Uncommon Knowledge

Learning words in the womb

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Vincent RUF

Talk clearly: the fetus is listening

Talking or singing to a pregnant woman’s belly may seem silly, but don’t laugh. Researchers instructed pregnant women to play a CD with several minutes of novel word sounds almost every day during the third trimester. After birth, the researchers measured the infants’ brain activity in response to those sounds and found enhanced activity in response to them, compared to a control group of infants who had not been trained on the sounds. The researchers conclude that “hearing a great deal of speech before birth may have positive effects, preparing the neural apparatus for the accurate analysis and discrimination of the fine acoustic features of speech.” On the other hand, “if a fetus is exposed to noisy or unstructured auditory environments at, for example, the workplace of the pregnant mother, this experience may cause an aberrant organization of the infant’s central auditory system structures, which may later affect speech perception and learning.”

Partanen, E. et al., “Learning-Induced Neural Plasticity of Speech Processing before Birth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (September 10, 2013).

What makes professors cheat

Who’s most likely to cheat—people at the bottom of a hierarchy who have more to gain, or people at the top with more to lose? Professors at Harvard Business School analyzed data from the Social Science Research Network—where scholars can post their papers—and found that some scholars had been manipulating the download statistics for their papers to make them look more popular. It’s not necessarily who you’d suspect: “Full professors, who are higher in the hierarchy than associate or assistant professors, are more likely to engage in deception....Professors with higher Google Scholar citations than their median peers are also significantly more likely to engage in deceptive downloading....Interestingly, assistant professors who likely face an upcoming tenure review are associated with significantly fewer deceptive downloads.” Two experiments that asked people what they would do in similar competitive situations found that it was high status—and not greater feelings of competitiveness or more favorable views of dishonesty—that motivated such behavior.

Edelman, B. & Larkin, I., “Social Comparisons and Deception across Workplace Hierarchies: Field and Experimental Evidence,” Harvard University (August 2013).

What wealth does to intelligence

If you grow up rich, the odds are stacked in your favor. But even then, a new study suggests, you may still have to count on the luck of the draw. An analysis of data on a national sample of adult twins revealed that intelligence was not only higher on average but also exhibited much greater variation among those who grew up with affluent parents, suggesting that affluent environments amplify inherent genetic differences.

Bates, T. et al., “Childhood Socioeconomic Status Amplifies Genetic Effects on Adult Intelligence,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

One nation, divided by The Onion


Political satire might seem harmless—even a good way to blow off partisan steam. But research is indicating that it may have the effect of dividing us further. In an experiment, people browsed either a satirical news website or a serious news website. Both websites had articles with left- and right-leaning views. People who browsed the satirical news website chose to read fewer articles that challenged their own view and became less tolerant of others with opposing views.

Stroud, N. & Muddiman, A., “Selective Exposure, Tolerance, and Satirical News,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research (Autumn 2013).

Subtle bigots are exhausting

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Who would you rather deal with: a blatant bigot or a subtle bigot? In two experiments, minorities experienced a 10-minute interaction with a white person who was either blatantly bigoted (indicating discomfort with racial diversity and displaying avoidant behavior in the interaction), subtly bigoted (only displaying avoidant behavior in the interaction), or not revealing any bigotry. Afterward, the minorities took a test measuring cognitive control. Those minorities who had experienced the interaction with the subtly bigoted white person were the most cognitively depleted.

Murphy, M. et al., “Cognitive Costs of Contemporary Prejudice,” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (September 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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