphatia, and two daughters: Maya, who will enroll at Stanford next fall, and Leena, a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.

Details of a memorial have yet to be finalized. Donations can be made to the Nalini Ambady Memorial Fund, care of the Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Make checks payable to Stanford University.

Nalini Ambady was, among other things, a long-time Situationist friend who made two presentations of her extraordinary research at Harvard Law School over the years.  Her brilliance and warmth left a lasting impression on all who had the privilege of attending those talks.  Our hearts go out to her family and loved ones.

Situationist posts:

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Natasha Schvey on Obesity in the Courtroom – Today!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2013

weight bias courtroom - by Madelein witt

When: Friday 11/01/13 12-1pm
Where: WCC 2012

Today, join Section 6’s Ninja Tortles and the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) for a talk by Natasha Schvey on bias against overweight defendants in the courtroom. Schvey, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Yale University, has focused her research on obesity, weight stigma, binge eating, and eating in response to negative affect. She argues that bias against the overweight should be addressed in the legal system through means such as juror selection, jury instructions, and anti-discrimination legislation.

The talk will be held at noon in WCC 2012, and food will be served.

Posted in Events, SALMS, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Daniel Simon’s Movie Perception Test

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2013

A movie perception test by Daniel Levin & Daniel Simons.

Review all the Situationist posts presenting or discussing illusions here.

Posted in Illusions | Leave a Comment »

Conference on the Legacy of Stanley Milgram

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 25, 2013

shock generator2

Yale Law School is hosting a conference on the Legacy of Stanley Milgram this Saturday.  Unsurprisingly, many Situationist Contributors (Thomas Blass, Jon Hanson, Dan Kahan, and Tom Tyler) and Situationist friends (Phoebe Ellsworth, Doug Kysar, and Jaime Napier) will be participating.  The conference agenda is below.

Saturday, October 26, 2013
Yale Law School
Sponsored by the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund

9:00-9:30
Registration and Breakfast

9:30-10:00
Introduction
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University

10:00-11:00
The role of situational forces in shaping false confessions
Saul Kassin, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Moderator: Marcia K. Johnson, Sterling Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, Yale University=

11:00-12:00
Situationism in law
Jon D. Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor and Director, Project on Law and Mind Sciences, Harvard Law School
Moderator: Douglas Kysar, Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law, Yale Law School

12:00-12:15    Pick up box lunch12:15-1:00
Reflections on the life and work of Stanley Milgram
Thomas Blass, Professor of Psychology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of The Man Who Shocked the World
Moderator: Tom Tyler, Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, Yale Law School and Department of Psychology, Yale University

1:00-2:00
Obedience to authority, Thoughts on Milgram as a filmmaker
Kathryn Millard, Professor of Film and Creative Arts, Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney, AU
Moderator: Sarah Ryan, Empirical Research Librarian & Lecturer in Legal Research, Yale Law School

2:00-3:00
Inattentive bureaucrats or engaged followers? Understanding Milgram’s subjects
S. Alex Haslam, Professor of Psychology and ARC Laureate Fellow, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, AU
Moderator: Jaime Napier, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, Yale University

3:00-4:00
Milgram’s legacy in social psychology
Phoebe Ellsworth, Frank Murphy Distinguished University Professor of Law and Psychology, University of Michigan
Moderator: Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, Yale Law School

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Classic Experiments, Events, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Boston Magazine recognizes Michael McCann

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 22, 2013

McCann Boston Magazine

Boston Magazine has released it’s “Best Boston Sports Personalities on Twitter” and Situationist Co-Founder & Contributor Michael McCann, who tweets @McCannSportsLaw, is on the list.

Boston Magazine described McCann as “a Massachusetts attorney who represented Maurice Clarett in his attempt to declare early for the NFL Draft, McCann is as reputable a source as there is on Aaron Hernandez’s trial and future prospects.” McCann is also the director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated.

McCann’s tweeting on Aaron Hernandez relates to a book project he and Situationist Co-Founder & Editor Jon Hanson are developing on Hernandez and other major news stories.

Related Situationist posts co-authored by Jon Hanson and Michael McCann:

Posted in Awards | Leave a Comment »

Jon Hanson on Law and Mind Sciences – SALMS Talk Monday!

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2013

law mind sciences hanson

When: Monday 10/21/13 12-1pm
Where: WCC 1010

Professor Jon Hanson will kick off this year’s SALMS speaker series, discussing the significance of mind sciences for law.

Hanson is the Alfred Smart Professor of Law, Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, and editor of the recent book, “Ideology, Psychology, and Law.”

Lunch will be provided.

