Fashion Police (literally) - A Tale of Two (or more) Cities

August 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Speaking of victimless crimes* (as I was in the last post), the New York Times yesterday reported on baggy pants laws that have been passed in some towns. In Mansfield, LA, wear your jeans so low that they expose your boxers, and you can wind up with a $500 fine or even jail time.

Other towns have passed similar laws; state legislatures have come close. The laws are couched as “indecency” laws. But that seems pretty lame since the law is about cloth, not skin. It’s not about showing your butt, it’s about what you use to cover your butt: jeans, good; jeans with boxers, bad. Presumably, if the offender stripped off his jeans entirely and walked around in basketball shorts – maybe even plaid ones – there’d be no problem.

The real issue, as the Times points out, is hip-hop and all its implied attitudes and ideas. (I’m surprised that Rachel hasn’t blogged this one.)

People have often reacted to outward appearance in this way. We all judge others on their appearance, and sometimes the judgments become extreme. Violent fashionistas beat up zoot suiters in the 1940s, longhairs in the 60s and 70s. Institutions, notably schools, are similarly sensitive to seemingly small matters of style. At my school, leaving your shirttail out or turning your collar up in back were punishable offenses. The NBA has regulations limiting the length of basketball shorts. It’s not that the players are showing too much leg but too little.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale and the other end of the Eastern time zone, Brattleboro, VT, has just overturned its ban on public nudity. (Sorry, no pictures, but here’s a link to the story.) If you want to walk around downtown letting it all hang out, Brattleboro’s the place to be, at least for the next few weeks before the weather starts to turn.

(* I realize that we are now supposed to refer to these as “public-order offenses” or “non-predatory crimes,” but I think Schur’s original term, if less strictly accurate, better conveys the moral idea.)

(Hat tip on the Brattleboro story to my friend Alice, whose young grandchildren live there.)

Who's a Criminal?

August 29, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I look at the news these days, I sometimes think that labeling theorists have been running the show.

If you’ve taken even one sociology course, you probably know that labeling theory revolutionized the study of deviance starting about fifty years ago by expanding that topic to include social control. Most approaches to deviance and crime start from two basic questions: Why do those weird (or evil) people do those weird (or evil) things? And how can we get them to stop?

Labeling theory, by contrast, focuses less on the rule breakers and more on the people who make and enforce those rules.

So here we have Republican Senator Larry Craig, a family values kind of guy from Idaho, who got busted for soliciting homosexual sex in the men’s room of the Minneapolis airport. Several things are worth noting from the labeling perspective.

1. First, none of the accounts in the media are asking why Craig was doing what he did. Instead, the questions are about the law and its enforcement.

2. The cop who arrested him was sitting on the toilet in a stall for one and only one purpose – to get solicited for sex. It’s not technically entrapment in the legal sense, but clearly rule enforcement had a lot to do with what happened. If the decoy cop hadn't been there, it's quite possible Craig wouldn't have violated the law.

3. Craig tried to use his high status to avoid labeling. The arresting officer reported “Craig handed me a card that identified himself as a United States Senator as he stated 'What do you think about that?'”

4. No sex occurred, only “signals” like foot tapping. So Craig might have beaten the charges had he contested them. Instead he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge. Now he says he regrets that plea, and he insists that he’s not gay. His major battle is not about what he did and whether it was illegal; it’s about avoiding the label “gay.”

5. Others people are trying very hard to label Craig, whether as gay, hypocrite, criminal, etc. The incident happened in June, but it got press coverage only in the last week or so. Whether something is covered up or disclosed is not automatic. It’s the result of enterprise and work on the part of people with an interest in the outcome.

Meanwhile, the New York Times today reports that police are cracking down on people who sell tickets at the US Tennis Open. Here too, the police take an active role in soliciting the crime, approaching people as they go to the Tennis Center and asking them to sell their extra tickets. It is a crime to sell a ticket, even at less than face value, within 1500 feet of the event. Still, the people busted are outraged, and they deny the label of criminal:
“We weren’t trying to make a profit, but it didn’t matter.”
The Levines were trying to sell the tickets to help friends, two couples who were unable to attend the Open because their homes were damaged by Hurricane Dean. The four tickets cost $55 each.
“I’m in shock,” said Sharon Levine, a 50-year-old lawyer whose eyes were wet with frustration. “We were just trying to help out our friends whose homes were hit by the hurricane. We’re not criminals.”

