Uncommon knowledge

Simple steps to happier politics

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
September 19, 2010

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It’s easy to be discouraged by our polarized political environment. A new study suggests there may be an easy way out. Right before the 2008 presidential election, prospective voters were asked to complete an online survey. Some of the participants were assigned a brief self-affirmation exercise, where they had to choose the personal trait (from a list of 10) that was most important to them and write a sentence or two explaining that choice. Other participants encountered the same list but had to choose the trait that was least important and explain why someone else might find it important. All participants then viewed video clips from the last presidential debate. Those who were “affirmed,” who wrote about what was most important to them, moderated their partisan views of Obama, with Republicans becoming less harshly critical and Democrats less gushing in their enthusiasm. Even more surprising, though, was that this pattern held up after the election: When the researchers e-mailed Republicans 10 days after the election, the affirmed Republicans had a significantly more favorable outlook on Obama’s presidency. So maybe Senator Al Franken had the right idea with his famous Saturday Night Live skit “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.”

Binning, K. et al., “Seeing the Other Side: Reducing Political Partisanship via Self-Affirmation in the 2008 Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (forthcoming).

Green = weak?
Marketers may assume that “green” products are more appealing to consumers, especially to environmentally conscious consumers. But according to a recent study, green branding sends a signal that can undermine other essential features of a product. Specifically, green products tend to be associated with gentleness, not strength. For example, people were more interested in eco-friendly baby shampoo than eco-friendly car shampoo, tires, or laundry detergent. The researchers also found a similar effect in an experiment with hand sanitizer during flu season. They put two bottles of sanitizer — one was green-colored and labeled “eco-friendly,” while the other was just clear and labeled “regular” — on a table. If they knew they were being watched, most people used the green version, but if no one seemed to be watching, most people used the regular version.

Luchs, M. et al., “The Sustainability Liability: Potential Negative Effects of Ethicality on Product Preference,” Journal of Marketing (September 2010).

The problem with talking about it
A common refrain in conflicts is to “talk it out.” While this may be effective in certain situations, some forms of talk may make the problem worse. A psychologist at Princeton University conducted an experiment in war torn eastern Congo with a radio-broadcast soap opera designed to reduce ethnic hostility. In some broadcast areas, the soap opera was followed by a 15-minute talk show. After a year of the broadcast, researchers interviewed a large sample of Congolese in the listening area. Although the talk show had the intended effect of increasing discussion among listeners, it also had the unintended effect of increasing intolerance. Apparently, the talk show provoked more contentious discussion and made people even more aware of ethnic grievances.

Paluck, E., “Is It Better Not to Talk? Group Polarization, Extended Contact, and Perspective Taking in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (September 2010).

Who prays, stays
In a previous column, I wrote about a study showing that prayer can reduce alcohol consumption. The researchers behind that study have now come out with a study showing that prayer can curtail another vice: infidelity. Among a sample of several hundred college students, those who reported praying more for their partner were less likely to report cheating six weeks later. Of course, this pattern could simply mean that the kind of people who pray don’t tend to be the kind of people who cheat. So the researchers randomly assigned students to pray (in this case, for their partner) for four weeks. Compared to those who were assigned to undirected prayer or to think positive thoughts about their partner, praying for one’s partner reduced reported cheating behavior. The researchers videotaped a bunch of couples actually discussing the future of their relationship. Independent assessments of these discussions found greater commitment by those who had prayed for their partner.

Fincham, F. et al., “Faith and Unfaithfulness: Can Praying for Your Partner Reduce Infidelity?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Write unclearly
It almost goes without saying that one should write clearly. But that depends. According to a new study, if your goal is education, you may not want to write too clearly. In one experiment, people read a short story by Mark Twain that was printed in a font that was either easy or difficult to read; the story was also presented as either a “Historical Analysis Study” or a “Short Story Study.” When read as a short story for enjoyment, the story was rated better in the easy-to-read font, but, as a historical analysis, the story was rated better in the hard-to-read font. In another experiment, while reading the same Twain story, some people were asked to furrow their brow, an action that has been shown to induce the perception of complexity. Among those who furrowed their brow, the story was rated better when read as a historical analysis, but worse when read for enjoyment.

Galak, J. & Nelson, L., “The Virtues of Opaque Prose: How Lay Beliefs about Fluency Influence Perceptions of Quality,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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