Uncommon Knowledge: Wolf dens of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in the 2013 film THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, directed by Martin Scorsese, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. TWOWS-07897R
Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).

An analysis of data from mergers of financial-advisory firms revealed that “an adviser is 37 percent more likely to commit misconduct if he is merged into a new branch that includes individuals with a history of misconduct (relative to an adviser from the same firm who is merged into a branch with no history of misconduct). This implies a social multiplier of 1.59, meaning that a case of misconduct by an advisor results in an additional 0.59 cases of misconduct by that adviser’s co-workers.” This wasn’t explained by changes in supervisors, and there was no evidence that good conduct was similarly contagious.

Dimmock, S. et al., “Is Fraud Contagious? Co-Worker Influence on Misconduct by Financial Advisors,” Journal of Finance (forthcoming).

Prejudice by the numbers

In experiments, psychologists from Rutgers asked students (mostly white and Asian, but not black) about their impressions of the intelligence of people who were white or black. Impressions of the “average” white vs. black person were prejudiced against blacks. This was true both for deliberate responses and automatic associations. However, when judging specific individuals in college applications, prejudice was “effectively eliminated” with objective information (i.e., SAT, GPA). In other words, individuals with similar qualifications were judged similarly, regardless of race.

Rubinstein, R. et al., “Reliance on Individuating Information and Stereotypes in Implicit and Explicit Person Perception,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (March 2018).

Synonyms aren’t the same

In experiments, psychologists at the University of Southern California found that ostensibly synonymous words can have significantly different positive or negative connotations. For example, Daniel was perceived more negatively with “utterly” than “totally” in this sentence: “As his siblings discovered, Daniel was a[n] utterly [totally] changed man when he returned.” Likewise, Steve was perceived more negatively with “caused” than “produced” in this sentence: “In his past term, Governor Steve Williams introduced regulations that caused [produced] extreme changes to the budget.”

Hauser, D. & Schwarz, N., “How Seemingly Innocuous Words Can Bias Judgment: Semantic Prosody and Impression Formation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (March 2018).

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From broken homes to current events


In experiments, people read through a news slideshow. If it depicted a deteriorating, unpredictable economy, participants who had grown up in dysfunctional homes did better on tests of the ability to update short-term memory, while the reverse was true for participants who had grown up in good homes. For other aspects of short-term memory that the researchers theorize weren’t as adaptive in dysfunctional homes, performance worsened for participants from such homes in the dysfunctional-economy condition, while performance improved for participants from good homes.

Young, E. et al., “Can an Unpredictable Childhood Environment Enhance Working Memory? Testing the Sensitized-Specialization Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Genuinely narcissistic

In an experiment, individual young children were left alone in a room after being asked not to peek at a toy in the room but out of view. When the adult returned, a mirror was placed in front of some of the children; the unreflective back of the mirror was placed in front of some of the other children; and the rest of the children were simply asked to promise to tell the truth. Children in front of the mirror were significantly more likely to tell the truth when asked if they had peeked. There was no difference in lying between children who looked at the back of the mirror and those who promised to tell the truth.

Bender, J. et al., “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Increasing Young Children’s Honesty through Inducing Self-Awareness,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (March 2018).

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