The Times takes a labeling theory approach. The cops are enforcing the law not against real scalpers but against ordinary citizens. Who, the Times asks, benefits from this moral entrepreneurship? Answer: Ticketmaster.

Of course, the police claim that they are just enforcing the law: “A New York City Police Department official said . . . that the number [of undercover cops] was determined by the department and not influenced by event coordinators or box offices.” Yeah, right.

I’m going to the Open tomorrow. But I’m not selling my extra ticket – at least not without a 1500-foot tape measure. And I’m not tapping my foot in the men’s room either.

Hey Dude, Where's MY Internet Bubble?

August 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

One final thought on fortunes and the bubble – along the lines of “private troubles” and “public issues,” biography and history. In putting together those graphs on income a couple of days ago, I realized something weird: I felt the effects of the Internet boom and bust, felt them deeply – the giddiness of sudden riches, the despair of getting wiped out. But my biographical changes are not in any of those historical graphs.

I made a lot of money in the late 1990s. Oh, not a lot of money by the standards of the people in those graphs. But a lot for me. The value of my stock portfolio nearly doubled. I constantly watched my stocks on Yahoo in those days. It was great fun. One day when I noticed that one of my stocks had just gone up, I started to type an e-mail about it to a friend who also owned it. By the time I finished the message, the stock had jumped another 25%. (By contrast, Dan Myers, in these calmer times, is justifiably impressed that his son’s imaginary portfolio has gone up 3.3% in a week.)

If I’d closed out all my positions at the start of the 2000 baseball season, I’d have fewer financial worries today. It’s called “realizing” a profit – i.e, making it real. But instead, I watched as all those on-paper profits slipped away.

As a result, none of that money shows up in the data. My private troubles and triumphs would have become part of the public-issue statistics on income only if I had cashed in my profits in the 90s and then cashed out my losses in later years. But I didn't, and so I remain the invisible investor.

Income and the Internet Bubble

August 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I suggested that much of the fluctuation in mean income (but not median income) in this century was accounted for by the changing fortunes of the very rich. Here are some relevant graphs showing the share of income going sectors among the top 10% of families. The first one shows the share of total income going to the all but the top 1% – the 90th to 95th percentiles and the 95th to 99th.

These folks are not poor – the lower group averaged $110,000, the upper group $177,000 – and their incomes have increased faster than those of those below them. That’s why their share of all income increased from about 24% in 1973 to 27% in 2005. But the changes are not dramatic. The difference in the lower group, the 90th to 95th percentiles, is essentially unchanged. The upper group increased its share by a factor of 18%.

Now here is the top 1%, all except the tenth of one percent of the population, the top 145,000 families. Here too, I’ve divided them into two.

The “poorer” half of this 1% (average income $370,000) increased its share from 2.7% to 4%. The share of the upper half (average income $696,000) went from 3.2% to nearly 6%. As in the first graph, the richer half got even richer than did the lower half – an 87% increase compared with a 47% increase.

But what about the truyly rich, he top tenth of 1% of families – with incomes well over $2 million? Their considerable incomes show much larger fluctuations.

The overall trend is a big increase. Their share of total income doubled. It is also in this group that we see the effects of the dot-com boom (1995-2000) and bust (2000-2003). In 2004 and 2005, they seem to have gotten their groove back.

(Note: these graphs are based on data published by Piketty and Saez based on tax returns. The figures for income do not include capital gains. If capital gains were included, the differences between the very rich and the rest would be even larger.)

Here’s one final picture showing that the largest effects of the Internet bubble occurred at the top. It shows the ratio of CEO income (including bonuses and stock options) relative to that of the average worker.

The billowing and bursting of the Internet bubble is obvious. But smoothing out the curve also shows the general trend towards increasing inequality.

