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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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Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 4

6 Mar

Dr. Marty Seligman

Dr. Marty Seligman Dr. Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology and a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. One afternoon, while he was weeding, his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, took the weeds and threw them in the air playfully.  He became angry and sent her away with an irritated impatience that he claims he often exhibited.  She later returned to confront him.   She told him that all her life, she had been a whiner, but that on her fifth birthday, she had decided she was going to stop whining.  And she did.  And if she could stop whining, he could stop being such a grouch.

Dr. Seligman uses that story as his positive introduction, how he describes himself as his best.  In that moment, his five-year-old daughter made him realize that he as a parent, and that psychology as a disciple, had focused on correcting weakness instead of nourishing strength.  Seligman’s most famous work had involved inducing a form of depression in dogs that he termed learned helplessness.  He moved his research from learned hopelessness to learned optimism.

In 1996, as president of the American Psychological Association, he declared the Positive Psychology Movement: psychology’s movement away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.

Seligman later created the Values In Action Character Strengths and Virtues, a list of twenty-four strengths he believed contributed to human greatness. He developed a method to assess an individual’s top strengths, what he deemed “signature strengths.”  This inventory and other positive interventions can be found on his website. Continue reading

He Who Smelt It Dealt It and other signs of early onset Dispositionism in the criminal justice system.

26 Feb

Be careful, he's judging you.

A recent, somewhat lighthearted article by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate explored the concept of ‘kid justice’. Lithwick, in proposing the compilation of a First Restatement of Kid Law, explored several instances in which children display an ability to formulate legal doctrines and standards that mimic adult formulations dealing with similar situations. For instance, “Kid Torts: He left his Transformer on the counter and it fell on my leg and now I can’t walk! Can I have his Transformer!?”. All veterans of the playground courtrooms of elementary school should be able to locate a vein of truth in Lithwick’s proposal. More seriously, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has conducted a series of studies that demonstrate that a ‘moral sensibility’ begins at a remarkably young age. The experiments demonstrate that babies as young as nine months display a marked preference for characters who display helpfulness to others, and disfavor towards unhelpful characters. A further discussion of Bloom’s study, as well as some of it’s possible implications for criminal law, especially our normative justifications of punishment, follows below. Continue reading

The Influence of Schools on A Child

23 Feb

In a 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, there is an interview of Judith Rich Harris, the author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and No Two Alike. In the interview, Harris emphasizes the importance of teachers in shaping a child’s development and the influence of peers on a child. Parents are not as powerful of an influence as many of us think. In Harris’ own words:

One of my purposes in writing the book was to reassure parents. I wanted them to know that parenting didn’t have to be such a difficult, anxiety-producing job…

According to Harris, when at home, children learn from parents how to behave at home. But once they are outside home, they learn rules about how to behave outside home . Therefore, a school-based intervention is the way to improve a child’s behavior in a classroom, be it making them more diligent or less disruptive. A child’s peers could have significantly more influence on her as she grows older and start spending more time outside of home. In an earlier paper, Harris described the harsh peer group sanctions given to a 11-year-old girl when she violated the group taboo by voluntarily sitting next to a boy. This pressure to conform to the expected behavior of a group, however, by adolescence years, becomes less of a push to conform than a desire to “participate in experiences that are seen as relevant, or potentially relevant, to group identity.” At home, on the other hand, most parents probably would not find their adolescents to desire doing what they say.

This is why teachers have such big powers over a child’s development. A good teacher can influence a whole classroom of kids and push them in the right direction. A talented teach is also careful to not let the class split into two factions, the prolearning and the antilearning. Because when that happens, the difference between the two will quickly widen.

I think Harris provides very insightful ideas which are potentially very useful in crime prevention. Most students in underserved communities do not lack parents who care about their child’s future, even though their parents might be too busy trying to making ends meet to spend enough time with their child. But what these children lack is a nurturing environment when they are in school. When the teacher emphasizes the importance of education and instills good values in a child from an early age, it makes a huge difference in the child’s life and more than makes up for the lack of support from home. The KIPP program is a very good example.

