Uncommon knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

Scent of a child

By Kevin Lewis
June 14, 2009
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Researchers have found evidence that the behavior of parents is affected by a child's odor. The researchers asked parents to have their children wear a T-shirt for several days, after which the researchers conducted a blindfolded test on the parents. Fathers who could correctly identify their child's odor were emotionally closer and paid more attention to their child. Mothers who could correctly identify their child's odor punished their child less. Meanwhile, parents who rated their child's odor as more pleasant - a potential indicator that the child is not theirs - did the opposite: they were less close and more punishing.

Dubas, J. et al., "A Preliminary Investigation of Parent-Progeny Olfactory Recognition and Parental Investment," Human Nature (March 2009).

Conservative disgust
Are you very bothered by the sight of a cockroach, the smell of urine, coming into contact with a toilet seat in a public restroom, or accidentally drinking from a stranger's soda can? If so, then you're probably a political conservative, according to a recent study. In various surveys, researchers found that people who indicated more "disgust sensitivity" were significantly more likely to label themselves conservative, especially on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Inbar, Y. et al., "Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted Than Liberals," Cognition & Emotion (June 2009).

"It's really hot outside."

If researchers are correct, then a simple statement like that can prompt you to have more aggressive thoughts. In two experiments, people who first solved word puzzles with heat-related words were more likely to think aggressive thoughts or infer hostility in another person. The authors note that the effect of hearing hot words is similar to the effect of showing people pictures of guns or alcohol.

DeWall, N. & Bushman, B., "Hot Under the Collar In a Lukewarm Environment: Hot Temperature Primes Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Hostile Perceptions," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Boost your creativity, move to Latvia
Spending time in a foreign country is a rite of passage for many students, but perhaps it should be more of a requirement. Social psychologists have shown that living abroad is associated with creativity. People who spent more time living abroad were more creative problem solvers and more creative negotiators in situations that required one to see hidden alternative solutions in ostensibly intractable problems. This was especially true to the degree that people had adapted themselves to the foreign culture. Creativity was boosted further just by asking those who had lived abroad to imagine their experience. In fact, even in the straightforward task of drawing an alien creature, people who were asked to imagine specifically adapting to a foreign culture drew more creative and non-Earth-like creatures.

Maddux, W. & Galinsky, A., "Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (May 2009).

Those hedge fund managers? Not so smart.
As the authors of a new study point out, "an underlying assumption by many on Wall Street is that the best and brightest migrate to the hedge fund industry." So, that begs the question: have hedge funds actually delivered? In what they bill as "the first comprehensive examination" of the stock holdings of hedge funds, the authors say no, at least relative to mutual funds. And when fees and transaction costs are included, mutual funds give hedge funds a run for their money. Granted, this study only looked at stock holdings, even though hedge funds often deal in more exotic securities, but the authors note that stocks are still a primary component of most hedge funds.

Griffin, J. & Xu, J., "How Smart Are the Smart Guys? A Unique View from Hedge Fund Stock Holdings," Review of Financial Studies (forthcoming).

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

(Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe)