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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Callan and Kay: The Law’s Relationship to Self-Interested, Competitive, and Trusting Behavior

February 13, 2010

In “Associations between Law, Competitiveness, and the Pursuit of Self-Interest,” Mitchell Callan and Aaron Kay present and analyze their research regarding whether the existence of law, “implicitly fosters the assumptions that people are self-interested, competitive, and cannot be trusted.” (2)

They outline two primary reasons why individuals may associate the law with notions of self-interested and competitive behavior:

  • Firstly, these associations may occur because of “legal socialization,” which is essentially gaining understanding how our legal system and laws function in society. This understanding may come to us through exposure to popular culture. As the guiding principle of our legal system is that, “the best way of eliciting the truth of a controversy is through confrontation [e.g. plaintiff vs. defendant] and the zealous pursuit of one’s self interests,” Callan and Kay contend that some people associate concepts of pursuing self-interest and competitiveness with the law. (2)
  • Secondly, Callan and Kay argue that the very fact the law has to exist at all leads some people to perceive other’s behavior differently (i.e. as self-interested in nature rather than cooperative), which can impair feelings of trust between individuals.

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Tyler: Early Life Influence on Moral Decision Making

February 13, 2010

NYU’s Professor Tom Tyler and Lindsay Rankin suggest that physical discipline toward a child leads to violent behavior, but in fact the link is more correlational than causal.

DisciplinePhysical discipline is linked directly to aggression and violence toward others in both childhood and adolescence. … Physical punishment of children is therefore not effective in leading to long-term compliance with rules and laws, and it is not effective in producing the type of social values that we argue lead to self-regulation.  Instead, physical discipline leads to just the opposite: aggressive and violent behavior. (Tyler, 28)

Perhaps the children who are physically punished at home are already more likely to engage in aggressive and violent behavior for other reasons, such as their community’s culture or lack of accessibility of positive opportunities. Moreover, in some families, forceful physical and verbal communication are not intended as hurtful but simply the modus operandi for giving instructions.  Read the rest of this entry »


Callan & Kay, on “Law, Competitiveness, and the Pursuit of Self-Interest”

February 13, 2010

The fact that law affects behavior is a truth too obvious to warrant comment.  So much of what we do all the time is in order to comply with some applicable law or another.

Consider: (see captions)

The legal system under which these drivers operate clearly has an effect on their behavior.  But the effects that law has on behavior are not always so obvious.  In, “Associations between Law, Competitiveness and the Pursuit of Self-Interest,” Callan and Kay argue that not only does “thinking about law” — where ‘thinking’ does not mean consciously thinking — lead to more competitive and self-interested attitudes, but that such thinking also produces, under some conditions, more competitive and self-interested behavior.

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Introducing a Blog on Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution

February 13, 2010

Via Her Blog

I was referred to this blog, written by Stephanie West Allen, JD and Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, and thought you might be interested in reading some of their writings.  Not only they introduce upcoming conferences on brain sciences, but they also write interesting articles about applying neuroscientific findings to law and conflict.

You might find these articles below interesting:

Brain Management . . . Law Firm Leadership on the Neuro Frontier

Law Students: Create A Well-Rounded Life

Move From Being a Mindless Lawyer To a Mindful Lawyer


Recommendations released for DSM-5

February 10, 2010

The NY Times reports today on the proposed draft revisions for the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s a short read, and highlights several debates over the working of the mind the resolution of which will bring some pretty important consequences. In the article, Columbia University psychiatry professor Dr. Michael First explains why:

“Anything you put in that book, any little change you make, has huge implications not only for psychiatry but for pharmaceutical marketing, research, for the legal system, for who’s considered to be normal or not, for who’s considered disabled… And it has huge implications for stigma… because the more disorders you put in, the more people get labels, and the higher the risk that some get inappropriate treatment.”


Upcoming Digital Workshop for Students: The Essentials of Blogging

February 9, 2010

via Shorenstein Center

This is one of the digital workshops prepared by Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.  I hope some of you could join and learn about blogging!

Lisa Williams, CEO and founder, Placeblogger.com; Fellow, MIT Media Lab’s Center for Future Civic Media. Moderated by Anna York, MPP2.
Wednesday, February 17, 6 p.m., Taubman 301, Harvard Kennedy School

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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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Tom Tyler on “Strategies of Social Control” – Video

February 9, 2010

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At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, Tom Tyler’s presentation was titled “Strategies of Social Control: Motivating Rule Adherence in Organizational Settigings.” Here is the abstract for his talk.

