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Author: Jayinee Basu

Ethics and Aesthetics: Affordance Theory
Posted by On Tuesday, July 12, 2016

To kick off our Ethics and Aesthetics series we discussed the aesthetic-usability effect, and offered some theories on why beautiful things tend to work better. In our second post, we will examine J. J. Gibson’s theory of affordances, and how the animal propensity for action shapes our perception of objects and their function.

J.J. Gibson was one of the most influential psychologists in the field of visual perception. In his book “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception,” he outlined his theory of affordances, which designers continue to rely on today. The theory of affordances states that we perceive objects in the world in terms of how their properties may enable actions, and not by the properties themselves. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has a great example of an affordance when a Paleolithic man-ape extracts a long, heavy femur bone from a dry animal carcass and realizes that it affords smashing, and proceeds to use it to beat and kill the leader of a rival tribe. Indeed, our earliest record of inter-group violence between humans indicates that club-like objects were employed to inflict blunt force injury, and prehistoric bone clubs have been excavated in the Pacific Northwest.  Long bones were therefore utilized as clubs because their shape afforded grasping, and their weight afforded causing bodily damage.

In our training courses, we use affordance theory to better engage our users. Like designers who make physical objects, interaction designers use affordance theory to ensure that users have an intuitive understanding of what objects on the screen do, even without explicit instructions. Unlike physical objects, digital objects don’t have predetermined weight, form, or shape. Therefore, designers give interactive elements properties that suggest an associated action. For example, a button shaded to appear convex affords clicking, since it resembles the shadow of physical buttons. Skeumorphism is a technique that uses metaphoric affordances to make conceptual connections between digital objects and physical ones. A digital dashboard that mimics the look of a car dashboard immediately clues users in as to its function (i.e.  a control panel through which you can access different instruments.)

We have historically gotten great feedback on the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Calculator in Think About It, our course on sexual violence and substance abuse prevention for college students. Students find it fun to input different values for gender, weight, number and type of drinks, and time elapsed into the calculator to see how it affects BAC. The apparatus is designed with looping tubes, sliders, and digital readouts. These exaggerated technological features make it reminiscent of a slightly kitschy retrofuturistic toy. It is one of the more popular features of the course.

Due to its popularity, we discussed the idea of making the BAC calculator into an app that students could download and use at parties so that they might have a better idea of their BAC “in the field,” so to speak. However, we realized that the toy-like nature of the interaction was more afforded to “having fun” than “accurately measuring BAC as a way to stay safe.” In other words, making the BAC calculator available as a portable app may actually encourage students to overdrink by making it into a party game. Competition is one of the top cited reasons for college students for playing drinking games. Like traditional breathalizers that have become party games, the BAC calculator spits out a number, which can appear score-like and encourage competition. So we decided to keep the tool located inside the course to increase its informative affordance and reduce its impetus-to-imbibe affordance.

When designing features for our courses, we aim to be thoughtful about the social, political, and ideological context for its use. Affordance theory gives us a useful tool to analyze how well we are doing. However, nothing compares to direct user feedback, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with your thoughts!

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Why Do Victims Minimize Sexual Violence?
Posted by On Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When asked why they didn’t report an incident of sexual assault, a common reason given by survivors is that they didn’t believe it was serious enough to report, or that it wasn’t clear that the assailant meant harm or had committed a crime at all. This outlook contradicts the popular understanding of sexual assault as always being traumatic. Trauma is processed and manifested in complex interactions with the environment in which they occur. Unacknowledged rapes, or experiencing incidents that fit the legal definition of rape but not labeling it as such, are a surprisingly understudied phenomenon considering its prevalence: among a national sample of college women, 73 percent of rape victims did not acknowledge what happened to them as being sexual assault. 

