Alabama is Doing it Right

Select fifth-grade students from Montgomery Public Schools participated in peer mediator training this week. About 30 students from three elementary schools gathered at the Auburn Montgomery Center for Technology on Monday and Tuesday to complete the training, which is done in partnership with CrimeStoppers.

Students learned how to handle conflict. They will go back to their schools, where they will attempt to resolve disputes among their classmates. But with any luck, the skills they gleaned will serve them long after their years in school.

The beauty of the program is not just that it acknowledges the importance of social skills; it also makes use of the large amount of peer-to-peer learning that occurs in schools.  When there’s a fight and one student mediates an acceptable resolution, the other students who observe the situation may pickup those skills. Seed a school with a few highly functional social experts and their skills could spread like a wildfire.


Religious People Like Other Religious People; The Non-Religious Don’t Judge

More fuel for the mindlessly intense “Who’s better, atheists or Christians?” war:

While research has shown that religious individuals are perceived as being more moral than the nonreligious, the present studies suggest that these findings are affected by in-group bias. Participants low and high in religious fundamentalism (RF) were asked to form an impression of a target’s moral and social dimensions. The target’s religious identity was presented either explicitly (in Studies 1 and 2) or implicitly (Study 3). Participants high in RF consistently rated the religious target more favorably than the nonreligious target on both dimensions. In contrast, LF individuals’ morality ratings did not differ as a function of target religiosity across all 3 studies.

The study also found that although religious people express a preference to socially affiliate with other religious people, in two of the three studies non-religious people expressed no preference for befriending the non-religious.

It would be interesting to see if these results disappear over the medium to long-term in a location where religion is declining. As the size of the religious in-group shrinks, the costs of discriminating against non-members will rise.  The reverse should happen for the non-religious. Over time this could lead the religious to become less biased and the non-religious to become more biased.

For now, the problem in America is that the religious in-group tends to be pretty large. So large that it’s hard to run for public office if you don’t pledge allegiance to that in-group. The result is a pool of potential leaders who are less qualified than they should be.


Galen, L., Smith, C., Knapp, N., & Wyngarden, N. (2011). Perceptions of Religious and Nonreligious Targets: Exploring the Effects of Perceivers’ Religious Fundamentalism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41 (9), 2123-2143 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00810.x

When Your Brain Keeps You From Doing the Right Thing (Or, Why I’m Not Batman)

There are certain occasions when the world provides a perfect opportunity to examine human psychology through the window of your own brain.  A few days ago I managed to find myself in such a situation. Here’s what happened:

I was walking with some friends down a relatively busy D.C. street lined with shops and restaurants. About half a block ahead there was a small crowd of people. As we approached we saw that about 30 feet beyond the crowd there was an inebriated, mentally unstable homeless man verbally berating another man and engaging in what I would call physically aggressive behavior (not quite assault). It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, but at first glance it looked like a run-of-the-mill fight between two people.

We stopped at the crowd of  around 10 people and surveyed the situation for a few seconds. At that point the attacker violently pushed the victim to the ground. The victim remained on the ground and the attacker continued yelling nonsensical insults at him.

Now I don’t tend to be a very courageous person, but years of watching drunk people yell and fight at bars and concerts has left me with little tolerance for physical fighting. It’s the only time I’m ready to be a vigilante. Usually if I’m at a bar and two people appear close to fighting I’ll go near them and yell something like “Why don’t you use indoor voices to work this out!” Once in a blue moon I’ll physically get between them.

So I decided to start walking aggressively toward the two men. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Ideally, I thought I could reason with the attacker and convince him violence was bad.  Practically, I was hoping to scare the attacker off.

When I got about 10 feet away I stopped.  I wasn’t sure why. I stared daggers at the attacker, but I didn’t move any closer. He continued yelling. A few seconds later another bystander came forward and helped pull the victim away. At this point the attacker began to back off.  The police arrived seconds later and took him away.  The victim escaped with nothing more than a few scrapes.