Posted in Events, SALMS, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Are Thoughts of Death Conducive to Humor?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 18, 2013

cemetery

From DeGruyter:

A New Study Shows an Increase in Humorous Creativity when Individuals are Primed with Thoughts of Death.

Humor is an intrinsic part of human experience. It plays a role in every aspect of human existence, from day-to-day conversation to television shows. Yet little research has been conducted to date on the psychological function of humor. In human psychology, awareness of the impermanence of life is just as prevalent as humor. According to the Terror Management Theory, knowledge of one’s own impermanence creates potentially disruptive existential anxiety, which the individual brings under control with two coping mechanisms, or anxiety buffers: rigid adherence to dominant cultural values, and self-esteem bolstering.

A new article by Christopher R. Long of Ouachita Baptist University and Dara Greenwood of Vassar College is titled Joking in the Face of Death: A Terror Management Approach to Humor Production. Appearing in the journal HUMOR, it documents research on whether the activation of thoughts concerning death influences one’s ability to creatively generate humor. As humor is useful on a fundamental level for a variety of purposes, including psychological defense against anxiety, the authors hypothesized that the activation of thoughts concerning death could facilitate the production of humor.

For their study, Long and Greenwood subdivided 117 students into four experimental groups. These groups were confronted with the topics of pain and death while completing various tasks. Two of the test groups were exposed unconsciously to words flashed for 33 milliseconds on a computer while they completed tasks – the first to the word “pain,” the second to the word “death.” The remaining two groups were prompted in a writing task to express emotions concerning either their own death or a painful visit to the dentist. Afterward, all four groups were instructed to supply a caption to a cartoon from The New Yorker.

These cartoon captions were presented to an independent jury who knew nothing about the experiment. The captions written by individuals who were subconsciously primed with the word death were clearly voted as funnier by the jury. By contrast, the exact opposite result was obtained for the students who consciously wrote about death: their captions were seen as less humorous.

Based on this experiment, the researchers conclude that humor helps the individual to tolerate latent anxiety that may otherwise be destabilizing. In this connection, they point to previous studies indicating that humor is an integral component of resilience.

In light of the finding that the activation of conscious thoughts concerning death impaired the creative generation of humor, Long and Greenwood highlight the need for additional research, not only to explore the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism under various circumstances, but also to identify its emotional, cognitive, and/or social benefits under conditions of adversity.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Ideology, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Legal theory must incorporate discoveries from biology and behavioral sciences

Posted by Fábio Almeida on October 15, 2013

Some recent discoveries in evolutionary biology, ethology, neurology, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics impels us to rethink the very foundations of law if we want to answer many questions remain unanswered in legal theory. Where does our ability to interpret rules and think in terms of fairness in relation to others come from? Does the ability to reason about norms derive from certain aspects of our innate rationality and from mechanisms that were sculptured in our moral psychology by evolutionary processes?

Legal theory must take the complexity of the human mind into account

Any answer to these foundational issues demands us to take into consideration what these other sciences are discovering about how we behave. For instance, ethology has shown that many moral behaviors we usually think that are uniquely displayed by our species have been identified in other species as well.

Please watch this video, a lecture by primatologist Frans de Waal for the TED Talks :

The skills needed to feel empathy, to engage in mutual cooperation, to react to certain injustices, to form coalitions, to share, to punish those who refuse to comply with expected behaviors, among many others – abilities once considered to be exclusive of humans – have been observed in other animals. These traits have been observed in many animal species, especially those closer to our evolutionary lineage, as the great apes. In the human case, these instinctive elements are also present. Even small children around the age of one year old show great capacity for moral cognition. They know to identify patterns of relationships in distributive justice, even if they cannot explain why they came to a certain conclusion (because they even do not know how to speak by that age!).

In addition, several studies have shown that certain neural connections in our brains are actively involved in processing information related to capabilities typical of normative behavior. Think about the ability to empathize, for example. It is an essential skill that prevents us to see other people as things or means. Empathy is needed to respect the Kantian categorical imperative to treat the others as an end in themselves, and not means to achieve other ends. This is something many psychopaths can’t do, because they face severe reduction in their ability to empathize with others. Several researches using fMRI have shown year after year that many diagnosed psychopaths show deficiencies in areas of their brains that have been associated to empathy.

If this sounds like science fiction, please consider the following cases.

