Uncommon Knowledge

Why (male) bosses won’t shut up

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

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Why (male) bosses won’t shut up

Imagine a company meeting in which two people at the table — a man and a woman — seem to be doing all the talking. How will the other people in the room react? Based on research by a psychologist at the Yale School of Management, they might be annoyed — but probably only by the talkative woman. When evaluating either a male or female CEO who was either more or less talkative, both men and women gave significantly higher ratings to a male CEO who was more talkative and a female CEO who was less talkative. And women have learned this lesson. Women who were asked to imagine themselves as the highest-power person in a group meeting reported that they wouldn’t talk significantly more than if they were the lowest-power person, whereas men reported that they would talk significantly more as the highest-power person. Women’s fear of backlash is so strong that it even shows up in the US Senate: More powerful male senators talk significantly more than less powerful male senators, but more powerful female senators don’t talk significantly more than less powerful female senators.

Brescoll, V., “Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly (December 2011).

Your enemies may be farther than you think

If you’re a Red Sox fan contemplating a road trip to an away game at Yankee Stadium, be sure to budget enough time and gas money to get there — a new study suggests you might underestimate. Researchers from New York University approached both Yankees and non-Yankees fans outside Yankee Stadium and asked them to estimate the distance to Fenway Park and Camden Yards (the stadium for the Baltimore Orioles). Non-Yankees fans tended to estimate that Fenway Park was farther away than Camden Yards. But Yankees fans estimated that their rivals at Fenway Park were closer than Camden Yards, even controlling for knowledge of each metropolitan area. The researchers also found the same effect, in which those who posed a threat were perceived as geographically closer, with inter-collegiate and international comparisons. After reading an article portraying Columbia as better than NYU, people who were strongly identified with NYU estimated Columbia University to be closer; and patriotic NYU students who perceived a threat to US culture from Mexican immigrants tended to give lower estimates of the distance from New York to Mexico City.

Xiao, Y. & Van Bavel, J., “See Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Social Identity and Identity Threat Shape the Representation of Physical Distance,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Racism at the polls

Should American voters have to show ID at the polls? In general, Republicans support voter ID requirements — ostensibly to prevent fraud — while Democrats oppose them, on the grounds that they disproportionately burden the poor, elderly, and minorities. A new study set out to test what happens in a common middle ground that prevails in states including Massachusetts, where an ID is required only for some voters — and found that this system, at least, is discriminatory. Researchers implemented “a well-staffed, well-funded exit poll” with “state-of-the-art statistical techniques” and “a training program that clarified proper ID request procedure for poll workers in a randomly selected group of locations” for the 2008 general election in the City of Boston. Despite the fact that poll workers were supposedly relying on a list that demarcated which voters needed to be asked for ID, voters who were black, Hispanic, or spoke poor English were approximately 10 percentage points more likely to be asked for ID. These disparities did not appear to be explained by a greater likelihood of demarcation on the list and were not mitigated by the training program.

Cobb, R. et al., “Can Voter ID Laws Be Administered in a Race-Neutral Manner? Evidence from the City of Boston in 2008,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (March 2012).

You might be smarter in Finnish

Globe Staff Illustration


Some thoughts may get lost in translation, but, according to new research, rational decision-making may get found there. Psychologists at the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments comparing decisions contemplated in subjects’ native language to decisions contemplated in a foreign language. People operating in their native language exhibited typical biases well known to psychologists, but those biases disappeared when operating in a foreign language: People were not swayed by the way problems were framed, and they were more willing to take on favorable bets. The authors theorize that a foreign language enables cognitive and emotional distancing that dissolves our usual biases.

Keysar, B. et al., “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Too many deaths to scare us

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Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spend a lot of time worrying about mass casualty events. But beyond a certain point, strangely, the prospect of huge numbers of deaths may not make the public more frightened. A recent study suggests that we have evolved to max out our fear of threats at around 100 deaths, about the size of one person’s social circle. When people were asked about events (disease, poisonous factory emissions, or an earthquake) that would result in 10, 100, or 1,000 deaths, fear increased when going from 10 to 100 deaths but not from 100 to 1,000 deaths. This wasn’t explained by insensitivity to large numbers, and, consistent with the social-circle theory, there were no differences in fear when going from 10 to 100 to 1,000 deaths for an event in a distant community.

Galesic, M. & Garcia-Retamero, R., “The Risks We Dread: A Social Circle Account,” PLoS ONE (April 2012).

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