Uncommon Knowledge

Chess with babes

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
December 19, 2010

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It’s no secret that men can be distracted by attractive women, but it looks like this phenomenon even extends to the rarefied world of international chess tournaments. Using data from thousands of chess games and independent ratings of player strategies and attractiveness, researchers found that men adopted riskier strategies — in deciding which opening moves to play and when to accept a draw — when playing against more attractive women. This did not improve, and may have worsened, outcomes for the men. Of course, as the authors of the paper are careful to note: “It could turn out that playing a risky strategy against an attractive female player is beneficial for a male player outside of the chess game.”

Dreber, A. et al., “Beauty Queens and Battling Knights: Risk Taking and Attractiveness in Chess,” Stockholm University (November 2010).

What firstborns are bad at If you have an older sibling, you may envy the fact that he or she came first, with whatever advantages that may confer. There is one area, though, where firstborns do seem to be disadvantaged. Researchers have theorized that firstborns are not as good at detecting biological kinship among strangers, because firstborns observed their own siblings directly in the care of the same mother right from birth, without having to discern resemblance. This was confirmed in a recent study, wherein researchers asked elementary-school students and adults, in both France and Taiwan, to pick out the pair of related people — including which newborns were related to which parents — from sets of photographs. In all demographic groups, firstborns performed worse.

Kaminski, G. et al., “Firstborns’ Disadvantage in Kinship Detection,” Psychological Science (December 2010).

The benefits of expecting prejudice No one likes to be the target of prejudice. But some people may be better off — at least physiologically — when confronted with prejudice. In a recent study, women took part in an experiment that was ostensibly about effective job interviews. They were also hooked up to sensors measuring their cardiovascular response to threat. The women were then confronted with a male interviewer who happened to make one of two comments. Either he suggested that he would make a decision based on merit, or he suggested that he would make a decision based on gender stereotypes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women who generally believe the world is fair and meritocratic felt the threat of rejection no matter what the man had said. However, women who generally believe the world is unfair felt less threatened if the man made a comment about gender stereotypes. For the women who had come to expect sexism in their lives, the suggestion that it would play a role did not threaten.

Townsend, S. et al., “Can the Absence of Prejudice Be More Threatening than Its Presence? It Depends on One’s Worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 2010).

How to stop violence with sugar One reason it’s hard to eliminate everyday violence, even in modern society, is that many people have trouble restraining themselves. And one reason for this may be something simple: blood sugar. Consistent with previous research, a recent study found that providing sugary lemonade to people made them less aggressive than if they drank sugar-free lemonade. Likewise, people who reported more diabetic symptoms reported more issues with self-control and aggressiveness. This pattern also shows up more broadly. States with more diabetes — even controlling for median income — had more violent crime. And nations with more cases of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, a common hereditary disease related to glucose metabolism, had more violent killing. To illustrate the link between blood sugar and aggression, the authors cite one strategy in Britain, where police have distributed lollipops in bars to reduce fighting.

DeWall, N. et al., “Sweetened Blood Cools Hot Tempers: Physiological Self-Control and Aggression,” Aggressive Behavior (January/February 2011). Are married guys nicer, or do nicer guys get married?

Few would be surprised to hear that married men are less prone to antisocial behavior than unmarried men. But social scientists have debated for years whether this correlation is actually caused by marriage — owing perhaps to the influence of wives — or whether antisocial men are excluded from marriage in the first place by discerning women. A team of researchers looked at data on identical twins to arrive at what is hopefully a more definitive answer. It turns out that both mechanisms are at work. Men who were eventually married exhibited less antisocial behavior years before they were married compared to men at the same age who ended up not being married. Yet, the gap in antisocial behavior between married and unmarried men — even among twins — widened further after marriage, suggesting that marriage does have a positive effect on men’s behavior.

Burt, A. et al., “Does Marriage Inhibit Antisocial Behavior? An Examination of Selection vs Causation via a Longitudinal Twin Design,” Archives of General Psychiatry (December 2010).

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