 

We do know some things about the phenomenon. Sexual assaults are more likely to be unacknowledged if they were committed by a current romantic or sexual partner, used less physical force, and resulted in less physical injury to the victim. Additionally, victims who were inebriated during the attack and did not have a clear memory of the incident were less likely to acknowledge the incident as having been sexual assault. Interestingly, 84 percent of victims of unacknowledged rape engage in one or two forms of resistance, such as verbal reasoning, or physical struggling. However, the enactment and violation of the resistance are later re-conceptualized as “miscommunication”.


The data also contains clues about why victims may conceptualize the event as something other than a crime. Those who acknowledged their rapes were more likely to disclose the event to a higher number of people, but also reported receiving more negative feedback from those people compared to victims who did not acknowledge their rapes. Both types of victims experienced similar negative internal states following the attacks, with acknowledged victims experiencing slightly more intense symptoms of PTSD, possibly due to the fact that acknowledged rapes tend to be more violent.

 

Unacknowledged rapes do not remain constant over time—it is likely that low initial acknowledgement rates are related to victims needing time to process the event in order to understand what happened to them. While only 25% of victims who had been raped within a six-month time period acknowledged their rape, 70.5% of rape victims whose rape occurred over three years ago acknowledged what happened to them. Unfortunately, this timeline can make prosecution difficult, as much physical evidence must be collected immediately following the assault.

 

The reasons for unacknowledged rapes are complex. Some studies point to hetero-patriarchal sexual script-building and maintenance during adolescence as important factors. Young girls and women conceptualize male sexual aggression as being a normal part of everyday life and do not consider minor or even major acts of physical aggression as anything other than “just how boys are.” Additionally, girls and women are often taught to police each other’s sexuality as a way to maintain their own moral reputations. That is, they commonly learn that women are meant to be gatekeepers of sex, and that outside perceptions of how hard a woman has “fought off” unwanted sex is tied to her perceived complicity in sexual assault. Therefore, acknowledging a rape opens the victim up to a barrage of scrutiny.

 

Importantly, the study also discusses the low rate of reporting and the minimization of sexual violence as being related to the victim’s perception of the enforcing institution as an extension of the patriarchal apparatus. Enforcing institutions are part of the same culture that gives rise to sexual violence, and are additionally imbued with institutional or legal power. Girls and women may therefore be wary of the forensic interview setting as being hostile to their sexuality, sense of agency, or their decision to use alcohol or drugs. As a result, women may dismiss or play down instances of sexual violence as a way to build rapport and maintain their own credibility in the face of biased reception.

 

Unacknowledged rapes carry with them the threat of future victimization, and that can be costly to both the victim as well as the community. However, denial may also serve an environmentally protective role for the victim when their social context makes it costly to be a victim. It is therefore vitally important for educational institutions to not only ensure that students are aware of reporting policies and practices, but that the social context in which reporting is carried out is one in which victims will feel that they will be supported and believed.

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The Dangers of Projecting Expectations onto Victims of Sexual Assault
Posted by On Friday, March 11, 2016

On an episode entitled “Anatomy of Doubt” producers of the NPR radio show This American Life teamed up with The Marshall Project and ProPublica to present a story of what can happen when well-meaning people make erroneous assumptions about how victims of sexual assault ought to behave after an attack. The episode recalls the experience of a young woman named Marie who was brutally raped in her home by an intruder. After the attack, Marie called her former foster parents and the police for help. Even though the police found and collected physical evidence of the assault at the scene, Marie’s detached and “flirtatious” behavior caused even those people closest to her to question her truthfulness. This ignited a cascade of doubt and disbelief that erupted into a second trauma for Marie and nearly landed her in jail.

The neurobiology of trauma involves a number of self-protective mechanisms that can produce disruptions in memory and emotional expression in the victim. The amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for processing fear, interferes with memory consolidation when it is hyper-activated. This may account for lapses in memory or problems with recall in a victim of sexual violence. The body also produces opioids in response to trauma as a way to minimize pain—these endogenous opioids behave similarly to opiates like heroin, and can flatten affect and have adverse effects on memory consolidation. These effects are particularly prevalent for individuals like Marie who have been exposed to trauma during childhood. While complying with the Campus SaVE Act can help educate students on these matters, it is also vitally important for the general public to be aware of the possibility of such reactions in order to minimize incidents of re-traumatization.

