How Did They Know?

June 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The teenager-in-residence is threatening to get one of these to wear when I'm around.

This shirt and similarly inspiring merchandise are available at

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

June 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How can you defend those people?” That’s a question people often ask defense lawyers, especially public defenders, who can’t very well say that they’re in it for the money.

But with all the stories of the exonerated, we might also ask how district attorneys can prosecute people who are innocent, and continue to prosecute them even in the face of exonerating evidence.

The answer is the same for both. If you want to understand what people do and even what they think, look at their roles in the system.

Case in point (and in a story in Monday’s Times):

In 1990, a bouncer is fatally shot outside The Palladium at Union Square. Two men are eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years. In the next decade, new evidence emerges that two other guys did it. The DA asks prosecutor Daniel Bibb to review the case. Bibb investigates and becomes convinced that the convicted men are innocent.

What will the Manhattan DA’s office do?

If you said “release the innocent dudes,” lose a turn and go back three spaces.

“Top officials told [Bibb] . . .to defend the case anyway.”

The reason you lost a turn (if you did) is that you forgot that in the US, we handle criminal cases on an adversarial model, a contest between two sides, rather than as a search for truth and justice. In this system, the lawyers on each side are supposed to fight for their clients.

But Bibb didn’t fight for his client, which is why the story is newsworthy. He tanked, threw the case. He helped the defense as much as he could – tracked down witnesses, went easy in cross-examination, told defense lawyers when they weren’t asking the right questions. At the judicial hearing on the case, he “lost.” One man had his conviction dropped; the other was granted a new trial and eventually acquitted.

Truth and justice may have been served, but apparently what Bibb did was a no-no.

“He’s entitled to his conscience, but his conscience does not entitle him to subvert his client’s case.” So says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at NYU Law.

Bibb’s client was the DA, and the client’s case was to have the convictions upheld. If Bibb didn’t want to work for that goal, he should have taken himself off the case. That way, they could have assigned it to some other prosecutor who would do all he could to keep the innocent guys in jail.

I had thought that prosecutors were also supposed to be concerned about the truth, and perhaps they are. But apparently their role in the adversarial system outweighs that consideration. That role also shapes their perceptions. Their investigator, Bibb, spent nearly two years searching for the truth about the crime, and he concluded that the men were innocent. Nevertheless, the DA’s office “has said it had good reason to believe that the two men were guilty.”

And Bibb? He left the DA’s office, understandably. He’s now a defense lawyer, but his disloyalty has damaged relations with his former colleagues, and those relations are important for defense lawyers. A lot of their work requires them to make deals with prosecutors.

Searches and Seizures

June 25, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

To be obscene in a criminal trial, a sexy picture, movie, Website or whatever has to be offensive to “community standards.” But how do we know what community standards are?

A defense lawyer in a Florida case is using Google. He’s presenting data on the number of Google searches in Pensacola. (New York Times story here.)
In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” . . . “We tried to come up with comparison search terms that would embody typical American values,” Mr. Walters said. “What is more American than apple pie?” But according to the search service, he said, “people are at least as interested in group sex and orgies as they are in apple pie.”
I’ve come to know a little about this kind of search myself. On May 2, I blogged about the reaction to a picture of Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair. I gave my post the title “Good Girl, Naughty Picture.” Since then, that post has gotten more traffic than any other – about one seventh of all hits on this blog.

It was the “naughty” in the title that did it. Google “15 year old girls naughty pictures,” and I’m at the top of the list. Other search strings that have brought readers here include
  • naughty 9 year old girls
  • naughty girls with their naked photos
  • 16 year old girls naughty pictures
  • 13 year old girls being noughty [sic]
  • disney naughty lines
You get the idea.

I realize that writing these phrases in this post will bring even more naughty Googlers. But how else can I only report the relevant data? I’m not proud to be so highly ranked on these Google searches.* No doubt, these seekers of naughty, like the readers who got here looking to win the lottery by visualization, were disappointed. But I prefer to think that once here, they abandoned their original intent and actually read the post. Then, socio-curious they started looking around at other pages. Fascinated, enlightened, and thirsting for more, they clicked on the links to other blogging sociologists . . . . That’s my fantasy, and I’m sticking to it.

