Uncommon Knowledge

The power of downtime

The peaceful effect of boys; and the new brain-booster: video games

(Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe)
By Kevin Lewis
March 15, 2009
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AT SOME POINT in your life, you may have been advised to "sleep on it," to take a break from what you're doing, because you may be losing perspective. Indeed, tales of such breaks (termed "incubation" in the psychology literature) are common in the mythology of insight. Despite a decent amount of research on the subject, however, there has not been a clear verdict. Two British psychologists recently published a systematic review of this research, and it confirms the value of incubation, particularly for creative problem-solving. Taking a break, especially after spending a long time thinking about something, can broaden or shift the thinker's perspective. Much of this process does appear to operate subconsciously, as previous thoughts are forgotten and new ones are assimilated.

Sio, U. & Ormerod, T., "Does Incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta-Analytic Review," Psychological Bulletin (January 2009).

The peaceful effect of boys

ON AT LEAST one fundamental issue, where you stand still depends on where you sit. A new study finds that the gender of one's children affects one's view of foreign policy. Households with more boys were more likely to think that the United States should not intervene in other parts of the world and should use diplomacy over military force. Such households were also less likely to think that the Iraq war was worth the cost. It seems that families with boys take into account the prospect that their sons could eventually be drafted. While both mothers and fathers are affected by this concern, the evidence suggests that it's actually the fathers whose foreign policy views become less aggressive if they have boys instead of girls.

Urbatsch, R., "Interdependent Preferences, Militarism, and Child Gender," International Studies Quarterly (March 2009).

Term limits backfire

MANY JURISDICTIONS HAVE instituted term limits in an effort to rein in the advantage that accrues to incumbent politicians. The basic idea is that term limits will increase political competition, making politicians more accountable to the voters. But a new analysis, drawing on the experience of Maine and Florida, suggests term limits may have the opposite effect. In both states, where eight-year limits were enacted in the early '90s, competition increased temporarily when the term limits took effect but then declined significantly. The authors theorize that term limits change the calculus for potential challengers. Incumbents who can keep running for reelection compel challengers to make a play at the earliest opportunity, but, with term limits, challengers can simply wait to run in the easier-to-win open election at the end of the incumbent's term limit. Meanwhile, instead of exiting the political system, many termed-out legislators capitalize on their name recognition and fund-raising network to capture other state or local offices, making it even harder for new candidates to enter the system.

Prier, E. & Wagner, K., "Running Unopposed: Assessing the Impact of Term Limits on Competition in Florida and Maine," Politics & Policy (February 2009).

The new brain-booster: video games

INSTEAD OF WORRYING about how much time the younger generation spends playing computer games, maybe the older generation should worry about how little time it spends playing computer games. In a recent study, a team of researchers recruited older adults and asked half of them to regularly play a real-time strategy game for several weeks. After accumulating about 24 hours of game time, players performed significantly better on cognitive tests - involving task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning - than nonplayers. Apparently, the same aspects of computer games that make them stimulating for young people somehow manage to re-stimulate cognitive ability in older people.

Basak, C. et al., "Can Training in a Real-Time Strategy Video Game Attenuate Cognitive Decline in Older Adults?" Psychology and Aging (December 2008).

I'd like fewer choices, please

FREE CHOICE IS a hallmark of the free market. All the options are laid out in front of you, and you decide which option will best satisfy your preferences. This is the ideal. In reality, though, many options are not automatically laid out in front of you. You have to decide how much time or money to spend digging them up. Some people go the extra mile for extra options, and some people don't. So who's better off? According to researchers, it's the latter. When asked whether they wanted to choose from a large or small assortment of chocolates - where the large assortment required filling out an extra questionnaire - people who chose from the large assortment were less satisfied with their chocolate. Likewise, when researchers surveyed customers outside two ice-cream stores - one with 200 flavors that people had to drive far to get to, and one with only 20 flavors that was nearby - the customers who went out of their way for the 200 flavors were less satisfied with their ice cream.

Dar-Nimrod, I. et al., "The Maximization Paradox: The Costs of Seeking Alternatives," Personality and Individual Differences (forthcoming).

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

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