Uncommon Knowledge

Faith in science can guide your values

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

But can you pray to it?

Religion is widely seen as offering people a moral compass, a powerful guide to judgment and behavior. But what if you believe in something besides religion? Could a faith in science similarly guide your values? The answer appears to be yes: In a new study, psychologists found that people who were studying science, believed in science, or were exposed to scientific words were harsher in condemning a crime and were more generous to others compared to people who weren’t engaged with science. The authors of the study suggest “there is a lay image or notion of ‘science’ that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress, and ultimately, the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society.”

Ma-Kellams, C. & Blascovich, J., “Does ‘Science’ Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior,” PLoS ONE (March 2013).

New fund-raising advice

How a decision is framed—for example, if it’s presented as a way to secure a gain, rather than avoid a loss—has been shown to dramatically affect one’s actual choice, even if the underlying options are the same. Charities, it appears, should start using this to their advantage: A new study found that a request to donate blood was more effective if it was framed as a way to “prevent someone from dying” rather than as a way to “save someone’s life.” Likewise, people judged a charity to be more appealing if it asked for help to “minimize the possibility of a decrease’’ rather than to “maximize the possibility of an increase” in its ability to make a difference.

Chou, E. & Murnighan, K., “Life or Death Decisions: Framing the Call for Help,” PLoS ONE (March 2013).

‘Math first’ is unfair

Because standardized tests are so critical in determining a student’s academic trajectory, they’ve received a lot of scrutiny over the years to ensure they’re as fair as possible. According to a new study, though, simply changing the order in which different parts of a test are given has a discriminatory effect. Among eighth-graders in French schools, girls underperformed boys in math when the math part of the test was given before the verbal part of the test. But if the verbal part came first, the girls’ math scores were just as good as, if not better than, the boys’. The researchers suggest that being faced immediately with math problems triggered the girls’ anxiety about gender stereotypes, and affected their self-confidence.

Smeding, A. et al., “Order of Administration of Math and Verbal Tests: An Ecological Intervention to Reduce Stereotype Threat on Girls’ Math Performance,” Journal of Educational Psychology (forthcoming).

Why you like money


Why are people so obsessed with money? Researchers believe the reason might be darker than you think: Money is a way to stave off anxiety about death. In one experiment, people who were made to think about death subsequently gave larger estimates for the size of currency notes and coins. In other experiments, people who were made to think about death—and particularly those who held symbolic (compared to utilitarian) attitudes about money—gave larger estimates of how much one needs to earn to be “rich” and were less willing to wait to receive money. Also, people who handled and counted money—whether it was real or play money—reported a lower fear of death.

Zaleskiewicz, T. et al., “Money and the Fear of Death: The Symbolic Power of Money as an Existential Anxiety Buffer,” Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming).

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