Uncommon Knowledge

Sometimes high is sexy, sometimes low

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
January 31, 2010

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When describing positions of relative status, people often use adjectives related to height, as in “top choice,” “up the food chain,” or “high end.” A recent study finds that this association even extends to judgments about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. Women rated pictures of men as more attractive when they were presented in the top half of a screen. Men, however, rated pictures of women as more attractive when they were presented in the bottom half of a screen. The authors see this as consistent with the evolutionary view that men prefer submissive mates, while women prefer dominant ones.

Meier, B. & Dionne, S., “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” Social Cognition (December 2009).

Dishonesty lurks in the shadows
It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this insight may apply to more than just the disclosure of information. In several experiments, researchers found that light levels influence selfish behavior. People who were placed in a dimly lit room were significantly more likely to cheat than people placed in a well-lit room. Likewise, people who were asked to wear sunglasses were less generous in a sharing game than people who were asked to wear clear glasses. This pattern appears to be the result of an increased sense of anonymity in lower light levels, even though light levels did not confer any actual increase in anonymity.

Zhong, C. et al., “A Good Lamp is the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Exercising self-control
Self-control IS a key trait associated with success in life, so the obvious question to ask is whether (and how easily) self-control can be improved. New research suggests that it might be easier than we think. People were randomly assigned to try doing one of four possible tasks - avoid eating sweets; squeeze a handgrip, twice a day, for as long as possible; solve simple math problems a few minutes a day; or keep a diary recording any acts of self-control - over a two-week period. The researchers also administered a standard test of self-control both before and after the two-week period. The results indicated that the first two tasks, which take self-control to perform, yielded a significant increase in self-control. There was no effect for the other two tasks. Self-control, then, is a muscle that can be strengthened.

Muraven, M., “Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When calorie counts help business
In some jurisdictions, chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on their menus. There’s an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of these regulations - especially in reducing the burden of obesity - outweigh the costs to business. Researchers at Stanford University were able to persuade Starbucks to hand over data on every transaction at their stores in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia around the time that New York City implemented its calorie-posting law. The researchers also obtained transaction data for a large sample of Starbucks cardholders during the same period and conducted in-store surveys in Seattle and elsewhere, around the time that Seattle implemented its own calorie-posting law. In New York City - as compared to Boston and Philadelphia where no such law went into effect - food purchases, but not beverage purchases, contained significantly fewer calories after the law went into effect, and even fewer calories for people who had previously consumed the most calories. The survey data found that customers had been overestimating calories in beverages and underestimating calories in food. Although one might expect the law to hurt business by reducing demand, the data showed no effect on Starbucks, and, in fact, Starbucks stores close to Dunkin’ Donuts actually gained some sales, perhaps because some customers of the latter were put off by the calorie content of doughnuts. Moreover, there was an increase in the average price per item purchased, suggesting that profitability increased, too.

Bollinger, B. et al., “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2010).

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