Research Blog

Research Blog

The Office for the Advancement of Research, as part of our Public Scholarship Initiative, actively solicits blog entries from John Jay faculty, staff, and external scholars working on issues of key contemporary and historical significance. We promote these entries on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as within the university through a partnership with our Marketing and Development Office. If you wish to contribute an entry, please contact Director of Research Operations Daniel Stageman at with a brief (1-2 sentence) summary of your proposed entry.

Our three most recent blog posts are posted below, to see older posts please visit here

Dominance Status Affects the Transmission of Fear

Ahead of his scheduled November 15 book talk on "Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals," our latest blog entry comes from Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay's Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on his "The Human Evolution Blog." 

By:  Nathan Lents, 10/19/16

Fear is a powerful motivator. It's also a very interesting social behavior. Fear is a psychological tool that animal species use as a mechanism for avoidance.

Fear is one of our most basic emotions and is processed by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Animals, including humans, can have genetic predispositions toward fearing certain things. This has great adaptive value. For example, as I've written about previously, many prey animals are naturally fearful of their predators. Mice don't have to learn to avoid snakes and cats; they are born fearing them. Many nocturnal animals have photophobia, which helps them stay out of moonlight and avoid being spotted. Inborn fears reveal past natural selection because animals that are naturally afraid of their main predators will be more likely to survive and pass on that genetically encoded fear.

Fear can also be learned. During times of danger, alarm, or even stress, our amygdala activates the fear response. This serves to train us to fear that danger when we see it again and thus avoid it. If you were mauled by a dog when you were young, you have a good chance of being fearful of dogs the rest of your life. Repeated exposure to dogs may not even help because, often, exposure simply boots up the fear program again, which could actually reinforce, rather than diminish, the fear.

One cool aspect of fear is that it can be learned vicariously by humans and other animals. That is to say, social animals can learn to fear some dangers simply by observing others experience the danger and without having to experience it first-hand. This is powerfully adaptive for the obvious reason that it reduces exposure to danger even without a priming event. 

While vicarious learning of fear in nonhuman animals may have sounded far-fetched in previous decades, researchers on animal emotion and cognition have found that social mammals experience empathy and animal contagion. Animals are keenly aware of the emotional state of their fellow conspecifics, so it's only natural that they would notice, and learn from, another animal in fear, pain, or danger.

The first rigorous scientific study of vicarious fear training in animals was published in 1984 by Susan Mineka and colleagues. In that groundbreaking study, Professor Mineka showed that juvenile rhesus monkeys learn to fear snakes not necessarily through their own dangerous exposure but by observing their parents behaving fearfully around them. In other words, the fear of snakes in monkeys can be a function of social learning. Since that now-classic study, vicarious fear training has been observed in a variety of social animals and has been used to probe genetic fear dispositions, empathy, neurodiversity, and many other social and evolutionary phenomena.

Researchers Carolyn Jones and Marie Monfils of the University of Texas recently discovered that vicarious fear learning in rats depends on dominance relationships.

To do this study, Jones employed a clever spin on a common experimental design. Before doing any fear training, she placed three rats in a cage and let them live and play together from the time of weaning until the experiment was done, 12-14 weeks later. This way, she could observe and document the social relationships that formed. As she told me, "Rats are very commonly used in behavioral studies, [but] usually we just order however many rats are necessary for the experiment, put them in a cage together, run the experiment after an allotted 'acclimation' period, and that's it." By letting the rats bond first, she could ask if dominance status mattered in the second-hand learning of fear.

Rats are very playful and social animals. They also exhibit dominance-based social ranking in their relationships. After watching each rat triad carefully for three weeks, Jones noted that one rat established himself as the dominant rat (D), another as submissive-1 (S1), and the third as the submissive-2 (S2). S1 is defined as the preferred target of the D rat, while S2 is the least involved in play behaviors, tending to avoid the D rat's play invitations.

(All rats in this study were male to avoid the formation of reproduction-based relationships. Female rats were used in a different study on fear transmission by this group. The assignment of rats to these different social ranks was carried out according to established method involving video recordings of play behaviors and statistical analysis of dominant behaviors. For more detail, see the methods section of the paper.)

Once the social rankings were established, Jones selected one member of the triad to be the subject of fear conditioning involving the emission of a 20-second tone followed by a mild electric shock to the feet. This rat would quickly learn to fear the tone and so this rat is called the fear-conditioned (FC) rat.