The episode also highlights the way in which faulty interviewing techniques can coerce victims into retracting their statement. The police in charge of Marie’s case lacked experience in handling sexual assault cases and presumed that Marie was lying based solely on an inaccurate understanding of how traumatized people are supposed to behave. Their line of questioning was more befitting a suspect of a crime rather than a rape victim. By threatening Marie with the famously faulty polygraph test, they ensured her recantation. Recantations are usually counted as false reports, and those produced under coercive circumstances may therefore inflate the number of false reports. False rape reports are already disproportionately emphasized in the conversation around sexual assault reporting, and the social and legal consequences for reporters who have been determined to be lying are severe.

“Anatomy of Doubt” provides a compelling argument for believing victims. Victims of sexual violence can appear emotionless, carefree, or even cheerful directly following the attack. They may display flirtatious or sexual behavior toward responders, or giggle and laugh at unexpected times. None of these things alone should be taken as an indication that the victim is lying about having been assaulted.

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Race and Representation in Think About It
Posted by On Tuesday, September 29, 2015

CampusClarity strives to go beyond compliance to create widespread culture change.  We think that the laws, articles, and concepts presented in our courses are an important part of creating that change. We also understand that unconscious conditioning has a strong influence on each person’s decision-making, and instruction that singly addresses conscious choices doesn’t go far enough. Culturally transmitted conditioning tells us through a deluge of suggestive images that some people are inherently worth more than others because of their gender, the color of their skin, or their wealth, even though we know that this is not true.

Changing these assumptions requires, among other things, a massive overhaul of the kinds of visual messages that we create and consume. As a training company, this includes depicting non-white characters and narratives in ways that are complex, relatable, and un-caricatured. While on the face of it a straightforward idea, creating nuanced characters within the constraints of online training is not a simple task. Therefore, our student harm-reduction program Think About It is always a work in progress. We hope to improve our stories with every iteration by listening to the valuable input from our users. Some considerations we keep in mind when writing our courses include empathy, race perception, and othering.

Inducing empathy is a powerful tool for social change. It is important that students can empathize with the characters we present in our courses so that they can imagine themselves performing the modeled behavior. In his iconic book Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud puts forward the idea that as visual animals, we empathize better with characters that are drawn with less detail, so that we can project our own selves onto them more easily.

This idea has since been backed up by research, and is one of the reasons we have historically chosen to silhouette the characters in our courses. Silhouetting characters removes a great deal of detail about coloring, clothing, and even gender. But what does this choice mean in a culture in which the default identity is “white male,” and any deviation from that model is considered by many to be a “distracting” detail?

Our audience is diverse. College students from across the country use Think About It and have a reasonable expectation of seeing themselves represented in our courses. Campus Clarity is further dedicated to multifaceted representations of people of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. Our writers and illustrators spend a lot of time thinking about the ways to accurately reflect our audience without devolving into tokenization. After all, race and ethnicity reach far beyond just the way someone looks, and extends into culture, lifestyle, and values. For example, not all authority figures are white males, and we hope our courses reflect this reality.

However, we must balance the desire for complexity with the desire to minimize character specificity. When we made the decision to silhouette our characters in pale blue, an unfortunate side effect was the erasure of diverse sociocultural markers. This in turn made all the characters appear ethnically white to some users, when in reality many of the models and voice actors we employed were non-white. This feedback from our users prompted our development team to take a deeper look at the way formal design elements affect our learning goals. In the graduate version of the course, the characters are silhouetted in dark gray, and this issue has been largely eliminated.

Another way we tried to indicate a character’s ethnicity is by directly stating it in the course. This was noted and appreciated by many users. However, due to the aforementioned “white default mode”, this also had the effect of only pointing out when a character’s identity has veered from the “norm,” effectively othering the character and reducing empathy in the user. We plan to address these and other issues in the upcoming version of Think About It.

