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Uncommon Knowledge

For self-control, clean up—or have a doughnut

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Liberals: not special snowflakes

Liberals like to complain that conservative activists and commentators are better at speaking with one voice. Some have attributed this to conservatives having superior central organization, but a new study from psychologists at New York University suggests a more fundamental reason. Liberals underestimate how similar they are to other liberals, while conservatives overestimate how similar they are to other conservatives—a pattern that’s partially explained by liberals’ greater need to feel unique. The psychologists conclude that “liberals’ greater desire for uniqueness likely undermines their ability to capitalize on the consensus that actually exists within their ranks and hinders successful group mobilization, whereas moderates’ and conservatives’ weaker desire to feel unique (i.e., greater desire to conform) could work to their advantage by allowing them to perceive consensus that does not actually exist and, in turn, rally their base.”

Stern, C. et al., “The Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Messy desk? Have a doughnut

Although previous research has shown that messy work spaces can promote outside-the-box thinking, be careful how far you take it. In several experiments, people in a disorganized work space exhibited less self-control and persistence, and felt more depleted. (The effects were mitigated by interventions that have been shown to restore self-control, like self-affirmation or carbohydrate ingestion.)

Chae, B. & Zhu, R., “Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Quizzes, the great equalizer

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In recent years, many schools have revised the curriculum to focus on big culminating tests. Yet research is finding that making tests small and frequent instead may actually do more for student learning. In the context of a large course at the University of Texas—where, in prior years, grades had been determined by four class-long exams over the semester, but were changed to be determined by short quizzes at the beginning of every class—students were more likely to answer the same questions correctly in the latter format. In addition, the grading change in this one class appears to have helped students get better grades in other courses in the same and subsequent semesters, while narrowing the GPA gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Pennebaker, J. et al., “Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance while Reducing Achievement Gaps,” PLoS ONE (November 2013).

The VIP in the T-shirt

Most people, when they go to a fancy party or high-pressure work event, try to dress to impress—or at least to suit the occasion. But new research suggests there might be unexpected power in showing up in a T-shirt. In a series of surveys, researchers at Harvard Business School found that someone who was dressed down in a high-end setting—whether at luxury boutiques in Milan, a black-tie party at a country club, or prestigious universities—was perceived as having higher status and competence.

Bellezza, S. et al., “The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Security makes you ethical

How can we get people to behave more ethically? One way, according to a new study, is to make them feel less insecure. When people—particularly those prone to morally disengage—were made to think about having a “secure and comfortable” interaction with another person, they were subsequently less willing to lie, cheat, or steal.

Chugh, D. et al., “Withstanding Moral Disengagement: Attachment Security as an Ethical Intervention,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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