Income - Averages vs. Medians

August 21, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Cay Johnston reports on taxes and income for the New York Times, and he does a great job. Not too many other publications have reporters on this beat. But why, in today’s article, is he using averages?
While incomes have been on the rise since 2002, the average income in 2005 was $55,238, still nearly 1 percent less than the $55,714 in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, analysis of new tax statistics show[s].
Here’s the graph that accompanies the article.

Much of the fluctuation in income is accounted for by those at the top. When average income rises, it’s probably because those at the top are getting a lot richer. But the decline in the average income in the early years of this decade may have been driven by the bursting of the Internet bubble, a bubble which affected the top 10% or less.

When economists want a single figure that shows income trends, they use not the average but the median. In this case, the news is about the same. Here are some data from the Regional Economic Information System (REIS) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. It uses 3-year averages.

In constant dollars, median income is about $1000 (2%) lower in 2005 than it had been in 2000.

There was one bit of good news in the Times article: “The I.R.S. data showed that the number of Americans making less than $25,000 a year shrank, down by 3.2 million, or 5.5 percent.” Unfortunately, we don't know how may of those 3.2 million people increased their income and how many just dropped out of the labor market entirely

There Will Be More Joy in Heaven . . . (Crime and Punishment - II)

August 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from an essay by Glenn Loury. Loury is trained as an economist, and when economists explain behavior, they usually focus on individual factors. But Loury was emphasizing the constraining power of social forces. The difference in focus is also the difference between conservative and liberal thinking, especially on matters like crime and deviance. Conservatives ignore social forces, locate all cause in the individual, and see punishment for bad behavior as the only way to deal with crime. Loury’s article is a critique of American punitiveness.

Glenn Loury used to be a conservative. Black conservative intellectuals are something of a rarity. The vast right-wing conspiracy carefully nurtures the few there are, installing them in conservative think tanks and trotting them out as needed. Each published piece seems to be accompanied by a chorus of conservatives, neo and paleo, gloating and nyah-nyahing, as though they’d brought off some game-winning coup in capture-the-flag.

In his days as a conservative, Loury was befriended by neo-con publications, think tanks, and politicians. He was the highest ranking African American in the Reagan Administration (Deputy Secretary of Education).

But he drifted away from conservatism, and this latest article is both a moral critique of
American punitiveness and an indictment of social conditions as causes of crime. Our society—the society we have made—creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.
No wonder it has been spread so quickly around the liberal orbits of the Internet.

For those not familiar with the phrase alluded to in the title of this post, here’s the full quote: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke, 15-21)

Crime and Punishment - I

August 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The first time I was on jury duty, many years ago, I was eager to serve. I wanted to be on a jury and see how the process worked. But I never made it past voir dire. The lawyers would ask some basic questions – age, occupation, neighborhood – maybe something about free-time activities. They’d meet with the judge, sotto voce, and then several jurors would be dismissed. I was always among the rejected.

One afternoon, I happened to bump into the prosecuting attorney whose case I’d been rejected for that morning.
“Why’d you throw me off your jury?” I asked.
“A sociologist?” he said. “You people don’t believe anybody’s responsible for what they do.”
At the time, I didn’t really know how to respond.

I remembered this encounter when I read the following paragraph from an article by economist Glenn Loury, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the transformation of criminal justice.” It was posted on the Internet recently, and several of my friends have sent me the link.
We would, in short, recognize a kind of social responsibility, even for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons. I am not arguing that people commit crimes because they have no choices, and that in this sense the “root causes” of crime are social; individuals always have choices. My point is that responsibility is a matter of ethics, not social science. Society at large is implicated in an individual person’s choices because we have acquiesced in—perhaps actively supported, through our taxes and votes, words and deeds—social arrangements that work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of identity in such a way that the choices he makes, which we may condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him—an entirely understandable response to circumstance. Closed and bounded social structures—like racially homogeneous urban ghettos—create contexts where “pathological” and “dysfunctional” cultural forms emerge; but these forms are neither intrinsic to the people caught in these structures nor independent of the behavior of people who stand outside them.

What he said.