* I am pleased, however, that on a search for “Goffman, Milgram,” I’m in the top two or three. Add “Borat,” and it’s no contest.

Sleeping Around in the Neighborhood

June 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, it’s not Desperate Housewives. It’s more Amitai Etzioni than Eva Longoria.

A 50-year-old suburbanite decides to ask his neighbors, one by one, if he can have a sleepover – spend the night, get to know them.

It sounds like that Cheever story, “The Swimmer,” where a man decides to make the eight-mile trip home by water – swimming through the backyard swimming pools of his neighbors.

But where the Cheever character is alcoholic, self-centered, delusional (and fictional), Peter Lovenheim is concerned about community. He has read some Bowling Alone. He cites GSS data on the decline of spending a social evening with neighbors. He realizes that his neighbors know one another superficially if at all and may not know the names of those who live just a few doors down. So by phone, e-mail, or ringing the doorbell, he proposes his sleepovers.
His teenage daughter tells him he’s crazy.
Sure, the sight of your 50-year-old father leaving with an overnight bag to sleep at a neighbor’s house would embarrass any teenager, but “crazy”? I didn’t think so.
In fact, over half of the eighteen people he asks say yes. And the results are positive, at least according to Lovenheim in yesterday’s op-ed column in the Times. The neighbors haven’t written their op-ed pieces yet.

The quest for community seems like a permanent part of the American experience. Books like Bowling Alone document and lament the decline of community. And it’s not just academics who sense this loss. Community, like sex, sells. When I clicked on the Wesbsite for Brighton, NY, the dateline for Lovenheim’s article, I found this tagline: “one of the finest communities in which to live, work, and raise a family.”

Maybe so, but it’s also a “community” where, without the effort of “crazy” people like Lovenheim, “we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines . . . the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.”

Childhood - Purity or Danger

June 23, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In American movies, children are usually good. They are uncorrupted by adult motivations like greed, lust, anger, pride, etc. The adults in their lives, especially the men, are either well-meaning but ineffectual, even foolish, or downright vindictive.

Children are not just morally superior, they are more competent and more resourceful. In “Home Alone” and “Ferris Bueller,” the child left is left behind by the nice but foolish adults and outwits the mean adults. Kids don’t really need their parents, but parents often need their kids. In movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” the grown-ups, though obviously intended for each other, are so encumbered by adult doubts, fears and ignorance that they can’t get together. A child has to engineer the romance.

Some British fictions give us a far different view. Children left to their own devices, without adults to rein in their imaginations, become cruel, dangerous, perverse. Think Lord of the Flies. I was reminded of this recently when I watched the DVD of “Atonement.” In the central incident, the mainspring for the entire plot, Briony, a girl of twelve or thirteen, tells a lie, and she coerces an older but weaker girl into going along with the lie. Her sin has disastrous consequences for two adults – her older sister and the man she loves. Briony looks up to them, but she is also jealous, selfish, and ignorant. She doesn’t yet understand what adult love is all about. Her vindictive act nearly destroys these two good people. The atonement the title refers to is Briony’s atonement for this lie, a process that the becomes the core of her life and work, first as a nurse, then as a writer. The message of the film and book is one we rarely find in American fictions: growing up – becoming mature, an adult – means realizing how terrible one was as a child.

(The movie begins in the 1930s, when girls of thirteen were less sexual. Developmentally, Briony seems more like an eleven-year-old of today. The movie also has plenty of material for an essay on social class – I was reminded again of what my friend
Melissa said long ago: “All British films are about the class system”– but I leave that to others, perhaps Phil.)

Internet Style

June 21, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“No one, my hit counter tells me, reads blogs on the weekend.” That’s from an essay, “How is the Internet Changing Literary Style?” at a blog called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. I think the author is Caleb Crain, but you have to do some detective work to figure that out. Anyway, I’m posting this on a Saturday.

Crain’s essay is a medium-is-the-message piece with a lot of Goffman. The Internet, Crain argues, shifts or blurs the boundary between “front” and “backstage.” It also limits “audience segregation,” and not just on MySpacebook.
It’s impossible to keep the members of the right-wing discussion group Free Republic dot-com from reading the posts at My Barack Obama dot-com, and vice versa. The internet's killer app, as the onetime internet mogul Michael Wolff once said, is eavesdropping.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the link.

