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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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Ke$ha’s Critique of Misogyny in Music

16 Apr

Let me begin by saying that I am really, really excited to be posting about Ke$ha.  But before I get to her, some preliminaries are in order.  I don’t think it is too controversial for me to say that rap music is, and has been, very misogynistic.  From “Bitches Ain’t Shit” on Dr. Dre’s 1992 classic album The Chronic to “Area Codes” by Ludacris and the late Nate Dogg (“I got hoes in different area codes”) to just about every Eminem song (e.g. “I’ll put Anthrax on a Tampax and slap you till you can’t stand”), rap music is a genre rife with objectification of women.

Two recent songs have stuck out in particular for me.  The first, again by Eminem, is “Love The Way You Lie.”  The song, which features Rihanna (herself a recent victim of domestic violence), maintains a mainly positive message, with Eminem acknowledging and apologizing for a past emotionally and physically abusive relationship.  All is well until the last couplet: “If she ever tries to —-ing leave again, I’m gonna tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.”

The other song is “Runaway” by Kanye West, a song which (although it’s admittedly quite early) will probably garner a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.  Again the song appears to have somewhat of a positive message, with Kanye acknowledging his flaws and past transgressions (“You’ve been putting up with my sh– for way too long…run away from me”).  However, the second verse of the song, by guest Pusha T, returns to misogyny and objectification.  To paraphrase (and clean up), the verse basically says: “I admit that I cheated on you, but I know you won’t leave because all the things I buy you will make you forget about it.  Women just want us to buy stuff for them, but they should know that every bag, blouse, and bracelet we buy for them comes with a price tag; namely, infidelity and general lack of respect.”

My first concern, which I hope to address in my upcoming interview with Diane Rosenfeld, is the effect these lyrics (along with TV and film portrayals) have on shaping social conceptions of gender roles and domestic violence.

My second concern, and more Ke$ha, after the jump!

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Dr. Marty Seligman

28 Mar

As an undergraduate, Dr.Marty Seligman and his research on positive psychology had a major impact on not only on my academic pursuits, but on my personal life.  When Mary Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1996, he declared that he would spend his tenure at the APA on helping psychology move  away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.  This Positive Psychology model is an alternative to psychology as the “mere” prevention of distress and disorder to a model that explores human greatness. Given the opportunity to interview Dr. Seligman, I would ask him questions about his empirical findings, the creation and future of the positive psychology movement, and his own personal experience with the findings of positive psychology.

Seligman describes that “there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight,” and that in the new century, a large task of prevention will be “to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people.”

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Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 6

8 Mar

Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of the immensely intriguing New York Times bestseller Stumbling on Happiness. He also gave several intriguing talks at TED.

In one of his talks, he says that human beings have a unconscious cognitive process that could be called “a psychological immune system”. This system helps us change our view of the world so that we can feel about our position in the world.  For example, in an experiment he did, a group of people were asked to rank a series of paintings. Afterwards, they were given a painting that ranked low on their list for free. When these people came back weeks later and were asked to rank the paintings again, the painting they were given rose in rank. This shows that we unconsciously change our preferences according to what we have. His research also shows that when we have too many choices and much longer time to make a decision, we become indecisive and unhappy. This is very similar to the idea Barry Schwartz expressed in his talk The Paradox of Choice.

In addition, Professor Gilbert also does research on mistaken expectations. According to him, sometimes we are wrong about what will make us happy. For example, when there are three bottles of different wine in a store at $5, $20 and $30. We are likely to choose the $20 one, because we do not want to get the most expensive or the cheapest one. However, if there is another $50 wine on the same shelf, which makes the $30 one appear much less expensive than before, we might end up buying the $30. But when once we get home and start drinking the wine, we no longer have a comparison to make and the $30 wine might taste just as good as the $20 one. In a word, comparison changes the value of things when we are appraising a product but not when we are consuming it. This shift could impede our ability to make rational decisions.

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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

Experience: Poverty

20 Feb

How long can you last?

“14 million Americans are unemployed.  Now imagine you’re one of them.”  These words greet users who accept the challenge and “play” Spent, an interactive month-in-the-life as an unemployed parent with mounting bills and dwindling savings.  Launched by the Urban Ministries of Durham, a non-profit organization providing care for Durham’s homeless and indigent population, Spent aims to illuminate the difficulties of poverty by exposing users to the unforeseen difficulties that ensnare even hard-working, well-meaning Americans.  (And, of course, to seek donations).

I started the month with $1,000 and took a job as a waiter.  Unfortunately, rent is pretty expensive near the restaurant, so I had to pick an apartment about 40 miles away, increasing my commute and gas bills.  As I proceeded through the month, I had to deal with local hoodlums, car troubles, student loan repayments, medical bills, and more.

Decisions, decisions

My bank account continued to decrease, to the point where I tragically had to refuse to my son’s request for ice cream. Despite cutting back, I ran out of money 19 days into the month, even though I had already decided to forego hot water.  As I made each difficult decision, pop-up messages offered statistics about the people who make these same difficult decisions every day – with much more at stake.

The game offers a view of poverty that is decidedly situationist – even users who “work hard” by finding employment and doing additional work for neighbors still run into the myriad difficulties created by the situation of poverty.  Hard work, it turns out, is not always enough to overcome rising costs of health care, gas, food, electricity, and child care.

Take the challenge and see if you can make it through the month!  And if you do, don’t celebrate yet – there’s another month ahead, surely with even more bills to pay.

Preference, Principle, & Casuistry

17 Feb

[T]he attribution of principle or its absence is more than an evaluative stance; it is also a lay-psychological hypothesis concerning the causes of another’s behavior.

Eric D. Knowles & Peter H. DittoPreference , Principle, & Casuistry

Peter Ditto is the Department Chair and Professor of Psychology & Social Behavior at the University of California - Irvine

We often value people who act on their principles  more than those who act solely on their preferences. In other words, we value behavior that is justified by reasons rather than emotions. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. It’s ostensibly why people don’t like politicians who “flip-flop,” whether they be “liberal” or “conservative.” So, when people make decisions based on emotion, rather than reason, we think they are “biased” or “irrational.” (Knowles and Ditto call this the principle-preference dichotomy.) What’s strange, though, is that we often view our political opponents as emotional decision-makers, while we view people of our own political leanings as principled decision-makers.

The question Knowles & Ditto want to answer is, why?  Continue reading

Using Images to Say “Born Gay”

11 Feb

Of all the ways the Internet is used for humor and commentary, an especially successful format is the photo blog populated with reader submissions around an interesting theme. For instance, Awkward Family Photos became a sensation in mid-2009 for its priceless arrays of dated clothes and questionable poses, while My Parents were Awesome celebrates contributors’ relatives in their attractive, fashionable younger years.

Isaac, age 7, Western Australia

A new site, Born This Way, is now using the same format to address the important mind science question of whether homosexuality is a choice. As the article that alerted me to Born This Way puts it, the blog “pairs a snapshot of a gay person as a kid with a personal essay about what he or she sees when looking at the photo,” yielding results that are both “totally delightful… often thoughtful and funny” and “wading in contentious waters.” In multiple contexts now, from its own comments section to those of the NPR and articles about it, the site has sparked debate over the influences of choice, nature, and nurture in the development of homosexual adults.  Continue reading

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