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    Uncommon Knowledge

    Obama, 1; racism, 0

    And other surprising insights from the social sciences

    Obama, 1; racism, 0

    One of the reasons Barack Obama wanted to run for president was to set an example, and it looks like he did. According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, Obama’s campaign—by saturating the country with images of a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” to quote then vice presidential candidate Joe Biden—caused white racial prejudice to decline at least five times faster during the second half of 2008 than it had during the previous two decades. Consistent with the campaign being the cause, the decline in prejudice was strongest in states where the campaign was most active. The effect was also stronger among those on the right and those who watched right-leaning programs.

    Goldman, S., “Effects of the 2008 Obama Presidential Campaign on White Racial Prejudice,” Public Opinion Quarterly (Winter 2012).

    Bad thoughts? Toss ’em

    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just throw your negative thoughts away, like garbage? Well, that may actually be the case, according to a new study. Students were randomly assigned to write down positive or negative thoughts about their bodies or about a diet; then they were told to throw the pieces of paper away. Subsequently, researchers found, they relied less on those thoughts to judge their bodies or diet. In fact, in one experiment, throwing one’s thoughts away reversed one’s judgment. However, you really have to physically discard the paper—imagining the act of throwing one’s thoughts away didn’t have the same effect.

    Briñol, P. et al., “Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact
    on Evaluation,” Psychological Science

    Seeking peace in storms

    One of the few benefits of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Sandy: They might be good for the United Nations. According to a recent study, the combined threat of death and climate change promotes peaceful coexistence. Among American students, imagining both a climate change catastrophe and the prospect of death induced a greater preference for diplomacy over war. Among Palestinian students with a strong sense of common humanity, the same combination of climate change and death induced greater support for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation with Israeli Jews.

    Pyszczynski, T. et al., “Drawing Attention to Global Climate Change Decreases Support for War,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology (November 2012).

    I want one of everything!


    For teachers, bosses, and leaders of all kinds, figuring out how to motivate people is key—but simple tricks can go a long way. New research suggests that you can boost motivation just by divvying up rewards into separate categories. In several experiments, participants were asked to perform mundane tasks in exchange for up to two trinkets or treats, awarded in proportion to effort. In one scenario, some participants were told that for extra work, they could pick a second prize from the same large pool of prizes; in the second scenario, the pool was divided into two arbitrarily different, smaller groups, and participants were told that for extra work, they could pick a second prize from the other category. Even though the first scenario allowed participants more options in choosing rewards, the second scenario caused participants to expend significantly more effort on the tasks, because participants didn’t want to regret not choosing a reward from the alternative collection.

    Wiltermuth, S. & Gino, F., “‘I’ll Have One of Each’: How Separating Rewards into (Meaningless) Categories Increases Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

    When information hurts

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    During the election, much was made of low-information voters, who were going to pick candidates even without deep knowledge of the issues. But it turns out there’s a situation where less knowledgeable voters actually outperform those who spend all their time reading about politics: when politicians break lockstep with their party. In an analysis of survey data, political scientists “find that although politically interested citizens are the group most likely to know their senator’s position when she votes with the party, they are also the group most likely to incorrectly identify their senator’s position when she votes against her party.”

    Dancey, L. & Sheagley, G., “Heuristics Behaving Badly: Party Cues and Voter Knowledge,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

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