In the minutes that followed I couldn’t stop wondering why I stopped. The simple explanation is that at the exact moment I approached the scene the attacker was merely yelling. On some level I might have been worried that my presence would incite him to get violent. But that reasoning didn’t completely satisfy me. Eventually, I decided on the following explanation:

Although the attacker being was verbally and physically abusive, there was no reason the man being attacked could not run away. The attacker was not continuously assaulting the victim or restricting his movement in any way. In fact, the attacker held a crutch in one hand. Yet the man just lay on the ground. He didn’t move. Clearly he was afraid, and as a result it seems he resorted to a kind of “stay in fetal position” defense.

I think it was the victim’s lack of movement that stopped me.  In fast moving and potentially dangerous situations our unconscious picks up on a lot of cues. I think I picked up on the fact that the victim was not running away, and that flashed huge warning sign in my head. The attacker must have some other power or weapon. Maybe he has a gun? Maybe a knife? Why wouldn’t the victim just get up? I wasn’t consciously aware of these thoughts, but I think they were there, and their presence was enough to make me pause for just a few seconds.

The situation shows just how hard it is to help others in these types of situations. Although I didn’t do the “right thing” for society, I did do the right thing for me. There was a potentially dangerous situation, and my brain ensured that I didn’t put myself in danger.  From an evolutionary standpoint it was a success. From the standpoint of the victim (or my ego), it was not.

Is Burning Man Sustainable?

Julia Galef has a thought-provoking article in Scientific American about the social psychology of burning man:

Money, on the other hand, is not optional: it’s explicitly banned. People exchange goods and services constantly, but money never changes hands, except in one specially designated central tent which sells coffee and tea. I’ve heard Burning Man sometimes described as a “barter economy,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more of a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, massages, bike repairs, rides back to camp, and more, all without any expectation of reciprocation.

Serendipitously, behavioral economist Dan Ariely​ was at this year’s Burning Man and made an appearance at their TEDx conference to talk about why the gift economy works so well. There are two different frameworks people use to negotiate exchanges, he explained, the economic and the social. If we’re in economic mode, we’re willing to give away goods and services only if we get something we value in exchange. In social mode, we give goods and services because it’s socially expected of us. So if I ask you to help me push my car out of a ditch, you may well agree. But if I offer you $10 to help me push my car out of a ditch, you’ll likely think: Are you kidding? My time is worth much more than that. In other words, the mere act of putting a price tag on a good or a service bumps people from the social to the economic mode, and reduces their natural inclinations towards altruism and generosity.

So it seems that Burning Man has managed to create an entire city operating in the social framework rather than the economic one. We give each other goods and services not because we stand to gain, but because we want to be good citizens of Black Rock City.

And here is Galef’s explanation for why it may not be a world-changing experiment:

I think it’s a mistake to interpret the Burning Man experience as a proof of concept that people can be conditioned, through social expectation, to be generous to total strangers. That’s because, although it’s true that the people who gave me food and massages and rides all week were technically strangers, they weren’t just any strangers. They were my fellow tribe members.

I think the bigger issue is that everybody knows Burning Man is only temporary. People have different behaviors in the short-run and long-run, and if people thought Burning Man would last forever, they might be a little bit stingier with their gift giving. Galef’s explanation about tribes and in-groups also applies in the long-run even within Burning Man. Over time sub-groups inside the Burning Man “city” would emerge and engage in behaviors designed to punish outsiders.

Who Gets Blamed For Civilian Casualties?


Using precise geo-coded data on violence in Iraq from 2004 through 2009, we show that both sides are punished for the collateral damage they inflict. Coalition killings of civilians predict higher levels of insurgent violence and insurgent killings predict less violence in subsequent periods. This symmetric reaction is tempered by preexisting political preferences; the anti-insurgent reaction is not present in Sunni areas, where the insurgency was most popular, and the anti-Coalition reaction is not present in mixed areas.

It’s all more evidence that killing innocent people is generally not a good way to rally support for your cause.

Why Changing Your Mind is Hard

People don’t like changing their minds (for an extreme example see: Bachmann, Michele). Most research ties this tendency to things like status quo biases, sunk cost effects, and inaction inertia, but a new study by researchers at the University of Oslo investigates whether there is a connection between changing our minds and feelings of regret. Through a series of experiments they discovered that people who change their minds experience more regret than those who don’t even when the new decisions lead to positive outcomes.

