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    Uncommon Knowledge

    Man, I look handsome when I’m drunk

    And other surprising insights from the social sciences

    Martin Gee/Globe Staff

    The case against tote bags

    When organizations like PBS and NPR do pledge drives, they commonly give out thank-you gifts: tote bags, mugs, and so on. Yet new research from Yale University suggests that PBS and NPR may want to reconsider these rewards. In a series of experiments, people donated significantly less to various charitable causes when offered a thank-you gift than when offered no gift at all. The desirability or cost of the gift made little difference. The only thing that seemed to attenuate the negative effect of the thank-you gift was when the gift itself was also promoted as a way to help the charity (e.g., by displaying its logo). These results support the theory that outside incentives can undermine the intrinsic motivations for charity.

    Newman, G. & Shen, J., “The Counterintuitive Effects of Thank-you Gifts on Charitable Giving,” Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming).

    Missionaries: force for democracy?

    In a presidential debate against John Kerry in 2004, George W. Bush said: “I believe that God wants everybody to be free....And that’s one part of my foreign policy.” Although Bush was criticized for this evangelical view, an extensive new historical analysis suggests that such activism has indeed had a significant impact on freedom. As the author writes, “Protestant missions explain about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania and make most of the variables that dominate current research statistically insignificant.” Because Protestant missionaries wanted the masses to be able to read the Bible, they were early catalysts for mass education, printing, and social organization, especially given that, in the colonial era, missionaries were exceptionally educated. The mobilization of the masses, in turn, challenged the monopoly of local elites, forcing them to compete for support and laying the foundation for stable democracy. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was more in league with elites and, as such, invested in the masses largely in response to competition with Protestant missionaries. The conclusion: “What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

    Woodberry, R., “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review (May 2012).

    Cut yourself some slack

    You’re a flawed person. But don’t be too hard on yourself—give yourself a hug. According to psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley, that’s the ticket to self-improvement. In several experiments, people who first recalled a personal flaw or transgression or took a hard test were subsequently more focused on self-improvement if they contemplated self-compassion, as opposed to contemplating a boost to self-esteem.

    Breines, J. & Chen, S., “Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

    Old warriors, young peacekeepers


    Although the UNITED STATES was fighting two distant wars during the 2008 election, most Americans were far more focused on domestic issues. That may have helped Barack Obama, and not just because of his approach or agenda. New research suggests that people tend to vote for younger faces in times of peace but for older faces in times of war. In fact, when the faces of Obama and John McCain themselves were morphed into other young or old faces, the older faces were preferred in wartime scenarios, regardless of whose face it was.

    Spisak, B., “The General Age of Leadership: Older-Looking Presidential Candidates Win Elections during War,” PLoS ONE (May 2012).

    Get drunk, get handsome

    Martin Gee/Globe Staff
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    The expression “beer goggles” refers to a prospective sexual partner looking more attractive to a drunk person. A new study shows that the beer-goggle phenomenon persists even when the drunk person looks in the mirror—and even if he just thinks he’s drunk. At a bar in France, researchers found that a higher blood-alcohol level was correlated with the assessment of one’s own attractiveness. In an experiment, French men were asked to taste-test a drink that was supposed to contain no alcohol—even though it actually did—or taste-test another drink that was supposed to be alcoholic but was actually just coated with the smell of alcohol. A little later, the men delivered an advertising speech in front of a camera and then watched and rated their own performance. Men who thought they had consumed alcohol perceived themselves as more attractive in their own video than men who thought they hadn’t consumed alcohol. Actual alcohol consumption didn’t matter. Moreover, independent judges didn’t perceive the same boost in attractiveness that participants did.

    Bègue, L. et al., “‘Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder’: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive,” British Journal of Psychology (forthcoming).

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