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    Uncommon Knowledge

    Even an umpire has biases

    And other surprising insights from the social sciences

    A more creative Protestant

    Does fighting off perverse thoughts enhance your creativity? The answer might depend on your religion. Psychologists at the University of Illinois have found that Protestants—but not Jews or Catholics—seem to exhibit more creative achievement when repressing taboo urges. An analysis of data from a study that tracked high IQ children into adulthood revealed that Protestants—but not Jews or Catholics—with anxieties about sexual taboos had more creative achievements and were in more creative occupations. Likewise, in an experiment, Protestants—but not Jews or Catholics—made better sculptures and wrote better poetry after thinking about an incestuous situation or being exposed to depravity-related words. In another experiment, among participants who had to recall an angry moment and then suppress it, Protestants became the most creative in various tasks, in part because the anger showed up in their work. Moreover, Protestants who had suppressed their anger were faster at recognizing hurting words compared to nice words, and this was also associated with better work. And “it was those who most disavowed their anger who produced the best work.” The
    psychologists speculate that Jews and Catholics didn’t get the same boost—and were actually somewhat debilitated—from repressing taboo urges because their religions put a greater emphasis on guilt.

    Kim, E. et al., “Sublimation, Culture, and Creativity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

    Yes, the ump is biased

    Baseball umpires are supposed to be objective. But they have feelings too—and they like when you spend time with them. A researcher at the University of Florida analyzed umpire calls on over a million pitches that were in or near the strike zone but didn’t elicit a swing. It turns out that umpires are less likely to call strikes, especially on the inside, when catchers are up to bat. The theory behind this is that the close proximity of umpires and catchers throughout the game creates social pressure or rapport. Umpires also appear to bias their calls in favor of older and better batters and pitchers. However, umpires also like to level the playing field, “with the size of the strike zone decreasing by as much as 26 percent from the most extreme batter’s count (three balls and zero strikes) to the most extreme pitcher’s count (zero balls and two strikes).”

    Mills, B., “Social Pressure at the Plate: Inequality Aversion, Status, and Mere Exposure,” Managerial and Decision Economics (forthcoming).

    Relativism makes you cheat

    Are some things simply right or wrong—or does morality depend on what background or culture you come from? It’s an interesting philosophical question—but research now suggests that thinking about these two different understandings of morality can affect how you make real-world moral
    judgments. In two experiments, people who had read about a relativistic standard of morality were subsequently more likely to cheat than those who had read about an absolutist standard.

    Rai, T. & Holyoak, K., “Exposure to Moral Relativism Compromises Moral Behavior,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

    Put down that violent
    book, kid!


    Violent TV shows and video games get a lot of flak for corrupting our youth. But guess what else is bad news? Researchers from Brigham Young University surveyed middle-school students and found that the amount of physical and relational aggression that students read in books was associated with the students’ own physical and relational aggression, even controlling for the amount of aggression seen on TV and video games. It did not appear to be the result of aggressive youths seeking out books with aggressive content.

    Stockdale, L. et al., “Read Anything Mean Lately? Associations between Reading Aggression in Books and Aggressive Behavior in Adolescents,” Aggressive Behavior (forthcoming).

    Early poverty can give
    you a cold

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    Did you grow up without much money? Unfortunately, according to a new study, you may now be more likely to get sick, even if you’re not poor anymore. A team of researchers quarantined healthy volunteers in a hotel for several days after infecting them with a cold virus. Participants who grew up in poorer families—measured as having spent few childhood years in a home owned by the parents—were more likely to get sick. This association was not explained by race, obesity, smoking, drinking, exercise, personality, childhood family characteristics, or current socioeconomic status. It was, however, partly explained by shorter telomeres—the end caps on chromosomes and a factor in cell longevity—in white blood cells.

    Cohen, S. et al., “Childhood Socioeconomic Status, Telomere Length, and Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection,” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (forthcoming).

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