Dear Obama: For SCOTUS decision, listen to your heart . . .

April 11, 2010

It’s official: Justice John Paul Stevens has announced that he will retire at the end of the term.  But Justice Stevens’ announcement signaled much more than the end of his honorable service; the announcement was, in effect, a signal that the Capitol should prepare for battle.  Warring factions – political parties, advocacy groups, lobbyists – have already sprung into action, releasing news releases, action messages, and flash reports excoriating one potential nominee or another.  (Political) war is coming.  And through all the chaos and cacophony of a Supreme Court nomination, one man must sift through a massive amount of chatter and make a decision.  President Obama must make a choice – a complex and sensitive choice, after healthcare reform and before the midterm election, with an inspired left and an apoplectic right.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of his task, perhaps Obama should gather all the information possible, view the situation from every angle, chew the decision over and over in his mind, ruminate and reflect – all part of a process of reaching the optimal political and moral decision.

Or, maybe he should just go with his gut.  After the jump, I introduce some classic research in cognitive science to explain why an emotional decision could be better than a holistic decision – even when a judicial nomination is at stake.

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Knowles’ and Ditto’s “Warm” View of Human Reasoning:

February 28, 2010

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto endorse what they call a “warm” view of human reasoning. This is a “hybrid view” that recognizes that human reasoning is “necessarily both” “’hot’ (rooted in motivations and emotions) [and] ‘cold’ (rooted in cognitive operations).” (15). In their estimation, this dichotomy between hot and cold reasoning — what they also refer to as the “preference-principle dichotomy” — “oversimplifies human psychology.” (4). In “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry,” Knowles and Ditto present empirical evidence for their favored warm, hybrid view and attempt to explain away this preference-principle dichotomy. 

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The Tea Party and Blasi & Jost’s System Justification Motive

February 25, 2010

What’s been fascinating commentators about the Tea Party is the disconnect between its rhetoric and its second coming, the disconnect which seems starkly clear to the commentators, but to which the Tea Partiers themselves seem quite oblivious. Tea Partiers’ most important banner slogan is “Big Government, stay out of our lives” or any variation thereon.  The question is where were our protectors during the Bush administration, which, as a CNN reporter points out, turned a Clinton surplus into a deficit with a nearly $2 trillion swing, sending the cost of government into the $1.2 trillion figure where it stands today? After all, Obama’s contribution to the massive deficit was a drop in the bucket which was already generously filled during the Bush years.

Gary Blasi and John Jost‘s  work on System Justification Theory (aka SJT) might help explain what’s going on here. Blasi & Jost explore the non-rational decision-making that we all (including, admittedly, Blasi and Jost themselves) engage in. Specifically, they provide ample evidence that the typical self-interest and group identification biases do not fully explain our actions. Why, for example, do members of the disadvantaged groups in our society approve of the social order that continues to disadvantage them and their groups? This is the opposite of the result we would expect if we relied on self-interest and group-identification explanations alone (i.e. if self-interests and group-identification were sole drivers of decision-making we would see near-universal disparagement of the current social order among the members of the disadvantaged groups). Blasi & Jost’s argument (backed up by empirical data, of course) is that we are naturally (and unconsciously) very good at accepting the status quo as the “right” status.  Once any particular order is solidified (i.e. there is very little chance of going back to the previous status quo), we accept it as “correct” and see it “desirable.’  A perfect (and very troubling to a Dem) example was a study by Dan Gilbert where a sample of Texan Dems significantly improved their evaluation of George W. Bush only one month following his victory in the gubernatorial race against Democrat Ann Richards.

So what does all this have to do with the Tea Partiers? Let’s see after the jump.

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Political Ideology in the Popular Press

February 15, 2010

This past weekend, in Our Politics May Be All in Our Head, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times presented research on the psychological (and even physiological) differences between liberals and conservatives — a topic which directly relates to our discussion three weeks ago about Professor Jost’s theory of political ideology.

We all know that liberals and conservatives are far apart on health care. But in the way their brains work? Even in automatic reflexes, like blinking? Or the way their glands secrete moisture?

Although Kristof initially finds the research “utterly dispiriting” — given the difficulty of moving ideological opponents who “may not even share our hard-wiring” — he notes that the research could illuminate how to frame political arguments persuasively.