Our Bumpers, Our Selves

June 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A while back, I invoked Goffman to explain road rage (that post is here). In our nondriving lives, we say, “Sorry” and “Excuse me,” when we inadvertently bump someone or get in their way. Without that little apology, the act itself would imply a “dissing” of the other person, a diminishing of the social worth of that person. “Sorry” repairs the accidental affront the other person’s self. The highway removes the possibility of this “interaction ritual” (or ritual interaction). The other driver is left with only the fact of the offense.

Of course, not all drivers react identically. Some are more patient, others are quick to take offense at peceived disrespect. But how can you tell which is which?

Bumper stickers, window decals, and vanity plates, it turns out, are a good clue. William Zlemko, a grad student at Colorado State, found that the more of these a car sported, the more likely the driver was to respond to with anger (honking, tailgating) when he felt wronged by another car. And it didn’t matter whether the bumper stickers were about prying guns from cold, dead hands or visualizing world peace.

Szlemko frames the issue as territoriality. He refers to the vanity plates and bumper stickers as “territory markers.” I’d put it in terms of self. For some drivers, a car is a means of transportation. But for those who deck out their cars with these personalized items, the car is an extension of the self.

(The article is online at the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 38 Issue 6 Page 1664 June 2008. Gated.)

Rotten Tomatoes and Broken Windows

June 18, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Marginal Revolution, the anti-Krugman forces were firing with abandon. Krugman was writing about the recent killer tomato episode and other tainted-food crises (“Salmonella, salmonella, all I hear is salmonella”), and he pointed his finger at the free marketeers for their anti-inspection, anti-regulation policies.

MR’s Alex Tabarrok disagreed, providing some contradictory data, and the comments flooded in (over 100 and counting, some defending Krugman, some providing new data, some thoughtful, and some just snarky).

In the classic free-market model, nobody needs to keep an eye on food producers to make sure they are putting out a safe product. They’ll do it themselves. “Private companies would avoid taking risks with public health to safeguard their reputations and to avoid damaging class-action lawsuits.”

The argument reminded me of two principles from my days in the crim biz: deterrence and “broken windows.” Deterrence theory says that the effectiveness of punishment depends far more on certainty and swiftness than on severity. Giving a small punishment immediately after each infraction is more effective than lowering the boom only occasionally and a long time after the offense.

The broken-windows principle is that if you crack down on small stuff (broken windows), you’ll prevent more serious bad behavior. Conversely, allow the broken windows to go unrepaired, and you invite more serious violations.

Class action suits are like the severe punishment that comes rarely and years after the deed has been done. A company can cut corners for a long time before the crisis becomes visible. And if the harm does come to light, lawsuits still take a long, long time.

Regulation tries more for certainty. It tries to catch more violations and insists that they be remedied right away. Regulation also resembles a broken-windows policy. It tries to prevent big crises by making sure that the small violations are taken care of.

The downside of regulation, as the free-marketeers are quick to remind us, is inefficiency. It forces companies to devote time and resources to following the rules – effort that they might otherwise use in turning out product and turning a profit.

There’s a political irony here as well. When it comes to street crime, conservatives usually line up on the side of deterrence and broken-windows. Zero tolerance. When it comes to protecting consumers and employees against salmonella, mine collapses, occupational diseases, etc., these same conservatives oppose the deterrence and broken-windows approach of regulation. Instead, they prefer to leave victims to their own legal resources. (Some conservatives also want to limit those legal resources – restricting access to lawyers, limiting the range of class action suits, and putting caps on tort awards.)

Conservatives - Here and There

June 17, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservative positions in the UK and in the US don’t always coincide. US conservatives, espeically in the Bush era, are much more comfortable with the concentration of power in a strong executive. I got a hint of these differences three summers ago when we rented a flat in London for a few days. Our hostess, a woman in her sixties, picked us up at the Victoria Station and gave us a tour of London. She had been a tour guide in her day, and in addition to the usual information, she added she sometimes added her own editorial commentary.