A 40 year old man, who had hitherto displayed absolutely normal sexual behavior, was kicked out by his wife after she discovered what he was visiting child porn sites and had even tried to sexually molest children. He was arrested and the judge determined that he would have to pass through a sexaholics rehabilitation program or face jail. But he soon got expelled from the program after inviting women at the program to have sex with him. Just before being arrested again for failing in the program, he felt a severe headache and went to a hospital, where he was submitted to an MRI exam. The doctors identified a tumor on his orbifrontal cortex, a brain region usually associated with training of moral judgment, impulse control and regulation of social behavior. After the removal of the tumor, his behavior returned to normal. Seven months later, he once more showed deviant behavior – and further tests showed the reappearance of the tumor. After the removal of the new cyst, his sexual behavior again returned to normal standards.

You could also consider the case of Charles Whitman. Until he was 24, he had been a reasonably normal person. However, on August 1st, 1966, he ascended to the top of the Tower of the University of Texas, where, armed to the teeth, he killed 13 people and wounded 32 before being killed by the police. Later it was discovered that just before the mass killings, he had also murdered both his wife and mother. During the previous day, he left a typewritten letter in which one could read the following:

“I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

In the letter, he also requested to be submitted to an autopsy after his death in order to verify if it there was something wrong with his brain.  Whitman’s brain was examined and … surprise! … the doctors found a glioblastoma tumor compressing the region of his amygdala, which is associated with the regulation of aggression and fear.

What does this mean for legal theory? At least this means that law, so far, has been based on a false metaphysical conception that t brain is a lockean blank slate and that our actions derive from our rational dispositions. Criminal law theory assumes that an offender breaks the law exclusively due to his free will and reasoning. Private law assumes that people sign contracts only after considering all its possible legal effects and are fully conscious about the reasons that motivated them to do so. Constitutional theory assumes that everyone is endowed with a rational disposition that enables the free exercise of civil and constitutional rights such as freedom of expression or freedom of religion. It is not in question that we are able to exercise such rights. But these examples show  that the capacity to interpret norms and to act accordingly to the law does not derive from a blank slate endowed with free will and rationality, but from a complex mind that evolved in our hominin lineage and that relies on brain structures that enables us to reason and choose among alternatives.

This means that our rationality is not perfect. It is not only affected by tumors, but also by various cognitive biases that affect the rationality of our decisions. Since the 1970s, psychologists have studied these biases. Daniel Kahneman, for example, won the 2002 Nobel prize in Economic Sciences for his research on the impact of these biases on decision-making. We can make really irrational decisions because our mind is based on certain heuristics (fast-and-frugal rules) to evaluate certain situations. In most situations, these heuristics help us to make the right decisions, but they also may influence us to make really dumb mistakes.

There are dozens of heuristics that structure our rationality. We are terrible on assessing the significance of statistical correlations, we discard unfavorable evidence, we tend to follow the most common behavior in our group (herd effect), and we tend to see past events as if they had been easily predictable. We are inclined to cooperate with whom is part of our group (parochialist bias), but not so with whom belongs to another group. And those are just some of the biases that have been already identified.

It is really hard to overcome these biases, because they are much of what we call rationality. These flaws are an unavoidable part of our rationality. Sure, with some effort, we can avoid many mistakes by using some techniques that could lead us to get unbiased and correct answers. However, using artificial techniques to do so may be expensive and demands lots of effort. We can use a computer and train mathematical skills in order to overcome biases that causes error in statistical evaluation, for instance. But how can we use a computer to reason about morality or legal issues “getting around” these psychological biases? Probably, we can’t.

The best we can do is to reconsider the psychological assumptions of legal theory, by taking into account what we actually know about our psychology and how it affects our judgement. And there is evidence that these biases really influence how judges evaluate judicial cases. For instance, a research done by Birte Englich, Thomas Mussweiler and Fritz Strack concluded that even legal experts are indeed affected by cognitive biases. More specifically, they studied the effects of anchoring bias in judicial activity, by submitting 52 legal experts to the following experiment: they required them to examine an hypothetical court case, which should determine the sentence in a fictitious shoplifting case. After reading the materials, the participants had to answer a questionnaire at the end of which they would define the sentence.

Before answering the questions, however, the participants should throw a pair of dice in order to determine the prosecutor’s demand. Half of the dice were loaded in order to show always the numbers 1 and 2. And the other half was loaded in order to indicate 3 and 6. The sum of the numbers should indicate the prosecutor’s sentencing demand. Afterwards, they should answer questions about legal issues concerning the case, including the sentencing decision. The researchers found that the results of the dice had an actual impact on their proposed sentence: the average penalty imposed by judges who had dice with superior results (3 + 6 = 9) was 7.81 months in prison, while the participants whose dice resulted in lower values ​​(1 +2 = 3) , proposed an average punishment of 5.28 months .

