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Uncommon Knowledge

Give me liberty or give me cash

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
June 5, 2011

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A key question in international policy debates is whether to focus on raising material standards of living or spreading freedom. A new meta-analysis of previous research — including samples from dozens of countries and hundreds of thousands of people — reveals that when it comes to people’s psychological well-being, individual autonomy is more important than measures of wealth like GDP per capita. Wealth appears to improve well-being only through its effect on individual autonomy.

Fischer, R. & Boer, D., “What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout, and Anxiety across 63 Societies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Class in the classroom Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but new research from a sociologist at the University of Michigan suggests that class differences — no pun intended — may complicate this vision. Observing a preschool classroom with children from both working-class and upper-middle-class families, the sociologist found that upper-middle-class children used their more outspoken social style to more often “take the floor” and “take a stand.” Upper-middle-class children were more adept at interrupting, getting attention, and arguing to get their way. While teachers were sometimes able to counteract this imbalance, their preference for enthusiastic verbal responses and for children to “use their words” to resolve conflicts typically advantaged the upper-middle-class children.

Streib, J., “Class Reproduction by Four Year Olds,” Qualitative Sociology (June 2011).

A hot, lonely bath The iconic catch-phrase “Calgon, take me away!” would seem to link bathing with the desire to get away from people. Yet, a series of surveys and experiments shows that warm baths and/or showers may be a symptom of loneliness. People who reported being lonelier also tended to take more, longer, and warmer baths or showers. Likewise, holding a warm-pack caused people to feel less lonely after writing about a time when they felt socially excluded.

Bargh, J. & Shalev, I., “The Substitutability of Physical and Social Warmth in Daily Life,” Emotion (forthcoming).

Sex scandals and race In 2011, we take it for granted that Barack Obama and John Edwards have led very different political lives, but, just a few years ago, this was not the case. Edwards and Obama were upstanding family men, of similar age, both lawyers, both senators, both liberal Democrats, and both seen as charismatic seekers of the presidency. Their most obvious difference was race. Taking advantage of this juxtaposition, political scientists polled a national sample of whites before the 2008 presidential primaries to test reactions to a news story about a fictitious sex scandal involving one or the other candidate (this came before revelations about Edwards’s actual infidelity). When the news story didn’t mention race — except that the candidates were pictured next to two white women — Obama lost more approval than Edwards and was judged as more liberal, especially among politically interested and racially resentful whites. When the news story did mention race, there was no difference in how much approval each candidate lost.

Berinsky, A. et al., “Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?” Political Behavior (June 2011).

I’m going to die? OK, I forgive you No one likes to contemplate their own death, but psychologists have found that doing so can generate some very interesting reactions. In one new study, researchers compared how European-American and Asian-American students perceived the misfortune of others after the students had written about their own death. In a nonmortality mind-set, European-Americans were more forgiving of prostitutes and accident victims, while Asian-Americans were less forgiving. In a mortality mind-set, however, those differences vanished, as European-Americans adopted a more punitive attitude, while Asian-Americans adopted a less punitive attitude. The authors attribute this to the fact that people tend to defend their worldviews when mortality is salient, and that European-Americans tend to have worldviews that promote the self over others.

Ma-Kellams, C. & Blascovich, J., “Culturally Divergent Responses to Mortality Salience,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).