Monthly Archives: October 2009

Banksy vs. the ‘viewer’s maxim’

Banksy flower throwerIn some of my previous news edits, I have discussed how Harvey Sacks’ (1995) Membership Categorisation Analysis is a useful methodological apparatus for social psychologists wishing to examine the deployment of identity categories and the practices that get them produced. In this news edit I want to briefly outline one element of the ‘viewer’s maxim’ and suggest, some pieces of Banksy’s satirical graffiti trade on challenging its ‘relevance rules’.

Sacks argued that the everyday use of categories rely on some ‘relevance rules’. One of these is ‘that it proposes that for an observer of a category-bound activity, the category to which the activity is bound has a special relevance for formulating an identification of its doer’ (Sacks, 1995: 259). In other words, the identity (category) of the doer can be ascertained from seeing a category-bound activity being done.

Suppose you were to observe a person throwing flowers. You might expect the identity of the flower thrower to be a member of the category ‘romantic person’ or perhaps a ‘festival goer’ (e.g. The Lotus Throwing Festival in Bang Phli, Thailand). It is probably unlikely that you would expect to see a person dressed like the one in Banksy’s ‘flower thrower’ (see inset picture), presumably a member of the category ‘rioter’.

Since specific activities tend to be associated with particular category members, for the ‘viewer’s maxim’ to work, observations of these in practice necessarily produce expectations of normative behaviour. When a disjuncture occurs between activity and doer, we hold the doer accountable for their non-conformative behaviour. Of course with artwork, we can only question the motive of the artist for challenging what we expect to normatively see.

square-eyeSocial Psychology and Discourse

square-eyeThe Handbook of Discourse Analysis

square-eyeThe New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory

The Consequences of Our Responses to Acute Stress


Understanding the most effective ways to respond to and cope with stress has important implications for our longevity and well-being.  Acute stressors are immediate and temporary while chronic stressors are more prolonged and involve ongoing threat and arousal. With regard to acute psychological stress, past research has indicated that those who exhibit large physiological reactions (i.e., cardiovascular responses) are more susceptible to negative health outcomes such as hypertension. New evidence, however, casts doubt on the assertion that large physiological reactions to stress are always bad for health.  Carroll, Lovallo, & Phillips (2009) have shown that low reactivity to acute psychological stress is associated with a diverse set of negative outcomes including depression, weight gain, and compromised immunity. These findings make it much more difficult to label stress responses and coping strategies as “good” versus “bad” given that each seems to have both positive and negative consequences for one’s physiological and psychological well-being.



Stress 101



Carroll, Lovallo, & Phillips (2009)

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Knives at school

091005_bus(1)A tragedy may have been averted when a knife was confiscated from a Delaware student last week. According to the New York Times, the school district’s rules say that Zachary Christie should be sent to reform school, where an important lesson is surely to be learned.

After joining the Cub Scouts, the knife-fork-spoon combo utensil seemed like it would be nice to use at lunch—on his food, we can presume. The lesson is more of a reminder: deterrence efforts are not as useful as policymakers hope. “It just seems unfair,” the 6-year-old said, probably not thinking about the intended effect of such policies.

Presuming that children are motivated by the economic or social benefits of finishing school, zero-tolerance policies are meant to give children motivation for following rules. But even the U.S. Department of Education admits zero-tolerance policies are inequitable and “counterproductive.”

Zachary’s case is similar to one in which a third grader was expelled for a year when her grandmother sent her with a birthday cake accompanied by a knife. Never mind that it proved useful for the teacher who proceeded to cut the cake, but heaven knows what the child would have done if she had gotten to it first.

Zero-tolerance policies should remind us of Reagan-era crime control models that brought us three-strikes-you’re-out laws. We now know that “criminals” or 6-year-olds are not rationally considering the possible consequences of their decisions in such a way, and I doubt Zachary’s peers feel any safer.

Virtual Conference – 6 days to go


For anyone who has not registered, you can do so for free at and enjoy.

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Don’t worry, Be happy?

On September 30 Wiley-Blackwell announced the winner of their inaugural Wiley Prize in Psychology — Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center. While his career contributions are certainly immense, other scholars and, most recently, popular authors, have turned a critical eye to positive psychology.

In an 2008, Dana Becker and Jeanne Marecek published an article questioning positive psychology, particularly its emphasis on individual success and development and what they perceive to be a disconnect with the realities of social institutions and sociocultural power.  Popular author Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book coming out this month, “Bright-Sided”, in which she questions the entire “happiness” movement, including positive psychology and the way in which it has taken self-help into the academic realm.

While Becker and Marecek are not against the idea of “human flourishing,” they see it “not as a matter of private satisfaction, but as a matter of the collective welfare.” This idea is particularly relevant in the current global recession and the discourse of individualism is also prominent in U.S. debates on healthcare. In the U.S., where “boot-straps” philosophy reigns supreme, Becker and Marecek argue that the suggestion “that self-help excercises can suffice in the absence of social transformation is not only short signted but morally repugnant.”