Recent examples of abuse of authority have occurred in two types of organizational settings: corporations and the armed forces.  What strategies can be used to bring behavior in such settings into line with rules and policies about appropriate conduct?  Dr.  Tyler will talk about the value of self-regulatory approaches, examining whether they work and how to make them effective.  He will illustrate his arguments using data collected in two contexts: in a multinational corporate bank and among agents of social control (e.g., police officers, federal agents, and infantry soldiers). 

Below the jump you can watch a video of Tyler’s presentation (in 3 roughly 9-minute videos).

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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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Week 2: Kennedy and Pronin Summary

February 7, 2010

Summary: “Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict”

In “Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict,” Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin from Princeton University argue that bias perception is a key element that instigates, and fuels conflicts.  In the article, Kennedy and Pronin discuss their notion of bias perception, conflict spiral, and possible intervention methods.

Kennedy and Pronin describe three main attributes of what their notion of bias perception entails.  The first point is that people have a bias blind spot in which people are not able to perceive their own biases.  The next point is that people have an illusion in which they believe that they are not biased because they introspect their own “thoughts, feelings, and motives” without attending to their own “behavior, naïve theories, and base rates” although they use these criteria to evaluate others.  The third key point is that people tend to see their adversaries biased especially when they face disagreement.  In case of a disagreement, one party sees no room to negotiate because this party believes the opponent is biased.  Basing on these three key elements, Kennedy and Pronin explains the initiation, development, and the possible intervention of conflicts.

For Kennedy and Pronin, people’s imputation of their contending party as biased initiates conflicts.  Moreover, this tendency further “escalates” the conflict resulting in a vicious cycle.  In order for Kennedy and Pronin to further explain the implication of bias perception, they compare traditional theories with their own.  Traditionally, a large scale conflict means international conflict, and the nuclear arms race is the most outstanding example.  In the analysis of nuclear arms race case, political scientists and historians were the main researchers, but they also noted the importance of bias perception.  During the nuclear arms race, both contending parties experienced a bias blind spot.  They all claimed that the other party was the problem.  Kennedy and Pronin explain that people had a hard time breaking the vicious cycle of negative conflict cycle although any earlier bargain would have benefitted both parties.  Kennedy and Pronin imply the bias perception was the main culprit of this “entrapment,” saying that people at that time had a “psychological” difficulty.

Kennedy and Pronin further develop their idea of a bias perception and conflict spiral by suggesting a basic conflict spiral model that contains two important features.  The first critical element of the model is that “disagreement leads to the perception that the other side is biased.”  The second component of the mode is that the causal relationship of perception of the other side as biased and competition and aggression.  Kennedy and Pronin say that the two elements recur, and form a vicious cycle.  In the study mentioned in the section, Kennedy and Pronin note that their subjects tend to become more competitive and less cooperative because the subjects appeal to administrator instead of talking with their adversaries.

In addition to explaining the function of bias perception in conflicts, Kennedy and Pronin also examine the bias perception in negotiation.  Although negotiation is an event in which concerned parties can try to resolve conflicts of interests through less hostile methods, the parties are not always willing to be cooperative.  Parties in negotiation still see others as biased, and they still try to compete.  Negotiation is still a negative spiral.

Finishing their discussion of a bias perception and its effect in conflict spiral, Kennedy and Pronin seek the intervention and prevention methods.  Since their main concern is the effect of a bias perception, they attempt to find ways to interrupt the vicious cycle created by imputation.  They present three traditional ways first.  Perspective taking is a method in which a party makes effort to understand the opponent by thinking that the opponent is not “hopelessly” biased.  In this method, the involved parties try to see others more objectively.  Although this method may be beneficial to all the parties, this method may solidify a party’s perception of the other party.  In epistemic motivation method, the researchers claim that parties try to view the opponent more objectively when they are epistemically motivated.  For a group level conflict, the researchers claim that focusing on similarities between “ingroups” and “outgroups” will reduce the differences in perspective (social grouping and similarity).  The researchers claim that subtle priming or directing of individuals so that they can see the similarities will be more effective than forcing them.