The next day, Jones placed the FC rat together with one of the other rats, and then played the tone, this time without a shock. The FC rat became fearful upon hearing the tone and then second rat did (or did not) pick up this fear from the first one, without any shocks being delivered. This rat was then called fear-conditioned-by-proxy (FCbP).

On the third day, all three rats were put together again, the third rat not having been trained to fear the tone either with shocks or by-proxy, so was called "No FC." Tones were played again and the fear responses were measured. In these experiments, fear was measured as "freezing behavior." The experiments were run in all possible combinations of dominant and submissive rats playing the role of the FC, FCbP, and No FC. With six replicates for each type of triad and 96 rats in total, robust statistical analyses were possible.

The results were both surprising and clear. The S1 rats (the submissive rats that were the preferred target of the dominant rats) were able to become fear-conditioned by-proxy regardless of whether they took their training from the D rat or the S2 rat. The S2 rats, however, would only learn fear from the D rats, not the S1 rats. Further still, the D rats did not become fear-conditioned by-proxy from either the S1 or S2 rats. In other words, dominant rats would never learn fear from submissive rats; the play-avoidant submissive rats would only learn from the dominant rats; and the playful submissive rats would learn from both superiors and other submissives.

Jones then went on to study the vocalizations that took place during the fear-condition by-proxy attempts, as a means to possibly explain why fear-learning takes place in some combinations and not in others. She focused on low-frequency calls that rats sometimes make that correspond to negative emotions, including fear. Aside from big mouse-to-mouse differences with most mice not vocalizing at all, Jones found that the low-frequency vocalizations, when they did occur, correlated well with the learning of fear by-proxy. this is, some of the rats that learned to fear the warning tones may have done so because the FC rats were giving a warning to them.

The use of warning calls to signal the danger may provide the explanation for the fear-condition because it makes sense that rats would call out danger to warn those they have social alliances with while being less likely to warn animals they are indifferent to. As Jones told me, "the fear-conditioned demonstrators were more likely to emit alarm vocalizations if they had, for lack of a better word, a 'friendly' relationship with the observer rat." Rats, it seems, look out for their friends.

The study goes on the explore serum corticosterone levels, expression of c-FOS in two different areas of the rats' brains, and other mechanistic items of interest to those who specialize in the neuroscience of fear. The main take-away from this study is that rats, like humans, experience their world through the lens of social contact. Those of high social rank are more influential on others, while being less likely to be influenced by others. Those of lower social rank, on the other hand, have their own advantage: by paying attention to both superiors and other subordinates, they are able to learn from all of members of the group equally.

FDR famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But when it comes to learning from others, evolution has seen things differently.

Immigrants in the Triangle: Local Enforcement, Institutional Neglect, and For-Profit Detention

Our latest blog entry comes from Dan Stageman, Director of Research Operations in the Office for the Advancement of Research at John Jay College. 

By: Dan Stageman, 8/22/16

Late last week the criminal justice blogosphere was abuzz with attempts to process the latest bit of good news dropped into the national conversation around mass incarceration. On August 18th, the United States Department of Justice announced its intention to end the federal Bureau of Prison’s fourteen contracts with private/for-profit prison providers, citing as cause its own August 2016 investigation into the safety and security of these contract facilities. The report was, to put it mildly, damning:

We found that in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions. […] For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones […] had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff […] serious or systemic deficiencies such as failure to initiate discipline in over 50 percent of incidents […] were improperly housing new inmates in Special Housing Units [i.e. solitary confinement][etc.] (p. ii)

While I of course ‘cherry-picked’ this litany of deficiencies from the DOJ report’s executive summary, they represent a fairly neutered echo of the similar findings that advocacy organizations – from the ACLU, to Human Rights Watch, Detention Watch Network to The Sentencing Project – have presented to the public and the federal government for ten-plus years to little effect.

It is a meaningful victory, for these organizations and the very real people whose interests they represent, that someone in the federal government finally decided to listen to their recommendations – and more importantly, to act on them decisively. It is a victory that will result in a measurable improvement in quality of life for thousands of prisoners and their families. It should not, however, be mistaken for a solution to the problem of for-profit/private prisons. To be fair, most of the media coverage of the DOJ announcement that I have reviewed has been appropriately circumspect. The Guardian’s Jon Swaine and his co-authors, for example, note that the BOP’s for-profit contract facilities “almost exclusively incarcerate low-risk inmates convicted of immigration offenses […] around 22,000 people at an annual cost of $600m.” This is about ten percent of the BOP’s total inmate population.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report linked above, it is also about 17% of the total population of US prisoners held in private/for-profit facilities – a proportion that might help to explain the precipitous drops in stock value experienced by the two largest publicly traded US private prison operators on the day of the DOJ’s announcement. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) lost 52% of its share value; GEO Group lost 45%. The third largest operator, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), is privately held, so we can only speculate that it lost a similar proportion of its market value. All three companies are unsurprisingly putting on a brave public face in the wake of the announcement: CCA touts its “keen observ[ation] of the BOP’s declining inmate population over the last three years”, implying the decision is less important than the market has made it out to be; GEO Group focuses its terse statement on its “efforts to provide industry-leading offender rehabilitation programs and reentry services”; MTC takes direct issue with the findings of the DOJ report, trumpeting in the title of its response that “Contract Prisons Provide Great Value to Corrections.”

