Monthly Archives: March 2010

Al-Qaeda, the United States and institutionalized aggression

Osama bin Laden released a new audio recording on Al Jazeera (25 March 2010) threatening to kill any Americans that al-Qaeda takes prisoner if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is executed and if Washington continues its support of Israel’s continuous occupation of Palestine.

This tells us something about the role of social norms and values, and the rules and regulations that are involved in maintaining social order (Bull, 2002) and how these can be deployed for institutionalized aggression. That is, why people as a group or society may support the use of aggression, yet have distain for similar acts by individuals (e.g. the killer of Banaz Mahmod) (Gautier, 2010). All societies across the globe depend some form of social order for stability in providing much needed resources and a sense of community. These shared social values (e.g. the right to safety, life etc) and norms often include the legitimate use of aggression and violence as a legal (and illegal) means of challenging those that are deemed as a threat to that existing order.

Terrorism (or freedom fighters) along with State and State sponsored violence constitute some examples of the use of the legitimized use of ‘institutionalized aggression’ in order to retain or resist power and control (Chomsky, 2008). Of course, the extent and use of such mechanisms of aggression will, depend on each particular society’s history(ies) and present circumstances. However, whatever the form ‘institutionalized aggression’ takes it tends to be met with something similar.

Al Jazeera – Bin Laden threatens Americans

Man accused of Banaz Mahmod ‘honour’ murder

The Blackwell Reader in Social Psychology

The Bottom Line

What determines the importance of fairness, particularly to strangers?  There are no incentives to play fair when dealing with people we don’t know, aren’t related to, and will never interact with again. Evolutionary psychologist might point to carryover effects of living in smaller communities in our distant past. A recent study led by Joseph Henrich hopes to clarify the issue postulating that there is more to it than simply inheriting fairness attitudes. The research team implemented a Social Dilemma like game called Dictator and administered it to a wide variety of populations. They found that modern living Missourians were most likely to share while hunter-gatherer societies, such as those in the Serengeti or the Amazon, were less likely to do so. One might think that these smaller communities would foster a greater sense of social responsibility and be more willing to share but the researchers point out that while there are clear rules and norms for sharing among kin or ingroup members, a sense of responsibility to the other may be absent when dealing with strangers.  Practices and norms emphasizing fairness to strangers have developed in other societies and this research points to “market integration” as a possible explanation as this factor was the strongest predictor of fairness attitudes. Market integration was operationalized as the amount of food purchased.  In communities where food is hunted, found, or grown people are less likely and willing to share with strangers. But when food is purchased it makes sense that systems would need to develop where strangers (consumers and sellers) can trust one another. The consumer market can’t function is everyone acts selfishly and treats others as if they will act the same. Oddly enough it seems that trust and fairness develop in some cases because they are economically advantageous.

Suggestions for a New Integration in the Psychology of Morality (Sunar, 2009)

Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment

Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9

 

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Earning Moral Credit by Buying “Green”: South Park Was Right All Along!

Remember that episode of South Park when Kyle’s dad gets a hybrid car and suddenly begins to sport a “high and mighty” attitude? With Kyle and Ike in tow, Gerald rides around town in what appears to be Toyota Prius, insulting others who drive non-hybrids, bonding with fellow hybrid owners over their general awesomeness, and blatantly ignoring that “Ike is starving to death” in the backseat. In the bit linked here, the scene ends with Gerald setting off to give “awareness citations” to SUVs in the parking lot of the local hardware store.

The episode certainly got a good chuckle out of viewers – perhaps even some hybrid owners – but who knew at the time that this pattern of behavior was no joke? According to Nina Mazur and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, new research to be released this month in Psychological Science counterintuitively suggests that supposedly virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. They find that although mere exposure to “green” products encourages people to be more altruistic, people who actually purchase these same products are more likely to act immorally or unethically after their purchase in the form of sharing less money with an anonymous partner and, in one study, actually cheating and stealing more money (compared to participants who made purchases at a conventional store). The researchers claim that whereas participants who are merely exposed to “green” products are primed with an air of social responsibility and moral capital, participants who actually get a chance to buy the product subsequently experience a phenomenon known as licensing. That is, a person who purchases a “green” product might come to feel that he has earned some sort of moral credential via the purchase, thereby giving him privilege to engage in future asocial and unethical behavior.

