Uncommon Knowledge

I’m a zombie now, really!

And other surprising insights from the social sciencs

Inequality: Blame social networks?

For most of human history, people lived in small, egalitarian groups—and contrary to what you might assume, status, power, and wealth were not inherited. How did inherited inequality become such a powerful force in human societies? A pair of sociologists argues that the change was driven by social networking. As a population grows from a small group to a larger one, the proportion of people who know each other personally falls, and so one’s centrality in the network becomes more important for cultivating status, relative to other aspects of ability. Given that children tend to inherit their parents’ connections, and thus their position in the network, they can then inherit their parents’ status, too.

Thomas, R. & Mark, N., “Population Size, Network Density, and the Emergence of Inherited Inequality,” Social Forces (forthcoming).

No, you can’t catch ‘gay’

Our peers influence our attitudes and behavior, and plenty of research bears this out. But it’s an open question how far this influence goes—for instance, if your child’s gay friends could influence him or her to be gay. New research suggests that the answer, in that case, is no. A team analyzed data from a national survey of adolescents and found that an adolescent’s same-sex attraction wasn’t associated with friends’ same-sex attraction, even though there was an association for opposite-sex attraction. Peer influence, clearly, has its limits.

Brakefield, T. et al., “Same-Sex Sexual Attraction Does Not Spread in Adolescent Social Networks,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (forthcoming).

Electrocution is better than change

The “status-quo bias” is a known human tendency: Given choices, we tend to stick with the cards we’ve been dealt. We’ll cling quite stubbornly, in fact, even if the alternative is clearly better. To measure how strong this effect was, researchers hooked participants up to an electric shock device, calibrated to the maximum level they could tolerate. In each of multiple trials, participants would receive a shock after some random amount of time, under the cover story that researchers were studying the anxiety of waiting for a shock. In one version, participants were presented with a button that would reduce the odds of being shocked by 90 percent—but, amazingly, they pressed the button only about half the time, preferring instead to let the experiment take its course. Interviewed, the participants said they assumed almost everyone would frequently press the button to reduce the shock probability and “could not explain why they themselves had not used this option on every trial.”

Suri, G. et al., “Patient Inertia and the Status Quo Bias: When an Inferior Option Is Preferred,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Your ethics make me feel bad


Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves if we’re not behaving ethically—and we also dislike the people who make us realize it. In a new study, participants taste-tested a sausage but then learned that a peer had refused to taste the sausage. If the peer had refused because it was “unethical,” participants felt worse about themselves—and had a greater disliking for the peer—than if the peer refused just because of personal preference. Intriguingly, we might be able to inoculate ourselves against some of these feelings: The negative reactions to the peer went away if participants were allowed to clean their hands after the taste test, and only then told about the peer’s refusal.

Cramwinckel, F. et al., “The Threat of Moral Refusers for One’s Self-Concept and the Protective Function of Physical Cleansing,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

I’m a zombie now, really!

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IF YOU SWITCH TEAMS, how can your new team know to count on you? One way, according to new research, is for you to be aggressive against your old team. Players in a humans-vs.-zombies game of tag who switched sides from “human” to “zombie” and managed to kill (i.e., tag) a human identified more strongly as zombies. (The percentage of time spent as a zombie, or sharing in other zombies’ kills, didn’t increase this sense of identification.) Likewise, an analysis of NBA players who changed teams found that the number of blocked shots that players made in their first games against their old teams—but not the number of points, rebounds, or steals—predicted the number of assists the players made (that is, the amount they helped their new teammates) in the following games.

Toosi, N. et al., “Aggressive Acts Increase Commitment to New Groups: Zombie Attacks and Blocked Shots,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

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