Ideas

Uncommon Knowledge

Adopted kids’ brains are marked by their first language

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Babies may not seem to know what you’re saying—but the particular language they absorb as infants leaves permanent neurological traces. In new research out of Montreal, scientists used an MRI machine to scan the brains of older children who had been adopted from China as infants into French-speaking families and no longer understood Chinese. Their MRI results showed a similar pattern of neural activation in response to Chinese language tones as did nonadopted children in Chinese-French bilingual families. This pattern of neural activation did not diminish with age among the adopted children, and was absent among nonadopted French monolingual children.

 Pierce, L. et al., “Mapping the Unconscious Maintenance of a Lost First Language,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Diversity prevents financial bubbles

It’s easier to trust people when they’re just like you. But for exactly that reason, a new study suggests that financial markets are more likely to stay on track if they involve people from a wide range of backgrounds. Individuals with business training played a stock-trading game against each other within groups of six. As in the real stock market, offers to buy or sell were presented anonymously to each trader’s computer screen. Before beginning, the group sat together in a waiting room, so they could see who they were playing against. When the group included at least one ethnic minority, stock prices were significantly less likely to deviate from their actual value—i.e., form a bubble—than when the group was ethnically homogenous. This was true whether the experiment was run in North America or Southeast Asia. It seems that homogenous groups were less likely to doubt each other’s judgment, and indeed, offers were more likely to be accepted in homogenous groups.

 Levine, S. et al., “Ethnic Diversity Deflates Price Bubbles,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

I’m too ladylike to lead!

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When the going gets tough for women, who gets going? In an experiment in Australia, which recently had its first female prime minister, psychologists had students read about the prime minister’s gender-related challenges or about generic leadership challenges. After reading about her gender-related challenges, women who conformed to feminine norms were less interested in pursuing a career in politics; women who didn’t conform to feminine norms, on the other hand, became more interested in such a career. Among men who conformed to masculine norms, meanwhile, reading about the prime minister’s gender-related challenges made them think they themselves were better leaders.

 Hunt, C. et al., “The Polarising Effect of Female Leaders: Interest in Politics and Perceived Leadership Capability after a Reminder of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister,” European Journal of Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When beliefs flee the facts

At the heart of science is the notion that a theory should be vulnerable to tests that show it to be true or false. But that’s not how religion or politics work—on the contrary. According to a new study, whenever factual concerns encroach, religion and politics retreat to the safety of untestable beliefs. Among religious individuals, reading that God’s existence will never be proven or disproven increased their religious conviction, whereas reading about a scientific discovery that threatens religious belief increased the importance of reasons for belief that can’t be disproven. Likewise, attitudes towards same-sex marriage and parenting became just a “matter of opinion” when people on either side of the issue were confronted with evidence supporting the other side.

 Friesen, J. et al., “The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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