The vast range of opinions we receive on our courses highlight that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach when discussing sensitive topics. However, it is clear that there is a general consensus about the right direction to move in, and that an inclusive outlook provides the forward momentum for online courses to have maximum impact.

 

 

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Emerging Practices: Trigger Warnings
Posted by On Friday, June 5, 2015

Trigger warnings began as a niche internet convention that is now becoming increasingly more political and institutionalized. A decision to use or not use them should be based in the ethical and medical realities for survivors of trauma and not in a reactionary resistance to change.

Heightened awareness of the ways in which sexual violence affects academic achievement has prompted discussion of new academic practices.  In an effort to reduce re-traumatization of individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other panic disorders, some student groups have encouraged professors to use trigger warnings for potentially disturbing content.

The concept of trigger warnings is not new. Numerous cultural products from movies to video games are coded with content warnings. However, in a digital moment that is still trying to carve out its linguistic norms, trigger warnings have become a symbol of what its critics call a culture of oversensitivity.

In order for someone or something to be overly sensitive, there must be a consensus about how much sensitivity is normal or reasonable. As the voices of sexual violence survivors become stronger, the standards for how we talk about trauma also begin to change. Considering the significant number of people who have been sexually assaulted, and the significant subset of those people who suffer from PTSD, the decision to employ trigger warnings is an acknowledgement that it is more psychologically costly for victims to discuss sexual violence and other traumas. Trigger warnings suggest that if we can collectively take small steps to prevent re-traumatization, then we should do so.

There may be evidence-based reasons to choose not to employ trigger warnings. One review found that avoiding triggers only reinforces PTSD, and that systematic exposure to triggers is the most effective way to reduce symptoms of PTSD. Although it can be argued that trigger warnings actually allow PTSD patients to develop this system on their own, the warnings may also enable long-term avoidance. Another study found that survivors whose trauma becomes central to their self-image tend to experience more severe symptoms of PTSD. The desire to honor the agency of survivors of sexual violence should be weighed against these findings.

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What’s the Deal with Rape Jokes?
Posted by On Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Several times a year the media reacts to a prominent comedian making a rape joke that trivializes the crime, or worse, blames the victim. Public defenses for such jokes range from “it’s just comedy” to “dark humor releases pain.” The latter may be a legitimate defense in certain cases when the joke critiques the power structure instead of the victim. Unfortunately, these stories rarely provoke a productive discussion around these issues.

But when a story turns the idea of a rape joke on its head and forces the listener to confront an otherwise hidden element that perpetuates rape culture, it is no longer just a joke but an act of social justice.

This sharp and moving monologue by comedic writer and performer Andrew Bailey is the kind of rape “joke” that affirms instead of belittles the experiences of survivors. By interweaving the concept of rape jokes, the brittle demands of masculinity, and the pain of being a survivor, Bailey asks the viewer to consider how humor actually functions when it speaks about trauma. Does it bring together survivors of the trauma and allow for cathartic recognition, or does it provide a cartoonish shield for passive bystanders to hide behind?

Bailey’s performance is particularly important in that it sheds light on why so many male survivors of sexual assault are unwilling, and many times unable, to come forward. In a traditional masculine culture it is not only a sign of weakness for a man to report being an assault victim, but considered an improbable crime because sexual activity – even if it’s an assault committed by a teacher against her 13-year-old student – raises the victim’s social stature.

When the media characterizes female-on-male violence as funny, it manages to dehumanize both women and men alike. It paints female anger as impotent by portraying men as the hapless recipients of irrational female rage. Much like slapstick, it’s supposed to be funny because women can’t actually harm men. This understanding of power as a simplified binary erases the intersectional considerations of class, race, sex, age, ability, and various other differentiators that can be leveraged in a given interaction to create sexual coercion.

 

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