What do you think? Are you a purchaser of “green” products? If so, how many times did you congratulate yourself today on your awesomeness? And, while we’re at it, how many pennies did you steal this week from those nice little “give a penny, take a penny” pots at the local coffee shop? We now understand why you’re doing it, but luckily we don’t have to suffer the stench of your immorality over the exhaust of our Hummers and Jeep SRTs.

Thanks! Season 10: Smug Alert – Clips – South Park Studios

Do Green Products Make Us Better People?

It’s Complicated: The Realm of On & Off Relationships

Think Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood, Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer – just few of celebrity pairs that have gotten on and off, breaking up, then getting back again, sometimes extending the cycle to the point where we are left guessing as to their future romantic plans. On and off relationships are not uncommon. A study by Dailey et al sought to provide a baseline description of on-off relationships and their differences with noncyclical relationships, or relationships that end and do not renew. Factors such as relational development and dissolution, reasons and initiators for dissolution of relationship were looked at. The study revealed the commonality of these kinds of relationships among the participants. Participants who have been in on and off relationships were less likely to report positive characteristics of the initial stages of their relationships. Then why go back to such a relationship if that is so? The researchers also noted that while most breakups were unilateral / non mutual, there was an even higher percentage of on-off relationships that were non mutual, compared to noncyclical relationships. It is possible that one partner would still be interested in instigating reconciliation. Noncyclical partners also reported greater use of mutual disintegration to end a relationship, whereas on-off partners often used methods that were more unclear, such as the “Let’s take a break” excuse. Such method may increase uncertainty whether the relationship is merely ‘on break’ or if it has been terminated.

Several recommendations include the need to address internal factors in the relationships, and the need for certainty,  for both partners to be explicit in their desires to continue or end a relationship.

Celebrity Couples Who Separate and Reunite

On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? Dailey et al (2009). Personal Relationships

Photo: “2004-12-02 – Light Switch – Messed. Up” by , c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved

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Mad Scientists: Can we ever revisit Milgram’s diabolical studies?

By Erica Zaiser

Every student of social psychology remembers studying Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. His studies shaped future thinking about authority, extreme group behavior, and morality. Many of those same psychology students, captivated by the lure of such exciting and revealing studies, would have also learned that you can no longer actually do that kind of research anymore.

The BBC recently reenacted the Milgram experiment for TV and now, the French have added their own twist. The BBC recently reported on a French TV documentary, which showed that under the guise of a game show, contestants were willing to send an electrical shock to other contestants– sometimes at dangerous levels. These types of TV “experiments” are not subject to the same ethical considerations social psychologists are. Of course, this also means they are also not subject to the same expectation of scientific rigour.  It’s always somewhat exciting to see confirmation (even in a highly unscientific setting) that what was shown by Milgram in the 60s may  still hold true today. However, the potential harm to participants from that type of experiment justifies the ethical limitations preventing such research.

Is there a middle ground?

Some psychologists have found that they can still re-do old experiments but also reduce potential harm to their participants by moving the experiments from the physical world into a virtual world. Two researchers in France used virtual reality to re-examine Milgram’s ideas. Like Milgram, they found that participants showed more obedience when they couldn’t see the victim and they also found that participants felt less distress when the victim was from North Africa than when he was of their same ethnic background.  Virtual reality has opened up a way for psychologists to do research on extreme behaviour, but minimize harm to participants.  Perhaps both psychologists and participants can benefit from future use of virtual reality as a medium for experiments.

Read more: Reopening the study of extreme social behaviors: Obedience to authority within an immersive video environment

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Are Too Many Choices a Hindrance?

One reason for achieving goals is that people are motivated by self-gratification that may occur consciously or unconsciously (Aarts, 2007).  Addressing needs, or accomplishing a task etc. are examples of goal achievement that occur on a regular basis.  Some tasks however require more thought process and perhaps may involve more choices. While more choices are what society may strive for, it is arguably a positive outcome.

Take television or cable channels, for instance, the former may allow a person in the U.S. access to see 12 channels while the latter may result in 70 or more.  A person can be content with watching one show at any given time or bits and pieces of many. Whereas channel surfing may be a popular past time it’s hardly time well spent and people may even be less happy in the end. In the context of dating there may be the ‘perfect [person] list’ where there is an elusive perfect individual somewhere out there.  The individual may be so overwhelmed with choices of an ideal that, again, the outcome is less than positive.

Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz (2006) argue that too many choices can make someone feel worse rather than better. The researchers found that people who were fixed on options (i.e. TV channels or attributes on the perfect person list, for instance) and used external sources (i.e. TV guide and fashion) as information tended to be less happy.  An explanation for the result is that, in pursuing the goal, the individual is in search for the ideal and while a person may have indeed performed better in some way in the end the ideal cannot been reached (Iyengar et al., 2006).

Depiction of water choices

Read more: NPR- basic TV offers cable alternative

Read more: Ladies and ‘perfect man’ list

Iyengar, S.S., Wells, R.E., & Schwartz, B. (2006).  Doing better but feeling worse: Looking for the “best” job undermines satisfaction.

Aarts, H. (2007). On the emergence of human goal pursuit: The nonconscious regulation and motivation of goals.

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Act your age: young people will like you more!

By Erica Zaiser

We live in a world afraid of getting older. Society constantly reminds us that aging is wrong and that a young look is the key to maintaining social status.  Plastic surgery has become increasingly common, especially among the rich and famous. Although, some celebrities have defied this trend by publicly saying no to attempts to look younger than they are. But, because status is so dependent on beauty and youth, many just assume that eventually the pressure for celebrity staying power will cause them to change their minds. The only way to be accepted by new young fans is to look their age, right?

Not according to recent research. Schoemann and Branscombe (2010) have found that both men and women who try to appear younger than their ages are evaluated more negatively by young people than those who comfortably portray the age they are. The authors argue that older people posing as younger threaten the social identities of young people. So, those celebrities constantly trying to look younger than they are, may in fact be losing more fans than those who have staunchly said no to surgery and yes to aging naturally and gracefully.

Read more: Looking young for your age: Perceptions of anti-aging actions

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Facebook, MacRumours, MSN and alternative social identities

Online social networking sites, discussion forums and chat rooms such as those in the title are routinely associated with freedom of expression, critiques of established offline social and personal practices, and the creation of online communities and identities e.g. gamers, metrosexuals (Slouka, 1995; Wellman & Gulia, 1999). The opportunities afforded by these information and communication technologies, via the compression of time and space, allow instantaneousness for users. And also, since the user is not physically present in cyberspace (therefore it is easier to withdraw from problematic situations by exiting an online session, as opposed to a face-to-face interaction), new, alternative and diverse forms of identity and self-expression are able to thrive (Turkle, 1997). Of course, there are both positive and negative outcomes of interactions in cyberspace, which do not require the revealing of participants’ status or situational cues e.g. Peter Chapman’s recent murder conviction. However these social spaces do tend to facilitate a freer flow of information for isolated or ‘non-out’ individuals and groups (Hearn, 2005). Therefore new forms of individual and group identities, and those with identities arguably ridiculed and marginalised in society, can more easily claim these online in an age of almost universal access to cyberspace (Kollock, 1999).

Social networking: Communication revolution or evolution?

Teaching & Learning Guide for: Social Psychology and Media: Critical Consideration

Safeguarding young people from cyber pornography and cyber sexual predation: a major dilemma of the internet

Computer-mediated social support, older adults, and coping

Hug me, Mom: Stroller or baby carrier?

A stroller or a baby carrier? The answer to this question is changing. “In 2004, there were barely any carriers,” said Bianca Fehn, an owner of Metro Minis. “You had to find these work-at-home moms who made them and go on a waiting list for weeks or even months to get a carrier.” However, in 2009 at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas, there were at least 30 companies promoting designer baby carriers, many of them created within the last five years. And between 2006 and 2008, overall sales of industry-certified carriers rose.

While most people using baby carriers extol the convenience of having their hands free, more and more people see it as an integral part of their parenting philosophy, which holds that babies should be worn on the body to foster a strong attachment to their parents. In other words, baby carriers offer more physical contacts between infants and their parents which were considered as crucial to develop secure attachment relationship according to attachment theory.

