Uncommon Knowledge

Smile like your happiness depends on it

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Smile, you’re on Candid Camera! That seems to be the lesson of a new study by psychologists at the University of Virginia. They found that both male and female freshmen who smiled more intensely in their Facebook profile photos were not only more satisfied with their lives as freshmen, but also more satisfied with their lives several years later as seniors, even controlling for freshman-year life satisfaction and extroversion. The connection between smiling and subsequent life satisfaction appeared to be at least partly explained by the quality of one’s social relationships.

Seder, P. & Oishi, S., “Intensity of Smiling in Facebook Photos Predicts Future Life Satisfaction,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).



Leaders in many jobs and activities try to make participants feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, with the idea that it can motivate them to work harder. New research shows just how easy and how powerful it can be to create this feeling, even for activities without much inherent team spirit--like math. Among students with at least some interest in math, those who read about a more sociable math department or a math graduate with the same birthday, or who were nominally assigned to a puzzle-solving “group,” spent significantly more time trying to solve an insoluble math problem and were more likely to engage with challenging puzzles days later.

Walton, G. et al., “Mere Belonging: The Power of Social Connections,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).


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Anyone who has ever worked in an office (or seen the TV show “The Office”) knows that managers--even the most competent ones--can do stupid things. A new paper by scholars of organizational behavior argues that “ironically, hierarchy creates a situation whereby the people in position to create incentive systems may be the most poorly suited for the job.” Because they are ostensibly more competent, overworked, and powerful than subordinates, managers tend to suffer from psychological biases like overconfidence, less ability to see things from another perspective, and more abstract thinking. These biases, in turn, cause managers to make mistakes like overemphasizing compensation at the expense of intrinsic and social motivation, or motivating subordinates with unrealistic, conflicting, or even counterproductive goals.

Magee, J. et al., “On the Folly of Principals’ Power: Managerial Psychology as a Cause of Bad Incentives,” Research in Organizational Behavior (forthcoming).


For many people of faith, God is not just an ambiguous metaphysical entity, but a tangible force in everyday life. New research confirms that God can indeed be a force in everyday life, but also that this force can go either way. For example, when engineering students were exposed to God-related words, they performed worse on an intellectual task that was supposedly relevant to their careers--but only if they believed that outside forces could influence their lives. On the other hand, God-related thoughts seemed to give people more self-control, as they became more resistant to junk food--though only if they believed in an omniscient God. Likewise, when evaluating their own willingness to pursue a career goal and resist distracting temptations, students who had read about a controlling God were, paradoxically, less willing to pursue their goal but more willing to resist distractions. None of these effects differed for people of different religious backgrounds.

Laurin, K. et al., “Divergent Effects of Activating Thoughts of God on Self-Regulation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).



Does being oppressed make it more difficult for groups to support their own? According to a recent study in India, where the caste system has perpetuated oppression for generations, the answer is yes. Men from different castes in one of the poorest states of the country were asked to indicate how much they would punish someone from a different caste who had cheated a member of their own caste. Regardless of their wealth, education, or political involvement, men from low-status castes were significantly less willing to punish in this situation. Meanwhile, men from high-status castes relaxed their more punitive stance if it was a member of their own caste who was cheating someone from another caste. The authors of the study note that this in-group favoritism allows the high-status castes to more easily “enforce contracts and ensure their property rights, which advantages them with respect to trading opportunities and production incentives” and gives them “an advantage in sustaining collective action.”

Hoff, K. et al., “Caste and Punishment: The Legacy of Caste Culture in Norm Enforcement,” Economic Journal (November 2011).

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

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