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Pick Your Principle

18 Feb
“My whole take on the gay rights issue, particularly gay marriage, is, let’s be honest, if you’re against gay marriage, you just don’t like gay people and you want to stick it to ’em.  And I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do the same thing if I was presented with similar opportunities.  If there was a law up for debate where it was like – ‘hey man, do you think guys that wear tight t-shirts and get bottle service at nightclubs should be allowed to own property?’ – I’d be like, “No!  @$#@ those guys!  Yeah, uh, it violates the sanctity of owning property and it says in the Bible that they’re douchebags.  Whatever I need to say so you don’t think this is coming from purely a place of hate.”

Aziz Ansari, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening

(warning: video contains explicit language)

Comedian Aziz Ansari. Photo by Priyanka Reddy.

Apart from its humor, what can we take from this segment of Aziz Ansari’s comedy routine?  Believe it or not, Ansari’s observation comedically expresses similar points to those made by Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto in their article Preference, Principle, and Casuistry. The joke begins with the claim that those who are anti-gay-marriage are making policy judgments based solely on their emotions – hatred, in this case.  This, according to Knowles and Ditto, is one of two ways of explaining a given policy stance and is the one favored by observers critical of another’s position.  The other stance, usually taken by the actors themselves, is that political positions are derived from moral or intellectual principles.  The actors themselves prefer this stance because “explaining one’s views in terms of principles confers an air of objectivity by omitting the self and all its many preferences.”

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Is Battered Women’s Syndrome an Inappropriate Diagnosis for Self Defense Claims by Women Who Kill Their Husbands?

18 Feb

Judy Norman shot and killed her husband, John Norman, while he was sleeping. After she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter at trial, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, citing as an error the trial court’s refusing to submit a potential verdict of acquittal on the basis of self-defense. How could it be self-defense if her husband was asleep?  The answer is simple, she couldn’t.  However, battered women’s syndrome is no longer recognized by the psychological community and may be an improper diagnosis for women who kill their husbands to utilize for as a defense.

State v. Norman is one of a series of cases involving the admissibility of expert witness testimony on battered women’s syndrome for a self-defense to homicide for women on trial for killing their husbands. Dr. Lenore Walker uses the term battered women’s syndrome to describe the similar characteristics victims of prolonged physical and psychological domestic abuse exhibit after battering cycles, which include a tension building stage, an acute battering incident, and then extreme remorse and loving behavior on the part of the battering male. Walker believes the women eventually become trapped by their fear, fearing even more brutal attacks if they leave, and eventually exhibit learned helplessness.

For a self defense claim, a defendant usually needs to face an imminent threat of death or severe bodily harm, but defense attorney’s have tried to argue that the prolonged threat victims of domestic abuse face is in some sense imminent, even if they are not currently being attacked. Click here to read more about cases using battered women’s syndrome and why using the diagnosis is often inappropriate both psychologically and legally

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

Born To Kill?

2 Feb

On December 15, 1989, Chester Dean Dyer’s mutilated body was found inside his Phoenix apartment.  Jeffrey Landrigan (pictured) was later convicted by an Arizona jury of several direct criminal acts relative to Dyer’s death, including counts of theft, second-degree burglary, and felony murder.  Landrigan appealed his capital sentence by arguing that there was a genetic basis to his crime.  Could it be that he was born to kill?

There are biological and social risk factors that Landrigan argues made violence an inevitable outcome. Although he first did not wish to address these as mitigating factors for his punishment, he asked judges to reconsider the aspects of his background that put him at risk for committing the crime.  Landrigan was adopted when he was nine months old and never knew his biological parents.  However, on his biological side, there are at least four generations of males implicated in violent crime. His biological father, Darrell Hill, was also on death row for murder when Hill passed away. Continue reading

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