March 15, 2008


Earlier this year, just in time for your New Year's resolution, Gentle Reader, this blog offered its readers exclusive membership in the Hillbilly Health Club.

We are pleased to announce a new workout program designed to maximize your fitness goats, I mean goals, based on our new holistic "track and field" program, which combines aerobic and resistance exercises.

The "track" part involves scooping up old hay, straw and goat pellets into a wheelbarrow, tracking them out to the garden, and spreading them around. The "field" part offers the latest in plyometric and core body exercises. Using only the latest in equipment--in this case a spading fork, which looks kinda like a pitchfork but different, and Mother Earth--this will give you results like nothing you've ever tried.

Simply apply spading fork to Mother Earth, old hay and straw, and goat pellets. Go deep with aid of foot, then lift using upper body muscles. (Did you notice the whole body workout?) Then break up clods by whacking them (that's the plyometric part).

Just a little bit of this and you'll have to fight off potential significant others with a stick...if they can stand the smell that is, which you kind of get used to after a while.

Nothing but the best for y'all!


March 14, 2008


People in groups have a bad tendency not to take action to help others. In some cases, being in a group seems to keep people from acting in their own interest. That in a nutshell, Gentle Reader, has been the theme of this week's Goat Rope.

Previous posts this week have looked at real life incidents, such as the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, and at psychological experiments that also studied the issue in a less violent setting. Please check them out if this is your first visit.

So what are the conclusions of the research? Darley and Latane drew five conclusions from their experiments (both of which are discussed earlier this week) about helping behavior. As summarized in Lauren Slater's entertaining and informative book Opening Skinner's Box, they are:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must take action.

Bystanders have great potential for good or evil. In his excellent study Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Roy F. Baumeister notes that

bystanders do not have to provide active support to the perpetrators of evil and violence. If they merely do nothing, and in particular if they fail to protest or object, than evil and violence are likely to spread.

He also notes that in many cases

the perpetrator might be sensitive to the moral judgements of bystanders. If bystanders say nothing, the perpetrator may believe that they did not see anything to criticize.

In a more positive way, he argues that

Bystanders do have a responsibility to protest evil, because it will grow unchecked if they do not. Whatever the press of one's own concerns or the appeal of minding one's own business, it is nonetheless true that the victims of evil and violence depend on bystanders to bear witness to what is happening and take a stand against it. It is the only way.

SPEAKING OF INSIGHTS FROM THE SOCIAL SCIENCES, here's a diverting mix from the Boston Globe.

MORE ON THE COST OF WAR. Here's former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz on the cost of the Iraq war. Short version: the big winners are oil companies and defense contractors. Who saw that coming?

SPEAKING OF THE WAR, a new poll shows that may Americans are confused about the human costs of that unnecessary war.

ECONOMY. The NY Times reports on a veritable witch's brew of bad economic news.

PRISON NATION/PRISON STATES. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute shows the drain caused by an exploding prison population on state budgets and investments in things like higher education.

COUNTING things is the theme of Jim Lewis' latest edition of Notes From Under the Fig Tree.

COMPARE YOUR LIST. From Campus Progress, here's a list of 99 problems with the Bush administration.


WV ROUNDUP. A confusing array of new state Medicaid rules has been challenged in court. The feds are investigating WV's supreme court Masseygate affair. Two sentences were handed down yesterday in the Megan Williams case.


March 13, 2008


The theme this week at Goat Rope is the bystander effect and how and when people decide to intervene--or not. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

Psychological experiments as well as unfortunate events have suggested that there's something about being part of a larger group of people that makes us less likely to personally take action to help other people in a bad situation.

But it doesn't stop there--sometimes being part of a group makes us less likely to take action to help ourselves.

Researchers Darley and Latane (see yesterday's post) tested this in another ingenious experiment in which naive subjects were given a routine task in a room where smoke poured from the vents. When they were the only people in the room, most people (around 75 percent) reported the smoke.

But when they were in the room with two other people who expressed no concern about it (and were instructed as part of the experiment to ignore it), only ten percent reported it--even when the room was full of smoke at the end of the six minute experiment.