Do these for-profit prison corporations indeed have reason to remain optimistic about an apparently shrinking market? Both CCA’s and GEO Group’s stock prices rebounded significantly on Friday from their precipitous Thursday lows, while remaining well below their previous averages. The answer, however, may lie less in watching the reactions of the market than in the clues we can glean from two less widely-reported recent news stories. The first is a two-week old investigation from the Guardian’s Renee Feltz on (and watch out here for flying acronyms) the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) successor program to Secure Communities (SComm), the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). The second is from the Guardian’s chief reporter Ed Pilkington: an exposé of detention conditions in border facilities operated by ICE’s sister-agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

A lot of folks have a working knowledge – accompanied by an appropriate degree of moral outrage – of what private/for-profit prisons are, what mass incarceration is, what is generally wrong with the criminal justice system. A lot fewer folks, in my experience, have a parallel knowledge of the immigrant detention system: the shortlist of people who I can talk to about Secure Communities without supplying a detailed explanation seems to be limited primarily to other academic researchers and advocates in the field. Most people register surprise when I tell them that a quarter of CCA’s 2015 revenue in 2015 came from immigrant detention – specifically, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or that GEO Group’s revenue breakdowns are similar. Immigrant detention remains, for a variety of reasons, a uniquely profitable segment of the private corrections industry. The DOJ’s recent announcement will do nothing to reduce that.

Corrections Corporation of America revenue breakdowns, 2013-15. Source: CCA 2015 Annual Report.

What should have reduced the profitability of immigrant detention was the transition from the SComm to PEP. SComm has been described by Stanford researcher Juan M. Pedroza as a “water mill that collects removable aliens in successive buckets […] without pause across levels of priority” (Pedroza 2013, p.62) – an apt description of how the program operated for the most part indiscriminately. Secure Communities, in place from 2008 through its discontinuation in 2014, used the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system to allow ICE to surveil (at its peak) every arrest by a local law enforcement agency nationwide to determine whether the arrestee had any known immigration violations on her record. Any such violation, whether criminal or not – i.e. visa overstays, prior unauthorized entry, exclusions, etc. – would result in ICE issuing a ‘detainer’ to the arresting agency. A detainer is a request that the arresting agency hold the arrestee until ICE can take her into custody – whether the arrest results in criminal charges or not.

SComm came under criticism because of the frequency with which it led to the eventual deportation of individuals with no criminal records or very minor ones (such as status offenses like loitering, or traffic offenses like broken taillights) – some 178 thousand, or nearly half, of the 375 thousand deportations attributed to the program throughout seven years of its existence. PEP was intended to solve this very problem, ostensibly restricting detainer requests to arrestees who had been “convicted of an offense listed under the DHS civil immigration priorities, […] intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang to further the illegal activity of the gang, or poses a danger to national security”.

Except, according to Feltz’s review of data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead, “half of the so-called ‘holds’ were placed on people who had been arrested but actually had no criminal conviction.” In fact, the TRAC report indicates that some two-thirds of the detainer requests issued by ICE under the Priority Enforcement Program were for individuals with no criminal conviction or the lowest level of offense – a proportion exceeding the approximately 50% with similar offenses (or lack thereof) detained under Secure Communities. TRAC goes on to break down the detainers by crime type; after ‘No Criminal Conviction’, offenses like ‘Traffic Offense’ (5,310 detainers in 2014), ‘Public Order Crimes’ (1,425), ‘Disorderly Conduct’ (1,223) and ‘Drug Possession’ (2,004) feature prominently. Major crimes like ‘Homicide’ (603) and ‘Sex Assault’ (1,272) together represent about 1% of the total.

