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Uncommon Knowledge

The glee of ‘ee,’ the woe of ‘oh’

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

The glee of ‘ee,’ the woe of ‘oh’

How do you keep a positive perspective on things? Say “Hee hee,” not “D’oh!” In an experiment, people who repeated the vowel sound of a long “e”—or maintained a similar mouth shape by holding a pen in their teeth—rated cartoons as funnier than people who repeated the vowel sound of a long “o”—or maintained a similar mouth shape by holding a pen with their lips pursed around it. In another experiment, people who were asked to create new words created words with more long-e vowels after watching a positive-mood-inducing film clip, but created words with more long-o vowels after watching a negative-mood-
inducing film clip.

 Rummer, R. et al., “Mood Is Linked to Vowel Type: The Role of Articulatory Movements,” Emotion (April 2014).

Pay gap? Blame long hours

The gender pay gap is getting extra attention right now, partly due to a political initiative by the Obama administration to reduce it. While many factors may contribute to the gap, a new study pins some of the blame on the long hours demanded in many managerial and professional roles—in which there are more men, and which have seen a steady increase in hourly wages relative to regular full-time roles. This shift, the researchers say, may be “partially offsetting wage-equalizing trends in men’s and women’s educational attainment and labor force experience.”

 Cha, Y. & Weeden, K., “Overwork and the Slow Convergence in the Gender Gap in Wages,” American Sociological Review (forthcoming).

Zap your way to quicker thinking

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If you’re a slow learner, don’t worry: In the future, you can just put on an electrode-laden thinking cap. Psychologists at Vanderbilt University found that just 20 minutes of electrical current applied over the medial-frontal cortex of the brain “improves task accuracy and speeds learning, even in healthy adults who are already high functioning”—for up to five hours later—and might also improve brain function in people with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ADHD.

 Reinhart, R. & Woodman, G., “Causal Control of Medial–Frontal Cortex Governs Electrophysiological and Behavioral Indices of Performance Monitoring and Learning,” Journal of Neuroscience (March 19, 2014).

The political power of white anxiety

What makes voters lean conservative? New research from psychologists at Northwestern University suggests one cause might be anxiety about changing demographics. In a nationally representative survey, whites who identified themselves as independents became significantly more likely to report leaning Republican after being told that California had become a majority-minority state—an effect that was especially pronounced for those who lived closer to California. Likewise, in other experiments, Americans reported significantly greater support for conservative positions—both race-related and non-race-related—after reading that minorities would eventually become the majority. However, “the addition of a simple paragraph stating that Whites are likely to remain at the top of the future racial hierarchy in a majority-minority America eliminated the conservative shift otherwise observed after exposure to the racial-shift information.”

 Craig, M. & Richeson, J., “On the Precipice of a “Majority-Minority” America: Perceived Status Threat from the Racial Demographic Shift Affects White Americans’ Political Ideology,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Poor? Better have good genes

Genes aren’t destiny, but they can matter to your future—perhaps especially if you’re looking at an uphill climb to success. That’s the conclusion of a recent study that compared the long-run educational outcomes of boys with different versions of a gene related to neurotransmitter function that’s located on the X chromosome (so boys only have one copy). Among boys who grew up in poorer households, those with the “better” version of the gene went on to achieve significantly better educational outcomes, whereas among boys who grew up in more affluent households, it didn’t really matter which version of the gene they had.

 Thompson, O., “Economic Background and Educational Attainment: The Role of Gene-Environment Interactions,” Journal of Human Resources (Spring 2014).

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