When they tried the experiment with three naive subjects in the room, i.e. nobody who was "in on it," people only reported the smoke 38 percent of the time.

It seems in general that we take their cues about the nature of a given situation from other people and if others don't seem to think it's a big deal, we're not likely to either--even if it could be a matter of our own life and death.

Time seems to be a factor in the decision to act as well. It seems that the longer people wait to take action, the less likely they are to do so.

Some days, El Cabrero is reminded of one of Dylan's darker lines: "We're idiots, babe. It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves."

THE RECESSION AND THE WAR are the subjects of this op-ed by economist Dean Baker. Short version: it made things worse, but so did bad domestic policies and priorities.

EVANGELICALS ON THE MOVE. Here's an interesting article from The Nation about changing attitudes among evangelical voters. The religious right's lock on the group has been broken or at least challenged.

NEW BLOG FROM GOOD JOBS FIRST. GJF has long taken the lead in the fight for job quality standards, smart growth and accountability in economic development policies. The new blog, Clawback, is a welcome addition.

QUICK, ROBIN, GET THE SHARK REPELLENT! I did not make this up. According to a brief item in The Week Magazine, designers of the Shark Shield, a devise intended to keep sharks away by emitting electronic waves, may have to go back to the drawing board after a shark ate one of their units.

MORE ON CLIMATE CHANGE IN WV. Here's WV Public Radio on local responses to climate change (or the lack thereof).

RETIRING BABY BOOMERS might not signify the end of the world after all, this Foreign Policy article suggests.


March 12, 2008


The theme this week at Goat Rope is a look at what psychology can tell us about the dark side of human nature (you will also find links and comments about current events). Monday's post was about the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which became a legendary example of the failure of people to intervene to help someone in trouble.

As the story was widely reported, over 30 people witnessed more than one attack on Genovese, yet no one intervened. Subsequent investigations have called some of the details into question, but clearly things like this happen all too often.

Yesterday's post was about a famous psychological experiment by Darley and Latane which tried to recreate a similar situation and got similar results. The bottom line is that there is something about groups which seems to inhibit individual helping action.

This is something that most of us have experienced in one way or another. If your car breaks down, you are probably more likely to get help on a little traveled country road than on I 95 at rush hour.

The term for this is "diffusion of responsibility." As Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner's Box,.

The more people witnessing an event, the less responsible any one individual feels and, indeed, is, because responsibility is evenly distributed among the crowd. Diffusion of responsibility is further compounded by social etiquette so strong it overrides even life-and-death situations; it would be terrible, after all, to be the only one to make a fuss, and perhaps for nothing as well. Who is to say what's a real and what's a false emergency.

The fact that we often doubt ourselves doesn't help much either in this arena.

But a further experiment by Darley and Latane shows that the presence of others can even keep people from acting in their own interest. More on that tomorrow.

REPUBLIC OR EMPIRE? Having it both ways is increasingly unlikely. Here's a good item from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

LABOR AND CLIMATE CHANGE. Here's yet another item on how unions are getting more engaged in the climate change issue. Speaking of which, WV legislators were recently urged to come up with a climate plan.

VIRTUES AND INTERESTS. This article summarizes some interesting cross cultural results from experiments about cooperation and self interest.



March 11, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

In the wake of the highly publicized killing of Kitty Genovese in Queens, in which news reports stated that a number of people witnessed without intervening, (see yesterday's post) two psychologists decided to study how people respond to the sufferings of others.

John Darley and Bibb Latane were obviously unwilling and unable to replicate that tragedy, but the did design an illuminating experiment that showed that people often take their cues about the seriousness of a situation from other people.

As Lauren Slater described the experiment in her entertaining book Opening Skinner's Box,

They recruited naive subjects at New Your University (NYU) to participate in what appeared to be a study of student adaptation to urban college life. A student sat in a separate room and spoke into a microphone for two minutes about the challenges at NYU. In a series of separate but audio-wired rooms were tape recorders carrying other student's stories, but the naive subject didn't know the voices were pre-recorded; the subject believed they were actual neighbors.

