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A Chicken or Egg Question

1 Jun

I have always wondered why middle schoolers, or teenagers in the U.S. are always thought to be rebels and little devils. Many parents dread the day when their children enter teenage years. And my friends told me how lucky I am to have never gone to middle school in the U.S, because everyone in middle school is so miserable and they take their misery out on everyone else.

Duane from the Little Miss Sunshine

I understand that there are psychological reasons for teenager’s rebellion. But I also think that how teenagers are depicted in the movies play a significant role. Movies reflect the values, beliefs of a society. It is a mirror of its culture. But at the same time, we should not ignore their reinforcing effect on the values and phenomena of a society. It has priming effect. If one watch a violent movie, he/she will behave more aggressively afterwards. If we take a look at the majority of teenagers depicted in the American movies, we can’t fail to notice their anger, insecurity and hostile attitude towards the world around them.  Such depictions could be an accurate reflection of reality, yet they also reinforce the behavior, and to some extent trigger it. Continue reading


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

Democracy as Ideological Engine

17 Apr

A recent worldwide study recently showed the dramatic effect of social situational factors on what we would generally view as dispositionist character traits. The study, entitled Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment, tested, through games, the fairness and punishment instincts in 15 diverse world populations. The authors found that market integration positively correlated with measures of fairness, while community size correlated positively with punishment instincts. The authors believe the study emphasizes that ‘prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.’ In large, market based societies, norms of fairness and punishment developed, evolutionarily, in order to help ensure the continued successful completion of mutually beneficial market transactions.

Get yer Ideologies here.

The institution of democracy strongly lurks in the background of John Jost’s paper on the elective affinities of political ideology. Jost, primarily through surveys of the populations of Western democracies, writes of how political ideologies are correlated, to a very high degree, with a person’s internal psychological traits. Jost emphasizes both top down processes, such as  ideological dissemination by elites, and bottom up processes, cognitive internal functions that lead an individual to adopt overall ideologies in accordance with their psychological needs. Jost  These two processes divide into a superstructure, a socially constructed public discourse, and a substructure, the functional and motivational attributes of individuals. Jost leaves relatively vague, in the paper, the methods of interaction between the superstructure and the substructure. I believe that lurking in Jost’s paper is the role of democracy in driving the process of elective affiliation which Jost describes. Continue reading

Richard Hackman on Teamwork

15 Apr

I will be interviewing Profesor Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard. Hackman conducts research on the secrets of effective teamwork, “ranging from airplane cockpit crews to musical ensembles.”

Hackman suggests five conditions that must be met to foster successful teamwork.  These conditions are: (1) the team must be a real team, rather than a team in name only; (2) the team must have a compelling direction for its work; (3) the team must have an enabling structure that facilitates teamwork; (4) the team must operate within a supportive organizational context; and (5) the team must have expert teamwork coaching.

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Writing as……

4 Apr

So, what do you think?

“I write entirely to find out what I think, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” This particular quote is attributed to Joan Didion, but it is an incredibly common statement, usually uttered as a valediction of the writing process. (CF – Stephen King – I write to find out what I think.) These statements are, at least as uttered by writers, uncritical benedictions of the process of writing. But examined more closely, these statements seem to reveal a somewhat uncertain connection between an idea and its eventual home in words.  At what point does the process, especially its mechanical, instinctive elements, begin to exert unexpected control over the contents of the articulated thought. The need to persuade or advocate, implicit in any communication, seems likely to begin to shape the content of the point that writing advocates. In the context of novelists, the causal connections between the writer, the act of writing, and the end result, seem relatively unimportant. For the reader, the end result, the written text, is the only thing that matters. Furthermore, in the context of writers such as Didion & King, the reader has the freedom to either agree or disagree with the thought which they have articulated. However, the mandatory power upon human action produced by a written judicial opinion is far beyond the imagination of writers who don’t act with the power of the state behind them. Below the fold, I explore some of the complications that the act of writing by judges has on our traditional notions of the role of the judiciary. Continue reading

Ellen Langer on Mindfulness and Health

30 Mar

Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her research covers topics such as the illusion of control, aging, decision-making and mindfulness theory. Her books written for general and academic readers include Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming An Artist, and Counterclockwise. Her lab’s current work in progress is concerned with the interaction of mindfulness and health, business, and education.

