Uncommon Knowledge

How class affects your brain

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
February 13, 2011

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Most of the kids who attend top colleges come from affluent families. As if that isn’t discouraging enough for kids from lower-class families, a new study at Northwestern University suggests that, even for kids who’ve already made it to a top university, coming from a lower-class background can wear them down. After talking about their own academic achievement, lower-class students ate more candy and had more trouble with self-control than more affluent students. This didn’t happen when they talked about a nonacademic topic, suggesting that lower-class students are more self-conscious about their academic status; the psychological pressure of discussing it wears them out. However, the researchers did find a way to psychologically undermine students from all backgrounds more equally: comparing them to students at an even more elite university!

Johnson, S. et al., ”Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Mom, get away! One of the stereotypes of a detached personality is that such a person will not only avoid close relationships but must not have been loved by his or her mother. In a novel experiment, researchers found that the word “mom” does indeed have an automatic negative association for these people. The researchers asked people to stand in front of a screen that randomly displayed various words and push a lever as fast as possible upon seeing the words. People with more detached personalities pushed the lever away faster than other people in response to the word “mom” but not in response to other words.

Fraley, C. & Marks, M., “Pushing Mom Away: Embodied Cognition and Avoidant Attachment,” Journal of Research in Personality (forthcoming).

I am yours A longstanding feminist critique of dating culture is that men are expected to be promiscuous, while women are expected to be loyal, doting partners. This may be unfair, but evolutionary psychology would suggest that women are compelled to signal their faithfulness to prospective partners because men can’t be certain about paternity, and are therefore wary of unfaithful women. In a recent study, women who were made to think about long-term romance reported that they wouldn’t want to go to a concert with — and would otherwise distance themselves from — another woman who is unfaithful to the men she dates. Women were not as put off by the company of a cheater if they were made to think about short-term romance or just hanging out with friends. Although men had a generally negative reaction towards a cheating friend, this reaction wasn’t particularly sensitive to the romantic context, suggesting that the signaling of faithfulness is more important for women.

Dosmukhambetova, D. & Manstead, A., “Strategic Reactions to Unfaithfulness: Female Self-Presentation in the Context of Mate Attraction Is Linked to Uncertainty of Paternity,” Evolution and Human Behavior (March 2011).

Sorting the dead TV crime dramas like “CSI” usually present the autopsy as a clear-cut analytical exercise. However, criminal investigators and medical examiners are prone to biases just like everyone else. Comparing a nationally representative sample of death certificates to survey responses from next of kin, researchers found that the racial identity of decedents was often misclassified — at a rate of about 1 percent for whites, and up to almost 9 percent for Native Americans. Worse, misclassification to a particular race was more likely if the cause of death fit the stereotype for that race: Death by cirrhosis was associated with misclassification as Native American, while being murdered was associated with misclassification as black.

Noymer, A. et al., “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates,” PLoS ONE (January 2011).

Speed thinking In the race to boost brain performance, some British psychologists have found one trick: the click. When various mental tasks were preceded by several seconds of clicking — compared to silence or white noise — people’s minds seemed to perform a little bit better. Not only was this the case for reaction times to basic stimuli, but math problems were solved slightly faster, data was recalled a little bit more fluently, and previously seen pictures were more likely to be recognized. The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure how clicks produce this effect but figure that the clicks might speed up the perception of time, speeding up the underlying thought process.

Jones, L. et al., “Click Trains and the Rate of Information Processing: Does ‘Speeding Up’ Subjective Time Make Other Psychological Processes Run Faster?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (February 2011).

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