Three studies were conducted to explore participants’ regret when making reversible decisions and to test the hypothesis that changing one’s mind will increase post-outcome regret. The first two studies employed the Ultimatum game and the Trust game. The third study used a variant of the Monty Hall problem. All games were conducted by individual participants playing interactively against a computer. The outcomes were designed to capture a common characteristic of real-life decisions: they varied from rather negative to fairly positive, and for every outcome, it was possible to imagine both more and less profitable outcomes. In all experiments, those who changed their minds reported much stronger post- outcome regret than those who did not change, even if the final outcomes were equally good (Experiments 2 and 3) or better (Experiment 1)

The authors offer two potential explanations. One is simply that being able to make a comparison with another decision decreases satisfaction. Call it specific a case of the “paradox of choice.” The other explanation essentially says people treat their initial decision as the de facto status quo, and the status quo bias makes them regret changing it.

I think there may be a third explanation. According to system justification theory, we favor the status quo because we want to think the present world we live in is perfect. When something changes, it’s evidence that wasn’t entirely true. (Why would a perfect world need to change?) Similarly, we like to think that our beliefs, opinions, and decisions are inherently correct. But when you change your mind, it’s explicit evidence that you are not always right. The desire to believe you’re always right in the face of evidence that you’re sometimes wrong then creates cognitive dissonance that manifests itself as feelings of regret.

From an education or policy standpoint there’s not really a great solution to this bias. Perhaps the best thing to do is constantly remind people that everybody is wrong a lot of the time.


Kirkebøen, G., Vasaasen, E., & Halvor Teigen, K. (2011). Revisions and Regret: The Cost of Changing your Mind Journal of Behavioral Decision Making DOI: 10.1002/bdm.756

What Influences Our Conformity to Social Norms?

One of the great trials and tribulations of human existence is that it’s hard to get other people to do want you want.  Fortunately, most people manage to conform to at least two different types of social norms. Injuctive norms reflect behaviors chosen because people perceive them be correct — for example, not throwing trash on the ground because you believe it will bad for the environment. Descriptive norms reflects behaviors chosen because they mirror the actual behaviors of others — for example, throwing trash on the ground because the park is already littered with trash.

The differences in how people respond to messages based on the two norms are important to both researchers and policy makers. For example, if you want to convince people not to litter, is it better to craft a message based on injunctive norms (e.g. “littering is bad for the environment”) or descriptive norms (e.g. “nobody else litters”)? A new study by a group of researchers at Queen’s University attempts to shed some light on this question by examining whether cognitive elaboration — the degree to which we have to think about the message being conveyed — affects how we respond to different normative messages.

Participants in the experiment were presented with information about enrolling in health program. Those receiving the descriptive message were encouraged to “follow the lead of their peers” and sign up, while those receiving the injunctive message were told how pursuing a healthy lifestyle reflected important values and personal qualities.  The degree of elaboration was manipulated by decreasing the motivation and cognitive ability of certain participants. This was done by informing them the program would be unavailable at their university, and then asking them to memorize a number while learning about the program.

It turns out elaboration is quite important:

Analyses revealed a 2-way interaction between message type and elaboration, suggesting that descriptive messages were more successful under low-elaboration conditions, whereas injunctive messages were more successful under high-elaboration conditions.

When people had to think more about joining the health program, they were more likely to be swayed by injunctive messages based on values or beliefs. But when they had less time to think, they were more likely to be swayed by messages based on what others were doing.

These types of findings are important for public policy because the decision to engage in certain desirable behaviors inherently takes place under high or low elaboration conditions. For example, making a decision about littering is generally a low elaboration condition, and therefore it may be more important to keep the ground clean rather than post signs about how littering is bad. On the other hand, purchasing health insurance is a decision people are likely to think about more. As a result, if your goal is to persuade people to buy insurance, it’s probably a good idea to communicate the benefits of good healthcare rather than remind people that everybody else has insurance.


Kredentser, M., Fabrigar, L., Smith, S., & Fulton, K. (2011). Following What People Think We Should Do Versus What People Actually Do: Elaboration as a Moderator of the Impact of Descriptive and Injunctive Norms Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611420481