In another study, it was found that, on average, tired and hungry judges end up taking the easy decision to deny parole rather than to grant it. In the study, conducted in Israel, researchers divided the day’s schedule of judges into three sessions. At the beginning of which of them, the participants could rest and eat. It turned out that, soon after eating and resting, judges authorized the parole in 65% of cases. At the end of each session, the rate fell to almost zero. Okay, this is not really a cognitive bias, but a factual condition – however, it shows that a tired mind and energy needs can induce decisions that almost everyone would consider as intrinsically unfair.

And so on. Study after study , research shows that (1) our ability to develop moral reasoning is innate, (2) our mind is filled with innate biases that are needed to process cultural information in relation to compliance with moral/legal norms, and (3) these biases affect our rationality.

These researches raise many questions that will have to be faced sooner or later by legal scholars. Would anyone say that due process of law is respected when judges anchors judicial decision in completely external factors – factors about which they aren’t even aware of! Of course, this experiment was done in a controlled experiment and nobody expects that a judge rolls dice before judging a case. But judge might be influenced by other anchors as well, such as numbers inside a clock, a date on the calendar, or a number printed on a dollar banknote? Or would anyone consider due process was respected even if a parole hadn’t been granted because the case was judged late in the morning? These external elements decisively influenced the judicial outcome, but none of them were mentioned in the decision.

Legal theory needs to incorporate this knowledge on its structure. We need to build institutions capable to take biases into account and, as far as possible, try to circumvent them or, at least, diminish their influence. For instance, by knowing that judges tend to get impatient and harsher against defendants when they are hungry and tired, a Court could force him to take a 30 minute break after 3 hours of work in order to restore their capacity to be as impartial as possible. This is just a small suggestion about how institutions could respond to these discoveries.

Of course, there are  more complex cases, such as the discussion about criminals who always had displayed good behavior, but who were misfortunate to develop a brain tumor that influenced the commitment of a crime. Criminal theory is based on the thesis that the agent must intentionally engage in criminal conduct. But is it is possible to talk about intention when a tumor was one direct cause of the result? And if it hadn’t been a tumor, but a brain malformation (as it occurs in many cases of psychopathy)? Saying that criminal law could already solve these cases by considering that the criminal had no responsibility due to his condition wouldn’t solve the problem, because the issue is in the very concept of intention that is assumed in legal theory.

And this problem expands into the rest of the legal theory. We must take into account the role of cognitive biases in consumer relations. The law has not realized the role of these biases in decision making, but many companies are aware of them. How many times haven’t you bought a 750 ml soda for $2.00 just because it cost $0.20 more than a 500 ml one? Possibly, you thought that you payed less per ml than you would pay if you had bought the smaller size. But … you really wanted was 500 ml, and would pay less than you payed for taking extra soda that you didn’t want! In other words, the company just explores a particular bias that affects most people, in order to induce them to buy more of its products. Another example: for evolutionary reasons, humans are prone to consume fatty foods and lots of sugar. Companies exploit this fact to their advantage, which ends up generating part of the obesity crisis that we see in the world today. In their defense, companies say that consumers purchased the product on their own. What they do not say, but neurosciences and evolutionary theory say, is that our “free will” has a long evolutionary history that propels us to consume exactly these kinds of food that, over the years, affects our health. And law needs to take these facts into consideration if it wants to adequately protect and enforce consumer rights.

Law is still based on an “agency model” very similar to game theory’s assumption of rationality. But we are not rational. Every decision we make is influenced by the way our mind operates. Can we really think that it is fair to blame someone who committed a crime on the basis of erroneous results generated by a cognitive bias? And, on the other hand, would it be right to exonerate a defendant based on those assumptions? To answer these and other fringes questions, legal scholars must rethink the concept of person assumed by law, taking into account our intrinsic biological nature.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr

Posted in Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A New Situationist Fellow – Fábio Almeida

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2013

Fabio AlmeidaWe are happy to introduce a new Situationist Fellow, Fábio Almeida.

Fábio Portela L. Almeida is a 2003 graduate at Universidade de Brasília Law School in Brazil. After graduating, he worked as a lawyer and, in 2006, he has been working as a Clerk in the Brazilian Superior Court of Labour Law. He also earned a Master of Laws Degree in 2007 at the same university, where he wrote a dissertation about constitutional issues arising from religious teaching in Brazilian public schools, which was published as a book in 2008.

In 2011, he earned a M.Phil Degree at the Universidade de Brasília Department of Philosophy. His dissertation, “The evolution of a normative mind: origins of human cooperation,” awarded the ANPOF Prize of best philosophical dissertation in the biennium 2010/2011. Currently, Fábio is a SJD Candidate at the Universidade de Brasília Law School and a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School. His research interests are related to the interdisciplinary relationship between legal theory, biology, psychology, moral philosophy, economics, sociology and anthropology.

