Category Archives: Law

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Power Increases Risk of Infidelity Among Both Men and Women

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The seemingly endless stream of sex scandals by powerful politicians in the United States raises a question: Does this say something about men, or does it say something about power?

New research suggests that power, not being a guy, is the corrupting factor. Powerful people tend to see themselves as more attractive than they really are and, more importantly, tend to believe that others see them as more attractive than others really do. Power also seems to change how people think about risk — power gets people to focus on potential rewards and ignore the potential downside. Add it all up and you get a far higher propensity for infidelity among both powerful men and powerful women.

In the latest Hidden Brain Puzzle, posted as always on the Facebook page, I asked:

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that

A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

The correct answer is A. For a fuller explanation, listen to this piece I just did — my first for NPR.

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that
A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

Why Juan Williams Fears Muslims at Airports

By | Blog, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Prejudice, Terrorism | No Comments

Ever hear of the phenomenon called an “illusory correlation”? It explains why commentator Williams, who was recently fired from NPR, associates Muslims at airports with terrorists.

I am going to be writing my next column for Slate about this issue. To whet your appetite, here’s a radio interview about illusory correlations and other biases with Steve Fast of WJBC. 

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 16: Family Status Affects Whether U.S. Men and Women Receive Prison Sentences

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A host of extraneous factors have been known to affect the sentencing decisions of judges in the United States. New research shows that having children and being seen to be good providers for them benefits most defendants and earns them lighter prison sentences.

I recently posted this puzzle on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page.

Which of the following statements are true?
A. Men are less likely to receive jail time from a suburban judge than a rural judge
B. Women are less likely to receive jail time from a black judge than a white judge
C. Black men are less likely to receive jail time if they have fathered children
D. White men are less likely to receive long sentences iif they are “family men”

The answer is … ALL of the above.

I based this puzzle on new research by Tina L. Freiburger, who found in a paper she published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law that “defendants who were depicted as performing caretaker roles had a significantly decreased likelihood of incarceration. Further analysis found that the reduction in likelihood of incarceration for being a caretaker was larger for males than for females. Examination of the interaction of familial role with race found that familial role equally reduced the likelihood of incarceration for black and white females.”

The study raises some interesting questions. You could make the argument that it makes societal sense to give reduced jail time to defendants who are family caregivers, because otherwise, the state will end up bearing the burden of some or all of that caregiving (and likely do a worse job.) On the other hand, you could make the argument that it is unfair to reduce a defendant’s prison sentence merely because he or she happened to be a parent. Why should the childless defendant be treated more harshly than the defendant who is a mom or a dad?

Which view do you espouse — and why?

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defendants who were depicted as performing caretaker roles had a significantly decreased likelihood of incarceration. Further analysis found that the reduction in likelihood of incarceration for being a caretaker was larger for males than for females. Examination of the interaction of familial role with race found that familial role equally reduced the likelihood of incarceration for black and white females.

Supreme Court Fight: The Unconscious Power of Frames

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President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court highlights the power of frames in politics. In recent years, conservative presidents have appointed conservative justices, whereas liberal presidents have appointed moderates.

Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan herself once noted the irony inherent in this process. In the University of Chicago Law Review, she noted, “Herein lies one of the mysteries of modern confirmation politics: The Republican Party has an ambitious judicial agenda and the Democratic Party has next to none, why is the former labeled the party of judicial restraint and the latter the party of judicial activism?”

Why does this happen? It has to do with the power of framing an issue. Once the issue has been framed as “judicial activism” (as opposed to, say, “judicial passivity”) the frame determines how much leeway presidents from both political parties have. Republican presidents appoint ever more conservative justices on the grounds that they will back the status quo and avoid activism, and Democratic presidents appoint ever more moderate justices, to avoid being tarred with the “judicial activist” brush.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 8 (Answer): Workers who get paid by the hour become more conscious of time spent volunteering

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Puzzle: Four people have a free hour on weekends. One is a lawyer who bills clients at the rate of $295/hour. The second is an accountant who bills clients at $100/hour. The third is a schoolteacher who gets paid $45,000/year. The fourth is a parking attendant who gets paid $10/hour. Knowing nothing else about these people, but assuming they have similar temperaments, who would you guess will be the most generous with their free weekend hour — and donate it to volunteer work? Bonus points if you can also say why — using a “hidden brain” explanation, of course!

Answer: C

The teacher, who gets paid an annual salary, is least likely to grudge the hour spent volunteering. I based this puzzle on some very interesting new research by Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer, who found that as new lawyers start to get accustomed to the practice of billing clients per hour, they become less willing to donate their time for volunteer work. The researchers experimentally tested the finding by varying the billing time of lawyers, and found that this experimental manipulation produced differences in people’s willingness to volunteer their time. Lawyers who were less materialistic and did not care as much about money as their peers were less affected by this, suggesting that being paid for the hour encourages people to think about their time in pecuniary terms. The person who gets billed $100 an hour thinks of their volunteer time as more valuable than the person who bills $50 an hour.