Kennedy and Pronin finally introduce their novel intervention and prevention methods.  Kennedy and Pronin believe that people’s tendency to be critical about their opponents is a main reason for a disagreement, and suggest “non-counterarguing listening” in which people try to suppress their urge to be critical about their opponents’ position.  Moreover, Kennedy and Pronin claim that people can learn to view themselves as not objective as they used to think through “introspective education.”  In addition, an intentional psychological distance is a good option.  Temporal distance is an example of psychological distance, and this refers to time difference between the present and the actual event.  According to Kennedy and Pronin, intentional manipulation of “temporal, physical, and social distance” may lessen the stress and the involved parties will be able to view the situation more objectively.

Through the psychological examination of conflicts, Kennedy and Pronin claim that a bias perception is a main element of conflicts.  Subsequently, they present a model, and some gave suggestions to reduce conflicts.


How Behavioral Game Theory Supports Schwartz’s Theory of Self-Interested Ideology

February 7, 2010

Is self-interest a natural expression of human nature? Or, is it an ideology—an unnatural societal construct?

In “Crowding Out Morality,” Professor Barry Schwartz argues that we have created a society where our institutions and structures operate under the assumption that human nature is self-interested.  These institutions, in turn, crowd out moral motives and altruistic instincts, thereby causing us to exhibit self-interested behavior.  A central premise of Schwartz’s argument is that the ideology of self-interest is a product of society itself.  That is, the ideology of self-interest is self-fulfilling and man-made: In a society that embraces the view that self-interest is a dominant motive, self-interest will dominate; in a society that does not prize self-interest, however, altruism can move us.  To buttress Schwartz’s premise that the ideology of self-interest is an unnatural societal construct—as opposed to a natural expression of human nature—let’s play a game.

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Chapter Summary: “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling” by Barry Schwartz

February 6, 2010

Barry Schwartz’s chapter, “Crowding Out Morality: How the Ideology of Self-Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling,” argues that modern Western society is structured on the (incorrect) assumption that self-interest is what motivates human behavior, and that this structure influences people to actually become this way.  Situations can create individual motives, according to Schwartz, and therefore motives are not always exogenous to situations.

Barry Schwartz

Schwartz begins with three examples of how morality can be “crowded out.” That is, when an individual has two reasons to engage in a certain behavior, such as (1) “because I am a citizen or community member,” or (2) “because I will receive financial compensation,” the two motives compete. Given a society where a free-market, self-interest-driven mindset is already dominant, option two frequently wins out. Not only does it win out, but it does so in a way that produces results detrimental to the public good:

  • Example 1: A daycare center in Israel tries to solve the problem of parents picking up their children late by fining latecomers. The parents perceive the fine as a “price” for coming late, and more arrive late than when the disincentive for coming late was just that it was the “wrong thing to do.”
  • Example 2: When Swiss citizens were asked whether they would be willing to have a waste dump in their community in exchange for financial compensation, fewer individuals (25% versus a previous 51%) agreed to allow the waste dump than when the same question was asked with no compensation offered—that is, when they were asked to put up with the dump “because they were citizens.”
  • Example 3: When college students were asked to help out with a study that required them to drag a ball across a screen for three minutes, students put in more effort, dragged more balls across the screen, when they were doing it for free than when offered financial compensation—that is, when their only reason to do it was “as a favor.”

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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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Emily Pronin on Bias

February 2, 2010

In March of 2008, at the Second Harvard Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin presented her fascinating and important work in a talk titled “Implications of Personal and Social Claims and Denials of Bias.”  Below we have pasted the abstract and the four video segments of her presentation.

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People’s efforts to make accurate, fair, and sound judgments and decisions often are compromised by various cognitive and motivational biases. Although this is clearly a problem, the solution is less clear due to the fact that people generally deny, and often are literally unaware of, their own commissions of bias – even while they readily impute bias to those around them. I will discuss evidence for this asymmetry in bias perception and for the sources that underlie it, and I will discuss its relevance to three policy concerns – i.e., corruption, discrimination, and conflict. Finally, I will discuss solutions, with a focus on potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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To read a Situationist post containing a summary of Pronin’s work and some related links, see “The Situation of Biased Perceptions.”


