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Uncommon Knowledge

When your eyes see imaginary light

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Will marriage be fun? Part of you knows

If you’re contemplating marriage, you inevitably worry about whether you and your spouse will really be able to live happily ever after. It turns out that you may not know on the surface—but your unconscious is a good predictor. Psychologists recruited 135 newlywed couples in eastern Tennessee and measured their automatic attitudes towards each other—by comparing how fast they responded to positive versus negative words after briefly seeing a picture of their spouse. They also asked the newlyweds directly how they felt about the relationship. Then they followed up with the couples every six months for four years to see how the relationship was going. An initially more positive automatic attitude correlated with less deterioration in marital satisfaction over time, while an initially more positive explicitly reported attitude was correlated with more deterioration in marital satisfaction.

McNulty, J. et al., “Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying,” Science (November 29, 2013).

Officer, I was just thinking about the dark!

You see what you think you see. That’s not a philosophical claim; it’s about your eye. New research shows that imagining a bright image causes your pupil to constrict as if it were actually looking at something bright, while imagining a dark image causes your pupil to dilate as if it were actually looking at something dark. But it’s not as if your pupil is under your direct control—people could not constrict or dilate their pupils when explicitly asked to do so.

Laeng, B. & Sulutvedt, U., “The Eye Pupil Adjusts to Imaginary Light,” Psychological Science (forthcoming). 

When ‘lose weight’ backfires

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Think the best way to get overweight people to slim down is to just let them know being overweight is not OK? Think again. In a new study, young women were asked to read an article titled either “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job” or “Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job” and then give a short presentation about it. Afterwards, they were left alone in a room with bowls of Skittles, M&M’s, and Goldfish. Women who thought they were overweight ate more and reported less confidence in controlling their weight if they had read the weight-related article.

Major, B. et al., “The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The afternoon-team advantage

Are you an athlete or a gambler looking for an edge? Bet on the team that’s playing in what feels to them like late afternoon. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford analyzed the outcome of NFL games in which a team from the Pacific time zone played a team from the Eastern time zone after 8 p.m. Eastern Time and found that the former had a significant advantage in beating the expected point-spread in these games—consistent with research that performance peaks in the late afternoon.

Smith, R. et al., “The Impact of Circadian Misalignment on Athletic Performance in Professional Football Players,” Sleep (December 2013).

Being arrested makes you black

We tend to think of race as a fixed characteristic, but how one is racially categorized can also depend on circumstance and stereotypes. Analyzing data from a national survey of adolescents who were interviewed several times over the years into adulthood, sociologists found that men were significantly more likely to be re-categorized as black by a subsequent interviewer—and less likely to be re-categorized as white or Asian—if they had been arrested for the first time between interviews.

Saperstein, A. et al., “The Criminal Justice System and the Racialization of Perceptions,” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (January 2014).

Kevin Lewis can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.
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