Doing It In Public (and then doing it again)

August 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“People say they don’t want to read about your cat,” said Jeremy Freese, “but in fact the posts about your cat are the ones that get the most response.” (Or words to that effect.)
Chris Uggen and Jeremy Freese

As Jeremy has pointed out, I got it all wrong. I’m starting over.

At the beginning of the Bloggers session, there was some light banter about blogging trivial, personal subjects – what you had for lunch, your cat, the sort of thing we don’t really want to be thought of as the core of our calling.

The ASA session was Blogs as a Forum for Public Sociology (in “the coveted 8:30 a.m. Tuesday slot” as Kieran Healy put it – or maybe Kieran was quoting someone else).

And that’s the catch: we want our blogs to be public sociology – the sort of thing MainStream Media people turn to when they need a spot analysis of some socially relevant topic. But the audience doesn’t seem to be MSM, at least not right now, and it does seem to have people who want our cat. Or as Jeremy says, “It turns out that, indeed, some people are interested in what you had for lunch, and might even be more interested in that than some serious post you spent a lot of time on.”

Kieran Healy, Eszter Hargittai, Laura Clawson, Kim Scheppele, Chris Uggen

Chris Uggen made a similar point. His own blog is sometimes personal (kids, music, marathons) and sometimes public – accessible reporting and data on prisoners and former prisoners. Excellent stuff. So Chris, along with Michelle Inderbitzin, created a separate blog, Public Criminology, for these more public issues. “And nobody reads it.”

Chris was exaggerating I’m sure. “Nobody” is relative. Relative to Daily Kos (represented on the panel by Laura Clawson), PubCrim’s audience looks like nobody. But that audience may be larger than the readership of, say, this blog. (Yes, reader, you are among a select few – I sometimes think of this website as the unheard tree that falls in the blogosphere – and I wish I could figure out a way to increase that to an audience that is still select, but far more numerous. Unfortunately, I don’t have a cat. I can say, however, that my lunch of Buffalo chicken salad at the Heartland Brewery on 51st St. was truly awful.)

Maybe the best route to a widely heard, public sociology is the collective blog, like Crooked Timber (Eszter and Kieran) or Balkinization, the law blog represented on the panel by Kim Scheppele. That, and a lot of work at linking it to other places so that potential readers might find it.

ASA Bloggers

August 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Sociology Bloggers get-together. Considering that it was not listed on the official program, it was well attended and probably one of the most interactive sessions at the ASA meetings as you can see in the photo. (Why is it that Dan Myers gets better photos with his Treo than I get with my Canon Power Shot?) Here’s another with Chris Uggen and Fabio.

I’ll probably learn more at the ASA session on blogging tomorrow, but a quick-and-dirty demographic survey suggests that Northamerican sociology bloggers are predominantly male. (Who are the other women besides Ezster? Should we count Danah Boyd as a sociologist?) Jeremy Freese (who in person doesn’t look a whole lot like that caricature on his blog) tells of trying unsuccessfully to get the chair at Wisconsin to blog. This reluctance is curious, especially considering the sex ratio for Myspace and Facebook, which, according to the Pew research, tilts heavily towards females.

Less curious is the age factor. Blogging, like other Internet participation, is apparently for the young. At the gathering Saturday, the age distribution topped out at 41 (not counting one graying outlier sliding inexorably into geezerdom). Is this just a matter of computer literacy? Yes, the under-forties may see computers as naturally incorporated into the self if not the body, thumbing their Blackberries and cellphones like worry beads. But blogging requires little computer competence. I wonder whether the age difference signals a generational change in notions of private and public even among academics – the kind of change evidenced by the Myspacebook generation.


August 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston


The Weekly World News is going under. Not devoured by space aliens or dinosaurs but killed by its parent company because of low circulation (PARENTS KILL; BLAME FAILING PAPER ROUTE!).

Supermarket tabloids nowadays are all celebrity gossip. But back in the day (the day being the 1950s and 60s), that prince of tabloids, the National Enquirer, specialized in stories of the weird, especially blood and gore. I CUT OUT HER HEART AND STOMPED ON IT! is one of its more famous headlines.