In Counterclockwise, Professor Langer discusses how mindful living can affect our health. She talks about an immensely fascinating experiment she did with a group of elderly people. In the experiment, the elders were taken into a setting where they were instructed to live as if they are in 1959. After a week, she discovered that this group of people were acting significantly younger. Their hearing improved, they have stronger grip and more joint flexibility. In Professor Langer’s words:

Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things… It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.

Professor Langer talks about many interesting ideas in her book. One is reverse Zeno’s Paradox. Continue reading

Income Inequality and SJT

29 Mar

Chrystia Freeland, the global editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters, recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times seeking to explain a recent study that revealed that Americans would prefer to live in a society “more equal than even highly egalitarian Sweden.”  If this is true, asks Freeland, then why are Americans generally complicit in our vastly unequal capitalist system?  Freeland offers as an explanation two phenomena, which she refers to as national self-confidence and the lottery effect. Readers of this blog will notice that these phenomena are outgrowths of System Justification Theory (SJT).

Freeland argues that national self-confidence manifests itself in a “widespread conviction that the American way is probably right because all those other ways don’t seem to work out so well. (despite the fact that the American way surely is not the best way to achieve socioeconomic equality). Additionally, she identifies what she calls  “the lottery effect,” which she analogizes to the lottery – Americans buy lottery tickets, despite the infinitesimal odds of winning, because they see other people just like them winning the lottery every week.  Freeland posits that “the nation’s rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman. The current leading exemplar of self-made billions is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and he may soon be outstripped by the even more instant cyber-star Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon.”

Blasi and Jost’s article on SJT explains the underlying psychological processes behind these phenomena: “system justification serves a palliative function, operating as a coping mechanism for members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups, reducing anxiety, uncertainty, and distress.”  In other words, individuals rationalize the status quo in the ways identified by Freeland in order to minimize the negative effect of the dissonance between the world they wish to live in and the one they actually do live in.  Further, the very asking of a question that calls into doubt the American way can increase the motive to justify, as system justification motives become most evident when we perceive a threat to the legitimacy of a system to which we are attached.

Unfortunately (from the perspective of those Americans who desire of a more egalitarian society), individual acts of system justification result in continued inequality. Increased system justification alleviates people’s negative emotional states, and thereby undermines support for the redistribution of resources and the desire to help the disadvantaged.

Dan Simon

29 Mar

Can it all be so simple?

It has become a relatively common aphorism, at least in certain circles, that ‘we are all realists now.’ (The we, in this case, are members of the legal community. The rest of society, living in reality, may be asking where have y’all been all this time?) Indeed, legal realist insights have empowered legal movements as diverse as Critical Legal Studies and Law & Economics. Legal realism has also helped empower greater honesty from judges about the nature of the judging process. A variety of judges, ranging from Richard Posner to Patricia Wald, have acknowledged the heavy role of hunch and instinct which first causes a judge to lean towards the eventual direction that their decision will take. However, a ‘hunch’ hardly seems to summon the ‘correctness’ that we expect from the law, nor match the ultimate solemnity of a judicial opinion. If a ‘hunch’ is the driving cause of the ultimate outcome of a judicial decision, which is then subsequently reified into a formal legal document, how much can we trust the final document? Furthermore, a ‘hunch’ hardly accords with the Talmudic process of asthmatic inducing research in dusty law books (or, thanks to technology, carpal tunnel from Westlaw searches) that is supposed to produce the legal certainty and ‘correctness’ that we demand, even as we know it’s a fool’s errand, from the judicial process. (See Roberts, John and his infamous strike zone.) Indeed, how do judges, themselves, manage to summon, in their opinions, the certainty, expressed in at least relatively formal legal reasoning which they undermine with their extra-judicial descriptions of the very same process. If only a legal academic could investigate these pressing issues! The legal academic who does follows after the jump.

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