Uncommon Knowledge

Protection from hurt feelings

Surprising insights from the social sciences

(Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe)
By Kevin Lewis
July 11, 2010

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Everyone has experienced pain and sickness at some point in their lives. For such physical ailments, one of the first things we do--or are instructed to do by medical providers--is take a pain reliever, like acetaminophen (a.k.a., Tylenol). But physical pain isn’t the only kind of pain. Our feelings can also be hurt. So researchers wondered whether acetaminophen, which acts on the central nervous system, could blunt social pain, too. In one experiment, healthy college students were randomly assigned to take acetaminophen or a placebo twice a day for three weeks. Those who took acetaminophen reported experiencing significantly fewer hurt feelings. In a second experiment, another set of healthy college students was randomly assigned to take acetaminophen or a placebo twice a day for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, the students were scanned in an MRI machine while playing a virtual ball-tossing game with two other players. After a while, the other players stopped tossing the ball to the subject. Those who had taken the acetaminophen exhibited significantly less neural activity in areas of the brain previously associated with experiencing social and physical pain.

DeWall, N. et al., ”Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and Neural Evidence,” Psychological Science (forthcoming). --------------

Don't ask, don't tell, don't succeed
The main argument against repealing ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is that knowledge of the presence of homosexuals in one’s military unit will be distracting and will compromise unit cohesion and effectiveness. A related question, though, is whether the current policy helps or hurts the performance of homosexuals themselves. In several experiments, researchers at Cornell University asked students--both heterosexual and homosexual--to conceal their sexual orientation during a short interview. Compared to students who were not asked to conceal their sexual orientation, those who had concealed their sexual orientation performed significantly worse on subsequent cognitive and physical tasks. The effect appears to result from the depletion of self-control--in other words, getting tired--from having to monitor one’s own speech.

Critcher, C. & Ferguson, M., ”Concealment and Ego Depletion: Does ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Hinder Performance?” Cornell University (June 2010). --------------

Martini madness, without the martini
It’s common knowledge that alcohol makes people less inhibited and more aggressive. But less well known is that this common knowledge itself makes people more aggressive. In one experiment, researchers found that people who were exposed for just a fraction of a second to a picture of an alcohol bottle were significantly faster at processing aggressive words. This effect was as strong as the effect from seeing pictures of weapons and affected people of different ages, occupations, education, and drinking history. A second experiment showed that even subliminally presented alcohol-related words could induce people to react more aggressively to a bad situation.

Subra, B. et al., ”Automatic Effects of Alcohol and Aggressive Cues on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming). --------------

The real story of global IQ
Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain international differences in IQ. One prominent hypothesis is that these differences are a function of climate, with colder climates demanding the evolution of greater intelligence. A new study finds a more potent explanation: infectious disease. By taxing the body’s metabolic and developmental processes, infectious diseases can easily compromise brain function. In a statistical analysis comparing the effects of infectious disease, average winter high temperature, average years of education, and gross domestic product per capita, infectious disease was, by far, the best predictor of average national IQ. Climate came in second, while education and the economy barely registered.

Eppig, C. et al., ”Parasite Prevalence and the Worldwide Distribution of Cognitive Ability,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (forthcoming). --------------

He just doesn’t sound right
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent help him become governor of California? Hardly, according to psychologists at the University of Chicago. Their research suggests that, if anything, accented speakers are perceived as less credible--not because of prejudice, but because it’s harder to understand them. Native English speakers listened to statements of arcane trivia recorded by other native speakers, mildly accented speakers, and heavily accented speakers. Statements made by both mildly and heavily accented speakers were deemed less likely to be true, even though the researchers made it clear that all the statements were written by the researchers. Remarkably, listeners still tended to doubt a statement by a heavily accented speaker, even when they were told the purpose of the experiment beforehand.

Lev-Ari, S. & Keysar, B., ”Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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