In late 1979, the Enquirer’s publisher, Generoso Pope switched it to color. (Legit newspapers didn’t go color until USA Today came along in 1982 and started cutting into tabloid circulation.) With color came the almost exclusive focus on celebrities, diets, and other more timid stories. But Pope apparently had a soft spot in his heart for the old black-and-white presses and the stories of the bizarre, so he created Weekly World News (POPE GIVES BIRTH TO BLACK AND WHITE OFFSPRING – WITHOUT SEX!) to continue the tradition.

In the early days of the Enquirer and even the Weekly World News, the stories had to have at least some basis in reality. Some of them were actually true. Reporters at local newspapers who came upon an incident that was just too gory or gross for their own paper to run would, for a fee, send it on the National Enquirer. Later, the tabloids would require only that someone claimed to have seen or done something. If someone said that he’d seen Elvis in the Dairy Queen or that Bigfoot ran off with his wife, that was good enough. The editor’s motto was “Don't fact-check your way out of a good story.”

Writers embellished stories, adding facts, quotes, and sources, and over time the connection with reality became more and more tenuous and eventually disappeared. Photoshop probably also helped, though faked photographs had long been a staple of the tabloids. By the 1990s, stories were born via parthenogenesis, springing fully-formed directly from the heads of the journalists in the office. As the Washington Post’s obit for Weekly World News, puts it
First, somebody would yell out an idea for a headline, then everybody else would yell out better ideas. The yelling was exceeded only by the laughing. “There were days when I would leave work,” Lind says, “with my stomach and my face hurting from laughing all day at the ideas being kicked around.”
(Lind, by the way, is Bob Lind, for all those of you unfortunate enough to remember his 1966 hit “Elusive Butterfly.”)

What does any of this have to do with sociology and thus merit inclusion in a sociology blog? For one thing, we might ask why Weekly World News’s circulation tanked. The Washington Post article blames it on a change in staff. With the news writers acting more like a team of comedy writers, management figured it would do even better by replacing them with real comedy writers. But as one of the ex-writers said, “It’s not just comedy. It’s a different skill set.” (I wonder if he said “skill set” with a straight face.)

On the data analysis front, Weekly World News stories are a data set crying out for content analysis. I recall a contest in New York Magazine long ago (like the Washington Post’s Sunday Style Invitational) that asked for parody tabloid headlines. The winner was BABY BORN WITH WINNING LOTTO TICKET! which gets at two hugely popular themes in tabloid stories – birth anomalies and luck. (HUMAN JELLYFISH BRINGS GOOD FORTUNE AND BIG BUCKS TO OUR READERS: These lucky readers rubbed his belly and won—and so can you!) That’s an actual headline from September 1993. I know because Chip Rowe, among the many funny and inventive things in his career, collected and catalogued a year’s worth of Weekly World News headlines. Space aliens, miracle cures, medical anomalies, marriage, sex, and dieting. A really good story combines at least two of these (GAL WAS SO SHOCKED BY PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE —HER HAIR FELL OUT!).

We know how these stories got produced. But who was consuming them, and why? What did they get from them? As Kevin Walker, in one sociological article found online put it, “The pleasure from reading any text comes from the interaction of the reader and the text, situated in social and historic context.” Which means that if we are to do this correctly, we have to identify the readers and their social and historical context. Or as the Weekly World News might have put it SOCIOLOGISTS TAKE FUN OUT OF READING TABLOIDS!
(Superfluous note: in this post, italicized sans-serif headlines are my own invention. The others are actual World Weekly News headlines, not that it matters, at least not by tabloid criteria.)

Bourdieu Tube

August 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was certainly one of the biggest names in sociology in the last 25 years. He was even the subject of a documentary film “La Sociologie est un Sport de Combat” that was something of a hit in France.

He was also politically engagé as well as thoughtful. Now Tina Guenther, a sociologist who blogs from Germany (Bamberg, I think) in both English and German, has posted a recently released video of a brief interview with Bourdieu about politics. The interviewer, Gabi Reich, is obviously German; the producer-director is Pierre Carles, who also did the Combat Sport film.

