The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Ideology’

System Justification and the Meaning of Life

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost and his co-authors Lindsay E. Rankin and Cheryl J. Wakslak recently published a fascinating article, titled “System Justification and the Meaning of Life: Are the Existential Benefits of Ideology Distributed Unequally Across Racial Groups?” 22, Social Justice Research 312 (2009).  Here’s the abstract.

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In this research, we investigated the relations among system justification, religiosity, and subjective well-being in a sample of nationally representative low-income respondents in the United States. We hypothesized that ideological endorsement of the status quo would be associated with certain existential and other psychological benefits, but these would not necessarily be evenly distributed across racial groups. Results revealed that religiosity was positively associated with subjective well-being in general, but the relationship between system justification and well-being varied considerably as a function of racial group membership. For low-income European Americans, stronger endorsement of system justification as an ideology was associated with increased positive affect, decreased negative affect, and a wide range of existential benefits, including life satisfaction and a subjective sense of security, meaning, and mastery. These findings are consistent with the notion that system justification satisfies psychological needs for personal control and serves a palliative function for its adherents. However, many of these effects were considerably weakened or even reversed for African American respondents. Thus, the psychological benefits associated with religiosity existed for both racial groups, whereas the benefits of system justification were distributed unequally across racial groups.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,”

To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

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

Stereotyping Political Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2010

Susan Perry has a terrific article in yesterday’s Minneapolis Post, titled “How we use stereotypes to identify people’s political affiliations.”   Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . According to a study published this month in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, people can identify with remarkable accuracy (more than by chance guessing) whether another person is a Republican or a Democrat by simply looking at that person’s headshot.

How do we do it? By relying on stereotypes, the study found. Republicans, apparently, look “powerful” in our minds, and Democrats appear “warm.”

Of course, these kinds of stereotypes can lead to perceptual errors. “Not all Democrats appear warm and not all Republicans appear powerful,” wrote the study’s authors. “However, the linearity of these effects is noteworthy: appearing warmer led to a greater chance that a target would be perceived as a Democrat and appearing more powerful led to a greater chance that a target would be perceived as a Republican.”

Experiment #1
The study, which was conducted by Nalini Ambady, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and Tufts doctoral candidate Nicholas Rule, involved three separate experiments.

In the first experiment, 29 undergraduates were asked to categorize the faces of 118 unnamed professional politicians (2004 and 2006 U.S. Senate candidates).The photos (cropped to be of identical size and converted to grayscale) included women candidates, but minority candidates were excluded to avoid race-based stereotypes.

After the data was analyzed, the study found that participants had categorized the photos correctly at a rate that was significantly better than chance guessing. Those results held even when the responses of 10 participants who said they recognized at least one of the candidates were excluded from the calculations.

Experiment #2
To see if the results of the first experiment could be extended to other groups of people, the researchers conducted a second experiment. . . . [involving] the political affiliation of photos take from the senior yearbooks of a private U.S. university. . . .

Again, the participants’ categorization of the political affiliations of the students in the photos was significantly greater than chance guessing.

Experiment #3
Intrigued by these findings, the researchers decided to determine what, exactly, people were using to determine if someone were a Democrat or a Republican. . . .

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Faces perceived to be that of Republican scored higher on the “Power” scale and those perceived to be that of a Democrat scored high on the “Warmth” scale.

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Other research has pointed out that we’re quick to make snap judgments about the people we meet based on their appearance — and often, of course, unfairly. “People are known to form impression of others from their faces instantaneously and automatically,” write Rule and Ambady. “Moreover, these perceptions can have highly consequential outcomes, such as affecting the jobs that individuals are offered, their outcomes in court, and their financial success.”

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To read the entire article, including the conclusion, which summarizes “some truly provocative research about how election results can be predicted by the candidates’ facial traits,” click here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” ““Yuck!” “EWW!” and Other Conservative Expressions,” Unclean Hands” and “The Situation of Political Disposition,” Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Confabulation,”

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by J on January 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” Al Gore – The Situationist,”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost together with Irina Feygina and Rachel E. Goldsmith have recently completed a fascinating article examining the motivations behind some people’s unwillingness to take climate change seriously.  The article, titled “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’” will be published later this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract.

