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Uncommon Knowledge

How to stress out your baby

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

It’s a disease? Good, pass the Twinkies

In recent years, it’s become more common to frame obesity as a disease, with the goal of destigmatizing the condition and facilitating health care. But labeling it as such may be a mixed blessing. In a new study, obese participants who read an article about the American Medical Association labeling obesity as a disease—compared to reading an article that didn’t discuss obesity as a disease—felt better about their weight, but were also more likely to choose high-calorie food.

Hoyt, C. et al., “‘Obesity Is a Disease’: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Last meals of the admittedly guilty (and not)

If you were about to be executed for a crime you didn’t commit, would you request an extravagant last meal? Probably not. Researchers at Cornell compared convicts’ last meal requests to their last words before execution and found that “those who denied guilt were 2.7 times as likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29% versus 8%), whereas those who admitted guilt requested 34% more calories of food than the rest of the sample (2,786 versus 2,085 calories).” Those who denied guilt were also less likely to request brand-name items.

Kniffin, K. & Wansink, B., “Death Row Confessions and the Last Meal Test of Innocence,” Laws (March 2014).

How to stress out your baby

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As if new moms didn’t have enough to worry about, the results of a recent experiment suggest they may want to redouble their efforts to wall themselves off from stress—for the sake of their infants. In the experiment, each member of a group of women who had recently given birth was asked to go through an interview-like situation, giving a speech and answering questions for 10 minutes about her strengths and weaknesses. Afterward, her infant was brought to her. Not only was the mother stressed (as measured by a heart monitor) after the interview, but her infant became increasingly stressed, too, particularly if the interviewers had conveyed a negative impression to the woman. The researchers speculate that “stressed mothers may exhibit changes in facial expression, odor, posture, vocal tone, prosody, and touch” that are picked up by infants.

Waters, S. et al., “Stress Contagion: Physiological Covariation between Mothers and Infants,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Benefits of a humanized car

Google, which is developing driverless car technology, might want to pay attention to a new finding by psychologists. People who used a driving simulator for a vehicle that could drive itself and “was referred to by name (Iris), was given a gender (female), and was given a voice through human audio files played at predetermined times throughout the course…rated their vehicle as having more humanlike mental capacities” and “reported trusting their vehicle even more, were more relaxed in an accident, and blamed their vehicle and related entities less for an accident caused by another driver,” compared to people who experienced the same self-driving vehicle but without the human identity and voice.

Waytz, A. et al., “The Mind in the Machine: Anthropomorphism Increases Trust in an Autonomous Vehicle,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The foreclosure effect, hard to reverse

Many neighborhoods were hit hard by the recent financial crisis, especially where there were clusters of foreclosures, dragging down the neighborhood as a whole. Unfortunately, generating a cascade effect in the opposite direction may not be as easy, according to a study of abandoned foreclosed properties in Dorchester and Roxbury. Neighboring properties did not become noticeably more improved after the abandoned foreclosed properties had been renovated.

Graves, E., “Is Home Maintenance Contagious? Evidence from Boston,” Federal Reserve (December 2013).

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