In his free time, Fábio enjoys writing about stock investing in his personal blog, listening to classical music, reading, traveling, and watching movies.  Fabio is a long-term reader of The Situationist, and we are delighted that he is visiting HLS for the year and contributing to the blog as a fellow.  Look for his first post soon.

Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

2013 SPSP Awards

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2013

marc-sheff-psychology-trophy_web

From SPSP Website:

September 18, 2013 – When you pass by a stranger in need of help, do you stop to lend a hand? Maybe not… A landmark 1973 study found that seminary students in a hurry were less likely to help someone in distress, even when they were on their way to deliver a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A co-author of that study and several other distinguished researchers are the recipients of the 2013 annual awards from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). The contributions of these scientists to personality and social psychology include furthering our understanding of how personality shapes health and well-being across adulthood, why it’s so hard to evaluate ourselves, and the virtues that divide political ideologies.

The Society’s highest awards – the Jack Block, Donald T. Campbell, and Distinguished Scholar awards – go to Robert R. (“Jeff”) McCrae, retired from the National Institute of Aging, [Situationist Contributor] Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, and Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University, respectively. The Career Contribution awards, which honor scholars whose research has led the field in new directions, are C. Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas and [Situationist friend] James Sidanius of Harvard University.

Good Samaritan, Social Dominance

Batson co-authored with [Situationist Contributor] John Darley the 1973 study on the “bystander effect” – revealing processes that influence how and when we help people. His work looks at a variety of topics that bridge psychology and religion, including altruism, empathy, and compassion. Batson is leading proponent for the existence of pure or selfless altruism, in which people help out of a genuine concern for the welfare of others.

Sidanius’ work explains the acceptance of group-based social hierarchy – such as believing that men are superior to women or that Whites are superior to people of color – by both the dominant and oppressed groups. Long before others were convinced, Sidanius analyzed the inevitability and the significance of hierarchy in structuring society, social relations, and psychological functioning – pioneering the study of the widely shared cultural ideologies that provide the justification for group-based hierarchies.

Personality, Self-Insight, and Mindset

McCrae’s work on personality in aging adults led to a resurgence of personality psychology in the 1980s and the establishment of the Big Five model of personality traits that persists today. His work has shown how individual differences in personality traits effect everything from health to coping. McCrae has established new ways of measuring personality traits and has looked at the effects of personality cross-culturally. Recently, he has written provocative papers on the future of personality psychology for the 21st century, including exploring the molecular genetics of personality dispositions.

Wilson’s research examines why it is so hard for people to accurately evaluate themselves. He has shed light into the ways in which people are mistaken about themselves, whether wrong about the causes of their past actions or about their present attitudes. His book Stranger to Ourselves explored the challenges of self-insight. An Elected Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wilson works to ensure that public policy is informed by scientific fact.

Dweck’s work has examined how people’s mindsets shape their lives and determine their achievement. In a series of well-known studies, Dweck demonstrated how people with a “growth mindset,” who believe that certain qualities, such as intelligence, can be developed make life choices that lead to greater success than those with a “fixed mindset,” who believe that basic abilities are unchangeable. This distinction profoundly affects people’s motivation, psychological well-being, and learning, and the ideas have been extended to apply to work in diverse areas, such as education and intergroup relations.

Math and Science Intervention, Political Ideologies, Hidden bias

An intervention aimed at parents can boost children’s interest in math and science, according the study awarded this year’s Robert B. Cialdini Award for excellence in a published field study. Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, with colleagues Christopher Rozek, Chris Hulleman, and Janet Hyde, sent to parents of high-school students information that emphasized the importance of mathematics and science to college, career, and everyday life, and that offered tips for parents to communicate this importance to their children. Compared to a control group, children whose parents received the information took nearly a full extra semester of math and science. The paper, “Helping parents to motivate adolescents in mathematics and science: An experimental test of a utility-value intervention,” was published in Psychological Science. Honorable Mention for the Cialdini Award goes to “Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end,” by Lisa L. Shu and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The recipient of the Media Book Prize is Jonathan Haidt for The Righteous Mind, which takes a tour of how people bind themselves to political and religious teams and the moral narratives that accompany them. Using a range of arguments – anthropological, psychological, and evolutionary – Haidt proposes that the U.S. political left and the right emphasize different virtues and he suggests that we use that discovery to try to get along.

The Methodological Innovation Award goes to Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington, who in 1998 created the Implicit Association Test (IAT) – a widely-used method for measuring attitudes, stereotypes, self-concepts, and self-esteem without relying on self-reporting. Researchers have used the IAT in fields ranging from education and health to forensics and marketing. Tens of thousands of people weekly visit the Project Implicit website, created by Greenwald and colleagues.