When one of the pre-recorded "students" who had previously self-identified as having severe epilepsy pretended to have a major seizure, the scientists observed how long it took for the subjects of the experiment to notify the experimenters that something was wrong. The pretended seizure lasted for a full six minutes.

Here's what they found. Subjects were likely to intervene when they believed that the only other person in the experiment was the person with the seizure. The rate was 85 percent.

But when they believed that four or more other people were listening as well, they were much less likely to intervene. The rate was 31 percent.

In other words, as Slater put it, "There is something about a crowd of bystanders that inhibits helping behavior." So much for the old "safety in numbers" theory. The term for this is "diffusion of responsibility," about which more tomorrow.

Another interesting finding was the time factor. Ninety five percent of those who intervened did so in the first three minutes of the apparent crisis. The longer people waited to intervene in a bad situation, the less likely they were to do so.

Does that sound familiar?

SPEAKING OF PSYCHOLOGY'S DARK SIDE, here's Wired interview with Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and wrote the recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil.

TALKING SENSE. Here's conservative Ben Stein taking on the myth that tax cuts "pay for themselves."

$12 BILLION A MONTH AND A LOT OF DEAD AND INJURED PEOPLE. Must be the Iraq war we're talking about.

THEOCRATS NO MORE. This is an interesting article on the disillusionment with the religious right by some of its former leaders.

YOU DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN to know climate change is for real. In a welcome shift, Southern Baptists have taken a stronger stand on countering it. Here is the AP and NY Times on the subject.

A THEORY OF NAMES. Here's a good one on the effects of unusual names on children. Short version: they make for better self control. I guess Johnny Cash was on to something.

I DIDN'T NOTICE THIS, but WV small schools advocates won a round with a bill this session that limits school bus rides.


March 10, 2008


Every once in a while, El Cabrero teaches an off campus sociology class. When we discuss methods of conducting research, I always try to emphasize that there are a lot of valid and interesting ways of doing it.

The method of conducting experiments is a mainstay of psychology but is less common in sociology. The value of experiments is that they are done in a tightly controlled manner, which is also their drawback, since everyday life is pretty messy. Still, some truly ingenious experiments have shed light on many aspects of social life.

Some of the most interesting have been inspired by real life situations. Some examples of this are Stanley Milgram's classic if controversial experiments on obedience to authority and Solomon Asch's studies of conformity. (Search this blog for posts on these topics.)

One horrific situation that prompted some enlightening experiments was the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. As most people heard the story, more than 30 people saw or overheard the attack, which was repeated three times for more than 30 minutes. Yet it was widely reported that no one intervened or called the police until it was too late.

The event was sensationalized in the media. The headline in the New York Times at the time was "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" and this was the opening line:

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.
Recent investigations of available data have suggested that it wasn't quite that clear cut. As USA Today reported a while back,

As it turned out, there were two attacks, not three. The prosecutor in the case later said only a half-dozen witnesses were ever found. Others have suggested that calls to the police were made (and ignored), and that the fatal second assault occurred in a location visible to almost no one.
Some who have investigated the details suggest the tragedy as it is generally recounted has become something of a parable of the Bad Samaritan and that the story has taken on a life of its own. Still, it is undeniable that people often fail to intervene when terrible things happen.

More on this and the research it inspired tomorrow.

HAPPINESS AND THE ECONOMY is the subject of this interesting NY Times piece. As you may have guessed, the economy today isn't conducive to a whole lot of it and research suggests that economic growth alone is not a valid measure of well being, especially in a time of rising inequality.

SPEAKING OF AN UNHAPPY ECONOMY, the recent drop in nationwide job numbers doesn't bode well.

MORE ON "THE SURGE IS WORKING" dogma can be found in this Gazette-Mail editorial.

IF IT DOESN'T ROT, DON'T EAT IT is the advice of author Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I don't think he meant that you have to wait till it does, however.

BIG RED TRUCK. Here is an op-ed by yours truly on my short and inglorious career as a volunteer fire fighter.