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Uncommon Knowledge

Your favorite comfort food probably doesn’t work

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

The myth of comfort food

When you’re feeling stressed or down, it’s tempting to reach for whatever you think of as the best comfort food—because it will make you feel better. Or will it? In a study from the University of Minnesota, students were offered one of their favorite comfort foods after watching a series of film clips eliciting negative emotions. Although mood improved somewhat after a few minutes, it did so regardless of whether students had been offered comfort food, another kind of food, or no food at all. There was no correlation between students’ initial confidence that the comfort food would help their mood and whether it actually did, and there was no correlation between amount consumed and change in mood. The researchers did find that providing chocolate—whether it was provided before or after the film clips—left students in a somewhat better mood when the film clips were over.

 Wagner, H. et al., “The Myth of Comfort Food,” Health Psychology (forthcoming).

What skills gap?

For years now, employers, pundits, and government officials have been arguing that a significant cause of American unemployment is what’s known as the “skills gap.” But according to a professor of management at the Wharton School and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, that may not be the real problem: “The contemporary reports arguing that there are skill problems in the workforce offer little in the way of compelling evidence to support that claim, and the evidence that they present is often contradictory. Objective evidence from government data and from other sources does not support any of the claims about skill problems.” Instead, the situation is perhaps better described as over-education and under-training. Employers care much more about job-specific experience than course work but are reluctant to pay for on-the-job training, especially when employees may not last.

 Cappelli, P., “Skill Gaps, Skill Shortages and Skill Mismatches: Evidence for the US,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2014).

Poach a mate, pay the price

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If you’re in the dating market but find yourself attracted to someone who’s already in a relationship, think twice—and not just for moral reasons. In a study of heterosexual young adults in dating relationships, researchers found that both men and women who had been seduced by their current partners out of a previous relationship “were less committed, less satisfied, and less invested in their relationships” and “paid more attention to romantic alternatives, perceived their alternatives to be of higher quality, and engaged in higher rates of infidelity compared to non-poached participants.” This lower commitment by poached individuals was largely explained by the fact that these individuals were more promiscuous to begin with. In other words, if you succeed in poaching someone else’s partner, it may not be because you’re The One.

 Foster, J. et al., “What Do You Get When You Make Somebody Else’s Partner Your Own? An Analysis of Relationships Formed via Mate Poaching,” Journal of Research in Personality (October 2014).

Women know what friends would say

Anticipating what other people think is an important part of social life. In two experiments, sociologists asked male and female students to make judgments about roommate conflicts and to guess how another student would judge those same conflicts. Accuracy in guessing the other student’s judgments was highest if the students were female friends, compared to pairs of male friends or two strangers of the same gender. Also, when these judgments were made after a role-play scenario where one student was assigned to be a manager and the other student was assigned to be a subordinate, neither student’s gender mattered, but role did: Students who had played the manager were less accurate in guessing the other student’s judgments.

 Love, T. & Davis, J., “The Effect of Status on Role-Taking Accuracy,” American Sociological Review (forthcoming).

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