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Uncommon Knowledge

It’s true; I saw an unrelated photo a few days ago!

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Arrest you like it’s your birthday

On your birthday, it’s normal to expect special treatment—but apparently not from the cops. A new study suggests that situations that are normally associated with preferential treatment can instead cause a punitive backlash. Analysis of drunken-driving arrests in Washington State revealed that drivers with blood-alcohol levels just under the legal limit were more likely to be arrested on their birthdays. This backlash was also found in experiments, where participants were more willing to punish transgressors who mentioned that it was their birthday.

Gino, F. et al., “Social Norms versus Social Responsibility: Punishing Transgressions under Conflicting Obligations,” Harvard University (June 2013).

Disgusted? Take this

Are you easily grossed out? Maybe you need some special pretend medicine. In an experiment, researchers in Austria showed disgusting pictures to a group of easily disgusted women. When the women were given a pill that was described as a treatment for disgust—even though it was actually just a placebo—they subsequently reported less than half as much disgust from viewing the pictures, and scans of their brains revealed less activity in a part of the brain associated with feelings of disgust.

Schienle, A. et al., “Disgust Regulation via Placebo: An fMRI Study,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (forthcoming).

I feel a little too close to you

In many areas of social life, especially in dating and interviews, we go out of our way to cultivate a feeling of intimacy. But thinking too much about whether it’s working can backfire. Psychology students at Tel Aviv University were paired up for 45 minutes to talk about themselves with each other. Half of the pairs were instructed to monitor how close they felt every few minutes, while the other half were instructed to monitor the room temperature. After the session was over, pairs were led to a bench where they were asked to sit before being dismissed. Pairs that had monitored closeness during the session tended to sit further apart on the bench.

Shapira, O. et al., “An Ironic Effect of Monitoring Closeness,” Cognition & Emotion (forthcoming).

Poverty: the coaching solution

For children, poverty and the associated developmental deficits can be a serious handicap. However, a growing body of research, including new results from a decades-long study, suggests that the handicap can be ameliorated through early intervention. In the late 1980s, toddlers with stunted growth living in poor neighborhoods in Jamaica were randomly assigned to receive weekly one-hour visits for two years from trained community health aides, focused on improving mother-child interaction. When the researchers followed up with these children 20 years later, they had become just as successful in the labor market as their nonstunted peers.

Gertler, P. et al., “Labor Market Returns to Early Childhood Stimulation: A 20-year Followup to an Experimental Intervention in Jamaica,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2013).

Photos make it true—for days

Previous research has found that people are more likely to believe a factual claim if it’s presented alongside a photo related to the subject of the claim, even if that photo doesn’t actually establish the truth of the claim. A follow-up study now finds that this “truthiness” effect is durable: “Although people viewed the claims paired with nonprobative photos for only a few seconds, the photos continued to exert their influence up to 48 [hours] later” when people were asked to judge the same claims again, without photos.

Fenn, E. et al., “The Effect of Nonprobative Photographs on Truthiness Persists over Time,” Acta Psychologica (September 2013).

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