Bourdieu says, among other things that there’s nothing worse than a failed revolution, and points to the return in force of extreme conservatives after the demise of leftist movements at Berkeley and Columbia. (I wasn't there. Is he accurate in this?)

What also struck me is the location of the interview – an ordinary café in Paris. You can hear the clank of plates and glasses, the buzz of motos outside on the street. I can’t help thinking that if this were an American video done by Americans, it would have been set in the professor’s office, and in front of the great man would have been a gleaming wooden desk, not a café table and an empty beer glass, and behind him, the bookshelves full of books of all colors and sizes, not a street scene with buses and pedestrians and a video game store across the street.
Despite Starbucks, we still don’t have the hang of this café thing – the public private space – in the way that Europeans have had for a couple of hundred years.

Durkheim With a Rim Shot

August 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his comment on yesterday’s blog post here, Jeremy Freese mentioned Robert Frank’s new book Falling Behind and its consideration of the general economic importance of relative deprivation. The Times reviewed that book Sunday along with another book by Frank, The Economic Naturalist.

This second book is the outcome of an assignment Frank gives his students: “pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed.” The reviewer (Daniel Gross) provides a couple of examples.

Frank’s students, with a writing assist from their professor, explain why a $20,000 car rents for $40 a day but a $500 tuxedo rents for $90 a day. (Among other things, it has to do with the need for tuxedo shops to maintain a large inventory of different sizes.) Or why fast-food restaurants promise a free meal if customers don’t get a receipt. (It’s to deter theft by cashiers.)

The review doesn’t say which classes was Frank using. Was it freshman econ? Or was it the graduate seminar?

But I wonder if something similar might work in sociology. I wouldn’t even require that students provide answers. I just want them to step back and stop taking the world for granted. In fact, it’s always seemed to me that some of the best sociologists are like stand-up comedians – the “observational” comics who point out some not-quite-rational fact that we’ve all seen but haven’t really noticed. “What were they doing with a car on the moon? . . . There is no more male idea in the history of the universe than ‘Why don’t we fly up to the moon and drive around.’” That’s Seinfeld. But there are other examples.

And this thing with the number of suicides staying pretty much the same year in year out, what’s up with that? I mean, it can’t be the same thirty thousand Americans killing themselves each year.

Or did you ever notice that with some of these real tight-ass religious
types? They work so damn hard, they gotta wind up making some money, and then they don’t know how to kick back and enjoy it. What’s that all about? You’ve got the money. Spend it. Of course, in Italy it’s just the opposite. You work a little extra there, they make you feel guilty. They’re like, “Uh-oh, here comes the Protestant.”
But seriously folks... The above are macro-level phenomena not so visible in everyday life. I expect that students will choose more micro-level puzzles not based on differences in rates. But what specific questions would we get with this assignment. Only one way to find out.

I guess it’s time to revise the syllabus.

Another $10 Million Nobody

August 6, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Gary Kremen is the founder of He’s 43 years old and worth about $10 million. If it were you, you might think you’d slack off, take it easy, and enjoy the life your money can buy. But Kremen, according to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, “logs 60- to 80-hour workweeks because, he said, he does not think he has nearly enough money to ease up.” That’s the way it is in Silicon Valley. 
“You’re nobody here at $10 million,” Mr. Kremen said earnestly over a glass of pinot noir at an upscale wine bar here.
Kremen is typical of millionaires in the area and probably elsewhere. They are not the richest of the rich – they are merely “single-digit millionaires” – and they put it long hours in order to get richer. “Working class millionaires,” the Times calls them.
It seems as though no amount is ever enough. The article quotes another 70-hours-a-week millionaire: “Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent.” It’s “a marathon with no finish line.” But why do they keep running?
Nearly forty years ago, Samuel Stouffer coined the term “relative deprivation” to account for those who objectively had more than most others yet felt dissatisfied. (Stouffer was looking not at income but at promotions in the military, but the same principle was at work.) No matter how much you have, if you compare yourself with others who have more, you’re going to feel deprived. It’s just one more way in which people are not rational about money.
But it’s nothing new, at least not in America. Here’s deTocqueville, writing in 1836:
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures. . . .there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance.
Who were the 1830s was counterparts of the millionaire, and what were the counterparts of the expensive cars, houses, planes, etc. they want more of? Whatever they might have been, deTocqueville saw the endless marathon:
Besides the good things that he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode.