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Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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For the NYU Alumni Magazine,  Sharon Tregaskis and Jason Hollander recently wrote a piece, titled “Why We Put Environmental Time Bomb on the Backburner,” in which she discusses that article.  Here are some excerpts.

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Imagine a mammoth meteor blazing toward Earth. When it will arrive and whether it will hit directly is debatable, but scientists are unanimous on one thing—it’s coming. And they’re trying desperately to motivate everyone to take action before it’s too late.

While this scenario is science fiction, a similar danger—just as daunting and apocalyptic—is on the horizon. Researchers now almost universally believe that catastrophic climate change, caused primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, is more a matter of “when,” rather than “if.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that we have perhaps a decade to halt our runaway greenhouse gases, otherwise we will guarantee for our children a fundamentally different planet—one where sea ice no longer blankets the Arctic, where storms relentlessly buffet coastal communities, and conflicts over scarce fresh water and shifting climactic zones rock international relations. And yet global carbon emissions are rising at unprecedented rates, and Americans are expected to produce ever-greater volumes of carbon dioxide in coming years.

Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. As with the meteor hurtling in our direction from millions of miles away, the science for measuring climate change and its future effects is complicated, and so far most evidence comes from distant, barely habited places. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues—war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress. “People get motivated with near-term dangers, but this is different,” says Tyler Volk (GSAS ’82, ’84), a biologist and core faculty member in NYU’s new environmental studies program. “It’s not like the Hudson River is suddenly full of mercury and everyone is threatened.”

As individuals, we may not deny the mounting evidence of global climate change, but we do harbor an inherent desire to keep our minds on other things. In his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social scientist Ernest Becker argued that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality,” echoing Freud who believed repression to be our natural self-protection. In order to tolerate all sorts of inequities, we will often support or rationalize the status quo even when it contradicts our own self-interest, says NYU social psychologist John Jost, who calls this phenomenon “system justification theory.”

Last spring, Jost collaborated with graduate student Irina Feygina (GSAS ’10) and Mount Sinai Hospital psychologist Rachel Goldsmith to investigate how system justification theory interacts with environmental attitudes. Among their findings: Most people who believe that society is generally fair are also skeptical about the forecasted climate crisis. “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change,” Jost says, “in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” Because of this, he notes, denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying more for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.

Even so, denial is getting harder, as scientists gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the mechanics—and the consequences—of climate change. . . .

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This public conversation is slowly trickling up to policy makers. In April, a cadre of retired U.S. generals and admirals offered the chilling statement that climate change was a “a threat multiplier” for global security and the fight against terrorism, as it will further destabilize desperate regions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto climate accord in 2001, for the first time acknowledged global climate change in last winter’s State of the Union address. “The problem is, among other things, ideological,” Jost says, “and it needs to be addressed at that level, as well as at other, more technological levels.”

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[T]he momentum seems to be growing, says philosopher and director of environmental studies Dale Jamieson, who sees a parallel between the climate campaign and the Civil Rights Movement or widespread efforts to enact smoking bans, where over time, a moral and personal imperative emerged. “There’s no way of addressing this unless people come to see it as an ethical issue that changes what they see as right and wrong, how they live, and what kind of world they’re going to leave to their children,” says Jamieson, adding, “The question [remains] whether we’re going to act, and whether it will be meaningful.”

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To read the entire essay, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” “Captured Science,” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and, particularly, Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nicole Stephens on “Choice, Social Class, and Agency”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 31, 2009

Nicole Stephens is a Ph.D. student in Social Psychology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the ways in which sociocultural contexts – such as those delineated by social class, race, and gender – shape the experience and the consequences of choice. In one line of research, she examines how people of different social classes define and respond to choice. In a second line of research, she examines how the common American belief that individual choice drives all actions blinds people to the sociocultural sources of inequality.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2009, Stephens’s fascinating presentation was titled “Choice, Social Class, and Agency.” Here’s the abstract:

Across disciplines we tend to assume that choice is a fundamental or “basic” unit of human behavior, and that behavior is a product of individual choice. In my talk, I will present a series of lab and field studies that question these assumptions about behavior, and suggest that these assumptions reflect primarily the experiences of college-educated, or middle-class, Americans, who tend to have access to a wealth of choices and an array of quality options among which to choose. I will discuss the implications of these assumptions for the (mis)understanding of behavior across diverse contexts.

