Monthly Archives: August 2009

‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white’ ?

Minstrel in 'black-face'The software giant Microsoft has recently created controversy by crudely editing an image appearing on its Polish business website so as to replace the head of a black man with that of a white man. Whilst the apparent intent of this action was to better reflect the reality of the Polish ethnic mix, it has been widely denounced as racist. This mirrors the converse situation, where a photo of a white family appearing in a Toronto guide was likewise ‘photoshopped’ in order to appear more ethnically diverse.

Although such ‘politically correct’ image manipulation may be readily satirised, it raises the important question as to the degree to which such images should reflect reality, as opposed to depicting some idealised goal. Such debate as to the morality of image fabrication is complicated by the fact that even unmanipulated promotional images are commonly taken from a photo library, and so do not feature genuine examples of the people they supposedly represent.

Similar transformations of ethnicity can also be seen to occur within a number of scenarios involving ‘real’ people, as opposed to images.

Whilst the racist parody of the ‘black-face’ minstrel is now unacceptable, many contemporary films continue to feature white actors playing black characters, as well as vice versa. In addition to providing popular entertainment, such transformations have also been utilised within revealing social studies exploring racism.

More recently, this topic has been highlighted by the case of Michael Jackson. Whilst he claimed his progressive skin-lightening was caused by the medical condition vitiligo, other sources have attributed it to a deliberate attempt to change himself into a white person. In that case such action can been seen as a form of social mobility, enabling transfer from a disadvantaged out-group to a privileged in-group.

Square-eyeMicrosoft ‘photoshopping’ story from the BBC

Square-eyeMicrosoft ‘photoshopping’ story from the Telegraph

Square-eye£1.99 - smallPearson, A. R., Dovidio, J. F. & Gaertner, S. L. (2009). The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism

Square-eye£1.99 - smallTuffin, K. (2008). Racist Discourse in New Zealand and Australia: Reviewing the Last 20 Years

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What’s in a name? Torture vs. Torture Lite


Earlier this week a detailed report of prisoner abuses in overseas CIA prisons was released. The report provides new information about the nature of the abuses inflicted on prisoners which included threatening to kill or sexually assault detainee’s family members, the use of guns or tools for intimidation, and even staged mock executions. Although some of the methods were not authorized by the Justice Department, the report claims that the methods used in interrogations yielded significant information that could be used to prevent future terrorist activity.

The moral implications of these reports is staggering, and it seems that in response some have begun to subtype the acts mentioned above in an effort to reduce the negative associations with the integrity, honesty, moral fortitude many would like to believe America represents. Journalists, military personnel, and academics have distinguished between torture, which is “violent, physically mutilating, cruel, and brutal,” and torture lite, or “interrogation methods that are more restrained and less severe” (Wolfendale, 2009). Wolfendale (2009) claims that using terms like torture lite minimizes the suffering of victims as well as the responsibility of torturers and additionally can lead to the normalization of torture in our culture. Sectioning out some forms of torture may make us feel better and allow us to retain our former representation of our country as a positive, strong, and moral force but in the end it stunts our ability to give the issue its full importance, take responsibility for our actions, and have a real debate about whether we as a country condone torture as a reasonable means for interrogation.



C.I.A. Abuse Cases Detailed in Report on Detainees



The Myth of “Torture Lite”

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Should we put our mind to it, go for it, get down and break a sweat?

treadmillA recent story in Time Magazine made a bold statement by proclaiming that while exercise and physical activity may improve physical and mental health, it may not help you lose weight. As the author acknowledges, there are a number of reasons this might occur. Physiologically, exercise can prompt the release of hormones that stimulate hunger, causing people to eat more. Additionally, as the article discusses, some dieters often reward themselves after workouts by consuming high-calorie foods that merely replace the calories burned during the workout.

Another possible explanation addressed in the article looks to social psychological research performed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. In their pivotal studies about self-regulation, they found that when people are depleted of the energy to exercise self-control, they often engage in disinhibited behaviors, such as eating more. These studies have interesting implications for weight loss and exercise. For instance, people who are exercising frequently might also be dieting to lose weight. Dieters often employ substantial self-restraint throughout the day to resist tempting food. Thus, it might not be exercise that is leading to increased eating; rather, the frequent self-monitoring process of dieters may deplete them of the energy needed to resist fattening foods. On the other hand, exercise lowers blood sugar levels, including that of glucose, which has been intimately linked to self-regulatory abilities (Gailliot et al., 2007). Is it the case then that post-exercise hunger, which often leads to the consumption of high-sugar food, is simply the body’s way of returning to homeostasis?

It seems that social psychological research will have much more to say about this topic in the future, as it remains unclear whether it is dieting or exercise that is directly leading to the consumption of fattening foods. And if the booming weight-loss market tells us anything, it’s that people want to know the best way to get fit and look good.

square-eye Time Magazine: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.

square-eye Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control.

$1.99 Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation.

