Uncommon Knowledge

Loving the Republican face

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Istockphoto; Globe Staff Photo Illustration

Despite much hand-wringing over whether Mitt Romney is conservative enough for today’s GOP, he has found success in the Republican primaries. So what explains it? Perhaps it’s because Romney looks Republican. New research finds that Republicans tend to vote for the more Republican face. To determine whether a candidate had a more Republican face, researchers asked people to pick out the Republican from black-and-white headshots of the two major party candidates in various gubernatorial or Senate elections. It turns out that, in contests among Republican-leaning voters and where both candidates were white males, having a more Republican face boosted a candidate’s share of the vote, regardless of his party affiliation. In contrast, among Democratic-leaning voters, facial stereotypes did not seem to matter, aside from the observation of gender, ethnicity, and age.

Olivola, C. et al., “‘Republicans Prefer Republican-Looking Leaders: Political Facial Stereotypes Predict Candidate Electoral Success among Right-Leaning Voters,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Putting the B in bro

To many, college fraternities are defined by their caricature in the movie “Animal House”-- as a bunch of hedonistic troublemakers. As with any stereotype, though, this is often not the case. According to a recent analysis, both fraternities and sororities might be better described as affiliations of B+ students. Fraternities and sororities tend to reject low-performing students, whose future prospects (and alumni donations) are not bright. Meanwhile, high-performing students tend not to rush fraternities and sororities to avoid being lumped in with lower-performing students. Analyzing actual grades from seniors at the University of Illinois, the authors confirm this pattern, finding that the odds of being in a fraternity or sorority are much greater for students with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.4 than for students with GPAs near 2.0 or 4.0.

Popov, S. & Bernhardt, D., “Fraternities and Labor Market Outcomes,” American Economic Journal: Microeconomics (forthcoming).

Rock, rock, rock

The evidence suggests that humans have deep cognitive tendencies to imitate the actions of others. Researchers in England wanted to see whether people are prone to automatic--and even undesirable--imitation. Two subjects played the game rock-paper-scissors, with one or both players blindfolded, while another person refereed the game. Unsurprisingly, when both players were blindfolded, the proportion of draws was statistically equivalent to chance. However, when only one player was blindfolded, there were significantly more draws than one would expect, suggesting that the seeing person was automatically imitating the blindfolded person’s gesture in the split-second before it was fully formed.

Cook, R. et al., “Automatic Imitation in a Strategic Context: Players of Rock-Paper-Scissors Imitate Opponents’ Gestures,” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (Feb. 22, 2012).

They really like me!


It often seems like Hollywood celebrities are full of themselves, but new research suggests that this may be more true than we know. Research subjects who were put in a high-status frame of mind--by thinking about a high-status experience--were subsequently more inclined to expect and report that an audience was responding with more favorable applause and facial expressions to something they had authored, even though the audience response was concocted to be identical for both high- and low-status subjects.

Pettit, N. & Sivanathan, N., “The Eyes and Ears of Status: How Status Colors Perceptual Judgment,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

When diversity breeds sameness

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? According to a recent study, your answer should partly depend on what kinds of friends you want. Researchers randomly approached pairs of people who happened to be hanging out with each other at the University of Kansas or at small rural colleges in Kansas. Pairs at the large university had more attitudes and behavior in common than pairs at the small colleges--ostensibly because people can more easily find like-minded friends in larger groups. So, ironically, the greater diversity of a big group begets less diversity among friends.

Bahns, A. et al., “Social Ecology of Similarity: Big Schools, Small Schools and Social Relationships,” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (January 2012).

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