Recipients of the Carol and Ed Diener Award in Personality Psychology and the Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology are Andrew J. Elliot of the University of Rochester and Nalini Ambady of Stanford, respectively. Elliot studies achievement and social motivation, particularly in educational contexts, and focuses on how approach and avoidance temperaments, motives, and goals influence psychological functioning. Ambady’s work looks at “thin slices” – showing that social, emotional, and perceptual judgments made on the basis of brief behavioral observations can be surprisingly accurate.

The remaining SPSP awards for 2013 are as follows:

  • The 2013 SPSP Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology: Kay Deaux of City University of New York and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford. A great mentor and supporter of diversity in the field, Deaux’s pioneering work looks at gender, identity, and immigration, reflecting her deep social consciousness. Markus has worked to create the field of cultural psychology – shifting it from the assumption that research findings in one culture represent basic processes of human nature, to the idea of linking different social and personality processes to gender, race, social class, age, and culture.
  • The 2013 SPSP Service Award for Distinguished Service to the Society: Wendi Gardner of Northwestern University and George (Al) Goethals of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Through her roles with the Society, Gardner has played a vital role in shaping the organization’s annual conferences and also has served as a passionate advocate for graduate students. As Secretary-Treasurer of SPSP (1995-1997), Goethals shepherded the Society through lean financial times, helping it to establish a solid financial foundation.
  • The 2013 Theoretical Innovation Prize: Kurt Gray, Liane Young, and Adam Waytz for their 2012 Psychological Inquiry article entitled “Mind Perception is the Essence of Morality.” The paper proposes a simplification in the way psychologists view moral judgment.

A ceremony at the 2014 annual SPSP conference in Austin, TX (Feb. 13-15, 2014) will honor all of this year’s award recipients. Full citations are available online.

Image by Marc Sheff.

Posted in Awards, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Ageism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 9, 2013

Ageism North Fiske

From Princeton News, an overview of important work being done by Michael North and Situationist friend, Susan Fiske.

Michael North, a fifth-year graduate student in psychology at Princeton University, knew he was lucky to land a summer research position at the University of Michigan after he finished his bachelor’s degree there in 2006.

His task: Sit in a lab for two hours at a time and interview local residents — young and old — for a study on wisdom.

“When the professor told me this, I nodded and said OK, but as a 22-year-old kid I wasn’t really excited about sitting in a basement interviewing old people, as I saw them,” North said. “I thought they would be really boring. I thought they would smell. I thought they would make me feel weird. These were the thoughts I had, honestly.”

But the reality was different. North found that he enjoyed interacting with the older group more than the younger people. “The older people were the ones who showed more interest in the project, they showed more interest in me personally and asked more interesting questions,” North said.

The realization opened his eyes to a field ripe for exploration.

A focus on ageism research

North came to Princeton in 2008 and joined the lab of Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and a professor of psychology and public affairs. Together, they have put a new emphasis on ageism, or age-based prejudice, focusing on the challenges society faces to adjust to a growing older population and the intergenerational tensions that can result.

The older population in the United States is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the number of older people is likely to reach more than a quarter of the population by 2050, outnumbering children for the first time in history, North and Fiske noted last year in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

“In other words, the people society now considers older and irrelevant are about to become far more common and visible — perhaps more so than ever in modern society,” the researchers wrote.

Those factors make this an ideal time to put a spotlight on the social perceptions of ageism, a generally understudied area in academia, North said.

“It’s not hard to read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and see that as the baby boomers are getting older, age-discrimination cases are on the rise and worries are growing about the long-term sustainability of Social Security and Medicare,” North said. “The academic literature hasn’t really spoken to these questions.”

The research by North and Fiske homes in on the idea that understanding intergenerational tension is key to understanding ageism. Ageism is the one kind of discrimination, North noted, in which those who are generally doing the discriminating — younger generations — will eventually become part of the targeted demographic.

North and Fiske are making important contributions to ageism research, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who studies aging and adult development.

“Ageism is a topic that touches on many sensitive areas, including older adults themselves, family members, policymakers and the media,” she said. “North and Fiske unpack the stereotypes toward older adults and show how these stereotypes vary in their causes and effects.”

Fiske, a social psychologist, joined the Princeton faculty in 2000. Her most recent book is “Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us” (2012). The research she and North have conducted expands her far-reaching work on stereotypes.

“We have found a variety of evidence, over the past dozen years, that people make sense of each other along two primary and apparently universal dimensions,” Fiske said. “The first is warmth — does the other have good intentions, is that person trustworthy and sociable. The second dimension is competence — can the other enact those intentions. Stereotypically, the middle class are both warm and competent, rich people are cold but competent, homeless people are neither. The default stereotype for older people is well-intentioned (warm) but incompetent.”

