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Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
September 11, 2011

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The disadvantage advantage The goal of affirmative action is to give more opportunities to disadvantaged groups. According to a new study, though, hiring applicants from such groups into sales positions might be purely strategic. In one experiment, commuters at a train station were asked by a researcher sitting in either a wheelchair or a regular chair whether they would pay $1 for a smiley-face “awareness pin” for one of four randomly selected charities: to help the disabled, to help victims of the Myanmar cyclone, to help Chinese suffering from a rice shortage in China, or to help middle-class Americans suffering from a rice shortage in China (the last one was intentionally silly). Around 80 percent of commuters bought pins from the researcher in the wheelchair, compared to around 60 percent from the nonwheelchair researcher, regardless of charitable cause. Likewise, after white students listened to either a white or black student arguing in favor of instituting comprehensive exams, white students reported being more persuaded by the black student, but only if the argument was delivered face-to-face and not by video. The fact that whites nodded and expressed agreement more in front of blacks suggests that the act of trying to look sympathetic to ostensibly disadvantaged groups causes real changes in opinion.

Norton, M. et al., “The Persuasive ‘Power’ of Stigma?” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (forthcoming).

A land where boys are behind in math Spatial reasoning ability is thought to be one reason men do better in math, science, and engineering. Now, there’s a study that even Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who infamously suggested the importance of “innate differences,” might appreciate. In a sort of natural experiment, there are two adjacent, genetically similar tribes in Northeast India, but with a key cultural difference. One is patrilineal: Women are not supposed to own property, which is inherited by the oldest son; while the other is matrilineal: Men are not supposed to own property, which is inherited by the youngest daughter. Men and women from both tribes were offered money to solve an unfamiliar four-piece puzzle. Men solved the puzzle significantly faster in the patrilineal tribe but not in the matrilineal tribe. In fact, the median time for females in the matrilineal tribe was faster than the median time for males in either tribe.

Hoffman, M. et al., “Nurture Affects Gender Differences in Spatial Abilities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Sept. 6, 2011).

What’s new? Look clockwise Before you stir that cup of coffee or turn that radio dial, think carefully about whether you want to do it clockwise or counter-clockwise. A study out of Germany showed that turning cranks, spinning paper towel rolls, or watching a square rotate in the clockwise direction increased fondness for novelty, while counter-clockwise rotation had the opposite effect. Also, when people had to choose from an assortment of jelly bean flavors on a Lazy Susan that only turned clockwise or counter-clockwise, they chose more unconventional flavors in the clockwise direction.

Topolinski, S. & Sparenberg, P., “Turning the Hands of Time: Clockwise Movements Increase Preference for Novelty,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Beware: breastfeeding moms! In recent years, there’s been some controversy over whether new moms should be permitted to breast-feed in public places. Based on a new study, opponents may want to back off: Breast-feeding moms are cold-hearted competitors. Researchers invited breast-feeding and formula-feeding moms in Utah into the lab and asked them to compete against another woman in a test of reaction speed. The winner of each round could administer an annoying sound of desired volume and duration against the loser. Breast-feeding moms were more aggressive with the sound than their formula-feeding counterparts. This heightened aggression in breast-feeding moms was associated with lower blood pressure, suggesting that breast-feeding moms aren’t much stressed by confrontation and are therefore less afraid of it.

Hahn-Holbrook, J. et al., “Maternal Defense: Breast Feeding Increases Aggression by Reducing Stress,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Could cluelessness explain politics? We tend to assume that legislators vote the party line or with special interests. But a recent study finds that sometimes there’s a simpler explanation for a vote: cluelessness. Political scientists took advantage of a special legislative session that was called in New Mexico in 2008 to decide how to spend a sudden budget surplus. The researchers paid for a large poll of the state’s residents and then communicated the district-by-district results to half the legislators. Among these informed legislators, there was a strong correlation between the legislator’s vote and the amount of support revealed by the poll. However, among the legislators who didn’t see the polling results, there was almost no correlation. The authors of the study note that this ignorance of constituent opinion may be exacerbated by the decline of local media and in less professional legislatures.

Butler, D. & Nickerson, D., “Can Learning Constituency Opinion Affect How Legislators Vote? Results from a Field Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (August 2011).

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