“There’s no more Brits in London,” she said, pointing to the darker people on the sidewalks. She also had little use the “queers” that had invaded her Vauxhall neighborhood. Surely here was a Conservative, part of the electorate that kept Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in power through the 1980s – the British counterparts of Ronald Reagan’s constituency.

Yet as we passed the Houses of Parliament, she pointed out the window at a statue. “That’s Oliver Cromwell. The only dictator England’s ever had,” she paused for only a second, “except for Maggie Thatcher.”

British Conservatives - Then and Now

June 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives in the UK take a position that’s opposite of US conservatives on the question of individual rights – at least the rights of those thrown into prison without any charges brought against them. (See the previous post.)

But conservatism within the UK may be at odds with itself, or at least with its old Thatcherite self. Here’s David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, as quoted by David Brooks in his column last month
We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand for the family, for the neighborhood — in a word, for society.
It seems like only yesterday, though it was nearly twenty years ago, that Margaret Thatcher was saying something very different.
There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
(I’d love to use that quote as the only question on a sociology final. Discuss.)

Conservatives and Liberties

June 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six years. That’s how long some prisoners have been held at Guantánamo without even having charges brought against them. Too long? Certainly not, say conservatives in the US.

The conservative wing on the Supreme Court, dissenting in yesterday’s decision on this, thought that not only was locking up people indefinitely and without charges, let alone trial and conviction, a good idea. They also saw nothing in it that violated the Constitution (“Pay no attention to that habeas corpus clause behind the curtain.”)

But why is this position “conservative”? Does it fit with some universal set of conservative principles? Apparently not.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, has proposed a law allowing the government to hold terrorism suspects without charges not for six years or six months, but for six weeks. You’d think that conservatives would be shouting that 42 days is not nearly long enough. But the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron,
described the measure as “a political calculation” designed to make Mr. Brown appear as if he was being tough on security.

David condemned the plans for 42-day detention, arguing they would threaten civil liberties and could alienate sections of society.
This from the Tories’ own website. I’m not sure which supposedly conservative stance surprised me more – their opposition to detention without charges or their use of the first name in referring to the party leaders. Even on Fox, they don’t refer “George.”

What's So Great About Purity Anyway?

June 12, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Do you read XKCD?” asked the teenager in residence when he got home from school yesterday.

“Not when they diss sociology,” I said.

“So I guess all the sociology bloggers were on this one,” he said.

Not all, at least not at the time. As far as I knew, only Anomie had blogged it. Now it’s everywhere. Including here.

None of the Above

June 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Hey, students. Want to see a copy of last year’s midterm? Try

Inside Higher Ed reports on the new website that scans and uploads exams for students to download. The idea is certainly not new. Students have given returned exams to friends. Fraternities have long kept exams on file for members to share. But as with everything else, the Internet broadens the scope for good or for evil.

I’m not sure where I stand on this. The idealist in me says that you put something on an exam because it’s important that students know it. And if it’s important that they know it, you should let them know that it’s important. It’s like the test for your driver’s license. The DMV doesn’t try to keep it a secret that they’ll ask you to parallel park. You know that it’s part of the test, so you learn to do it.

Whispering in my other ear is that little red fellow with the pointy ears and tail, and he’s saying that I should guard my questions because those sneaky students will just learn only what’s going to be on the test. Worse, they won’t learn ideas; they’ll just learn to circle “c” or “a” or “none of the above.”

What bothers me most about the website is what bothers me about this orientation towards exams, an orientation shared by students and faculty. In the ideal, education is a co-operative venture. Students want to learn, teachers want to teach, and together they explore ideas. But in the model that PostYourTest builds on, education is us-versus-them. We have the power of grades, they have We have the power to assign papers, they have paper-writing, “research” websites, and we have We have test banks, they have have

Attribution Theory at the Gas Pump

June 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, people are psychologists. If asked to explain, say, giving to charity, they tend to think in terms of personal traits. Generous people give, stingy people don’t. They ignore situational and structural factors and instead attribute cause to personal factors. (See the previous post in this blog.)

Faced with $4 gasoline, 35% of Americans blame oil companies; only 14% attribute the price to the market forces of supply and demand. And only 3% choose the demand from US drivers as the major cause. (Poll data are here.)