Bowlby’s attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) places central importance on close proximity between mother and infant. Attachment theory suggests that infants’ instinctive behaviors such as crying and smiling are aimed to promote the proximity to and physical contact with the caregiver. Through the exercising of these behaviors and the proximity thus achieved, infants gradually develop an attachment to their caregivers. The manner in which the caregiver responds to the infants’ seeking behaviors determines the nature of the attachment relationship formed. More specially, the mothers who respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to infants’ needs, and hold their infants for relatively long periods and are tender and affectionate during the holding are more likely to develop secure relationships with their babies. Additionally, Anisfeld et al’s (1990) study indicated a causal relation between physical contact, achieved through carrying an infant in a soft baby carrier, and security of attachment between mother and infant.

However, recent studies on infant attachment suggested the ways in which attachment patterns are formed are more complicated. For example, maternal sensitivity, which contributes to the quality of infant exploration by providing the infant with a secure base from which to explore, has already been established as an important and reliable predictor of secure attachment. Whipple, Bernier and Mageau’s (2010) further demonstrated that besides maternal sensitivity, mothers’ autonomy-support behaviors which directly aimed at encouraging and supporting the child while he or she explores also provide contribution to infants’ secure attachment.

Strollers out, mom and dad in

Elizabeth Anisfeld, Virginia Casper, Molly Nozyce, Nicholas Cunningham. (1990). Does Infant Carrying Promote Attachment? An Experimental Study of the Effects of Increased Physical Contact on the    Developmen of Attachment. Child Development, 61, 1617-1627.

Natasha Whipple, Annie Bernier, Geneviève A. Mageau. (2010). Broadening the Study of Infant Security of Attachment: Maternal Autonomy-support in the Context of Infant Exploration. Social Development, Early View.

“Junk” Science? The Psychology of the Soda Tax

Over here in the States the debate is raging about how to pay for healthcare overhaul. And, here in New York, one suggestion to generate revenue is to implement a “soda tax” on sugary beverages. New York governor (for now) David Patterson has proposed a soda tax and a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine backs him up. The study argues that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would simultaneously raise revenue and reduce consumption. They compare the tax and its projected impact to a tax on tobacco which has had such results. The beverage industry, however, counters that the two indulgences are not comparable. Both sides have their advocates and talking points, but what can psychology tell us about why soda taxes and other taxes aimed at “junk food” can be effective?

Behavioral economics (BE) is a fascinating field that blends psychology and economics to explain human consumer behavior and suggest ways of encouraging consumers to make better choices. It has gained particular prominence in understanding how individuals approach their retirement savings. Many in the field assume that individuals operate from a stance of “bounded rationality” — meaning we “make biased decisions that sometimes run counter to [our] best interests” (see this article for more information). With regard to the soda tax a basic argument from the BE standpoint would be:

  1. we humans love sugar –>
  2. sugar contributes greatly to obesity –>
  3. we have an obesity epidemic –>
  4. therefore we should reduce consumption of sugar –>
  5. we like sugar too much to make the right choice based purely on health reasons –>
  6. but if you hit us in our pockets we’ll reduce our consumption –>
  7. therefore the overall consumption of sugary drinks will decrease –>
  8. this will open the market up for other types of drinks to be more readily available –>
  9. as these drinks gain more market share our dependence on soda will decrease and we’ll “naturally” change our behavior to consume more healthy alternatives –>
  10. sugar consumption will decrease –>
  11. rates of obesity will likewise decrease –>
  12. healthcare costs associated with obesity will decrease.

You got that? At each little point of that equation there are of course many variables that can correlate, conflate, confound, and moderate the outcomes, but this is the general idea and essentially what was found with tobacco consumption. (If you want to know more about the research behind each step the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has tons of information here.) A review of relevant articles and their key points is available here. One interesting point that has been brought up that extends beyond the realm of individual behavior is the notion of “shared economic consequences” in which the mass consumption of sugary beverages contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic and we all share the burden of this through elevated healthcare costs. The field of BE and the current legislation efforts show how influencing health-related public policy is more complicated than just providing information on healthy behaviors. It also shows how simple choices (such as drinking soda vs. water) — when scaled to the level of a population — have drastic economic ramifications.

Sidenote, while researching for this article I came across an alternative method of behavioral modification…your own personal 5 lb glob of fat (“My Pet Fat”) that you can place near your junk food to deter you from eating it. Just had to share.

“Soda Tax could shake up industry” on NPR.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity section on Soda Tax

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