Archive by Author

Mindfulness and Identity in the context of Yogurt.

17 Apr

Sarah Haskins showing us that a proper woman always has the correct baking utensil handy.

Persons invest self feelings in their possessions.

In his piece, “Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates,” author Erving Goffman makes this basic observations that property means something to people, and the choices we make about what to own and what to buy define us to a large extent.  This is true even when one considers the humble container of yogurt.

Yogurt does not seem like something about which people should have strong associations.  It’s one of those things that you buy in the grocery store every once in a while when you have vague feelings of guilt about the Cheetos you’ve been eating recently and want to make a gesture towards positive dietary decision-making (the argument could be made that this particular experience cannot be generalized… I leave the ultimate verdict to the reader).  However, a series of television ads illustrates the principle that food choice – even yogurt- can hold a lot of meaning.  Yogurt consumption is clearly associated here with being a woman, and particularly with a certain class of women.  In an excellent video, comedian Sarah Haskins pokes fun at this connection and its frequent use in the media.  I’m not sure that allows for embedding video from this platform, so I give it to you here.  I submit that the extra click is worth it entirely.

Haskins recognizes that these commercials generalize from some sort of shared ‘women’s experience’ to boost their products’ appeal.  This use of a generic “everyperson” to tie a product with a particular emotion is quite common  – witness the phenomenon of women eating salad or go to the numerous other Target Women parodies about cleaning, cougars, shoes and more to see how companies consciously use (or reinforce?  or create?) certain stereotypes about (upper-middle class) women to create successful reality TV shows or reinforce brand loyalty.  Women eat salad, they like shoes, and they frequently complain about bridesmaids’ dresses and short men… the list could go on.  Car commercials, which cater to men, have a certain stereotype as well.  The best commercials slyly acknowledge certain cultural norms that they are playing upon, and also use them to their advantage. Continue reading


Hormones, Ethnocentrism, and Casuistry

18 Feb

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that has been linked in a variety of studies to various activities such as fostering trust in relationships, social bonding, sexual pleasure, increased emotional comprehension, and mother-infant bonding.  Its effects in these areas are fairly well-recognized; perform a Google search for “oxytocin” and immediately below the obligatory Wikipedia page you’ll find it described as the “hormone of love”, along with advertisements touting the various sprays and homeopathic remedies that promise to improve your relationships (read: sex lives).  All of this attention, however, brings to mind a question: how much emphasis should we place on the role that hormones play in our decision-making processes?

Of primary discussion in this post will be a new study described by the New York Times linking exposure to oxytocin and increased intergroup bias.  The study was authored by Carsten DeDrew, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, who was intrigued by the literature linking oxytocin to increased cooperation.  He posited that evolutionary pressures would require that some sort of limit be placed on this relationship-building behavior, because unbounded trust would not increase chances of survival.

Continue reading

System Justification Theory and the Tiger Mother

4 Feb

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become a seemingly endless source of fodder for Internet blogs and discussion groups.  The book, largely meant to be a memoir, recounts the author’s methods of raising her two daughters; she allowed them limited time for playdates or TV, and describes grueling methods for both study and music practice.  When a short excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper fielded an enormous number of comments (7670 at this writing) expressing a wide variety of opinions on the topic.  Even The Onion has weighed in on the subject.

Why does this book seem to resonate with so many people?  One possible explanation is that it makes a distinction between a “Western” and “Chinese” parent in a time when many people seem to be particularly sensitive to any sort of cultural comparison.  Chua’s stereotypical model of “Western” parenting describes a childhood lacking in any discipline and in some ways signifying a lack of commitment by parents to make their children into the most successful people possible.  A New York Times article underscored the idea that there are many different types of skills needed to be a success, and believes that Professor Chua’s parenting style does not appropriately develop “soft skills” like communication and teamwork necessary in most business environments.

Blasi and Jost’s chapter on System Justification Theory (“SJT”) can serve to illuminate certain biases present in the story and in reactions to Chua’s assertions.  The author, as a Yale professor, is admittedly a fairly elite member of our society, so she is not looking at the system from a position of disadvantage.  The story clearly prescribes a particular path to success and shows an ultimate belief in the “winner’s” mantra as described by Jost:

I am deserving. My group is deserving.  And, fortunately, we live in a system that has the wisdom and justice to reward deserving people.

Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence,” but this idea necessarily presupposes that with excellence will come success.  It doesn’t really address the differences in educational opportunities available to many children, but seems to have faith that the current system will treat people fairly by recognizing hard work.  Losers in the system are clearly “lazy, unintelligent, poorly educated, or irresponsible” as described by Jost.  Jost and Blasi recognize that system justification theory can be used to analyze ideologies like the Protestant work ethic and a belief in a meritocracy: Chua’s entire child-rearing method has aspects of both.

Another interesting connection between Jost’s theory and Chua’s book is the possibility that Chua could be providing ultimate justification for the type of upbringing  that she experienced.  The article on SJT shows that even on a micro-level, within a particular family, people still use methods of ego and system justification to perpetuate particular social arrangements.  Chua herself was clearly raised by fairly strict Asian parents; she describes her father calling her “garbage” at one point when she was disrespectful.  One wonders if this book is simply a way to legitimize her own upbringing and defend her willingness to create a similar type of relationship with her own daughters.  Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she “decided to be an easy child to raise”: the fact that she called it a “decision” could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors.  Many of those commenting on the articles who described themselves as being being raised by parents similar to the “Tiger Mother” also spoke about how much they appreciated their parents’ tough love.

Chua’s story has important implications, I believe, for our legal system as pertains to victims of abuse.  I do not mean to suggest that Chua’s methods constitute abuse; her goal was clearly to help her children be successful, and as one article described, shows a fear that success is becoming difficult to obtain in a world of increasing competition and a less than robust job market.  This is a legitimate worry.  Furthermore, I cannot pretend to understand the complex relationship between another parent and child, because they are quite unique and often complicated.  However, recognizing that this justification can satisfy “needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty” as described by Blasi and Jost, and analyzing one woman’s story through this lens, leads one to wonder how the legal system could account for a demonstrable bias towards the status quo.  Before a real abuse victim can come forward, she or he must be able to recognize that she does not actually deserve the behavior to which she is being subjected, and SJT posits that this recognition is not automatic.  Furthermore, we don’t want to believe that our system is corrupt, but in many cases it is not the most hardworking who become successful, and frequently injustice is neither obvious nor easily corrected.

Law and Mind Blogs: Part 6

2 Feb

Neuroanthropology: Featured Blog

Neuroscience and anthropology, culture and environment, past and present.  This blog seeks to find relevant connections between various disciplines to better understand the encultured brain and body.  From the authors:

Although we believe that human neural structure is biological and the product of evolution, we also recognize that the development processes shaping each individual include a host of other forces as well, including internal dynamics, so that we cannot privilege any single cause over all others.

The blog was originally created as an independent blog here(check it out for old posts), but moved to become part of a network of blogs on mind sciences.  Its principal bloggers are Daniel Lende, anthropology professor from the University of South Florida, and Greg Downey, anthropology professor at Macquerie University in Sydney, Australia.

Why neuroanthropology?  This post explains that the brain itself adapts to its environment, and thus to fully understand it we need to look both at biology and at culture.  It further states four roles for neuroanthropologists:

(1) understanding the interaction of brain and culture and its implication for our understanding of mind, behavior, and self; (2) examining the role of the nervous system in the creation of social structures; (3) providing empirical and critical inquiry into the interplay of neuroscience and ideologies about the brain; and (4) using neuroanthropology to provide novel syntheses and advances in human science theory.

The blog generally presents academic research, and features a number of guest bloggers.  It seeks to both explain things clearly and to rigorously analyze the accuracy of findings in popular science.  One article criticizes the idea of memes, while another exposes faulty reporting regarding a finding connecting having sex and willingness to take financial risks.  Another, very relevant to legal questions about culpability and rationales behind punishment, discusses how we should think about the ways that culture shapes our morality.  Do we act in a certain way because we’ve been shaped by evolution to do so?  In what sense are our decisions actually self-determined?  These topics, and many more, make reading the blog a fascinating and multifaceted experience.

See below for other interesting blogs relating to mind science. Continue reading

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