The Collective Action of Healthcare Reform

February 14, 2010
From WTRF News

From WTRF News

How should an institution inspire collective action?  What’s the best strategy?  The conventional wisdom is that to solve a collective problem, the institution should reward contributors and punish free-riders.  To prevent people from littering, fine them; to induce people to donate to charity, reward them; to move people to invent, lure them with intellectual property—as we discussed last week.  The implicit reasoning is that the typical human agent is a rational wealth-optimizer who won’t contribute to a public good unless he or she is incentivized to do.  Yet, as we also discussed last week, the rational actor model isn’t an accurate depiction of human nature.  Just as the average person doesn’t make the “rational choice” in an ultimatum bargain, the average person doesn’t jump to contribute to a public good on account of a mere carrot or stick.  The conventional wisdom—that the optimal solution for the collective action dilemma is incentive-based—is a gross oversimplification; the almighty incentive is only one aspect of a rich, complex puzzle.  Nonetheless, the conventional solution is unquestioned in our popular discourse regarding collective action.

Enter Professor Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law SchoolAs he’s done for quite a while, Professor Kahan challenges the conventional wisdom.  In the “The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action, and Law,” Professor Kahan argues that the traditional solution for a collective problem is often counter-productive, and offers an alternative theory that is grounded in an ecologically valid appraisal of the human animal.

Before exploring Professor Kahan’s theory, though, consider a recent example of the conventional wisdom’s influence on public discourse from an article in Slate entitled, “The Senator’s Dilemma,” published last week.  There, Christopher Beam argues that the Democratic Party’s strategic stance with respect to health care reform can be viewed as a classic collective action problem.  Although Beam’s characterization of the problem is surely correct, his policy prescription is conventional.

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

February 9, 2010

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

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

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

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

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Crowding Out Innovation

February 8, 2010

Isn’t the iPad just an oversized iPod Touch?  (Isn’t the iPod Touch just an iPad Nano?)  Has the personal computer changed much over the last forty years?  (Check out an embryonic personal computer from Xerox PARC, known as the Alto, from 1973—see the resemblance?)  More to the point, weren’t we supposed to be traveling in flying cars by now?  How innovative are we?

Perhaps we are somewhat innovative, but it is safe to say that we are not as innovative as we could be—and it’s the patent system’s fault.  The problem isn’t that the patent system is doing too little, though; the problem is that the patent system is doing too muchFor as long as the U.S. patent regime treats “carrot” as king, the engine of innovation will run on the fuel of self-interest, and technological progress will lag as a result.

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Fear Edges out Revenge in the Rhetorical Scrap Over Venue for KSM Trial

February 3, 2010

On November 13th, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the trial if the 911 attackers will be held in New York City.  The stirring speech notwithstanding, Holder and the Obama administration are now retreating from the decision. CNN reports that the White House and the Department of Justice are considering a move out of NYC.  This development comes amidst the mounting opposition to the original plan, culminating in 18 senators (including two blue dog Dems) introducing a bill to cut funding for the trial.  All indications are that the administration will back down.

For the mind enthusiasts out there, the interesting part may have been the heavy-handed psychological jousting by both sides.  More after the jump.

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Tone deaf politics or racism? Reid vs. Lott

February 1, 2010

In his recent post, Eric D. Knowles of The Situationist added his two cents to the pile of commentary on Majority Leader Reid’s foot-in-mouth moment while he was speaking about the then Senator Barrack Obama. The post is written as a comparison between Reid’s comment and Trent Lott’s comment for which he was politically excommunicated.  Knowles admits that the statement was impolitic, but his position is essentially a defense of Reid:

Interestingly, I haven’t read or heard a single commentator dispute the accuracy of what Reid said. I’ve heard many say—and I agree—that his comments were indelicate and his use of the term “Negro” anachronistic. Politically stupid, yes. But also true.

Reading the post, I was initially quite persuaded by Knowles’ well-chosen analogy.

Imagine a scenario. An African American lawyer, we can even call him “Barry,” has applied for a job at a prestigious firm—one that has never before hired a Black person. You eavesdrop on a couple of partners talking about the candidate. Question: Which, if either, of the these overheard comments is the more racist?

“I don’t know… Barry’s facing an uphill climb at an all-White firm like this. However, he just might have a shot given the fact that he’s fairly light-complected and doesn’t speak usingAfrican American Vernacular English.”