A quarter of those polled blame President Bush.

Who would hold such a silly idea that the President can control oil prices? George W. Bush, for one. Paul Krugman in his blog yesterday linked to a New York Times story from eight years ago.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said today that if he was president, he would bring down gasoline prices through sheer force of personality, by creating enough political good will with oil-producing nations that they would increase their supply of crude.

“I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot, to increase the supply,” Mr. Bush . . . told reporters here today. “Use the capital that my administration will earn, with the Kuwaitis or the Saudis, and convince them to open up the spigot.”
It’s not surprising that Bush sees economics and politics as a matter of personality traits and personal relationships. This is, after all, the man who looked into the soul of Vladimir Putin and found it good. It is also a man whose own economic and political fortunes depended heavily on personal and family connections. When connections and charm have saved you from financial ruin a few times (not to mention keeping you out of Vietnam) and have ultimately brought you wealth and success, you probably think connections and charm can work for the country as a whole. Can we really expect a person who thinks this way to see complex political and economic structural forces?

Read the whole Times article. It’s a little like thumbing back through the early chapters of a mystery once you’ve finished it and getting that eerie feeling when you see all those clues you didn’t notice the first time through.
“The fundamental question is, ‘Will I be a successful president when it comes to foreign policy?’ ”

He went on to suggest, as he did in answer to other questions, that voters should simply trust him.
They did – at least once, maybe twice.

Giving Money, Giving Shocks

June 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright has a post about giving money to charity. Brad quotes Michael Kruse’s review of Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks.
Brooks reports that the key indicator of giving is not political affiliation but weekly attendance at worship. Conservative and liberal weekly attenders are the highest givers although conservatives give slightly more.
The implication is a kinds-of-people difference: people who attend church are more generous kinds of people than are the curmudgeonly non-attenders. Brooks extends the comparison to other traits as well – political orientation and especially views on government redistribution of wealth. He paints a picture of generous, churchgoing, conservative, anti-redistributionist givers and their stingy counterparts on the opposite end of these traits.

O.K. Maybe individual traits matter. But so do situational pressures. People who for whatever reason go to church every week are confronted with direct in-person requests for donations. Some churches increase the social situational pressure by “passing the plate,” thereby subjecting each person’s giving or non-giving to public scrutiny. People who don’t go to church may get appeals in the mail (oh boy, do we get appeals in the mail), but these are far easier to ignore even when they do give you those little address labels.

It’s a little (or maybe a lot) like the Milgram experiment. The subject is being asked to do something he might not otherwise do. The subject (parishioner) is more likely to comply when the person making the request is in the same room. And he is far more likely to comply when he finds himself surrounded by others who are readily going along with the request. If these situational forces can pressure people to inflict painful and perhaps lethal shocks to a stranger, they can certainly affect less conflict-ridden behavior like giving money to charity.

The assumption about the importance of individual traits is right there on the book jacket: Who Really Cares. The title would more accurately be Who Really Gives or, since Brook’s data come largely from surveys (GSS, SCCBS), Who Really Says They Give.

It’s not as catchy a title, but how about another book: In What Situations Do People Give?

Women – Getting in Office and Getting Their Way

June 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman links to an article by John Lott to the effect that ever since women got the vote in the US, “the evidence indicates that women have long gotten their way.”

Lott has a fairly disreputable history as a scholar – making up data, using pseudonyms to post rave reviews of his own books at Amazon, etc. (for the full indictment go here). But he’s thoroughly conservative, so Fox and the American Enterprise Institute are glad to hire him.

Getting their way apparently doesn’t include guaranteed maternity leave and other family-friendly policies that Europeans take for granted. Nor does it mean ever having had a women as head of state – unlike the UK, France, Germany, India, Israel, Argentina, Ireland, Pakistan . . . .

When it comes to electing women legislators, the US ranks right up there, slightly ahead of Gabon but a bit behind feminist states like Uzbekistan and Sudan.

(For the complete list, go here.)

Within the US, state legislatures vary in the percentage of women legislators, and there are some surprises. Arizona (McCain-Goldwater country) and New Hampshire elect a higher percentage of women than do liberal Massachusetts and New York.

(Click on the map to see it in visible size.)