What older people ‘should be’

The researchers focus on ageism that is based on what psychologists call prescriptive prejudice. “Instead of describing what old people supposedly are in reality, it ‘prescribes’ what others think old people should be,” Fiske said. “Older people who ‘violate’ these ‘prescriptions’ are punished by those who discriminate against them; older people who adhere to them are rewarded with sympathy and pity.”

The researchers say prescriptive stereotypes center on three key issues:

• Succession, the idea that older people should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people;

• Identity, the idea that older people shouldn’t attempt to act younger than they are; and

• Consumption, the idea that older people shouldn’t consume so many scarce resources such as health care.

In studies detailed in an article for the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the researchers found that younger people were more resentful of older people who went against these prescriptive stereotypes, compared with the feelings of middle-aged and older study participants. The article was published online in March.

In a January article in Social Issues and Policy Review, Fiske and North focused on the dangers of lumping together all older people, starting as young as ages 50 or 55. Instead, North and Fiske argue that the “young-old” — generally those still working and in relatively good health — should be considered separately from the “old-old” — generally older people who no longer work and are in poor health.

“Though numerical age is a useful indicator, it is an imprecise one when it comes to distribution of societal resources,” the researchers wrote. “Age-related characteristics are evolving all the time, but social policies seem stuck in the past, uncertain how to accommodate shifting age dynamics (as evidenced by impending Social Security and Medicare crises).”

Further advancing their work, North and Fiske have conducted experiments that helped shape a scale for measuring ageism that is described in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Assessment. The Succession, Identity and Consumption scale “is a promising tool for cutting-edge ageism research, as the population grays and generational equity concerns grow more salient,” the researchers wrote.

North, who is finishing his dissertation on the issue, said he hopes to continue to work on ageism throughout his career, identifying interventions that could lessen or prevent ageism, such as shifting views of the younger about what it means to be older.

“If there’s one take away from this research, it’s that it’s important to focus on the facts of these demographic changes rather than misguided perceptions,” he said. “Talking about these issues helps you find constructive ways to address them.”

Read article, including an interactive image here.

Related Situationist posts:

See their video interview below.

Posted in Distribution, Life, Social Psychology, Video | 1 Comment »

The Good Feeling of Fast Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2013

Moose

Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin’s recent articles, When the mind races: Effects of thought speed on feeling and action. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 283–288, was highlighted in a recent APS Observer column.   Here is an excerpt containing a helpful overview of Pronin’s fascinating study and findings.

You wake up. Your phone blinks. You touch the screen, slide your finger, and chills shiver down your spine. “See me tomorrow,” says the email your boss sent at midnight. Your thoughts accelerate. “What does she want? Why did she write so late? Am I in trouble? The company is in trouble. This down economy! I’m getting fired. Why me? Where will I work? I have skills. There are other companies. I have no skills. Where will I apply? Can we move? What will my parents think? How will the kids react to changing schools? I can do this. We can do this. No matter what.”

We think. It helps us. Errands, plans, and goals require thought. Synapses fire. Action potentials race down axons. Chemicals bathe our brains with neurotransmitters. Thoughts guide action, from ordering a coffee to avoiding predators. What we think matters. But according to Emily Pronin of Princeton University, how fast we think matters, too.

Making people think fast boosts their happiness, energy, riskiness, and self-confidence. In an impressive program of research, Pronin and colleagues have documented these effects using many ways to speed up thinking. In one study, participants read trivia statements at fast or slow speeds (Chandler & Pronin, 2012). Next, they completed a risk-taking task. Participants could earn money — but only if they didn’t take too many risks. Fast-thinking participants took the most risks and earned the least money. On the bright side, having people read at twice their normal reading speed increased their positive emotion (Pronin & Wegner, 2006).

Pronin (2013) argues that fast thinking prepares people to take immediate action. Feeling good nudges that process along, as does increased energy. If you spy a moose while running on a trail, it will behoove you to take swift and confident action even if it involves some risk. You may even experience an “a-ha” moment that provides a creative solution you would not have considered if you were thinking at a normal or slow pace (Yang & Pronin, 2012).

Read the entire column here.

Image from Flickr.

