Uncommon Knowledge

Liberals love bunnies, conservatives hate maggots

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

istockphoto; Globe Staff Photo Illustration

Conservative disgust, liberal delight

One of the holy grails of social science is to explain the emotion behind different political beliefs. In a new study, researchers at the University of Nebraska found that conservatives exhibited stronger physiological reactions to, and were quicker to look at and then looked longer at, disagreeable images (e.g., spider on a man’s face, open wound with maggots in it, crowd fighting with a man, politician of the opposite party), whereas liberals exhibited stronger reactions to agreeable images (e.g., happy child, bowl of fruit, cute rabbit, politician of the same party). In other words, conservatives are easily appalled; liberals are easily enchanted.

Dodd, M. et al., “The Political Left Rolls with the Good and the Political Right Confronts the Bad: Connecting Physiology and Cognition to Preferences,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (March 5, 2012).

How female role models erase gender gaps

In this country, we take it for granted that women should have equal educational opportunities to men, but, in some parts of the world, that notion is still remote. Do powerful female role models make a difference? To find out, researchers looked to India, which has been requiring randomly selected villages to elect female leaders. The researchers found that aspirations for girls’ futures increased, and girls caught up with boys in educational achievement, in female-led villages. Unfortunately, as the authors note, the gender gap doesn’t really begin to disappear until a woman’s second term in office. With little evidence that things changed otherwise for young adults or that policy shifted in favor of girls, the authors conclude that affirmative action made a difference by gradually creating role models.

Beaman, L. et al., “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India,” Science (forthcoming).

Traders: only kind of reckless!

Judging by the volatility we’ve seen on Wall Street recently, you’d think that traders were born to be wild. However, a new study suggests that, especially in the case of veteran traders, they’re actually born to be moderate. Researchers took DNA samples from 60 traders in New York City in the summer of 2008. Those who had been traders the longest tended to have genes associated with intermediate levels of dopamine activity in the brain, which, in turn, is associated with a balanced risk-taking disposition. Veteran traders were also more reluctant to trade in volatile markets.

Sapra, S. et al., “A Combination of Dopamine Genes Predicts Success by Professional Wall Street Traders,” PLoS ONE (January 2012).

The scorched-earth theory of business founding


The debate over Mitt Romney’s record in corporate takeovers has highlighted the concept of “creative destruction,” in which the dead wood of less successful businesses is cleared to make room for new growth. Two business school professors wondered whether actual destruction does the same thing. They analyzed the rates at which new businesses were founded before and after 9/11 in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. In the short term, founding rates fell, as one would expect. However, after about a year, founding rates surged back higher than their pre-9/11 levels, but only for locations close to Manhattan. This pattern held up even when controlling for a host of business and economic variables, including the flow of federal money.

Paruchuri, S. & Ingram, P., “Appetite for Destruction: The Impact of the September 11 Attacks on Business Founding,” Industrial and Corporate Change (February 2012).

Take my advice and do the perfect thing

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Our political discourse seems to be dominated by back-seat drivers and Monday-morning quarterbacks — pundits, analysts, strategists, lobbyists, and activists who spew advice without having to follow it. But there’s the rub: What we’d advise others to do turns out to be substantially different than what we’d do ourselves. In several experiments, people were asked to contemplate various choices, either as an adviser or as the chooser. As advisers, people were more idealistic than pragmatic, focusing more on the why than the how, even to the point of being hypocritical. For example, advisers would advise others to spend a lot of time volunteering but were much less generous in volunteering themselves. Putting advisers in a how (vs. why) or imagine-making-the-decision-yourself mind-set was enough to bring them back to reality.

Danziger, S. et al., “Idealistic Advice and Pragmatic Choice: A Psychological Distance Account,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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