Uncommon Knowledge

Your beliefs taste terrible

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
May 29, 2011

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Blasphemy has been a serious offense throughout history, and a new study helps us understand why, at least psychologically. Students who identified themselves as believing Christians were asked to taste two ostensibly different — though actually identical — lemon-water drinks. In between tasting the two drinks, participants were randomly assigned to hand-copy a passage from the Koran, the atheist book “The God Delusion,” or the preface to a dictionary. The drink was rated significantly more disgusting — but not more bitter, sour, or sweet — after copying the Koran and atheist passages. In another experiment, allowing participants to use a hand wipe after copying passages nullified the perception of disgust and made the drink less bitter. The researchers did not test atheists or members of other religions.

Ritter, R. & Preston, J., “Gross Gods and Icky Atheism: Disgust Responses to Rejected Religious Beliefs,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Is it really better to wait? A key assumption of abstinence-only sex education is that delaying sexual initiation encourages young people to practice more responsible sexual behavior when they do become sexually active. Researchers tested this assumption by analyzing data from a large study that followed Minnesota-born twins from ages 11 to 24. Although there was a correlation between early sexual initiation and riskier sexual behavior later on, this relationship was largely explained by common genetic and/or environmental risk factors, not one’s age of sexual initiation per se.

Huibregtse, B. et al., “Testing the Role of Adolescent Sexual Initiation in Later-Life Sexual Risk Behavior: A Longitudinal Twin Design,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Inequality and distrust are neighbors As the saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. A new study suggests that this pattern extends beyond politics into economics and personality. Based on personality data collected from hundreds of thousands of people across the United States, it seems that people in states with more income inequality are also less friendly, trusting, and cooperative. What’s not clear from the study is the direction of causation: Does inequality lead people to become disagreeable, or does a disagreeable population enact policies that lead to inequality?

de Vries, R. et al., “Income Inequality and Personality: Are Less Equal US States Less Agreeable?” Social Science & Medicine (forthcoming).

Does personality follow physique? Stereotypical high school caricatures — to which many people aspire — include the gregarious cheerleader and the brash jock. Yet, according to research at the University of California Santa Barbara, these caricatures of extroverted hotties and hunks aren’t just some cultural accident. Students who were more physically attractive and men who were stronger were also more extroverted. In other words, whether you’re a sociable person is somewhat contingent on whether you’re a hottie or a hunk. Your personality appears to adapt to the hand it was dealt — in this case, your body’s endowments.

Lukaszewski, A. & Roney, J., “The Origins of Extroversion: Joint Effects of Facultative Calibration and Genetic Polymorphism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (March 2011).

The real me is this awesome one It’s often assumed that self-promotion — for example, in an interview or on a date — requires conveying a distorted picture of yourself to your audience. However, a new study suggests that self-promotion may actually leave a more genuine impression. People were videotaped answering several questions about themselves; some people were told beforehand to “make a good impression” and “put your best face forward,” while others were given a more dispassionate instruction. Independent observers then tried to assess the person’s personality and IQ from the videotape. Assessments were more accurate for those who were told to make a good impression. The authors of the study theorize that trying to make a good impression does a better job of engaging other people, who then pay more attention to who you are.

Human, L. et al., “Your Best Self Helps Reveal Your True Self: Positive Self-Presentation Leads to More Accurate Personality Impressions,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

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