You can watch her presentation on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Blame Frame – Abstract,” “The Situation in New Orleans,”Examining Why Estimated “Costs” of Racial Inequality Vary by Race,” and “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?.”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss the problem with the illusion of choices, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

John Jost Speaks about His Own Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivated Judicial Reasoning

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 30, 2009

In her recent book, Law, Politics, and Perception: How Policy Preferences Influence Legal Reasoning (2009), Eileen Braman examines how policy preferences and legal authority interact to influence judicial decision making.  Here’s the book’s abstract.

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Are judges’ decisions more likely to be based on personal inclinations or legal authority? The answer, Eileen Braman argues, is both. Law, Politics, and Perception brings cognitive psychology to bear on the question of the relative importance of norms of legal reasoning versus decision markers’ policy preferences in legal decision-making. While Braman acknowledges that decision makers’ attitudes—or, more precisely, their preference for policy outcomes—can play a significant role in judicial decisions, she also believes that decision-makers’ belief that they must abide by accepted rules of legal analysis significantly limits the role of preferences in their judgments. To reconcile these competing factors, Braman posits that judges engage in “motivated reasoning,” a biased process in which decision-makers are unconsciously predisposed to find legal authority that is consistent with their own preferences more convincing than those that go against them. But Braman also provides evidence that the scope of motivated reasoning is limited. Objective case facts and accepted norms of legal reasoning can often inhibit decision makers’ ability to reach conclusions consistent with their preferences.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Judicial Activism,” “The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” “The Bias of the Bar?,” “Judicial Ideology – Abstract,” The Situation of Judicial Methods – Abstract,” “The Situation of Constitutional Beliefs – Abstract,” The Political Situation of Judicial Activism,” Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Judges (1),” The Situation of Judges (2),” Blinking on the Bench,” “The Situation of Judging – Part I,” “The Situation of Judging – Part II,” and “Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy.”

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Choice Myth, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of the “Invisible Hand”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 17, 2009

Invisible HandYesterday, Paul Rosenberg published an intriguing situationist piece at Open Left about the context and meaning of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”   Here are some excerpts.

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What if Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” argument doesn’t mean what we think it means?  What if it doesn’t mean that everything else but the “free market” can and should be ignored?  What if if Smith actually depended on social and historical context in order to make his argument in the first place? What if it was an argument deeply dependent on what . . . The Situationist blog calls “the situation”?

In fact, that’s exactly what happened!

Recently, Berkeley economist Brad DeLong posted

“Yet Another Note on Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’: What It Is and What It Is Not”, in which he points out that the phrase “invisible hand” only occurs once in the whole of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. He then quotes a good-enough chunk of text to give the full context in which the phase occurs-an argument that merchants prefer to ship goods through their home port, even though it costs more (even needlessly unloading cargo), and thus produce much the same result as mercantilism in promoting domestic economic activity.

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It is within this context-the argument above-that Smith writes, “By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

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In this passage, Smith is overtly talking like a behavioral economist, rather than a more orthodox “rational actor” or related sort of practitioner.   However, there’s an even deeper intellectual departure here, since his entire argument is based on a particular set of social institutions, expectations, past experiences and resultant practices, all of which contribute to his particular predilections that silently shape what is rational to him.

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We recommend the article in its entirety, which you can read here.  For a sample of related Situationist Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” “Posner on Keynes and the Economic Depression,” “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” “Juliet Schor on the Situation of Consumption,” “Economist Stephen Marglin Thinking about Thinking Like an Economist.”

