Uncommon Knowledge

To ace that test, consider grandpa

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
January 23, 2011

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Next time you need a boost, think about the story of your ancestors. In a new study, researchers found that thinking about one’s ancestors motivates people and can even improve performance on intelligence tests. It didn’t matter whether people thought about long-dead ancestors or living grandparents, or whether they considered positive or negative aspects of their ancestors. Thinking about friends or oneself didn’t generate the same effect, suggesting that ancestors have a special association with success and perseverance.

Fischer, P. et al., “The Ancestor Effect: Thinking about Our Genetic Origin Enhances Intellectual Performance,” European Journal of Social Psychology (February 2011).

More power, more sex drive Let’s call it the Bill Clinton effect. New research confirms that being put in a position of power enhances sexual motivation. College students who were randomly assigned to have power over another student of the opposite sex tended to have more sexual thoughts, even after being distracted on another task, and expected more sexual interest from the subordinate, regardless of the subordinate’s actual interest. Not only did power-holders over-perceive a subordinate’s sexual interest, but they acted on it by flirting more with subordinates, even in the context of a videotaped social interaction.

Kunstman, J. & Maner, J., “Sexual Overperception: Power, Mating Motives, and Biases in Social Judgment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Before deciding, don’t think about it Many decisions are complicated, and there’s no shortage of advice on how to make them, though all the advice can make the decision seem even more complicated. But a new study has some clear advice: Think about the problem, and then don’t think about it. In two experiments, people were asked to pretend they were real estate agents looking for an apartment with the best attributes — and without unwanted attributes — from among 12 apartment profiles. Those people who decided immediately after seeing all the profiles were the least accurate, while people who spent several minutes thinking about the decision were still no more accurate than people who were distracted for the same amount of time before making a decision. The most accurate decision-makers were those who thought about it for a couple minutes and were then distracted for another couple minutes before making a decision. The reverse — distraction, then thinking — was not especially helpful.

Nordgren, L. et al., “The Best of Both Worlds: Integrating Conscious and Unconscious Thought Best Solves Complex Decisions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Ethics with your eyes closed Morality seems like it should be black and white, so why do people act like there are so many gray areas? Maybe it’s because their eyes are open. A recent study asked people to consider ethically questionable situations with their eyes open or closed. People with their eyes closed judged less ethical behavior to be even less ethical and judged more ethical behavior to be even more ethical. In other words, judgments were more black and white after contemplating a situation with one’s eyes closed. It seems that people can mentally simulate the moral character of a situation more easily with their eyes closed, thereby causing a more emotional reaction one way or the other.

Caruso, E. & Gino, F., “Blind Ethics: Closing One’s Eyes Polarizes Moral Judgments and Discourages Dishonest Behavior,” Cognition (February 2011).

Be more creative: Smile when you’re sad A normal person is supposed to express the emotion he or she actually feels. But what happens when people adopt an expression contrary to their mood? Researchers forced people to smile and then write about a sad experience, or frown and write about a happy one. People whose forced expression was different from their forced mood were subsequently more inclined to think outside the box. For example, when asked whether a telephone could be categorized as a piece of furniture, people were more inclined to agree after experiencing mind-body dissonance. The downside of this dissonance, though, is that it’s disruptive: People had a harder time learning things afterwards.

Huang, L. & Galinsky, A., “Mind–Body Dissonance: Conflict Between the Senses Expands the Mind’s Horizons,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

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