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Uncommon Knowledge

Don’t restrain the wandering eye

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
February 6, 2011

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People in romantic relationships are often tempted to block their partners from seeing attractive alternatives, but a new study suggests that this strategy may backfire. Psychologists at the University of Kentucky and Florida State University conducted several experiments with students who reported being in a relationship. The students were given a computer task that simultaneously presented them with photos of attractive and average-looking individuals of the opposite sex. Some of the students were prompted to focus their attention almost exclusively on the average-looking individual. After this task, the students whose attention had been directed towards the average-looking individual reported being less satisfied and committed — and more accepting of infidelity — with regard to their relationships. They were also subsequently more likely to remember the attractive faces from the task and pay attention to new attractive faces.

DeWall, N. et al., “Forbidden Fruit: Inattention to Attractive Alternatives Provokes Implicit Relationship Reactance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Look younger, lamer Our culture puts a lot of pressure on people to look young. Nevertheless, a recent study by psychologists at the University of Kansas finds evidence of a backlash effect. Students read a profile about a single man or woman over the age of 50 who was, or was not, trying to look younger. If the person was trying to look younger, the students liked the older person less — and judged him or her as more deceitful and no more attractive. This reaction was especially acute for students who identified strongly with their age group and when evaluating an older person closer to their own age, suggesting that young people may see young-looking older people as a threat to their social identity.

Schoemann, A. & Branscombe, N., “Looking Young for Your Age: Perceptions of Anti-Aging Actions,” European Journal of Social Psychology (February 2011).

How talent beats hard work Americans celebrate effort and hard work. Or so we say. Psychologists at Harvard found that what we really prefer — at least in our areas of expertise — is natural talent. They recruited experienced musicians and lay people to judge a rendition of the same piece of music by two ostensibly different pianists — one of whom was described as more of a natural, while the other was more of a striver — though the two renditions were actually just different parts of the same recording by the same pianist. Despite generally endorsing the value of effort more than lay people did, experienced musicians had a more favorable opinion of the naturally talented pianist.

Tsay, C.J. & Banaji, M., “Naturals and Strivers: Preferences and Beliefs about Sources of Achievement,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

One death is a tragedy; 10 not my problem One of the more intriguing observations in social psychology is that people often have a stronger emotional reaction to the suffering of only one person, relative to the suffering of many. Research by psychologists at the University of North Carolina suggests that people react this way not because they’re closet Joseph Stalins, but because they’re trying to avoid getting swamped by their own emotions. People felt significantly less compassion toward eight children suffering in Darfur if they knew they’d be asked to help than if they knew they wouldn’t be asked to help. There was no difference in compassion in the case of one child. In other words, people are generally able to embrace one victim, but they preemptively inhibit their feelings when confronted with many victims. Subsequent experiments also showed that the effect is only manifested in people who are good at regulating their own emotions or who are asked to do so.

Cameron, D. & Payne, K., “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (January 2011).

Does abstinence improve relationships? The abstinence-before-marriage debate may never be fully resolved, but a recent study may tilt the scale a bit in the direction of abstinence. Researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed data from a survey of over 2,000 married people and found that couples who had waited to engage in sexual activity reported better sexual quality, relationship communication, satisfaction, and relationship stability, even controlling for a person’s religiosity. The authors of the study posit that early sex undermines the development of other aspects of the relationship and/or prematurely binds incompatible partners to the relationship. The authors note, however, that the effect of waiting is not very big, and it could also be explained by pre-existing insecurities that motivate both early sex and relationship problems.

Busby, D. et al., “Compatibility or Restraint? The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships,” Journal of Family Psychology (December 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.