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Social Studies: Money anxiety; the decline of rationality; illusions about time

An illuminated clock on the Palace of Stardust installation at Hampton Court Palace in London. New research indicates that changes in the hour number make people perceive periods of time to be longer than ones of identical duration.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Pricey math tests

An economist finds that money-themed questions on math tests are particularly challenging for students of low socioeconomic status. This is not because the questions are intrinsically more difficult; no such disparity is seen with similar math questions that don’t discuss money. Instead, it appears that money-themed questions are distracting or generate anxiety. The researcher estimates that eliminating money-themed questions on the SAT could improve scores by around six points for students of low socioeconomic status.

Duquennois, C., “Fictional Money, Real Costs: Impacts of Financial Salience on Disadvantaged Students,” American Economic Review (forthcoming).

I have a bad feeling about this


Analysis of word usage in English and other languages reveals that rationality-related words such as “determine” and “conclusion” rose in prominence from the 19th century through the mid-20th century but the trend has since reversed in favor of intuition- and sentiment-related words such as “feel” and “believe.” This pattern is seen in novels and nonfiction books, in New York Times articles, and in Google search terms. The pattern also parallels a recent increase in the use of singular (rather than plural) pronouns. The researchers note that in many languages the rise in intuition- and sentiment-related words accelerated around 2007, which was “roughly the start of a near-universal global surge of social media.” But they add that the trend itself appears to have begun decades earlier: “Perhaps a feeling that the world is run in an unfair way started to emerge in the late 1970s.”

Scheffer, M. et al., “The Rise and Fall of Rationality in Language,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (December 2021).

Perceptions about police

A survey in London — conducted in 2014 around the time of the killing of Eric Garner by police in New York City — revealed that Black Londoners interviewed in the days after Garner’s death were significantly less satisfied with their own police than Black Londoners interviewed in the days before Garner’s death. There was no similar effect among white or South Asian Londoners.


Laniyonu, A., “Phantom Pains: The Effect of Police Killings of Black Americans on Black British Attitudes,” British Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Counting time

In a series of experiments, researchers found that lengths of time that happen to span more clock or calendar thresholds are perceived to last longer. For example, 1:45 pm-3:15 pm feels longer than 1:15 pm-2:45 pm, even though they’re both 90 minutes, because the first period crosses two clock hour marks rather than one. This effect caused people to predict they could accomplish more in periods spanning more clock or calendar thresholds. This was also seen in real-world rideshare transactions: People were less likely to choose a shared ride when its duration spanned an hour threshold.

Donnelly, K. et al., “Time Periods Feel Longer When They Span More Category Boundaries: Evidence From the Lab and the Field,” Journal of Marketing Research (forthcoming).

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

If someone has a lot of difficulty doing something, would you infer that they probably won’t succeed? Or would you infer that this thing is probably really important to that person? How you answer says a lot about your culture. A study finds that Americans are likely to fall into the first camp — they associate difficulty with impossibility, even though they don’t necessarily endorse this mindset. This is also reflected in English-language books, as the words “difficult” and “difficulty” are much more commonly seen in proximity to “impossible” and “impossibility” than to “important” and “importance.” People in India and China do not exhibit such a bias. The researchers theorize that American culture tends to see a dichotomy “between succeeding easily due to ability and succeeding due to powering through difficulty with effort.” Thus, because succeeding by dint of effort might make it seem as if they lack ability, “Americans may too quickly withdraw effort in the face of difficulty.”


O’Donnell, C. et al., “Is Difficulty Mostly About Impossibility?: What Difficulty Implies May Be Culturally Variant,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).