Uncommon Knowledge

You choose, you lose

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
April 10, 2011

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Beggars can’t be choosers, and, even worse for beggars, choosers don’t like beggars, according to a new study. People watched a six-minute video depicting a man engaging in a series of mundane activities in his apartment. Before watching the video, some people were told to note when the man made a choice; other people were told to note when the man touched an object. After watching the video while paying attention to choice, people were less supportive of affirmative action, banning harmful products, taxing fuel-inefficient cars, and requiring energy-saving insulation, and more supportive of legalizing marijuana and expanding adoption to unmarried parents. They were also more likely to blame people for their own bad outcomes (e.g., heart attack, car accident). In fact, in a choice frame of mind, there was no difference between liberals and conservatives on these attitudes. In a related experiment comparing Americans to Indians, researchers found that Americans, but not Indians, had less empathy for a poor child in a choice frame of mind.

Savani, K. et al., ”The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal Consequences of Choice: Victim-Blaming and Reduced Support for the Public Good,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

A conservative is just a liberal with an older brother We get a lot of things from older siblings--toys, clothes, wisdom, and maybe even our political views. A political scientist at Iowa State University has found that an older sister can make a younger sibling more liberal, whereas an older brother can make a younger sibling more conservative. Although the effect is modest, an analysis of survey data suggests that one’s next-oldest sibling has the most influence on political orientation, as much as the effect of one’s own sex and age.

Urbatsch, R., ”Sibling Ideological Influence: A Natural Experiment,” British Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Your biceps are blocking your face Much of the rhetoric and research on objectification--seeing others as objects, not as individual human beings--pertains to women, but a new study suggests that sexy men should worry, too. To measure objectification, researchers used Photoshop to alter full-body images of men and women to conform to gender stereotypes, so that the men had bigger chests and were more muscular, while the women were given bigger breasts and larger hips. These images were then shown briefly to other people, who were later tested on whether they could correctly recall which face corresponded to which body. People had trouble matching a woman’s face to her body regardless of whether her body had been altered to appear stereotypically feminine. For men it was different. People had an easier time matching face to body--unless, that is, the body was bulked up.

Gervais, S. et al., ”When Are People Interchangeable Sexual Objects? The Effect of Gender and Body Type on Sexual Fungibility,” British Journal of Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Race and the basketball bench If there’s any organization that should be free of racial bias, it should be the NBA. However, an analysis of data from the 1996-2004 seasons suggests that there may still be some lingering--probably subconscious--bias on the part of coaches. The analysis finds that a player with a coach of the same race averages close to a minute of extra playing time per game and is also more likely to start the game, even controlling for player quality, team characteristics, and the racial mix of the team’s city. The good news is that this bias appears to have diminished since the late 1990s.

Schroffel, J. & Magee, C., ”Own-Race Bias among NBA Coaches,” Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming).

Irresistibly small temptations It’s tempting to assume that we’re more likely to give in to a stronger, rather than a weaker, temptation. Not so, according to a recent study. In several experiments, women who were exposed to an especially tempting chocolate treat found it easier to stick to their diet goals, compared to being exposed to a less tasty-looking chocolate treat. In fact, when women were left in a room alone with half a chocolate cake on the table in front of them and told to eat as much as they wanted, women ate significantly more of a less attractive cake. In other words, it’s easier to resist temptation when the temptation is egregious, but more subtle temptations can sneak up on us.

Kroese, F. et al., ”Tricky Treats: Paradoxical Effects of Temptation Strength on Self-Regulation Processes,” European Journal of Social Psychology (April 2011).

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