Uncommon Knowledge

A jacket that improves your test scores

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

How to dress for a test

Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff


Mark Twain said that “clothes make the man.” Judging by research from Northwestern University, he was right. In several experiments, wearing a white lab coat made college students more diligent. They made fewer errors in a test of selective attention, which involved quickly identifying the color of words that name incongruent colors (e.g., “RED” colored in blue), and in a test of sustained attention, where students had to find small differences between two nearly identical pictures. However, the effect of the clothes also depends on how they’re described. Students wearing a white lab coat described as a medical doctor’s coat performed better than students wearing the same white lab coat described as an artist’s coat. Just looking at a white lab coat described as a medical doctor’s coat didn’t have the same effect as wearing it, but did have some effect if students were asked to write an essay identifying with the coat.

Adam, H. & Galinsky, A., “Enclothed Cognition,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Tale of a dangerous gene

In women, BRCA gene mutations can dramatically increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Such an increased risk of disease and death raises the question of why these mutations persisted in the population in the first place. Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah think they’ve found the answer. Analyzing data from the Utah Population Database, they found that, before the advent of modern contraception, genetics, and family planning, women with BRCA mutations were significantly more fertile than other women. They bore more children and had a longer reproductive life, notwithstanding the impact of cancer in later life. Moreover, there is some evidence that their higher fertility mitigated their cancer risk. For modern women, restraints on fertility mean that the fertility advantage is less likely to be realized and is therefore smaller.

Smith, K. et al., “Effects of BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutations on Female Fertility,” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (April 7, 2012).

The booze-racism cocktail


A guy walked into a bar and started telling racist jokes. Unfortunately, that’s the punchline. A new study found that college students who were exposed to alcoholic stimuli--even without having consumed any alcohol--exhibited significantly enhanced racial bias, as measured by the automatic association of black faces with guns. The authors theorize that the effect is caused by people learning to associate alcohol with uninhibited behavior and speech, such that “people could be more likely to act upon their prejudices simply for having entered a bar” or “watched an alcohol advertisement.”

Stepanova, E. et al., “Alcohol-Related Cues Promote Automatic Racial Bias,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Another reason to think about money

Understanding how self-control works--and when and why it doesn’t--is a hot topic in psychology. A study out of Bates College now suggests that one thing that can boost willpower is the mere thought of money. In two experiments, students whose self-control was initially depleted--by an arduous text-editing task, or by trying to list their thoughts after being told not to think about one thing in particular--performed better on a subsequent self-control task if they had been exposed to money-related words in between performing the two tasks.

Boucher, H. & Kofos, M., “The Idea of Money Counteracts Ego Depletion Effects,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Why you’re honking at that car

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We tend to stereotype drivers of red sports cars as having flashy, cocky personalities. But a new study suggests that you don’t have to be driving a Ferrari to get a rise out of other drivers--the red color alone triggers a reaction. Researchers in France had cars of the same model but different colors pull up to a traffic light and remain stationary when the light turned green, blocking the car behind them. Red cars elicited significantly faster and more aggressive (i.e., honking vs. flashing headlights) reactions than blue, green, black, or white cars.

Guéguen, N. et al., “When Drivers See Red: Car Color Frustrators and Drivers’ Aggressiveness,” Aggressive Behavior (March/April 2012).

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