Sports Psych - Junior Edition

August 5, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

I remember my social studies teachers in high school having a difficult time when communist countries like the Soviet Union or China would do well in the Olympics. For some reason, they thought – and wanted us to think – that bad systems had to be bad in every respect. And if an evil country did produce medal winners, it must have used evil methods to do so.

So my teachers told us horror stories about the government selecting kids who showed some talent in a sport, shipping them off to special training centers – high-pressure environments for turning kids into professional athletes. (The US media are still pushing this image, at least as regards China. ) Yes, the system may produce Olympic medals, but the cost is heavy – the loss of childhood and untold psychological damage.

Thank goodness we didn’t live in such a system.

This morning, the New York Times has an article about sports psychologists treating young athletes. How young? Some of them still count their age in single digits.
The idea that mental coaching can help the youngest athletes has pervaded the upper reaches of the country’s zealous youth sports culture. . . . The families of young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning coaches, specialized skill coaches, . . . nutritionists and recruiting consultants. Now, the personal sports psychologist has joined the entourage.
I was especially startled by this quote from one of these psychologists: “The parents have the right intentions. They want their kid to be the next Tiger Woods.” Deciding that your child, as young as eight or nine, will have a career as a professional athlete, choosing the particular sport, and bringing in psychologists when the kid can’t take the pressure – that’s the right intentions?

As I was reading this, I remembered the cautionary tales my teachers told me decades ago about the Soviets and the Chinese. The difference between them and us apparently is that in the US, the role of the state is being played by the parents. If the state brings all its force and resources into turning a child into a top-notch athlete, that’s bad. If parents do so, that’s good.

Samaritans - II

August 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s an early scene in the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy.” Joe Buck, just arrived in New York from Texas, is walking up Fifth Avenue and sees a man obviously in need of help lying unconscious on the sidewalk outside Tiffany’s. He starts towards the man, but then notices all the other people walking past as though the man either didn’t exist or didn’t need help. And then, taking his cue from the others, he continues on his way, though with a worried glance back at the man on the sidewalk.

It’s a perfect example of bystander apathy, the topic of the previous blog posting. My point was that bystander apathy arises not from bad individual character traits but from normal social processes: faced with unfamiliar circumstances, we look to others for a definition of the situation. What do we do when something seems unusual but everyone else regards it as normal? (This was a standard set-up for countless episodes of “Candid Camera.”) We may feel uncomfortable, but we’d also feel uncomfortable going against what appears to be the norm.

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni also blogged about the Wichita incident. To his credit, Etzioni doesn’t take the “what’s wrong with people today?” line. He is well aware that if you want to change the amount of some behavior, you don’t get very far by trying to change people’s character. You’re much better off trying to change the situational circumstances.

Etzioni recommends that the US adopt “Good Samaritan” laws (also called “duty to assist” laws) that allow for the prosecution of people who fail to provide reasonable assistance. He acknowledges the difficulties of enforcement (what is “reasonable”?), and he doesn’t try to refute the argument that such laws would have no effect on behavior. Remember those seminarians who saw a man in need of help while they were en route to give a talk about the good Samaritan? (If you don't remember, see the previous entry in this blog.) They were no more likely to help than were others. So it’s doubtful that a law passed by some distant legislature would have had any impact on those people in the Wichita convenience store.

So Etzioni focuses instead on the symbolic function of the law.
Above all, laws have an expressive function. They are one way in which we state what our moral expectations are. They are of special value when, in a growing and complex society, it is unclear what we as a community consider right and wrong.
In other words, the law will make us feel better – it will confirm that our view of right and wrong is the official view. It won’t make us act better.

