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Colorblind (But Not Really)

19 Apr

Aunt Vivian: Gee, when Janice described him she didn’t mention that he was…tall. Not that I have a problem with people who are…tall.
Uncle Lester: My cousin used to date a girl who was…tall.
Uncle Phil: Heck, the boy go to a predominantly…tall school.
Will: Now, am I alone on this or didn’t y’all notice he was white?

~ Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Episode #2.6, Guess Who’s Coming to Marry)

In a short article in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, Siri Carpenter discusses two studies done by psychologists at Tufts and Harvard indicating that people who avoid mentioning race may actually appear more prejudiced. In the experiment, one white participant was paired up with one black participant, and they were each given the same set of photographs of random people. The black participant would choose a photograph, and the white participant had to figure out as quickly as possible which photograph his/her partner had chosen by asking him/her questions about each one in succession. The study was designed so that the matching process would go much faster if the white participant asked about the race of the person in the photograph. Significantly, the study found that the “intrepid few” who asked about race were deemed less prejudiced by black observers than the vast majority of white participants who didn’t mention race at all.

If that finding is accurate and generally applicable, then we as a society have totally f***ed up in making it a taboo to mention someone’s race. We have conflated defining someone by their race with simply acknowledging their race.

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You Think You’re So Smart…

30 Mar

“It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.”

~ W. I. Miller (quoted in Kruger & Dunning)

Most people believe that they are above average. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that I’m terrible at math, but even I can see something’s wrong here.

Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. (It's actually Lake Monowai in New Zealand, but never mind.)

This phenomenon — known by a variety of names, including the “above-average effect”, “superiority bias”, “illusory superiority”, and, my personal favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect” — is manifested in a variety of areas, including bias, popularity, and driving ability. In short, whatever we’re talking about, odds are we think we’re better than most people at it.

One interesting variation on this theme is the Downing effect: according to a series of studies done by C. L. Downing, people with a below-average IQ tend to overestimate their IQ,  while people with an above-average IQ tend to underestimate their IQ. In a similar vein, studies by British psychologist Adrian Furnham suggest that, on average, men are more likely to overestimate their intelligence, while women are more likely to underestimate their IQ. Coincidence? I think not.

More on our inability to tell how smart we are after the jump.

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Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 5

7 Mar

1. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at UC Riverside and the author of a fantastic book called The How of Happiness.¬† Ms. Lyubomirsky is a researcher in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, and although positive psychology has been derided by many people as a bunch of unkosher baloney, I found her book to be thoughtful, accessible, and not-baloney. She details and synthesizes the research done on happiness to date (the book came out in 2008), and uses this work to suggest, quite simply, how we can be happier. Recognizing that not everyone enjoys the same things, she offers a plethora of different methods people can try to increase their level of happiness, as well as some tips on how to figure out which ones will work for you. For instance, some people might find that meditation enhances their happiness, where others would prefer writing down three things they’re grateful for each week. Her writing style is lucid and straightforward, and the content itself is intriguing and practical without being unbearably cheesy.

I think the importance of positive psychology for the legal profession cannot be overstated. More and more research is showing that lawyers are alarmingly likely to suffer from acute depression and have other severe mental health issues, such as addiction.

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Everyone is the Hero of Their Own Story

19 Feb

Everyone is the hero of their own story, even if they don't actually wear a cape and tights.

It is a generally accepted proposition that reasonable people can disagree. At the same time, when we disagree with someone, we usually think that they are wrong. How on earth does that work? That is, how can we reconcile our belief that someone may be just as reasonable as we are, but wrong whenever he or she disagrees with us? Does it require us to have some implicit notion of infallibility? Or the conviction that the other person is usually reasonable, but in this case is just being crazy?

In my earlier post on system justification theory, I mentioned how people have a psychological need to think well of themselves and the people they associate with, what psychologists call ego justification and group justification, respectively. I also talked about how this can lead to cognitive dissonance when our beliefs diverge from our experience. But when it comes to beliefs about beliefs, we seem to lack any kind of reality check, so to speak, as long as we can find a sufficient number of people who agree with us. In other words, if I believe abortion is wrong, there is no thing in the real world that I can point to, as an empirical matter, to either confirm or deny my belief. Ethics just doesn’t work that way.

More on why I’m always right, after the jump. Continue reading

Law & Mind Blogs: Part 9

3 Feb

The mind is a fascinating place. The blogosphere is a fascinating place. Together, magic happens. If you’re interested in getting a closer look, below are reviews of a few mind science blogs that are well worth checking out.

1. Sociological Images, whose tagline is “Inspiring Sociological Imaginations Everywhere”, is a fascinating blog where people can submit images that they find sociologically compelling, which thus far have included graphs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrating the gender wage gap, pictures of consumer products differentiating between “female” and “normal” versions, political cartoons dehumanizing historically marginalized groups, and optical illusions that seem to be perceived differently by people from different cultures. Both the images and the bloggers’ sociological discussions about them are extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

More blogs, including the featured blog, after the jump. Continue reading

System Justification Theory

3 Feb

In System Justification Theory and Research: Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice, Gary Blasi and John Jost outline a model of social psychology they call system justification theory (SJT). According to Blasi and Jost, in addition to the well-established theories of ego justification (that is, our psychological need to think well of ourselves) and group justification (our psychological need to think well of the groups that we identify and associate with), there is a third related phenomenon: namely, system justification. While ego justification accounts for our tendency to privilege ourselves above others and to think and behave in ways that are self-serving, and group justification accounts for our tendency to give preference to members of our group over outsiders, Blasi and Jost argue that system justification is needed to fill out the picture, because we need to account for why marginalized members of society tend to support the current social order, even though it disadvantages them, thus defying the rational actor model inherent in our social institutions, particularly the legal system.

The status quo has an edge...

According to the rational actor model, members of disadvantaged groups should be trying to undermine the current regime, since, by definition, it disadvantages them. Instead, as demonstrated by various empirical studies, they seem to be zealous advocates (so to speak) of the status quo. Blasi and Jost argue that SJT can account for this seeming contradiction because, unlike the rational actor model, it posits that people will generally support the status quo, regardless of whether it advantages or disadvantages them.

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