* * *

“This firm’s going to hell if it hires a Black guy. I wish Strom Thurmond were the head of the hiring committee.”

But let’s dig a bit deeper into the matter.  After the jump, I try to explain why I think Reid’s remark was racist.

So, the vast amount of debate on Reid vs. Lott seems to try to answer the question: “Which one of these is a racist?”  The definition of “racist” seems clear enough to me: one who favors distinctions based on race as a useful social ordering system. (As a side note, this is not a jab against affirmative action, which I do not believe to be a pure distinction based on race, but that’s a topic for another post).  In that light, why should it matter that Reid was merely stating a fact (whether or not it’s true).  The question is, does Reid’s statement betray his predisposition against Blacks.  I’ll get to that later, but let’s first get rid of the common defenses of Reid we hear in the media.

The oft-used defense employed by the pro-Reid crowd is that the man has been working hard for African Americans.  But that’s no answer.  Reid is a politician. A good one at that. As a Democrat and as a Senator of a state with over 30% minority residents, he would be ill served if he didn’t work hard for African Americans.  The fact that he was “praising” Obama doesn’t mean that he is not racist either.  A completely consistent story could go like this: “when politically expedient, I will support an African American.”    Nor is it a defense to say that Reid was supporting Obama for presidency – he would be merely a shrewed racist (perhaps one we’re unaccustomed to) by promoting a single “light-skinned” Black who didn’t have to talk “Negro.”

So what, if anything, in Reid’s statement might betray racism?  First, the “Negro” word. It’s easy to throw it out as a stupid mistake. Just a word, an unfortunate descriptor. Yet if he used the other n-word, no one would seriously contest a charge of racism.  Why is that? The word carries a lot of well-founded disdain in the African American community.  It’s painful roots grow out of our history of slavery and segregation. So the n-word is off limits (at least for whites) because of it is so offensive to the African American community.  The mere utterance of it, then, signals the speaker’s disregard for the suffering, and thus for the people. From that disregard, that projected sense of irrelevance, for that class of people we are willing to dub the speaker a racist.  The difference between the “Negro” and the other n-word is merely in degree. For much the same reasons, a white person is bound to offend many in the African American community by using the former word when he/she doesn’t have to. To a lesser degree, but still. Reid used the word “Negro.”  That’s not stupidity – Reid can only claim stupidity if he didn’t know what the word meant to the African American community. If he did so know, then it was a mistake of a “Freudian slip” variety – a word he’s comfortable using in other settings, but it just slipped out here.   To me, it shows the same exact disregard for the Black community as the n-word; racism … just not all the way.

Of course, it is possible that there’s some mythical person out there who uses the various n-words, but doesn’t support social ordering via  race. That person, of course, will see the inconsistency when he comes out of the bunker. But it is difficult, to say the least, to give that benefit of the doubt to a savvy and very successful politician – it’s hard to get to Harry Reid’s place in the food chain without a canny understanding of people.

As to the substance of Reid’s remark (i.e. that a light-skinned African American who can turn off the dialect is electable), it’s that merely tone deaf either. Sure, the talking heads had been saying something like that for a while before Game Change went on the shelves. But that’s apples and oranges to me. That sentiment coming out of the mouth of an elected representative of the American people, one of the most important figures in the Democratic party, carries the unsettling air of approval of the proposition. Is it OK to discriminate against dark-skinned Blacks?  “But he never said that this was OK!” you might say. But  he never said that it wasn’t either… Do I wish to berate a man for not giving a disclaimer? This man, I do! Reid is not Joe Six-pack. As a man of high public office, he has high responsibilities. Is a simple “unfortunately” too much to ask of such a man? I don’t think so.

Should Reid have apologized to the African American community? Yes. To the American people? Yes. Should he have resigned? That’s a lot tougher. If we want Reid not to be a racist, resignation will hardly do the trick. If we want to send a message that racism won’t be tolerated in our government, then forced resignation might help (although Reid’s remarks took place long after Trent Lott’s disgraceful descent, so, maybe, the deterrent is not as strong as we might like). But it might also just make politicians be more careful about disclosing their biases. It would also signal that we don’t believe racists can’t be rehabilitated. For now, I am torn on the question. That makes it, perhaps, a topic for another post.