Gender bias in track and chess

090825Caster_SemenyaLast week an emerging track star became the focus of an international scandal. After 18-year-old Caster Semenya won the 800 meter world championships final by more than two seconds, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced the South African athlete was being required to undergo a gender determination test.

Apparently the South African improved her personal best time by seven seconds this year. After being cleared of doping, gender testing was the next “sensible” step, said I.A.A.F. spokesman Nick Davies. 

Two finalists shared the suspicion. The New York Times reported the Italian Elisa Cusma as saying, “These kind of people should not run with us.” Mariya Savinova, the fifth place finisher from Russia, agreed: “Just look at her.”

A recent study on gender reported an odd, but related, stereotype among women chess players. In on-line games, women who are aware their opponents are male play worse than if they believe their opponents are female, notwithstanding ability levels. 

Of course, gender tests are highly problematic: “Humans like categories neat,” said Alice Dreger to the New York Times, “but nature is a slob.” This didn’t stop Cusma from saying, as if to illegitimatize the track win, “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Perhaps Cusma would have finished higher than sixth if she had not suspected she was racing a man.

If we could talk to the animals…


Recent US headlines regarding the reinstatement of NFL player Michael Vick, convicted of participating in a dog-fighting ring, raise a number of questions about animal rights and how we attempt to understand and treat animal abusers.

As the introduction for the most recent Journal of Social Issues (JSI) states, “virtually all societies” make use of and have relationships with nonhuman animals — as companions, for work, as a source of food, etc. But these relationships are complex and raise a number of ethical and psychological issues.

For example, research has shown that we often benefit — both psychologically and physiologically — from companionship with animals. Perhaps it is this presumption, and the idea that we should care for and protect our companions that elicits such emotional responses from deviant (i.e. abusive) behavior. Ascione & Shapiro (2009, JSI) report on interventions, such as AniCare, that build on these ideas and “intimate justice theory” to work with those convicted of animal abuse. Researchers are also considering how our understanding of animal abuse can inform work on domestic abuse, and vice versa. Such questions have even resulted in the establishment of a new field — anthrozoology — to formally investigate human-animal interactions.

In what ways has animal use changed in our societies as technology has developed? Do you think findings from animal abuse studies can be generalized to other areas of abuse and abuse interventions?

square-eye New Perspectives on Human-Animal Interactions: Theory, Policy, and Research, Journal of Social Issues.

square-eye Read more on the rise of dogfighting subculture (warning: images of recovering dogs)


Exercise and addiction

96px-Weighted_sit-ups_on_an_exercise_ballAccording to the Daily Mail, neuroscientists from Tufts University, Boston suggest that exercise can be as addictive as heroin. Apparently ‘mild exercise such as jogging or bike riding can turn into triathlons and 100-mile bike rides.’ Biologists direct our attention to adrenalin, endorphins and even a genetic disposition to addictive behaviours, whereas, as social psychologists we are interested in the social conditioning aspect of that behaviour. Addictive behaviour then, is described in terms of its ability to resolve ego deficiencies or other psychological deficits—brought on, for example, by fear of social ridicule.

With much of society now focused on obesity and with an abundance of media images and articles describing how one can get the perfect body, it is hardly surprising that obsessive exercising is increasing or claimed to be as addictive as heroin. As social psychologists it is worth pausing for a moment to consider some of the gendered aspects of extreme exercise addiction. For example, Grogan and Richards (2002) suggest that male bodybuilders were using steroids to develop bigger muscles in an attempt to embody and display masculinity. Whereas Jansen et al. (2006) suggested that some women dieting and exercising for a feminine looking slim and curvy body, had developed the potentially fatal condition of anorexia athletica.


Exercise can be as addictive as heroin


The psychology and neurobiology of addiction: an incentive–sensitization view


Theory of Addiction

Express It As You Feel It

Airport_International_Terminal2As airlines cut budgets and reduce service with the excuse of re-structuring travelers are in turn being affected and expressing their opinion. It appears that people have plenty of frustrations to let out when discussing air travel. Indeed, delayed flights and being left stranded at airports can cause someone to have a low opinion of air travel. Reuters reported how after a flight a musician came to find that his guitar had been damaged. After a failed attempt at compensation the musician decided to do what musicians do best–write a song about the incident. In response to the video posted online, the airline company indirectly compensated the musician in the form of a charity donation.

Dissatisfaction with airlines is part of the norm among travelers resulting in websites such as and dedicated to giving travelers a voice, reports Reuters. In addition, the report notes that the masses are finding other ways of protesting on sites such as twitter.

People manifesting their attitudes or distaste toward the airline companies is an example of Smith and Lewis’ (2009) concept of the attitude behavior relationship. If companies and organizations are making changes and the attitude of feeling short-changed becomes part of the norm people will do something about it, starting by expressing their dissatisfaction.

square-eye Read more: Link to Reuters article

square-eye $1.99Smith, J.R. & Louis, W. R. (2009). Group Norms and the   Attitude-Behavior Relationship

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