I’ve found examples of this phenomenon in everyday life, when I hear people fret about how time is money. Time certainly has value, but converting it into a metric of value becomes problematic in the many domains of life (volunteering included) where we are not delivering professional services. It’s an example of how once we teach our hidden brains a certain rule — in the case of the wealthy lawyer, “my time is worth $300/hour” — then the hidden brain remembers that rule even in situations where the rule no longer applies (the lawyer is playing with his kids while looking at his watch, or cuts back his volunteering time to half an hour since he only wishes to make a donation of $150.)

I’d be the first to say this isn’t the most cleanly constructed puzzle, because there are probably different answers that are at least as legitimate as the one I’ve suggested. The fact the four people in my example were all from different professions muddies the issue right off, as does the fact that some people likely have more leisure time than others that they can contribute to volunteer work.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 6 Answer: Anti gay-marriage laws associated with increase in mental disorders/distress among gays & lesbians

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Gays & lesbians in 16 U.S. states suffered steep increases in depression, anxiety & addictions between 2001-05. The states were Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

What happened in those states in that time period that may have caused such distress? Those states all passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that time period, according to new research by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Katie A. McLaughlin, Katherine M. Keyes and Deborah S. Hasin. Heterosexuals in those states did not show the same increase in mental disorders/distress, and gays and lesbians living in the other 34 U.S. states (that did not pass such constitutional bans) also did not see such increases in distress and disorder.

The increases were striking: Generalized anxiety disorders among gays and lesbians in those 16 states rose 248.2%, alcoholism increased by 41.9 percent and mood disorders (including depression) increased by 36.6% according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers themselves note the appropriate caveats that their data could not address: It’s possible, for example, that gays and lesbians who were healthier to begin with (or privileged in other ways) moved to states with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, leaving behind those who were sicker to begin with. It’s unclear whether the new laws were themselves responsible for the change, or if the general climate surrounding these laws were to blame. It’s also unclear whether liberal policies toward gays and lesbians would result in decreases in disorders. Such questions cannot be addressed without conducting randomized experiments, and such experiments (which would involve randomly assigning gays and lesbians to different states, for example) would be both impractical and unethical.

It’s good to keep the caveats in mind, but I think this study raises profoundly important questions about the effects that our national conversation about homosexuality has on the mental health of gays and lesbians. It’s never been a secret or surprise that there are human beings at the receiving end of these policies and debates, but this research brings home clearly the effects that laws and institutional actions can have on the personal well being of individuals.

In making what is essentially a civil rights argument against constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, the researchers write, “although the constitutional amendments largely codified policies that existed de facto, the sociocultural environment surrounding the approval of these amendments made them no less psychologically harmful. Creating constitutional amendments banning gay marriage reinforced the marginalized and socially devalued status of lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals. Moreover, the negative political campaigns against gays and lesbians by proponents of these amendments, which were well-circulated in the media, further promulgated the stigma associated with homosexuality.”

Since the time the study was completed other states, including California, have passed similar bans. Research is ongoing about whether the same changes in mental health among gays and lesbians is occurring in those states.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle (and answer): How does the use of Native American mascots for sports teams affect stereotypes about other groups?

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American Indian mascots are a popular choice for sports teams. Controversy has raged, however, about whether such mascots encourage stereotypes about native Americans. New research suggests that there may be a problem of another sort entirely — the use of these mascots seems to increase stereotyping of other groups. The implications of the research are still not clear, but it is almost as though once your hidden brain is encouraged to use mental shortcuts such as “American Indian chief = sports warrior” it more easily comes up with other kinds of mental shortcuts that have nothing to do with American Indians. Sloppy thinking begets sloppy thinking.

Boosters point out the mascots are much loved and used respectfully. Recently, however, Chu Kim-Prieto, Lizabeth A. Goldstein, Sumie Okazaki and Blake Kirschner tested how the use of a University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, affected the tendency of volunteers to stereotype an unrelated group — Asians. They randomized volunteers into groups — one read about or was shown materials depicting the athletics program and Chief Illiniwek and the other was given materials about a university arts center. All the depictions about Chief Illiniwek were exactly as boosters of American Indian sports mascots described — respectful and admiring. The researchers found that volunteers shown the American Indian mascot were quicker to come up with stereotypes about Asians that suggested Asians were socially inept, overly competitive, and not fun-loving.

The University of Illinois retired the mascot after reviewing these findings. Read more about the controversy here.

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PS: What do you think these data mean for the famous logos of these professional sports teams?

Shankar Vedantam on The Tavis Smiley Show Tues, Mar 23, 2010: Should President Obama have a Black Agenda?

