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UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE

Aw, don’t do that, grandma

Kevin Golden/Globe Staff

Look, I’m an obstructionist!

As the harsh cuts of the sequester take effect, Americans of both parties are flummoxed. How could relations in Congress have come to such a disastrous standstill? Well, sorry, everyone: It may be partly the media’s fault. In a new paper, a professor of economics at Bowdoin uses game theory to model partisan legislative behavior and finds that the minority party has stronger incentives to obstruct—and be seen obstructing—when news reporting is less reliable in discerning good policy. As such, obstruction sends a useful signal to uncertain voters. It damages the majority’s reputation and chances of reelection, although the minority’s reputation suffers, too, leaving it with little to lose, creating a “feedback process in which gridlock has caused lower approval ratings, which have in turn caused further gridlock, and so on.” Sound familiar?

Stone, D., “Media and Gridlock,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

Save water; waste power

Recycling your garbage, buying a hybrid car, or installing solar panels may be good for the environment, but be careful not to let that go to your head: It could backfire in a different area. In a recent experiment, tenants of an apartment complex in Lynnfield were split into two groups: one that received weekly water usage feedback, and one that didn’t. Although the feedback group lowered its water usage by 6 percent, its electricity usage went up by almost the same amount. The offset wasn’t explained by tenants having more money to spend on electricity, since water was covered by the landlord. Instead, it appears to be explained by “moral licensing”—feeling entitled to bad behavior after demonstrating good behavior. And the estimated cost of the extra electricity far exceeded the estimated savings from lower water usage.

Tiefenbeck, V. et al., “For Better or for Worse? Empirical Evidence of Moral Licensing in a Behavioral Energy Conservation Campaign,” Energy Policy (forthcoming).

Aw, don’t do that, grandma

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Young people are supposed to respect their elders, but a new study suggests that this respect only persists as long as old people behave as young people expect them to. In a series of experiments, psychologists at Princeton asked people of various ages to give their impressions of another person who did or didn’t violate an age-related norm—being stingy, demanding an expensive medical procedure, or listening to pop music. Being younger was associated with having a dimmer view of an older person (but not a younger person) who exhibited these behaviors.

North, M. & Fiske, S., “Act Your (Old) Age: Prescriptive, Ageist Biases over Succession, Consumption, and Identity,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

The gender of race

When talking about social stereotypes, people tend to focus on either race or gender, but they often overlook how race and gender interact. Researchers have found that people generally ascribe more masculinity to blacks than Asians, with whites somewhere in the middle. In fact, after being subliminally exposed to the word “black,” people more readily processed masculine words, whereas they more readily processed feminine words after being subliminally exposed to the word “Asian.” Likewise, heterosexual white men prefer Asian women to black women, heterosexual white women prefer black men to Asian men, and the overwhelming majority of black-Asian marriages are between a black man and an Asian woman. People were also less likely to select an Asian for a masculine leadership position.

Galinsky, A. et al., “Gendered Races: Implications for Interracial Marriage, Leadership Selection, and Athletic Participation,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Painkillers: no need
to swallow

You’ve probably heard the old saying “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Based on a new study, though, it might be equally reasonable to tell people just to hold the aspirin bottle. People who examined a bottle of ibuprofen—as part of an ostensibly unrelated product survey—subsequently held out longer, and reported less intense pain, while immersing their hands in cold water.

Rutchick, A. & Slepian, M., “Handling Ibuprofen Increases Pain Tolerance and Decreases Perceived Pain Intensity in a Cold Pressor Test,” PLoS ONE (March 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.
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