Why do we act this way? So­cial sci­ence has an­swers

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Brooks writes for The New York Times.


come and go, but so­cial sci­ence marches on. Here are some re­cent re­search find­ings that struck my fancy.

Or­ganic foods may make you less gen­er­ous: In a study pub­lished in So­cial Psychology and Per­son­al­ity Sci­ence, Ken­dall J. Esk­ine had peo­ple look at or­ganic foods, com­fort foods or a group of con­trol foods. Those who viewed or­ganic foods sub­se­quently vol­un­teered less time to help a needy stranger and they judged mo­ral trans­gres­sions more harshly.

Men are dumber around women: Thijs Ver­wi­jmeren, Vera Rommeswinkel and Jo­han C. Kar­re­mans gave men cog­ni­tive tests af­ter they had in­ter­acted with a woman via com­puter. In the study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal So­cial Psychology, the male cog­ni­tive per­for­mance de­clined af­ter the in­ter­ac­tion, or even af­ter the men merely an­tic­i­pated an in­ter­ac­tion with a woman.

Women in­hibit their own per­for­mance: In a study pub­lished in Self and Iden­tity, Shen Zhang, Toni Sch­mader and Wil­liam M. Hall gave women a se­ries of math tests. On some tests they signed their real name, on oth­ers they signed a fic­ti­tious name. The women scored bet­ter on the fic­ti­tious name tests, when their own rep­u­ta­tion was not at risk.

High un­em­ploy­ment rates may not hurt Demo­cratic in­cum­bents as much: In the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence Re­view, John R. Wright looked at 175 midterm gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions and four pres­i­den­tial elec­tions be­tween 1994 and 2010. Other things be­ing equal, high un­em­ploy­ment rates ben­e­fit the Demo­cratic Party. The ef­fect is high­est when Repub­li­cans are the in­cum­bents, but even when the in­cum­bent is a Demo­crat, high un­em­ploy­ment rates still ben­e­fit Demo­cratic can­di­dates.

Peo­ple fil­ter lan­guage through their fin­gers: In a study pub­lished in the Psy­cho­nomic Bul­letin & Re­view, Kyle Jas­min and Daniel Casasanto asked peo­ple to rate real words, fic­ti­tious words and ne­ol­o­gisms. Words com­posed of let­ters on the right side of the QWERTY key­board were viewed more pos­i­tively than words com­posed of let­ters from the left side.

We com­mu­ni­cate, process and feel emo­tions by mim­ick­ing the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of the peo­ple around us: For a study in Ba­sic and Ap­plied So­cial Psychology, Paula M. Nieden­thal, Maria Au­gusti­nova and oth­ers stud­ied young adults who had used paci­fiers as ba­bies, and who thus could not mimic as eas­ily. They found that paci­fier use cor­re­lated with less emo­tional in­tel­li­gence in males, though it did not pre­dict emo­tional pro­cess­ing skills in girls.

Judges are tough­est around elec­tion time: Judges in Washington state are elected and re-elected into of­fice. In a study for The Re­view of Eco­nomic Statis­tics, Car­los Berdejo and Noam Yucht­man found that th­ese judges is­sue sen­tences that are 10 per­cent longer at their end of the po­lit­i­cal cy­cle than at the be­gin­ning.

New fa­thers pay less: In a study for the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Sci­ence Quar­terly, Michael Dahl, Cris­tian Dezso and David Gad­dis Ross stud­ied male Dan­ish CEOs be­fore and af­ter their wives gave birth to chil­dren. They found that male CEOs gen­er­ally pay their em­ploy­ees less gen­er­ously af­ter fa­ther­ing a child. The ef­fect is stronger af­ter a son is born. CEOs also tend to pay them­selves more af­ter the birth of a child.

Neigh­bor­hoods chal­lenge men­tal equi­lib­rium: In a study for the Jour­nal of Re­search on Ado­les­cence, Terese J. Lund and Eric Dear­ing found that boys had higher lev­els of delin­quency and girls had higher lev­els of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion when they lived in af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hoods com­pared with mid­dle­class neigh­bor­hoods.

Pre­mar­i­tal doubts are sig­nif­i­cant: In a Jour­nal of Fam­ily Psychology study, Justin Lavner, Ben­jamin Kar­ney and Thomas Brad­bury found that women who had cold feet be­fore mar­riage had sig­nif­i­cantly higher di­vorce rates four years later. Male pre­mar­i­tal doubts did not cor­re­late with more di­vorce.

Women use red to im­press men: In a study for the Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal So­cial Psychology, An­drew El­liot, To­bias Gre­it­e­meyer and Adam Pazda found that women ex­pect­ing to con­verse with an at­trac­tive man were more likely to se­lect a red vs. green shirt than women ex­pect­ing to con­verse with an unattrac­tive man or an­other woman.

It’s al­ways worth em­pha­siz­ing that no one study is dis­pos­i­tive. Many, many stud­ies do not repli­cate. Still, th­ese sorts of stud­ies do re­mind us that we are in­flu­enced by a thou­sand breezes per­me­at­ing the un­con­scious lay­ers of our minds. They re­mind us of the power of so­cial con­text. They’re also nice con­ver­sa­tion starters. If you find this sort of thing in­ter­est­ing, you really should check out Kevin Lewis’ blog at Na­tional Af­fairs. He pro­vides links to hun­dreds of aca­demic stud­ies a year, from which th­ese se­lec­tions have been drawn.

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