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Deep Capture, History, Ideology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 3, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Harcourt on “Neoliberal Penality”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 30, 2009


Bernard Harcourt, the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and professor of political science at the University of Chicago, presented his fascinating paper “Neoliberal Penality: The Birth of Natural Order, the Illusion of Free Markets” at the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, “The Free Market Mindset: History, Psychology, and Consequences,” which took place on March 7, 2009 at Harvard Law School.  The abstract for his talk is as follows:

In the Encyclopédie in 1758, under the entry “Grains,” Francois Quesnay declared that “It is quite sufficient that the government simply not interfere with industry, suppress the prohibitions and prejudicial constraints on internal commerce and reciprocal external trade, abolish or diminish tolls and transport charges, and extinguish the privileges levied on commerce by the provinces.” Quesnay’s vision of an economic system governed by natural order led to a political theory of “legal despotism” that would stand on its head an earlier understanding of a more seamless relationship between economy and society. By relegating the state to the margins of the market and giving it free rein there and there alone, the idea of natural order facilitated the unrestrained expansion of the penal sphere. It gave birth to our modern form of neoliberal penality.  In this presentation, I will trace a genealogy of neoliberal penality and explore the effects it has had in the field of crime and punishment specifically, and in the area of economy and society more generally.

To watch his fascinating talk (in three nine-minute sections) click on the videos below.

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For a sample or related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Racial Profiling,” “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” and “The Categorical Situation of ‘Money’.”

Posted in Abstracts, History, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Book, Cultural Cognition, Deep Capture, Emotions, Ideology, Life, Positive Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 4, 2009

If you haven’t already (or even if you have), we invite you to take, the “Policy IAT.”  We urge  individuals of all political and ideological orientations to participate in the on-line test designed to examine whether and to what extent people have implicit preferences for certain types of policy options.  Please encourage your friends (and, to those of you who are bloggers, your readers) to participate as well.

To learn more or to take the Policy IAT (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

“Yuck!” “EWW!” and Other Conservative Expressions

Posted by Adam Benforado on July 30, 2009

DisgustAs many readers of this blog know, a number of Situationist contributors are interested in the connections between ideology, psychology, and law.  Working with Jon Hanson, my most recent focus has been on understanding how the motivations underlying ideologies may be connected to attributional proclivities that have a profound impact on legal policies.

Given the strong backlash that often accompanies attempts to characterize ideology as anything but a free “choice,” I always get a little nervous when I see summaries of research studies in this area in the popular media.  However, it also often leaves me a little excited that these ideas might be gaining some traction.

Although I urge readers to check out the actual research paper in the June copy of Cognition and Emotion, here is a nice summary by Bruce Fellman I came across this morning of work by Paul Bloom and his colleagues.

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Pus, maggots, vomit, feces, rotten food: in almost every human society, people share a knee-jerk revulsion for certain substances. Now, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and his colleagues have found that the level of disgust a person feels can predict his or her political orientation. In a word: “We found that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals.”

Using a standard political orientation scale and the Disgust Sensitivity Scale — also a standard psychological measuring tool, developed in 1994 to compare individuals’ reactions to such things as monkey meat, gore, and sex with animals — the researchers tested 181 adults across the country. They discovered a significant correlation between conservatism and strong feelings of being grossed out. The correlation also held among 91 Cornell undergraduates and was strongest when the political issues tested involved gay marriage or abortion. (The research appeared in June in Cognition and Emotion.)

Early in our evolution, disgust may have functioned as a way to ward us away from things that were bad to eat. Today it plays out in disagreements over policy. While Bloom finds disgust a “terribly corrosive emotion,” and wishes we could abandon it in favor of rationality, he feels there’s a risk in ignoring it. “Our findings reinforce the importance of the emotions in policy and morality. A lot of these issues are still driven by the gut.”

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “Unclean Hands” and “The Situation of Political Disposition” (which has links to still more related posts).

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

The Situation of Political Disposition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 2, 2009

Public ToilietNicholas Kristof recently published a nice column, titled “Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal,” discussing some of the situationist insights regarding the psychological antecdents of political inclination.   Here are some excerpts.

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If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?

How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

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The larger point is that liberals and conservatives often form judgments through flash intuitions that aren’t a result of a deliberative process. The crucial part of the brain for these judgments is the medial prefrontal cortex, which has more to do with moralizing than with rationality. If you damage your prefrontal cortex, your I.Q. may be unaffected, but you’ll have trouble harrumphing.