Barry Schwartz on Being Addicted to Incentives

February 2, 2010

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Barry Schwartz studies the relationship between economics and psychology, delivering startling insights into modern life.

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable.

Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.

Schwartz’s previous research has addressed morality, decision-making and the varied inter-relationships between science and society. Before Paradox he published The Costs of Living, which traces the impact of free-market thinking on the explosion of consumerism — and the effect of the new capitalism on social and cultural institutions that once operated above the market, such as medicine, sports, and the law.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place in March of 2009, Professor Schwartz’s outstanding presentation was titled “Addicted to Incentives: How the Ideology of Self Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling.” Here’s the abstract:

“If you want someone to do something, you have to make it worth their while.”  This uncontroversial statement is the watchword of our time. It is the core assumption of economics and of rational choice theory.  It is the linchpin of free market ideology.  And it explains why the first place we look in matters of public policy—from regulating financial markets to improving the quality of education to reducing the high costs of health care—is to the incentive system that governs the behavior of current practitioners.  Uncontroversial.  Self-evident.  And false.  In this talk, I will argue that the reductive appeal to self-interest as the master human motive is a false description of human nature.  At the same time, it can become a true description if people live in a world in which incentives are presumed to explain everything and are used to produce the behavior we want.  Just as people can become addicted to heroin, they can become addicted to incentives.  Looking at modern American society as it is gives us a picture of what people can be, but not of what they must be.

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

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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.”

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“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.


Virtuoso in the subway. Or how we perceive the indigent?

February 1, 2010

A few years ago The Situationist blog covered the story about an experiment where Joshua Bell’s posed as a subway musician to see if anyone would appreciate his unquestioned talent in the art of violin-playing.  Bell is definitely one of the (if not the) most popular classical violinists living today. He’s featured in many popular films (e.g. he played pretty much the whole soundtrack of The Red Violin movie starring Sam Jackson), and regularly packs performance halls with adoring fans eager to hear experience his unmatched talent.

I like this piece for several reasons. One of which I should give at the outset because it is a bias of a sort. The great Bell got his music education at my alma mater, the beautiful Indiana University, Bloomington. Go Hoosiers!

But in this experiment, he was just another (appropriately dressed) subway musician. Although dressed accordingly, Bell still brought along his immense talent and ability, playing Bach’s Chaconne (one of the most difficult and beatiful pieces for solo violin).  And, of course, he didn’t forget to grab his $3.5 million Stradivarius violine (just to make sure that the quality of the instrument is controlled for). The question was whether anyone would give Bell the respect due his ability and quality of the music.  Turned out, almost no one did.  Seven people stopped for a minute, several dropped a buck into the violin case, but 1,070 completely ignored the guy (at least ostensibly).

Jon Hanson and Michael McCann used the experiment to demonstrate yet another manifestation of the robust impact “the situation” (rather than Bell’s personal abilities and talent) has on our perceptions.

No doubt the situation makes a huge difference. But there seems to be something particularly unsavory about this particular situation.  Could Bell’s “epic fail” in the subway have anything to do with our general attitude towards the poor people who ask for money?  Let’s get into this after the jump.

Hanson and McCann argue that the experiment proves that even our appreciation of music is subject to situational pressures.  To me, there are 2 directions from which “the situation” may alter our pereception of music:

1. When we see the artist in the subway, we are affected by his situation: he’s in the subway, raggedy clothes, no crowd around him ==> not worth our attention.  This, I think, is the situation that Hanson and McCann focus on.  It’s an informative one, in the sense that our evaluation of people doesn’t rise and fall solely with their personal abilities (i.e. the disposition).  It is directly subject to manipulation based on the perceived person’s situation.

2. When we see the artist in the subway, we are affected by oursituation.  Whether we’ll notice him at all depends on our habits, how busy we are, how much change we got in the pocket, etc.  This is the one I want to focus on.

