Uncommon Knowledge

Could gratitude be in your genes?

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Could gratitude be in your genes?

Not all human qualities are a product of genes. But new research is starting to find some genetic basis even for behavior that seems far from programmable at birth. In a new study of heterosexual couples, individuals with a particular gene associated with the secretion of oxytocin—a social hormone—exhibited more gratitude and better emotional reactions towards their partners.

 Algoe, S. & Way, B., “Evidence for a Role of the Oxytocin System, Indexed by Genetic Variation in CD38, in the Social Bonding Effects of Expressed Gratitude,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (forthcoming).

Warmer Boston, harder workers?

When people imagine the consequences of climate change, they usually think of storms, droughts, and floods. But according to an analysis by economists at Columbia and Harvard, another important consideration is the direct effect of higher temperatures on labor productivity. Hot areas lose productivity with higher temperatures, while cold areas gain productivity with higher temperatures, on the order of around 3 to 4 percent per capita gross domestic product per extra degree Celsius. The researchers also observed that people in this country who work at home are willing to spend more on air conditioning than those who stay at home but don’t work, which is consistent with the larger finding.

Heal, G. & Park, J., “Feeling the Heat: Temperature, Physiology & the Wealth of Nations,” National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2013).

This neighborhood gets to me


Can you absorb a neighborhood’s mood? In a new study, researchers surveyed residents of two neighborhoods, which are “within a few kilometres of one another and are similar in many regards (size, population, population density, architectural layout, distance from city centre, approximate ethnic composition), but radically different in terms of socioeconomic fortunes”—and found that trust of strangers was lower and paranoia higher in the poorer neighborhood. Then they sent university students randomly into one neighborhood or the other. After spending only about half an hour delivering letters to mailboxes in the poorer neighborhood, participants reported lower trust of strangers and higher paranoia—at levels similar to those reported by residents of the neighborhood themselves.

 Nettle, D. et al., “Being There: A Brief Visit to a Neighbourhood Induces the Social Attitudes of That Neighbourhood,” PeerJ (January 2014).

The cost of concealing who you are

For people with stigmatized identities or histories, it’s natural to want to conceal that information to avoid discrimination. As a new set of experiments suggests, however, concealment is not without cost. Although most people with stigmatized identities or histories expected concealment to be the better strategy, concealment caused these people to feel less authentic and less connected to peers—something that the peers themselves could detect.

 Newheiser, A. & Barreto, M., “Hidden Costs of Hiding Stigma: Ironic Interpersonal Consequences of Concealing a Stigmatized Identity in Social Interactions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Funny, I just read about that disease!

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For all their training, doctors are just as susceptible to bias as the rest of us—and a recent study of the decision-making of internal medicine residents illustrates why a second opinion can be a good idea. The residents were first presented with the Wikipedia entry for a particular disease and were asked to judge its accuracy. Then they returned to work. Six hours later, in an ostensibly unrelated task, they were presented with a case that had clinical manifestations similar to the disease considered earlier on Wikipedia, but that was actually caused by something different. A significant bias resulted: “Simply reading about the diseases on the Internet increased by almost 100% the number of cases mistakenly diagnosed as one of those diseases.” The good news is that accuracy returned to normal when the researchers asked the residents to go back over the cases in detail.

 Schmidt, H. et al., “Exposure to Media Information about a Disease Can Cause Doctors to Misdiagnose Similar-Looking Clinical Cases,” Academic Medicine (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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