Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

Why babeness sells T-shirts; even jocks deal with low self-esteem; and do scars make you hot?

By Kevin Lewis
December 7, 2008
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Why babeness sells T-shirts

CALL IT THE Abercrombie & Fitch effect. In several experiments, researchers asked college students to go into a store and ask a sales associate for a specific kind of T-shirt. The sales associate was actually in cahoots with the researchers, and she told the student that there was only one shirt left and that someone was trying it on in the dressing room. Meanwhile, the person in the dressing room was also in cahoots with the researchers and was either a highly attractive, made-up model or an average-looking, average-dressed student. The person in the dressing room then exited, leaving the shirt behind for the student to try on. Students (especially males) later gave the T-shirt a higher rating when they saw it with the model. To test the nature of this effect, the researchers ran another experiment. A sales associate told the student that the store required its employees to wear store merchandise, and that she had worn the shirt the day before. The student was then presented with the shirt, either in a dry-cleaning bag, or simply on a hanger, as if it had not been cleaned. If the sales associate was average looking, the students preferred the dry-cleaned shirt; if the associate was attractive, they preferred the non-cleaned shirt. If anything, this suggests that Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't go far enough - they should have all their clothes pre-worn by attractive people!

Argo, J. et al., "Positive Consumer Contagion: Responses to Attractive Others in a Retail Context," Journal of Marketing Research (December 2008).

Even jocks deal with low self-esteem

RESEARCH HAS SHOWN that stereotypes can impact performance. A study out of Wesleyan University considers whether this effect applies to the intellectual performance of college athletes. Seventy-two male athletes (who didn't know that only athletes were included) were asked to take a 20-question multiple-choice math test. Attached to the front of the test for half the athletes was a piece of paper asking whether they played a sport and, if so, whether they thought they would have gotten into the college without athletic recruiting. Athletes who first had to answer the athletic questions averaged two fewer correct answers on the test, suggesting that activation of the "dumb jock" stereotype significantly depressed their intellectual performance.

Jameson, M. et al., "Stereotype Threat Impacts College Athletes' Academic Performance," Current Research in Social Psychology (January 2007).

Healing with trauma

WHILE POLICY WONKS debate how to deliver high-quality healthcare without skyrocketing costs, here's one opportunity for some cheap, evidence-based medicine. In a recent study, 36 men were asked to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. Half the men had to write about their deepest emotions related to a traumatic experience, and the other half had to write about time management. Several weeks later, all the men were given a standard skin biopsy wound. After another couple weeks, the men who had written about the traumatic experience were healing significantly better. It's believed that writing about a traumatic experience has a latent emotional impact that benefits the immune system.

Weinman, J. et al., "Enhanced Wound Healing after Emotional Disclosure Intervention," British Journal of Health Psychology (February 2008).

Do scars make you hot?

ARE HARRISON FORD and Tina Fey more or less attractive because they have facial scars? Researchers in Britain wanted to find out whether facial scars affect one's attractiveness to the opposite sex. They showed some people a variety of faces with scars, and they showed other people the same faces rendered without scars. Men with scars were rated more attractive, but mainly for short-term relationships. Scars had no impact on a woman's attractiveness. Because people tended to attribute scars on men to violence, the scars appear to be acting as signals of masculinity.

Burriss, R. et al., "Facial Scarring Enhances Men's Attractiveness for Short-Term Relationships," Personality and Individual Differences (forthcoming).

Rethinking the mortgage problem

ACCORDING TO THE President's Working Group on Financial Markets in March 2008, the chaos in the financial markets "was triggered by a dramatic weakening of underwriting standards for US subprime mortgages, beginning in late 2004, and extending into early 2007." Not so, say two economists from AIG and the Federal Reserve. Sure, low-documentation loans became more common, and down payments became smaller. However, lenders appear to have compensated for the extra risk by requiring higher credit scores, which do a good job of predicting default. In fact, the authors find that "if loans underwritten in 2005 (or 2006 or 2007) were originated in 2001 or 2002, then they would have performed significantly better on average than loans underwritten in 2001 or 2002. In light of this evidence, it is unclear how a deterioration in underwriting standards can be the dominant explanation of default and delinquency in the subprime market. Of course, our analysis does not rule out the hypothesis that underwriting standards in this market were probably poor to begin with."

Bhardwaj, G. & Sengupta, R., "Where's the Smoking Gun? A Study of Underwriting Standards for US Subprime Mortgages," Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (October 2008).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at

(Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe)
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