Numbers like these, in the context of an ostensibly reformed immigration enforcement program, illustrate the tenacity of ICE’s institutional orientation towards maximizing deportation – as well as the difficulty of calling the deportation regime to heel, after ten-plus years of increasing local control. It is the problem that John Jay political scientist and geographer Monica Varsanyi and her co-authors address in their recent book, Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines (U. Chicago Press, 2016):

Being found in the country without authorization is not currently a crime, but it is increasingly regarded as such because of the merging of law-enforcement responsibilities with immigration enforcement. […] The federal government has avoided critically examining how local law-enforcement agencies identify and process the suspected unauthorized immigrants they turn over to federal immigration authorities. (p.5-6)

The thousands of unauthorized immigrants detained under PEP are, like those detained under its predecessor SComm, originally arrested by local law enforcement agencies, under local policy and for local reasons. ICE, along with its sister agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), have in effect become bureaucratic middle-men between local law enforcement and private/for-profit prison corporations: facilitating apprehension over which they have minimal influence, and funding detention over which they exercise minimal oversight.

It is the latter issue that Ed Pilkington’s exposé of the CBP’s Tucson holding facility brings into sharp focus.

The several deeply disturbing image show immigrant detainees packed “like sardines in a tin” under emergency blankets in a filthy holding cell. Another shows another changing a baby’s diaper amid a pile of trash on a concrete floor.

It isn’t clear whether these facilities are privately owned or operated; CBP is more opaque than ICE in this regard, and in any case, detainees are unlikely to spend more than a few days in CBP holding facilities before being deported – in contrast to ICE facilities, where immigrants can spend years before their eventual deportation. What is clear, however, is that these immigrants have been snared by an institutional culture that regards them as less than human – treating them (if the above photos are any indication) as commodities to be processed. It may be that there is no profit to be made via CBP’s short-term detention of immigrants in holding cells, but there is certainly profit to be made in returning them to the southern side of the border: Security Firm G4S contracts with CBP to remove the immigrants on what it dubs (in its promotional literature) “The Bus No One Wants to Catch”. The Marshall Project’s recent exposé (by Eli Hager and Alysia Santo) on the private prisoner transport industry demonstrates pretty decisively how this moniker is earned.

Unauthorized immigrants, regardless of the symbolic importance of the DOJ’s decision on private prisons, will remain at the center of this deadly triangle: at one end an anti-immigrant local politics of enforcement; at another the dehumanizing institutional culture of two massive federal bureaucracies; and at the third, a constantly adapting market, twisting the human bodies of detainees into corporate profit. Well-meaning federal decrees cannot substitute for deep and abiding organizational reform, or binding legislative policy; indeed, it is entirely possible they could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, depending on the results November 8th. Advocates and researchers cannot afford to take a victory lap while for-profit prison corporations adapt, and immigrant detainees suffer.

You know that the behavior is harmful. Why can't you stop?

Our latest blog entry comes from Peggilee Wupperman, Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 7/30/2016 on her "Beyond Self-Destructive Behavior" Blog at Psychology Today.

You have promised yourself that you are not going to engage in any dysregulated behavior this evening.

You’ve told yourself that you absolutely, positively will NOT (pick one or more: have that drink, binge on that food, take those pills, engage in self-harm, place that bet, etcetera). And you are determined to keep that promise.

Then you get home.

You have not had a particularly bad day. You cannot pinpoint any specific reason why you are experiencing cravings and/or urges that feel intolerable. And yet, suddenly all you can think about is that drink/food/pills/harm/bet/etc.

Your situation is not uncommon.

It can be easy to judge yourself in such circumstances. It can also be easy for other people to judge someone who says she/he is going to stop a dysregulated behavior – but then does not do so.

The following is a paraphrased analogy told by a woman who was working to stop drinking; however, it is also relevant to the cravings and urges often experienced when stopping any dysregulated behavior.

People who have never felt controlled by a dysregulated behavior often don’t understand why the behavior can feel so impossible to stop. So let me tell you what the cravings and urges feel like:

Imagine that you have not had any food or beverage except water for more than two days, and you feel famished. At some point, imagine that a person sets up a large buffet in the living room of your home. (This is an analogy; it does not have to make sense.) The buffet contains all of your favorite foods, and the scent of the food is overwhelming.

The person tells you that guests will be arriving to eat the food in a few hours, and you are not supposed to eat or even touch the food – since it is not yours. You agree that you will not eat any of the food.

Then the person leaves. You will be alone with the food for several hours. And you have not had anything to eat for more than two days.