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Tavis Smiley’s interview with me about The Hidden Brain is scheduled to air tonight — Tuesday, March 23 — on public television stations nationwide on The Tavis Smiley Show. Please tune in.

The interview took place last week in Los Angeles on the eve of a meeting Tavis Smiley convened over the weekend in Chicago to debate whether President Obama should have a “black agenda” to focus on the problems faced by African-Americans. We talked at length about the chapter of The Hidden Brain that focuses on unconscious racial bias in politics. Watch a short video introduction to the chapter, called Disarming The Bomb, here.

The empirical evidence on whether the White House needs a black agenda seems pretty clear cut: African-Americans are about 400 percent more likely to be imprisoned than whites, about 500 percent more likely to be murdered, begin life with a 1-5 disparity in family wealth, have an infant mortality rate that is about 50 percent higher than the white infant mortality rate, have an unemployment rate that is about double the white unemployment rate and so on.

The fact Obama happens to be  black is completely beside the point: Regardless of who occupies the White House, it seems pretty obvious that special help needs to be directed toward a group of people who are disproportionately suffering. We would think it absurd if anyone asked whether a President was from the Gulf Coast in order to determine whether the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina entitled the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area for special federal resources and rebuilding efforts.

But as I explain in Disarming the Bomb, race and the controversies swirling around it are never far from our unconscious minds when it comes to politics, even when the issues being discussed ostensibly have nothing to do with race. Obama is severely constrained when it comes to talking openly about race, and his top advisor David Axelrod has helped to get a number of African Americans elected to public office by studiously getting issues of race and/or gender off the table. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, Obama and his team repeatedly suggested America had moved beyond race — even in the face of explicit statements by sizable numbers of voters who said they would never vote for a black man. The media uncritically accepted theories about a “post-racial” America — theories implicitly endorsed by the Obama campaign — because that narrative fit with the fact that Obama got elected.

As I told Tavis Smiley on the show, there is at least one person in the United States who knows for certain that we do not live in a post-racial America — and that person is President Barack Obama. If he did think we lived in a post-racial America, he would have no trouble talking about race because, well, race would no longer matter.  I note in The Hidden Brain that Obama never once mentioned the words “race,” civil rights” or “Martin Luther King” during his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2008 — and the convention happened to be held on the 45th anniversary of the famous 1963 march on Washington that was led by Rev. King. Think about the irony there: It was the first time an African-American man was on the presidential ticket of a major party, and that man had to be mute when it came to the very issue that made his campaign historic.

The fact that a canny politician such as Obama feels the need to be silent about race — or risk losing credibility and support — says less about Obama than it does about the United States. Black leaders such as Tavis Smiley who believe we need to have a “black agenda” in order to help the tens of thousands of African-Americans in dire straits are obviously right. But the sad fact of the matter is that pressing Obama to come out with an explicit policy toward blacks could alienate a sizable number of voters not just on that one issue, but on a raft of issues. This isn’t my opinion — please read the “Disarming the Bomb” chapter in The Hidden Brain for the empirical evidence into the role that unconscious racial bias plays in politics.

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HIDDEN BRAIN PUZZLE (AND ANSWER): Sexism in the Workplace — Some Paradoxical Evidence

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You are a woman worried about sexism who has applied for a job. When you enter your interviewer’s office, you see (a) an office with newspapers, stationery & dictionaries (b) an office with Playboy posters, motorcycle mags & hunting awards (c) an office with rainbow flags and plaques about diversity. Which prospective interviewer is likely to elicit the WORST interview performance from you and why?

The obvious answer, of course, is B. Equally obviously, of course, there is a catch. It turns out that the correct answer is A. It’s the office that contains no clues about the prospective interviewer’s views about gender/sexism/diversity etc that poses the greatest threat to the self-confidence of our prospective interviewee. Remember the puzzle said this was an interviewee who was concerned about sexism. It turns out that ambiguous information (or no information) creates more of a concern to people worried about something (as they spend time trying to figure out who they are dealing with) than a person with explicitly threatening views.

I constructed this puzzle from an experiment conducted last year by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Lindsay Shaw-Taylor, Serena Chen and Eunice Chang. The researchers asked female volunteers who were worried about sexism to take a test, and provided them with information ahead of time about the office of the person who would be evaluating them. The offices were broadly similar to what I described in the puzzle. The women given the ambiguous information performed much worse on the test than women given more explicit cues that their evaluator was likely to hold sexist views. The researchers published their work in a paper called “Ironic effects of explicit gender prejudice on women’s test performance” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The wrong lesson to draw from this experiment is that interviewers should display Playboy pinups in their offices ahead of interviews with female job candidates. The right lesson to draw is that if you want people to perform at their best — and managers, companies and institutions pay a clear price when talented job-seekers underperform during interviews — you have to make it explicit that you don’t count yourself among the knuckleheads.

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