Undetectable influence of race

February 1, 2010

Last year Professor Hanson took on a New York Post cartoon in this blog post on The Situationist.  The cartoon’s premise seems harmless enough: the chimpanzee that got shot in Conecticut was writing the stiumuls bill – i.e. that bill makes about as much sense as writings of a crazed chimp.   But the cartoon drew quite the controversy:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/18/new-york-post-chimp-carto_n_167841.html

http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/chimp-cartoon/

http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE51H7N420090218

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/02/19/chimp.cartoon.react/index.html

After the jump, I try to ex

The focus of the controversy is a troubling associations that flow from the cartoon if one were to connect the authorship of the stimulus bill to the President.  As Prof. H points out, with that (unintended) connection in mind, many disturbing issues come out of the cartoon: relations between African Americans and cops, perceived criminal propensities, and, most disturbingly, the idiotic notion that the Black race is closer to primates than other races.

But why inject racial tensions into a situation where neither the author nor the readers think about race?  Well, that’s the point, Hanson argues that we (humans) think about race, whether it is conscious or not.  In other words, when people look at the cartoon, for example, they may not consciously think about race or even make the bill-Obama connection.  But certain, let’s call them gremlins, in the boiler room of the brain ARE thinking about race.  They’re doing so without telling the conscious part of the brain.  They’re thinking about race, they’re storing associations that might be used later (e.g. Blacks + crime).  All the while, we consciously have no clue what’s going on in the back room, blissfully having a laugh at the clever jab at the lawmakers.

OK, so if you haven’t taken one Psy course in your life (or read one post on The Illusionist), this would sound like ground-shattering catastrophe.  But having some exposure to cognition, I’m not surprise about the back-room-gremlins. They’re quite normal, and helpful actually.  They loads of work so that we can have quick reactions when those are required.  For example, the gremlins, over the course of our lives, collect identifying information on how a dangerous situation might look like.  They have a sort of a database of dangerous situations (e.g. dark alley at night, stranger in torn cloths walking toward, a shine of metal in his right hand).  When we encounter a situation, the gremlins see if it matches any situation in the “dangerous situation” database. If it does, we have things like gut feelings putting us on alert, increased blood pressure and adrenalin intake making fight or flight quicker, more reactive. In other words, we don’t have to think – it’s all pre-thought, saving us crazy amounts of time in responding to such situations.

If gremlins are normal and useful, why should we shy away from them in race related situations?  Well, sometimes they’re just wrong. People often confuse gut feelings with some sort of premonition – it must be right. And gut feelings are probably right quite a bit of the time.  But they’re no premonitions. They’re based on prior occurrences, other people’s (media, parents, peers) feeding your gremlins. They just look for similarities between the situation you’re in and the ones filed away in that database. If they’re similar enough, you get the gut feeling.  So, using very basic reasoning, if our database on racial situations is based on media/family/community-perpetuated stereotypes that are not true for majority of Blacks, then the gremlins come up with wrong answers  most of the time.

Hanson suggests that in situations where race comes up subconsciously, we should bring the race into the conscious.  This is why he wants to talk about the racial problems with the at-first-sight-innocuous cartoon. There is some evidence that making the implicit explicit helps overcome pre-conceived subconscious associations.  Example: Professor Schwartz conducted an experiment where people were asked about the general life satisfiction. Turned out that on rainy days, people reported lowergeneral life satisfaction, compared to sunny days.  So this is an example of when gremlins come out on the wrong side: why should today’s weather bear on your general life-satisfaction?  Prof. Schwartz then sought to neutralize the gremlins by bringing the current weather into the conscious. And it worked – when the experimenter would start up a chat about current weather before asking about general life satisfaction, respondents started giving the same life satisfaction scores regardless of current weather.

Schwartz’ experiment is not quite on point here because what we’re really concerned with is the cartoon’s potential to subconsciously reinforce the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks.  There is no evidence that bringing racial tensions to the fore would prevent the gremlins in the boiler room from adding to their database. But the lack of evidence may be due to difficulty of testing this – how do determine if an event added to a person’s storage of associations?

Hanson’s idea seems logical enough though: if we consciously bring out the race issues and discredit them, it’s possible that the gremlins will take into consideration our conscious rejection of the relevance of the input.  At least it is worth a try.