At first, you might try to focus on other things – perhaps watch TV, surf the web, catch up on paperwork from the office, or talk to friends/family. However, you will likely have difficulty focusing on anything other than your intense hunger and the smell of the food.

Eventually, your cravings and urges will likely become so strong that you find it impossible to think about anything else. The urge to eat the food will seem like a powerful force that is almost controlling you. Over time, resisting your cravings/urges for even a few more minutes may feel utterly intolerable.   

That is what cravings and urges feel like when I try to stop my dsyregulated behavior.

Of course, the above story does not fit exactly with all behaviors. However, the intensity and intolerability of the cravings and/or urges do fit what many people feel when working to stop dysregulated behaviors.  

Why is the intensity so strong? Earlier posts have discussed why some people find dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist. (For the basics, click here. For more details, click here, here, here, and here.) However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about cause. Instead, the purpose is to:

  • decrease judgement, and
  • increase understanding of what cravings and urges can feel like to someone who is in the midst of them.

The above analogy explains why distraction and good ol’ fashioned willpower will often only work for a short time. Methods do exist to help cravings and urges become more tolerable – and eventually help you feel that you are no longer controlled by cravings and urges. Most of those methods often require some form of empirically supported therapy. More details on finding such therapy will be provided in future posts.

Until then, please remember:

  • Before you judge someone who struggles with dysregulated behavior, take a moment to consider that the person's cravings and urges may feel more intolerable than you can even imagine.
  • Before judging yourself for struggling with cravings and urges, take a moment to remind yourself that your experiences are more common than you may realize.

Why the Veepstakes matters less than you are told and more than you realize

Our latest blog entry comes from Heath Brown, Assistant Professor of Public Management at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 7/17/2016 at The New West (the official blog of the Western Political Science Association).

Blog entry by: Heath Brown, 7/18/2016

It is Veepstakes time again and all eyes are on the choices Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are making. Much media attention has been drawn to the possibility that the vice presidential picks will help win a key swing state in November, serve as an “attack dog” on the campaign trail, or sparkle in a future debate. While this is all possible, and negative media coverage may deter some candidates, especially women, from seeking the post, there seems to be little evidence that it ultimately matters that much for the election. (See Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devine’s Politico piece from April on this, and also Boris Heersink and Brenton Peterson’s Monkey Cage blog piece that suggests small VP effects).

Probably of more importance, Dave Hopkins argues convincingly on his blog, is that VP choices matter because of “the window that they provide into the presidential candidates who select them.” Donald Trump’s much anticipated, but ultimately delayed VP announcement, probably says something about his style of deliberation over difficult decisions.

Another reason to pay attention to the vice presidential choices are the role the person plays in presidential transition planning and early governance of the administration. Gone are the days when the vice president was referred to as “his superfluous Excellency” as one snarky Senator referred to Vice President John Adams.

In his new book, The White House Vice President: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (University Press of Kansas), Joel K. Goldstein shows how since 1976 the vice presidency has been on the rise. No longer are the responsibilities of the office what Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President surmised: “to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of the health of the president.”

Instead, vice presidents have taken on major responsibilities for assuring the success of the president, and that has commenced during the transition period. Carter announced immediately after the election that Mondale would work closely with him on selecting high-ranking administration officials and that he would consult with Mondale on program initiatives. Mondale is given particular credit for persuading Carter to choose Joseph Califano to head Housing, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and Robert Bergland as Secretary of Agriculture. Vice presidents-elect had never before held such sway during the transition period.

Mondale’s legacy has not been forgotten. Twenty-five years later, Dick Cheney, who was famously involved in his own selection, went on to direct the Bush presidential transition team. Goldstein suggests that some of Cheney’s eventual power in the White House, especially in the first-term, derived from his opportunity to “place allies in important positions” during the transition period.

Much remains the same today, and it seems likely that the eventual winner of this fall’s election will have relied on their running mate, as much for helping to secure votes, as for their work planning for the transition to power. Presidential transitions may officially begin after Election Day, but (as I wrote about on this blog in June), in reality they begin long before. Already, Trump has named Governor Chris Christie to begin his transition planning, and Clinton likely has a large transition team at work as well. I suspect their choice of running mate will join in that pre-election transition planning, helping to vet potential cabinet nominees, develop policy proposals, and figure out what the organization of new White House will look like.

While much of this planning will occur in private, out of the eye of the voting public and under-reported by the media, it lays the ground-work for governance. For this reason, while we may not be able to observe it now, the soundness of the vice presidential picks will be later judged in the effectiveness of our next president and the sound functioning of the future White House.


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