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    uncommon knowledge

    Newspapers, not so liberal after all

    And more surprising insights from the social sciences.

    Banned books: good for you!

    Every year, some American communities try to ban certain young adult books—for example, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or the Harry Potter series—on the basis that their dark, magical, or political themes might be harmful to adolescents. But a new study suggests that this concern is largely unwarranted. In a sample of several hundred Hispanic adolescents in a small city in South Texas, reading “challenged books” (as identified by the American Library Association) was not associated with a lower GPA or criminal activity, but was associated with a greater interest in politics and charity, controlling for personality, family involvement, and delinquent peers. On the negative side, reading these books was associated with mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety, rule-breaking, aggression), particularly among girls, but this was driven by a small subset of individuals who had read a large number of these books.

    Ferguson, C., “Is Reading ‘Banned’ Books Associated with Behavior Problems in Young Readers? The Influence of Controversial Young Adult Books on the Psychological Well-Being of Adolescents,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts (August 2014).

    Disgust breeds deceit

    If you’re surrounded by nastiness, you may want to do whatever it takes to give yourself cover. In several experiments, people who were made to think about disgusting things were subsequently more willing to lie and cheat. This effect was explained by a greater focus on self-protection in response to disgust. It was eliminated if people were made to think about cleaning products right after being made to think about something disgusting.


    Winterich, K. et al., “Protect Thyself: How Affective Self-Protection Increases Self-Interested, Unethical Behavior,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (forthcoming).

    Newspapers, not so liberal after all

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    Are newspapers dominated by liberals? Not really, according to an analysis that compared newspapers’ editorial positions on ballot propositions with the positions of voters, parties, and interest groups. It turns out that newspapers are relatively moderate and that newspapers leaning left are balanced out by newspapers leaning right. In fact, newspapers seem to be more libertarian: “A majority of voters supported the conservative, antigay rights alternative on 68 percent of [ballot propositions]. Newspapers, however, endorsed this alternative only 3 percent of the time. Yet on other issues, newspaper endorsements appear to be to the right of the median voter. For example, a majority of voters supported the conservative, anti-minimum wage position on only 14 percent of the propositions, while newspapers endorsed the conservative alternative almost 78 percent of the time.” Newspapers also leaned to the right on health care, drugs, education, and the environment.

    Puglisi, R. & Snyder, J., “The Balanced U.S. Press,” Journal of the European Economic Association (forthcoming).

    Black creativity: no madness required

    A common stereotype of artists is that they’re more prone to mental illness. But a new study suggests this is more true of white artists than others. In a sample of prominent African-Americans, while there was more mental illness among artists than those in other professions, there were significantly fewer signs of mental illness across all professions, relative to a prominent white sample. And the correlation between mental illness and creative achievement was reduced when controlling for developmental adversity. To the researchers, this implied that “psychopathology is partially interchangeable with other types of diversifying experiences in potentially influencing the development of creative genius,” or, in other words, black artists from tough circumstances seemed to draw on that experience rather than mental illness to fuel exceptional work.

    Damian, R. & Simonton, D., “Psychopathology, Adversity, and Creativity: Diversifying Experiences in the Development of Eminent African Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

    My anti-zombie ally


    Violent video games may temporarily boost aggressive impulses, but they can build fellowship, too. In an experiment, students at a Canadian university played a first-person shooter game for 12 minutes fighting zombies, in cooperation with another student online. This other student was described as being either from the same university or a rival American university. After ostensibly playing with the American, the Canadian students reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward the other university and Americans in general—but not other extraneous groups—and were just as likely to report being a “team” as if they had played with a fellow Canadian student.

    Adachi, P. et al., “Brothers and Sisters in Arms: Intergroup Cooperation in a Violent Shooter Game Can Reduce Intergroup Bias,” Psychology of Violence (forthcoming).

    Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at