Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
August 14, 2011

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Think your way to confidence If you’re an insecure person, social interactions can become a vicious cycle: Your insecurity motivates anxious or avoidant behavior, which then leads other people to respond in kind, validating the insecurity. Breaking this cycle early on thus becomes crucial. A new experiment demonstrates a surprisingly straightforward way of doing this: by reminding yourself what matters. People were randomly assigned to spend 15 minutes either writing about a value that was important to them or a value that was not important to them but might be important to somebody else. Weeks later, the insecure people who had written about their own values exhibited significant decreases in insecurity and improvements in social demeanor.

Stinson, D. et al., “Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection: Self-Affirmation Improves Relational Security and Social Behavior up to 2 Months Later,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

In case of fire, call an insecure person If being insecure is so socially undesirable, then why is it so common? An innovative experiment suggests that some amount of insecurity may actually be very beneficial for groups. One hundred thirty-eight Israeli students were divided into 46 groups of three, who reported to a laboratory for what the students thought was a straightforward computer task. The experimenter left the room, which was watched by hidden cameras. One minute later, the computer began emitting smoke, as if it had caught fire. Groups with at least one insecure individual were more effective in dealing with the incident. In particular, groups with a more anxious individual were faster at detecting smoke, and groups with a more distant individual were faster in exiting the room. In contrast, groups with a very secure individual were less effective in dealing with the incident.

Ein-Dor, T. et al., “Effective Reaction to Danger: Attachment Insecurities Predict Behavioral Reactions to an Experimentally Induced Threat Above and Beyond General Personality Traits,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (September 2011).

In politics, networks matter Given our current state of political gridlock, pundits often complain that politicians are failing to cultivate close relationships with members of the opposite party. Nevertheless, according to a recent analysis of eight state legislatures and the US House of Representatives, it’s not close relationships, per se, that matter. Instead, what predicts a politician’s success at moving bills through the legislature is his or her overall number of working relationships and, in turn, the relationships maintained by each of those politicians (i.e., friends of friends). In other words, it’s not the politician’s close allies that matter, but the reach of his or her network. This is especially true when politicians tend to form close relationships only with politicians of the same party, gender, or race - who are predisposed to vote the same way regardless of their relationship.

Kirkland, J., “The Relational Determinants of Legislative Outcomes: Strong and Weak Ties between Legislators,” Journal of Politics (July 2011).

More dead than dead The controversy several years ago over the removal of life support for Terri Schiavo left the impression that many people - especially those who are religious - believe that a persistent vegetative state is actually a hopeful, quasi-conscious state. However, in a new study, psychologists find that people believe just the opposite. People judged a persistent vegetative state to be a significantly lower mental state than that of a dead person. This was especially true for people of faith - even a description of the dead person as a corpse didn’t bring death down to the level of a persistent vegetative state. It sounds strange, but the researchers suggest that belief in an afterlife may be responsible for the effect, in that a persistent vegetative state seems to trap the soul.

Gray, K. et al., “More Dead than Dead: Perceptions of Persons in the Persistent Vegetative State,” Cognition (forthcoming).

The power of a parent’s voice As kids grow up e-mailing and texting, on Facebook and Twitter, parents may wonder what’s being lost in the process. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, one thing being lost may be the calming effect of a parent’s voice. The researchers exposed girls between the ages of 7 and 12 to a stressful situation, after which they were randomly assigned to receive one of several different kinds of communication support from their mothers: interaction in person, interaction over the phone, interaction over the computer, or no interaction. Girls who interacted with their mothers in person or over the phone - hearing an actual voice - exhibited less-stressed hormonal responses, whereas girls who interacted over the computer exhibited hormonal responses that were just as stressed as if they had no interaction with their mothers.

Seltzer, L. et al., “Instant Messages vs. Speech: Hormones and Why We Still Need to Hear Each Other,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

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