One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that disgust emerged as a protective mechanism against health risks, like feces, spoiled food or corpses. Later, many societies came to apply the same emotion to social “threats.” Humans appear to be the only species that registers disgust, which is why a dog will wag its tail in puzzlement when its horrified owner yanks it back from eating excrement.

Psychologists have developed a “disgust scale” based on how queasy people would be in 27 situations, such as stepping barefoot on an earthworm or smelling urine in a tunnel. Conservatives systematically register more disgust than liberals. . . .

It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support. For example, one experiment involved hypnotizing subjects to expect a flash of disgust at the word “take.” They were then told about Dan, a student council president who “tries to take topics that appeal to both professors and students.”

The research subjects felt disgust but couldn’t find any good reason for it. So, in some cases, they concocted their own reasons, such as: “Dan is a popularity-seeking snob.”

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To read Kristof’s entire column, including his discussion of  how we can “discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical,” click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Situation of Reason,” “The Bush Frame: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; Intentions vs. Consequences,” “Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Confabulation,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,”and “Unconscious Situation of Choice.”

Posted in Ideology, Morality, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Bias of the Bar?

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 2, 2009

judicial-politicsIs the American Bar Association biased against conservatives?

In a March 30 article, the New York Times’ Adam Liptak (“Legal Group’s Neutrality Is Challenged,” March 30, 2009) provides evidence that the answer is “yes”:

[A] series of studies have found indications that liberal nominees do better in the [A.B.A. evaluation of judicial nominees] . . . than conservative ones.  The latest, to be presented next month at the Midwest Political Science Association, found evidence consistent with ideological bias.


“Holding all other factors constant,” the study found, “these nominations submitted by a Democratic president were significantly more likely to receive higher A.B.A. ratings than nominations submitted by a Republican president.”


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The bar association says it does not consider ideology in its ratings, basing them only on professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament.  It is the third factor, one the association defines to include compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice under the law, that critics say leaves room for subjective judgments that may tend to favor liberals.

Given research on the powerful and unappreciated influence of ideology on human decision making, this critique seems quite plausible, but it is worth considering whether other mechanisms may also be at work.  It may not just be that measurements of “judicial temperament” “leave[] room for subjective judgments that may tend to favor liberals”; it may also be that the elements that define this factor—“compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice”—are ones that, objectively, liberals tend to score higher on than conservatives.

In their continuing work uncovering the cognitive and motivational differences between  conservatives and liberals, Situationist contributor John Jost and his colleagues have shown that conservatives tend to exhibit, among other things, greater discomfort with ambiguity, greater need for cognitive closure, and greater tolerance for inequality.

If “judicial temperament” were measured by “commitment to avoiding uncertainty; desire for closure, order, and structure; and commitment to affirming the status quo”—traits that we, as a society, might very well decide that we would like our members of the judiciary to exhibit—the research by Jost and his colleagues suggests that conservative nominees would receive considerably higher scores than liberals.

All of this implies that the reason that liberals are receiving higher ratings may have more to do with liberal and conservative proclivities and the choice of rating factors than with the biased application of neutral criteria.

Perhaps the discussion concerning A.B.A. ratings would be more productive if it shifted away from accusing the members of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary of being “political” and, instead, focused on debating whether “compassion, open-mindedness and commitment to equal justice under the law” are the traits that we ought to seek in choosing our judges.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Judicial Ideology – Abstract,””Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” The Situation of Judges,” The Situation of Judicial Methods – Abstract,” The Political Situation of Judicial Activism,” “Ideology is Back!,” “The Situation of Judges,” “Blinking on the Bench,” “The Situation of Judging – Part I,” “The Situation of Judging – Part II,” and “Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy.

Posted in Ideology, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terror Management Theory Goes Mainstream

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 22, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyszczynski’s reply: “A little scary.”

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

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

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

Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 2

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 26, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 17, 2009

If you haven’t already (or even if you have), we invite to take, the “Policy IAT.”  We urge  individuals of all political and ideological orientations to participate in the on-line test designed to examine whether and to what extent people have implicit preferences for certain types of policy options.  Please encourage your friends (and, to those of you who are bloggers, your readers) to participate as well.

To learn more or to take the Policy IAT (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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