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Uncommon Knowledge

You’ll like that TV show more with less shooting

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Violence is an integral part of American entertainment. You might presume this is the case because it’s what consumers want and enjoy. However, a recent study by researchers at Indiana University suggests that wanting and enjoying violent entertainment are not the same thing. Students read descriptions of episodes from four violent TV shows (“Oz,” “Kingpin,” “The Sopranos,” and “24”). The descriptions either emphasized violence or didn’t. The students chose one of the shows to watch and were then shown either an unedited version or a version with the violence edited out. A majority of the students--both male and female--chose shows with violent descriptions. Ironically, though, students enjoyed the violent shows significantly less than the nonviolent shows, regardless of whether they had chosen a show with a violent description.

Weaver, A. & Kobach, M., “The Relationship Between Selective Exposure and the Enjoyment of Television Violence,” Aggressive Behavior (March/April 2012).

Excessive? Depends who’s celebrating

The NFL and the NCAA penalize “excessive” celebrations on the football field. Of course, that raises the question: What do people judge to be an excessive celebration? Does that mean dancing in the end zone, elaborate pantomimes, spiking the football-- or simply celebrating while black? According to a new study by researchers at Northwestern University, the latter may be true more often than we’d like to think. In several experiments, people who read about a player’s touchdown celebration significantly penalized that player if he was named Malik Johnson but not if he was named Jake Biermann, even though both players were seen as equally arrogant.

Richardson, E. & Livingston, R., “The Hubris Penalty: Biased Responses to ‘Celebration’ Displays of Black Football Players,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Extra year of school, higher IQ forever

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Many teenagers grumble about the value of high school and college. In fact, however, each additional year of school may pay bigger dividends than even parents suspect. In 1947, the minimum age to drop out of school in Britain was changed from 14 to 15. Analysis of a recent survey of the elderly British population revealed that men who had to stay in school an extra year measured higher in intelligence--around half of one standard deviation, analogous to an eight-point gain on IQ tests-- than men who didn’t have to stay in school an extra year. The authors infer that the long-term cognitive benefits of an extra year of school were due to better employment and earnings--and perhaps more stimulation--over one’s lifetime.

Banks, J. & Mazzonna, F., “The Effect of Education on Old Age Cognitive Abilities: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design,” Economic Journal (forthcoming).

How to derail your kids’ lives

After difficult childhoods, some kids struggle, while others go on to happy, secure, and productive lives. A new study suggests that one important distinction may be the particular point in development at which those difficulties unfold. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recruited pregnant women at public health clinics in Minneapolis in the mid-1970s for a long-term study, which followed over 150 kids from birth to adulthood. The data revealed that the unpredictability of family life-- disruption caused by the mother losing her job, moving, or changing partners--in the first few years of the child’s life was uniquely associated with the child growing up to have more sexual partners, aggression, delinquency, and criminal behavior at age 23. Neither unpredictability in later childhood nor socioeconomic status were associated with these outcomes.

Simpson, J. et al., “Evolution, Stress, and Sensitive Periods: The Influence of Unpredictability in Early Versus Late Childhood on Sex and Risky Behavior,” Developmental Psychology (forthcoming).

Do tall men have more offspring?

Much social science research--and conventional wisdom--suggests that tall men are more successful, both at work and with women. But from a Darwinian perspective, what really matters is whether tall men reproduce more. Researchers in the Netherlands (reported to be the tallest country in the world) analyzed data on the life history of several thousand men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. It turns out that men of average height for this population--around 5 feet 10 inches--had the most children. This was partly explained by the fact that average-height men got married earlier. Nevertheless, the effect of height on reproductive success was far smaller than the positive effect of income and negative effect of education. The authors conclude: “Given our findings, it is puzzling that tall men are more attractive.”

Stulp, G. et al., “A Curvilinear Effect of Height on Reproductive Success in Human Males,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (March 2012).

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