Uncommon Knowledge

Touch a smart person, ace the test

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

If you’re studying for a test, consider asking your genius friend to lend you her notes—even if you just hold them for a few minutes.

If you’re studying for a test, consider asking your genius friend to lend you her notes—even if you just hold them for a few minutes.

He’s an All-Star; must be a strike

Umpires try to be impartial judges, but they can be starstruck, too. In an analysis of hundreds of thousands of pitches from the 2008 and 2009 Major League Baseball seasons, two professors of management found that pitcher prestige influenced umpire calls. Specifically, a pitcher’s number of prior All-Star appearances was associated with a greater likelihood that a ball would be mistakenly called a strike—and a lower likelihood that a strike would be mistakenly called a ball—such that a pitcher “with five All-Star appearances has a 14.9% chance of a mistaken strike, a 16.4% increase over the probability that a pitcher with no All-Star appearances would receive the same favorable call.” The prestige of batters also mattered—offsetting the effect of pitcher prestige—but was only about half as strong. And the bias could add up: “An additional mistaken ball (i.e., underrecognition) decreases the probability that the pitcher’s team will win by 0.3%...whereas an additional mistaken strike (i.e., overrecognition) increases the win probability of the pitcher’s team by 0.3%.”

 Kim, J. & King, B., “Seeing Stars: Matthew Effects and Status Bias in Major League Baseball Umpiring,” Management Science (forthcoming).

Boom-time narcissists

No one wants to come of age in a recession. But if you did, it may at least have been good for your character. Surveys of Americans found that those who had experienced better economic conditions—in the form of lower nationwide unemployment—when they were 18-25 were more narcissistic, even controlling for age when surveyed, gender, and education. Economic conditions at older ages did not appear to have the same effect, and the effect of conditions in young adulthood did not appear to diminish with age. An analysis of the executive compensation of publicly traded companies in 2007 also revealed that CEOs who had experienced better economic conditions when they were 18-25 paid themselves more relative to the next most highly paid executive, even controlling for age, gender, revenues, assets, and industry.

 Bianchi, E., “Entering Adulthood in a Recession Tempers Later Narcissism,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Purpose keeps you alive


Are you wandering aimlessly through life, uncertain of your purpose here? If your answer is “yes,” you might want to make sure your will is up to date. People who reported less purpose in life were subsequently more likely to die, even controlling for age, gender, race, education, and social and emotional well-being. This was true for both young and old adults, including those in retirement.

 Hill, P. & Turiano, N., “Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Ladies love complex music

Note to guys: If you want to score, perform like Rachmaninoff. In a new study, women who were in the fertile days of their menstrual cycle reported a strong hypothetical preference for a fling with a composer of more complex music (with more chords and syncopation) versus a composer of less complex music. There was no such preference on nonfertile days; when choosing a long-term partner; or for composers of more complex visual patterns.

 Charlton, B., “Menstrual Cycle Phase Alters Women’s Sexual Preferences for Composers of More Complex Music,” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (June 7, 2014).

A genius touched my notes!

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If you’re studying for a test, consider asking your genius friend to lend you her notes—even if you just hold them for a few minutes. People who handled a study guide before taking a test of creative or analytical thinking performed better on the test if the study guide appeared to have already been handled by high performers. In other words, performance was physically contagious, by increasing the recipient’s confidence. One caveat: Performance was only contagious to intuitive thinkers.

 Kramer, T. & Block, L., “Like Mike: Ability Contagion through Touched Objects Increases Confidence and Improves Performance,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (July 2014).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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