This is not to say that norms don’t change. “Midnight Cowboy” was originally rated X. (It's the only X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for best picture.) Yet it has almost no nudity, and little profanity (Ratso's “fuckin’ creeps” is the only time the “f-word” is heard), and the MPAA has since downgraded the X to an R, testimony that there has been a change in norms regarding the presentation of hustling, straight and gay.

Samaritans - Good and Bad

August 1, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

There was an incident of bystander apathy recently. A woman was stabbed in a Wichita, Kansas convenience store and lay bleeding for two minutes before anyone called 911. The victim died, and it’s possible the two minute delay made the difference between life and death. At least five people saw her lying there and merely stepped over the body. One woman took a picture with her cell phone.

The story hasn’t gotten a lot of press, at least not yet. I found out about it via Brad Wright’s blog. But then, the Kitty Genovese incident in 1964 didn’t become famous until the New York Times did a front-page story on it two weeks later. It began, “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

What reaction there has been is remarkably similar to the reaction to the Kitty Genovese case. “What happened to our respect for life?” said the Wichita police chief, implying that at some other time people had more respect for life. In a similar way, many comments about the Kitty Genovese incident implied that New Yorkers were less compassionate or concerned or altruistic than were people in other places.

The big assumption behind this way of thinking is that people’s actions are caused primarily by inner qualities, by their character or personality. If an act can be classified as cruel, the person who committed it must have some inner trait of cruelty. If the act is brave, the person who did it must have some trait of bravery in his character. This thinking is then used to explain the behavior. The reason that someone acted with indifference was that he or she lacked the trait of compassion.

The trouble with this line of thought is that it places all the weight on internal factors like character and ignores the external pressures of the situation. Brad Wright’s commentary offers a more sociological explanation of bystander apathy: in order to decide if something is an emergency, we often take our cues from the reactions of others around us. If they act as though the situation is normal, we’re likely to accept that definition (Brad has an excellent first-hand example involving a drowning child).

One of the most important researchers on bystander apathy is John Darley. John gave me my first academic faculty job – a one-year fill-in guaranteed to end after two semesters. John called it “the folding chair in social psychology.” One of the grad students working with John was Dan Batson. I think Dan already had a degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and may have actually worked as a minister, but now he was working on his Ph.D. in psychology. (I also recall that he drove a sporty Fiat 124 white convertible).

Together, Darley and Batson devised an experiment that really shows the relative importance of external constraints relative to character traits. The subjects were all students at the Theological Seminary; these were people who took their religion seriously. Each seminarian was told that he would have to deliver a talk on the other side of campus. Along the way, each person would pass a man slumped in a doorway who would moan and cough. (Obviously to us now, though not to the seminarians then, the unfortunate wretch was part of the experiment.) The question was how much attention the seminarian would pay to this person in need of help.

Batson and Darley had two variables that they thought might affect the willingness to help. First, half the students were told that the subject they were to talk about was job opportunities in the ministry. The others were told to give a talk on the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). (For those who don’t remember, the parable tells of a Jewish man who was severely mugged en route from Jerusalem to Jericho. As the man, near death, lay on the road, a Jewish priest passed by but didn’t help; later a second Jewish religious official also refused to help. Only the Samaritan, presumably an enemy of the Jews, not only stopped to help, but gave the man a ride to town and paid for his food and lodging.)

You would expect that the students with this parable uppermost in their minds would be more likely to offer assistance, but as it turned out, this mental priming made no difference.

The other independent variable Batson and Darley manipulated was purely external: time pressure. Some of the seminarians thought they had plenty of time to get across campus; others were told that they were already late but should go anyway. This variable made a big difference. Over sixty percent of the unhurried offered some help; only 10% of those in a hurry.

When we hear of an incident like the one in Wichita, the first question we ask is often “What’s wrong with those people? What kind of person could ignore a victim in need of help?” But, as I’ve suggested before in this blog, these assumptions of character as the cause of behavior are usually off the mark. The same person who acts with indifference in one situation will act with altruism in another. So it’s more useful to ask what it is about the situation that causes so many people to act this way. As Dan Batson says, people can be very altruistic . . . under the right circumstances.