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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Uncommon Knowledge

She hot, me dumb

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff

Who are you calling racist?

Most people don’t want to appear racist, and a new study suggests they’ll work hard to preempt that charge. When people who weren’t black expected to choose between hypothetical white and black job candidates--where the white candidate was slightly more qualified--they became more inclined to label a potentially racist behavior as racist. This didn’t happen when the white candidate was way more qualified or when the black candidate was more qualified. In turn, allowing white people to label behaviors as racist granted them more license to prefer the slightly more qualified white candidate. In another experiment, expecting to take a psychological test that might expose latent racism caused white people to rank a black job applicant higher, unless they also read that psychologists disagreed about whether the test actually measured racism.

Merritt, A. et al., “The Strategic Pursuit of Moral Credentials,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

She hot, me dumb

You don’t have to be around men for long to notice how easily they can be distracted by a sexy woman. However, new research shows that men don’t even have to see the woman, or know that she’s sexy. In one experiment, men sat down at a computer and were given instructions via text chat--supposedly from an experimenter with either a male or female name--to speak into a webcam that the experimenter was supposedly monitoring. After this task, the men took a cognitive test. Men who thought they had interacted with a female significantly underperformed. This happened even when men hadn’t yet interacted with the female but had been told to expect such an interaction. Meanwhile, women’s cognitive performance didn’t seem to be affected by the same kinds of interactions with men.

Nauts, S. et al., “The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (forthcoming).

The values diet

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Losing weight is hard. Wouldn’t it be nice if a simple one-time exercise could shave off several pounds over several months? Researchers asked women to write about their most important value and why it was important to them, or about a less important value and why it might be important to someone else. Two and a half months later, women who had written about their most important value had lost weight, whereas women who had written about a less important value had gained weight. The first group also had smaller waists and better cognitive performance than the second group. The authors speculate that “affirming values freed up attentional resources” that could be used to pursue “health-related goals.”

Logel, C. & Cohen, G., “The Role of the Self in Physical Health: Testing the Effect of a Values-Affirmation Intervention on Weight Loss,” Psychological Science (January 2012).

Who fakes it, and why

Over the years, economists have tried to apply their methods to affairs normally considered outside the scope of economics. An economics professor at Emory University has taken this to the next level. In an intensely mathematical analysis, he developed “a rational expectations signaling model of lovemaking” that makes predictions about the likelihood of faking orgasm. Specifically, he predicted that middle-aged women are less likely to fake than older and younger women, and that love makes people more likely to fake. Testing the model against survey data, he found that middle-aged women are indeed less likely to fake, but only if they’re in love. He also found an unexpected result: Educated men and women are more likely to fake. He speculates that this reflects their higher opportunity cost of time.

Mialon, H., “The Economics of Faking Ecstasy,” Economic Inquiry (January 2012).

Kind words that lower performance

You have talents, but maybe X isn’t one of them. For many people, X just doesn’t come naturally. Develop your talents, and don’t worry too much about X. If you’ve ever heard statements like these, or said them yourself, you might want to rethink your attitude: New research suggests that such statements create a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who endorsed the view--either on their own or after reading an article supporting it--that math intelligence was relatively fixed were more apt to attribute a student’s low score on a math test to lower math intelligence. As a result, they were more inclined to offer the kind of comfort and subtle discouragement exemplified above. This feedback, in turn, caused students to be less motivated and have lower expectations for future performance.

Rattan, A. et al., “‘It’s OK--Not Everyone Can Be Good at Math’: Instructors with an Entity Theory Comfort (and Demotivate) Students,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.
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