Uncommon Knowledge

Hug to win!

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
November 21, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Normally, touching co-workers is a big no-no. Unless you want your team to win. That’s the implication of a recent analysis of all NBA basketball teams during the 2008-2009 regular season. Researchers recorded all non-game-play touching (e.g., fist bumps, head slaps, high fives, hugs) among players in a game during the early part of the season. The amount of touching in this one game predicted both player and team performance the rest of the season, even when controlling for preseason expectations and early season performance. The relationship also held when controlling for player salary, which was highly correlated with touching. The overall effect of touching on performance appears to operate by increasing cooperation and trust among teammates.

Kraus, M. et al., “Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA,” Emotion (October 2010).

Protesting too much It might seem odd that political partisans argue their ideology so fervently, even when faced with reasonable counter-arguments. Yet, recent research seems to confirm what many psychologists have long suspected — that self-doubt tends to increase the energy people put into persuading others. In one experiment, when people were asked to defend their opinion on the use of animals in laboratory testing, they wrote a longer defense if they wrote it with their nondominant hand (which is supposed to undermine confidence). In other experiments, people expended more effort to persuade others of their dietary or computer preferences if they had been asked to think about uncertain situations. Interestingly, the effect of doubt was attenuated if the person’s sense of self had also been affirmed.

Gal, D. & Rucker, D., “When in Doubt, Shout! Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing,” Psychological Science (November 2010).

Hard to read, easy to learn Most economists will tell you that education is a key driver of economic competitiveness — for individuals and nations alike. So, when innovations come along that boost learning at little or no cost, we should pay close attention. And that’s exactly the secret behind one innovation suggested by a new study. Researchers gave people 90 seconds to memorize fictitious biology data and then distracted them for another 15 minutes. People who had been given the data in a somewhat-hard-to-read font recalled 87 percent of the data correctly vs. 73 percent for an easy-to-read font. To see if this could be repeated in real classrooms, the researchers asked teachers in a public high school in Ohio to hand out worksheets in somewhat-hard-to-read fonts to one of their sections, while worksheets in easy-to-read fonts were handed out to another section. Students in the sections with the harder-to-read fonts performed better on tests.

Diemand-Yauman, C. et al., “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes,” Cognition (forthcoming).

Kindler, gentler roughnecks The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is undoubtedly one of the defining events of 2010. Among the factors that may have contributed to the accident was the safety culture aboard the rig. In a recent case study, professors at Harvard and Stanford spent time aboard two other rigs whose culture underwent a profound change. Although the initial motivation for the change was safety, the new operational culture also reformed the macho culture that normally prevails in the male-dominated industry. In the old days, as one rig manager put it: “They decided who the driller was by fighting. If the job came open, the one that was left standing was the driller. It was that rowdy.” After the changes, the workers discussed things more openly, were more supportive of each other, and didn’t try to show how tough they were all the time.

Ely, R. & Meyerson, D., “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms,” Research in Organizational Behavior (forthcoming).

Can bad things make you happier? To quote Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” But is this really the case? Sure, it’s reasonable to expect that we can all adapt to suffering up to a point, but could it be that the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are the key to happiness? Researchers surveyed a representative sample of Americans over the course of several years and found that well-being is related to the amount of prior adversity (e.g., sickness, violence, bereavement, family hardship, disaster), and that it follows a particular pattern: Experiencing some adversity in the past seemed to contribute to a sense of well-being, but too much trouble in the past — or too little — and the sense of well-being dropped.

Seery, M. et al., “Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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