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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

Fractal Conflict Spirals & the Abortion Debate

25 Feb

The epitome of a conflict spiral?

Since the 2010 election, there have been a variety of bills proposed by Republicans, at both state & federal levels, that may result in restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion. This post is not designed to evaluate the merits of these proposals, but rather how the response to these proposals, particularly a recent bill proposed in South Dakota that would classify actions taken in defense of a fetus as justifiable homicide, represent the conflict spirals discussed in the article ‘Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict’ by Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin. A brief analysis of the tone and nature of the debate over this bill shows the eagerness with which sinister motives were attributed to the opposing sides in this debate. Also worthy of note was the role of the media, which emphasized negative interpretations and furthered controversy, perhaps because it was the best narrative. 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

Reactions to DADT Repeal

4 Feb

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed: “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”  Referencing the recent repeal of the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Policy (DADT), Obama expressed confidence in a relatively swift timeline for the repeal of the longstanding policy.  In the days that followed Obama’s address, multiple government officials have echoed this sentiment, eliciting praise from long-time critics of the policy.  Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, commented: “Generally we are pleased with how swiftly this is moving forward.”

The rate at which repeal is ostensibly progressing is somewhat of a surprise given the strong objections to repeal voiced by members of Congress and the Military throughout the policy’s history.  The insights of system justification theory (SJT), as described by Blasi & Jost, can help explain the apparent mismatch between the vehement opposition to repeal and the complicity (and perhaps even vigor) with which it is being implemented.  By examining the public comments of one particularly strong critic of repeal, Senator John McCain, I will explain this apparent mismatch by invoking the insights of SJT and other mind science theories.

Arizona Senator John McCain

McCain has been a longtime supporter of DADT, often buttressing his stance by noting that several military leaders had also professed support for the policy.  In a 1999 interview that typifies McCain’s historical stance on DADT, McCain told the Boston Globe that he supports the policy because “Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, all of the military leaders that I respect and admire came up with this policy … They thought it was the best way to address a very difficult problem within our military.”  However, recent insights from the mind sciences suggest that McCain’s cited rationale for his policy stance may not be the true source of his policy attitude.  As Jon Hanson and Mark Yeboah note: “our reasons, far more often than we can perceive, are not connected to our behavior as much as they are rationalizations or confabulations to help make sense of that behavior.”  Sure enough, even when Powell changed his own stance on DADT, Senator McCain continued with his opposition.

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State of the Medical Malpractice Reform

2 Feb

I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down [Health Care] costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits. President Obama – 2011 State of the Union

The President shocked both Republicans and Patients Rights Advocates when he indicated that he would be willing to consider medical malpractice reform. Businesses, Doctors and Tort Reformers have been yelling about the “need” for Medical malpractice reform for years. Members of these groups often point to a recent study (PDF) conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health which found that 40% of malpractice filed claims lack evidence of medical error or actual patient injury. Despite this study many still take issue with the President’s depiction of medical malpractice as an out of control area that needs to be reined in. I will not discuss those arguments in this post. (See Tom Baker’s The Medical Malpractice Myth, for an examination of the academic literature on medical malpractice.)

Instead, I’d like to look at what Republican ideas the President might consider.  In the House there is currently a bill that intends to rein in those frivolous lawsuits, H.R. 5. The preamble of the bill says it is, “To improve patient access to health care services and provide improved medical care by reducing the excessive burden the liability system places on the health care delivery system.”

Among other methods, the bill seeks to accomplish its goal by imposing a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages.

Noneconomic damages includes compensation for the pain an injured patient suffers because of a negligent hospital, doctor or other healthcare provider.  Noneconomic damages also compensates individuals for the lost company of a loved one or lifetime disfigurement.

To quote  Representative Linda Sanchez, “H.R 5 is a deplorable bill”.  Indeed, capping noneconomic damages is the most useless method for reducing frivolous lawsuits. Damages caps certainly cut down on total lawsuits, but only because the cap makes it financially infeasible for an attorney to bring a lawsuit on behalf of a person with no economic damages. No job. No lawyer. No lawsuit.

The fact is that an attorney cannot afford to take a case for someone with no income because their maximum award at trial is limited to $250,000. After expert witness fees, court costs and travel, a medical malpractice case can easily cost over $100,000 to get to trial. Leaving the plaintiff little to nothing after attorney’s fees.  And with damages capped, insurance companies have almost no incentive to settle.

Sadly, damages caps prevent lawsuits by those who are often the most vulnerable to injury from negligent health providers. Children, the elderly and disabled persons cannot secure representation when a law deems their case has a maximum value of $250,000.  We can see this happening in states that have already capped noneconomic damages.  Perhaps most notably are the tort reform measures taken in Texas–House Bill 4 and the accompanying Proposition 12. Since those measures passed in 2003 the number of medical malpractice lawsuits in Texas have dropped dramatically. But that drop has been at the expense of thousands of wrongfully injured patients who can no longer secure representation. (For further discussion on  HB4 see Mark Lanier‘s interview covering the fallout).

Without a doubt, H.B. 5 is not a solution for reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits. A cap on noneconomic damages does nothing more than arbitrarily reduce the total amount of lawsuits. This reduction is done by creating categories of individuals who get shut of the courthouse doors.

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