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Uncommon Knowledge

Why the best athletes are also beautiful

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

The hottie premium

Life is unfair. Not only do the rich get richer, but a new study finds that the beautiful develop more skill. The prettiest golfers in the LPGA—as judged by Americans and Koreans unfamiliar with golf—had better scores and won more tournament prize money, even controlling for experience and early talent. The theory goes like this: “Physically attractive athletes are rewarded more than unattractive athletes for one unit of effort. Being rewarded more, physically attractive athletes devote more effort to improving their productivity. Consequently they become more productive than less attractive athletes with comparable natural athletic talents.”

Ahn, S. & Lee, Y., “Beauty and Productivity: The Case of the Ladies Professional Golf Association,” Contemporary Economic Policy (forthcoming).

Power your way to a job

When you apply for a job, you might feel vulnerable and powerless. But it turns out there’s an extremely simple way to boost your chances at getting the gig: spend a little time thinking of yourself as just the opposite. In two experiments, students who first wrote about an experience in which they had power went on to write better application letters and performed better in interviews.

Lammers, J. et al., “Power Gets the Job: Priming Power Improves Interview Outcomes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Happiness: universally healthful

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While the positive psychology movement has established a strong link between happiness and health in wealthy countries, you might think our emphasis on emotion is a luxury, while in poor countries what’s key to health is more basic needs. A new analysis of survey data from a “representative sample of 95% of the world’s population,” however, shows just the opposite. Emotional experiences are associated with self-reported health throughout the world—more strongly than the association between health and hunger, homelessness, or safety—and in fact, the association between positive emotional experiences and self-reported health is stronger in poorer countries.

Pressman, S. et al., “Is the Emotion-Health Connection a ‘First-World Problem’?” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Lawyers, the arms race

One of Shakespeare’s characters famously said “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That might be a bit drastic, but it turns out we might be better off if we got rid of them somehow. Analyzing data from arbitration proceedings in New Jersey, several economists show how legal representation is akin to an arms race or doping in sports—it’s in the individual’s interest (especially if others act the same way) but undermines the common good. Legal representation may have helped everyone come together in the early days of the system, when litigants didn’t know what to expect, but eventually representation became nothing more than bringing a gun to a gun fight.

Ashenfelter, O. et al., “Lawyers as Agents of the Devil in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game: Evidence from Long Run Play,” National Bureau of Economic Research (February 2013).

Anxiety as lie detector

Are you habitually anxious about being ignored, betrayed, or dumped in your relationships? Don’t worry—you can put that vigilance to good use. Israeli researchers found that people with attachment anxiety were better lie detectors, and poker players with greater attachment anxiety won more.

Ein-Dor, T. & Perry, A., “Full House of Fears: Evidence that People High in Attachment Anxiety Are More Accurate in Detecting Deceit,” Journal of Personality (forthcoming).

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