This is why I’m interested in this particular direction: if the claim of the experiment is that people don’t appreciate beuatiful music as much when we switch the situation a bit, I might agree, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Let’s say half of the people did notice the music and wereprivately enjoying it.  They just didn’t turn around and acknowledge it. Why would they not?  Simple (not really): they didn’t want to pay!  See, acknowledging that you’re appreciate the subway musician’s performance carries a certain social pressure with it: if you’re enjoying it, it’d be only fair that you pay the guy.

beggar angelThat right there taps into our very deep-seated protective cover: we (most of us, at least, me included) have an immensely strong aversion to acknowledging and giving money to the indigent.  This is why we move to the other side of the street when there’s a beggar on the sidewalk.  I think most people can relate to this very strong negative feeling we get in this sort of situations.  We often try to protect ourselves from the cognitive dissonance: we’re good people, we sometimes even give money to the charity, why are we so averse to giving a dollar to this guy? The dissonance makes us feel very guilty, and we come up with all sorts of nifty explanations – he screwed up his life on his own, made bad choices, probably an alcoholic, etc. etc. etc. We might look straight ahead, past the beggar, or we might give him a sneer to indicate our displeasure (which sneer also validates our response to blow right past the guy).

Next time you find yourself in that situation, try to track your thoughts, I’m sure you’ll find some resonance with what I said above. Beware, though, these thoughts flash extremely quickly, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably miss them and will enjoy the successful resolution of the cognitive dissonance in blissful ignorance of how the dissonance was resolved.

Given how strong this protective cover is, I might even convince myself that you’re not enjoying the music that much.  Or I might just stand, with my back turned to Bell, as if I’m not listening. But it’s quite possible that privately, I am listening, and loving it.

So what? What’s my point here? Not a 100% sure, but I think the point is that the situation doesn’t so much change our tastes in music, as much as it changes our physical response to it.  So, here’s a very crude step-thru of what I think happens:

1. We perceive the music (it goes into our ears)

  • Of course, here, the situation might prevent us from even going this far: e.g. if we’re running into through the subway to catch the next train.  But this doesn’t get at whether we like the music.

2. The music is then processed by whatever part of the brain is responsible for liking/disliking the music. Here we get a decision – up/down thumb.

  • I have no hard evidence that this happens before stage 3 except for the fact that the feeling of enjoyment (with subway artists) or pity (with street beggars) is the actual thing that creates that dissonance which forces us to come up with rationalizations and self-validating excuses. In other words, if we never got the enjoyment or the pity, we would have a

3. Then the whole bit (the music and the feeling we got in stage 2) goes into another processor – this one injects the situation into it.  Now we have the dissonance: I feel pity for this man; I’m a good person; yet I don’t want to help him (that’s the contribution of the situation to the mental analysis).

4. Then we resolve the dissonance using various tricks and succesfully exist the challenging situation.

I should say here that this is not in any way a “let’s all  point our fingers at jackasses” post.  These things we do are perfectly human. We all engage in them (myself included). We would hardly survive through the evolutionary process without these high-level cognitive self-protection skills. My point is only that it makes sense for us to inquire into (and perhaps understand) these processes.

Re comments: if anyone is reading this, I’d love to hear about people’s experiences of the sort I describe above. But it might be tough to say: “I just walked passed a homeless woman, felt like crap, but here’s how I resolved it.”  So feel free to post comments anonymously.


Blog Log #9

February 1, 2010
* As selected from a pre-provided list of 7, which was pre-derived from a list of 10 lists, each consisting of seven blogs. The headline is not in any way an objective statement as to the quality of the blog as demonstrated by its receipt of any blog award or anything of the like, other than the author’s subjective preference as among the 7 pre-selected blogs mentioned herein.

PsyBlog Home

OK, if this worked, you’re still reading. The best of seven – here comes an indefensibly unpatriotic move – is a limey blog:

The main contributor is one Jeremy Dean    Jeremy Dean

Don’t let the boyish looks fool you, the man is all talent.  Besides, the relative youthfulness may be the reason why the topics of the posts are so appealing to me (who’s the decider re which of these 7 blogs is the best).  I have a feeling most youngins interested in psychology would find this stuff pretty fascinating.  Here’s a quick digest of the more recent stuff:

How hustlers trick 3.2 million people each year in the UK into handing over £3.5 billion – great post on common swindlers and how they already figured out all the cool psychological tricks, way before the researchers got around to it.

Cheating: Does Deindividuation Encourage It? – Anonymity=more probable unethical behavior.  This totally explains 90% of ATL comments.

How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us –  this is great – not only this about, basically, subliminal mind control, but it draws on the always interesting element of attraction/lack thereof.