Other Situationist posts about Emily Pronin’s work:

Posted in Emotions, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

“Ordinary Men” in Evil Situations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2013

ordinarymenA few excerpts from an outstanding 1992 New York Times book review by Walter Reich of Christopher Browning’s remarkable book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland“:

We know a lot about how the Germans carried out the Holocaust. We know much less about how they felt and what they thought as they did it, how they were affected by what they did, and what made it possible for them to do it. In fact, we know remarkably little about the ordinary Germans who made the Holocaust happen — not the desk murderers in Berlin, not the Eichmanns and Heydrichs, and not Hitler and Himmler, but the tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers and policemen from all walks of life, many of them middle-aged, who rounded up millions of Jews and methodically shot them, one by one, in forests, ravines and ditches, or stuffed them, one by one, into cattle cars and guarded those cars on their way to the gas chambers.

In his finely focused and stunningly powerful book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” Christopher R. Browning tells us about such Germans and helps us understand, better than we did before, not only what they did to make the Holocaust happen but also how they were transformed psychologically from the ordinary men of his title into active participants in the most monstrous crime in human history. In doing so he aims a penetrating searchlight on the human capacity for utmost evil and leaves us staring at his subject matter with the shock of knowledge and the lurking fear of self-recognition.

* * *

In the end, what disturbs the reader more than the policemen’s escape from punishment is their capacity — as the ordinary men they were, as men not much different from those we know or even from ourselves — to kill as they did.

Battalion 101’s killing wasn’t, as Mr. Browning points out, the kind of “battlefield frenzy” occasionally seen in all wars, when soldiers, having faced death, and having seen their friends killed, slaughter enemy prisoners or even civilians. It was, rather, the cold-blooded fulfillment of German national policy, and involved, for the policemen, a process of accommodation to orders that required them to do things they would never have dreamed they would ever do, and to justify their actions, or somehow reinterpret them, so that they would not see themselves as evil people.

Mr. Browning’s meticulous account, and his own acute reflections on the actions of the battalion members, demonstrate the important effect that the situation had on those men: the orders to kill, the pressure to conform, and the fear that if they didn’t kill they might suffer some kind of punishment or, at least, damage to their careers. In fact, the few who tried to avoid killing got away with it; but most believed, or at least could tell themselves, that they had little choice.

But Mr. Browning’s account also illustrates other factors that made it possible for the battalion’s ordinary men not only to kill but, ultimately, to kill in a routine, and in some cases sadistic, way. Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they were not violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their personal moral codes.

One such factor was the justification for killing provided by the anti-Semitic rationales to which the policemen had been exposed since the rise of Nazism, rationales reinforced by the battalion’s officers. The Jews were presented not only as evil and dangerous but also, in some way, as responsible for the bombing deaths of German women and children. Another factor was the process of dehumanization: abetted by Nazi racial theories that were embraced by policemen who preferred not to see themselves as killers, Jews were seen as less than people, as creatures who could be killed without the qualms that would be provoked in them were they to kill fellow Germans or even Slavs. It was particularly when the German policemen came across German Jews speaking their own language, especially those from their own city, that they felt a human connection that made it harder to kill them.

The policemen were also helped by the practice of trying not to refer to their activities as killing: they were involved in “actions” and “resettlements.” Moreover, the responsibility wasn’t theirs; it belonged to the authorities — Major Trapp as well as, ultimately, the leaders of the German state — whose orders they were merely carrying out. Indeed, whatever responsibility they did have was diffused by dividing the task into parts and by sharing it with other people and processes. It was shared, first of all, by others in the battalion, some of whom provided cordons so that Jews couldn’t escape and some of whom did the shooting. It was shared by the Trawnikis, who were brought in to do the shooting whenever possible so that the battalion could focus on the roundups. And it was shared, most effectively, by the death camps, which made the men’s jobs immensely easier, since stuffing a Jew into a cattle car, though it sealed his fate almost as surely as a neck shot, left the actual killing to a machine-like process that would take place far away, one for which the battalion members didn’t need to feel personally responsible.

CLEARLY, ordinary human beings are capable of following orders of the most terrible kinds. What stands between civilization and genocide is the respect for the rights and lives of all human beings that societies must struggle to protect. Nazi Germany provided the context, ideological as well as psychological, that allowed the policemen’s actions to happen. Only political systems that recognize the worst possibilities in human nature, but that fashion societies that reward the best, can guard the lives and dignity of all their citizens.

* * *

Read the entire review here.  Read more about the book here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, History, Ideology, Morality, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #19 – Dan Wegner

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 30, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring the late Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

This is the last of the series, by Dan Wegner himself.  Don’t miss it.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #18 – Jonathan Schooler

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring the late Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We are highlighting individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, through August and September.

In his fascinating lecture, Jonathan Schooler discusses his fascinating research on mind wandering and meta-awareness and tells the story of how that research was influenced by Dan Wegner.  Pay attention!  The video is below.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

 
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