Thus we, as humans living in our societies and bound by institutions, have to ask ourselves the extent to which personal happiness and a sense of fulfillment is tied to broader social influences. Can we “will” ourselves to be happy through the use of affirmations, or are we simply creating convenient illusions to persevere through difficult times?

square-eye Becker and Marecek. (2008). Dreaming the American Dream: Individualism and Positive Psychology.

square-eye Wiley Prize in Psychology Announcement

Texting and Scare Tactics

TextingA recent Welsh video that addresses the dangers of texting while driving has become an internet phenomenon with over 7 million views to date. The video, which will be shown in schools in this fall, features a teenager texting while driving, resulting in a graphic car crash that kills her passengers.

The creators of the ad argue that in order to capture the attention of teenagers, it is necessary for the video to be shocking and violent. However, some critics are skeptical about whether the ad will actually reduce the behavior, especially in the long-term. Health and social psychological research has looked extensively at the efficacy of fear arousing messages when it comes to changing behaviors.

In a recent article, Cameron and Chan (2008) discuss what persuasive elements may help in promoting health behaviors. It is commonly assumed that messages that evoke fear will prompt action; however, many studies have shown that highly evocative messages may actually lead to avoidance and fail to change behavior. In the health communication field, they find that fear arousing messages can be effective but only when coupled with other factors. For instance, when joined with an implementation plan, these messages have a better chance of changing behavior. Moreover, imagery may be effective in persuasive messages but only to the extent that it can directly relate the threat to the recommended plan of action.

While the commercial may be successful in garnering attention, ongoing research brings into question how effective it will be in terms of permanently changing behavior.

square-eye New York Times: Driven to Distraction

square-eye Cameron, L. D., & Chan, C. K. (2008). Designing Health Communications: Harnessing the Power of Affect, Imagery, and Self-Regulation.

Pink Ribbon: Charity or hitting in the face?

Pink_Ribbon_Ducks_16_836Every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a sea of pink ribbons washes over products. This cute and soothing pink ribbon which represents companies’ promise to donate into cancer research, however, leaves some breast cancer survivors feeling suffering rather than appreciating.  “I think that the pink ribbon, as symbol, tends to pretty up what is a pretty crappy disease. But a pink ribbon is easier to look at than the disease itself.” Like Zielinski, many breast cancer survivors feel overwhelmed by the constant pink reminder of a disease that has forever altered their lives.  

The diagnosis of breast cancer, the most common type of cancer among American women, elicits greater distress than any other diagnosis, regardless of prognosis. Medical and psychological research suggests that patients’ reporting of somatic symptoms is more closely related to emotional variables (particularly negative affect) than to their actual health as determined by external criteria (Koller et al, 1996 ). A supportive social environment (broad social network, presence of a significant other, availability and reception of social support) has beneficial effects on patient’s health whereas negative emotions, most of which are evoked by stigma, could be very harmful to patients’ health (Eccleston , 2008).

Stigma means that the individual possesses an undesired anomaly and is therefore disqualified from full social acceptance. People may think breast cancer is less stigmatized than mental diseases or other physical diseases such as HIV because the most significant risk factors for breast cancer (such as genetics and age) can’t be altered by women, which is why it’s often regarded as a “blameless” disease. However, besides negative responses (anxiety, disgust, sadness, anger, or helplessness), the effects of stigma may also contain positive emotions such as empathy or overconcern. Both emotional responses, however, reflect the attitude that the stigmatized person is unfavorably different from “normal” individuals (Koller et al, 1996).Imagine a breast cancer woman who is constantly reminded by this pink ribbon and thus is forced to be aware of the disease so often. Is it a charity or a torture?

square-eyeEccleston, C.P. (2008). The Psychological and Physical Health Effects of Stigma: The Role of Self-threats. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10,1345–1361.

square-eyeMichael Koller, M., et al. (1996). Symptom reporting in cancer patients: The role of negative affect and experienced social stigma. Cancer, 77, 983-995.

square-eyeSick of pink.

When Two Regulating Systems Is Not Enough

ArgueTake a classic example of a driver who is running late for an appointment and another driver unexpectedly cuts him off, or how about when another driver is stuck behind a slow moving vehicle with no immediate way of getting around. If you can relate with these themes then you may have experienced a sense of frustration for the posed scenario. If you indeed had these experiences and have not acted on them by rolling down the window and yelled at the other driver then you, like most everyone else, is dutifully practicing automatic emotion regulation and emotion regulation (Mauss, Bunge & Gross, 2007).

Now, think of an instance when someone leaves decorum: a U.S. congressman yells at the U.S. President during a speech, or a musician who during an award event takes the microphone from the award winner to make a point, or a tennis player angrily disagreeing with the referee during a match.

As it turns out people have not one but two regulating systems to help control behavior (Mauss et al., 2007). Automatic regulation system, as the name suggests, occurs automatically, such as when children are being raised and told not to cry. Eventually the child regulates his emotions before they kick in. What about the second regulation system–you ask? Mauss et al., 2007 note that if the first system, for some reason, does not regulate and people have an outburst then we can mitigate the action. Emotion regulation itself, the authors note, occurs by reducing the intensity or duration of the outburst. As it turns out though, sometimes even two regulating systems are not enough. If that is the case then an apology may be in place.

square-eye Read more: Joe Wilson’s outburst

square-eye Read more: Popular figures leave decorum behind

square-eye Mauss, I.B, Bunge, S.A., & Gross, J.J. (2007). Automatic Emotion Regulation.

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