Author Archives: dschelly

Social order in Haiti

After early reports of post-earthquake chaos, news agencies are reporting instances of Haitians creating social order. The New York Times reported that starving Haitians are sharing their intermittent meals, as “new rules of hunger etiquette are emerging.” A portion of chicken, once appropriate for two people, might now be shared with 20.

This may be a sign of failings of the aid community, or of problems at the airport that prevent incoming planes, loaded with food, to land. But in any case, no matter how desperate they are, Haitians are following new unwritten rules about how to deal with their traumatic state, about how to get along with others who are equally desperate.

However disorderly Haiti may appear, Haitians are not in a state of chaos. Following the insights of Harold Garfinkel and ethnomethodology, Haitians are engaged in the everyday co-production of order, in this case including the collective but bottom-up process of dealing with being in a food crisis. There are no doubt myriad other examples of how life in Haiti, even now, continues to be orderly and functional. Now, if only the food would arrive.

The evolution of language

Doctor John Dolittle satisfied a nagging curiosity for young readers: What are animals saying? Even scientists can appreciate the premise behind Hugh Lofting’s children books, though not many likely seek the secret language of squid. For social psychologists, the evolution of language has been a fascination at least since the pragmatists.

The New York Times reports efforts to decipher early traces of language development among non-human primates. The review comes over 30 years after a Times reporter allegedly used sign language to communicate with a chimpanzee. More recently, scientists differentiated alarm calls by vervet monkeys, each one indicating a specific predator. Others suggested that baboons understand social hierarchy based on the order of sounds among their peers. And Campbell’s monkeys seem to add suffixes to alarm calls to signify whether a threat has been directly or indirectly observed.

Given that many non-human primates are physically able to generate human language sounds, the findings beg the question: How do we develop language while our relatives fail? Or in the words of the article author, Nicholas Wade, “What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?”

George Herbert Mead suggested that language development stems from a child’s ability, through early role-playing games, to take on the role of the other. The development of the self relates to the ability to recognize how others’ actions affect one’s own. Contrary to Wade’s suggestion that non-human primates simply cannot communicate their thoughts, Mead suggests that communication is at the root of, and in some sense precedes, human thought.

While the presence of primitive communication does not necessarily mean that Campbell’s monkeys are able to think like humans, we can still learn about language development by observing, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, how the words are used.

I hate you, but don’t ever leave me

Perhaps everyone who has been married long enough to face an inexplicable argument has been in the position of provocateur, yet the experience can feel like the spouse is the one who’s doing the attacking. We unconsciously provoke our spouse and then hope for a certain response, which would allegedly satisfy an internal need or desire.

Of course social psychologists have had a hard time conceptualizing the mechanisms that cause us to behave in this way. While social psychological research on emotions has picked up in the last 30 years, most using a social constructivist approach, only a limited number of articles have tried to deal with the experience for the individual.

In the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Weil describes her frustrating experience of seeking therapy for her “happy” marriage. Not surprisingly, a host of therapy sessions were meant to unearth tension between her and her husband, in hopes of building intimacy by discussing and eventually accepting the other’s feelings and emotions. “Marital therapy,” Weil recounts, “seemed akin to chemo: helpful but toxic.”

To know why we sometimes act spiteful when we want our spouse to show their love is something social psychologists may never know. Yet the experience of emotion and the way we end up behaving during the tense times is unforgettable.

Opting out of fatherhood

Some courts have been ruling against evolutionary biology. A recent story in the New York Times Magazine tells of husbands who suspected and later discovered they were not biological fathers after all.

In one case, with the help of a do-it-yourself DNA test kit, Mike found out after almost nine years of parenting a girl, L., that his wife had been keeping the secret from him. He filed for divorce, but said of his relationship with his daughter, “Just because our relationship started because of someone else’s lie doesn’t mean the bond that developed isn’t real.”

So Mike continues to see L., though she lives with her mother. Since Mike has been paying child support, it was perhaps doubly offensive when his ex-wife began seeing L.’s biological father. Even though he has filed to end his paternal rights, hoping to encourage the biological father to contribute some of the financial burden, the courts have ruled against him, maintaining that he is the legal father.

When asked about Mike, L. told the New York Times, “I want him always to be my real dad. Because if he’s not my dad, then who is he?”

Retribution or rehabilitation?

supremecourtThe Supreme Court on Monday began hearing arguments on two cases involving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. In Graham v. Florida, Terrance Graham pled guilty to burglary and assault or battery. He was sentenced to probation, but then at the age of 17, he was arrested for home-invasion robbery and eluding police. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for violating probation.

The upcoming decision has implications for social psychology because of presumptions about the impact of prison on rehabilitation, as well as the potential distinction between young (highly transformable) and older minds.  

While the Court seems to be leaning toward allowing for a legal distinction between adults and juveniles in sentencing guidelines, Justice Scalia expressed early dissent, suggesting that sentencing is not only for deterrence: “One of the purposes is retribution, punishment for just perfectly horrible actions.”

But the judge who sentenced Mr. Graham did not seem to have retribution in mind when he told the boy, “I don’t understand why you would be given such a great opportunity to do something with your life and why you would throw it away … if I can’t do anything to get you back on the right path, then I have to start focusing on the community and trying to protect the community from your actions.”

The New York Times published an editorial expressing disapproval of such strict sentences for children. While Roberts and Gebotys (2006) found that “the public is more concerned with the principle of just deserts than with the utilitarian sentencing aims,” there is little support for sentencing a child for life. In fact, Scott, Reppucci, Antonishak and DeGennaro (2006) found that adults in their study believe there is a significant and consequential difference between juveniles and adults, and that sentences should reflect that difference.

Motivation and dopamine

Dopamine_chemical_structureWhile we might be able to explain some human behavior with intrinsic motivation, the source of this motivation is difficult to pinpoint. The New York Times reported several studies focusing on the effects of dopamine, revealing that dopamine should no longer be thought of “as our little Bacchus in the brain.” Until recently, dopamine was thought of as a provider of “pleasure and reward.”

In one study, mice with significantly less dopamine seemed satisfied to lounge around as their bodies withered away, choosing death over the hardship of staggering a few inches to the food dish. These same mice acted normal when nibbles of food were brought to them—chewing, swallowing, even “wriggling [their] nose in apparent rodent satisfaction.”

These new studies on dopamine suggest it’s more about survival—“drive and motivation” as the New York Times writes—than some kind of adrenaline counterpart. If this is the case, then social psychologists can join up with behavioral geneticists to talk about motivation. We know, for example, of the social origins of motivation, but it’s quite another approach to suggest that even the motivation for getting out of bed has origins in the brain. The next step is to determine how dopamine is affected by social life.

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.

Gender, spiders, and media

090908_spiderOf the literally thousands of scientific journal articles published every month, only a select few receive media attention. From among the new research, the BBC recently chose to report on an infant study claiming a disproportionate fear of spiders among women.

The study reportedly showed 20 babies—10 boy and 10 girl—pictures of spiders paired with happy versus fearful human faces. The girls “looked longer” at the picture of the spider/happy face, evidently showing “that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy” when paired with a spider.

The BBC follows the leap of the researcher to conclude that evolutionary biology determines that women (who were “natural child protectors”) are more likely to be afraid of animals.

Notwithstanding the alleged evolutionary implications (some research has linked phobias to nurture, rather than nature), research has shown links between gender stereotypes and media content. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology even revealed measurable effects on cognition from exposure to stereotyped commercials.

It’s frightening, to say the least, that behavior might be related to gender stereotypes. While doubtful that pre-arachniphobe females will read the BBC article, existing gender stereotypes are still reinforced, while all of those other scientific articles remain unnoticed.