Uncommon Knowledge

Foreigners make me sick

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Foreigners make me sick

It’s a classic xenophobic metaphor: Societies react to outsiders just like the body’s immune system reacts to foreign antigens. But it turns out the metaphor may have more power than we realize. At the height of the swine-flu epidemic in 2009, people who read a passage about the epidemic were more anti-immigrant if they hadn’t been vaccinated. Likewise, for germ-averse people, reading that the seasonal flu vaccine injects the virus into the patient induced people to hold more anti-outsider attitudes than reading that the vaccine simply protects people from the virus. Germ-averse people were also more anti-outsider if they read about how hand wipes protect from the flu but weren’t allowed to use one.


Huang, J. et al., “Immunizing against Prejudice: Effects of Disease Protection on Attitudes toward Out-Groups,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Leave the hard stuff to the government

If you’re an opinion columnist trying to persuade readers about complex issues, are you better off describing the problem in all its complexity or boiling it down to something simple? New research suggests that it depends whether you want them to engage with the problem themselves, or back off and let government handle it. In several experiments, people who read a more complex description of an energy technology or the economy felt more dependent on government and were more willing to trust the government to manage things, but were less interested in engaging with the issue. Ironically, this reaction to complex descriptions was even more pronounced if the issue was more urgent or self-relevant.

Shepherd, S. & Kay, A., “On the Perpetuation of Ignorance: System Dependence, System Justification, and the Motivated Avoidance of Sociopolitical Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The untrustworthy atheist

Suppose you’re looking for a baby sitter for your kids. Would you be willing to hire a criminal, a Muslim, a homosexual, a Jew, a feminist, or an atheist? You probably didn’t say criminal or atheist--at least, that seems to be the lesson from a new study on society’s distrust of atheists. The study found that not only do Americans distrust atheists (and like them less than homosexuals), but so do students at “a university located in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, which is itself among the least religious regions in North America.” These Canadian students presumed that a person described as a selfish opportunist was just as likely to be an atheist as they were to be a rapist, but not likely to be a Muslim, a homosexual, a Jew, or a feminist. Distrust of atheists was motivated by the belief that being watched by God improves behavior.


Gervais, W. et al., “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Where inheritance rules

Discussions about class warfare and social mobility tend to assume that America is either a meritocracy or a plutocracy. A recent analysis by a sociologist at New York University suggests a somewhat more complicated picture: There’s a meritocracy in the middle, but power is partly hereditary at the top and bottom. While the correlation between one’s success and family background is high for people without a high-school education, this intergenerational correlation disappears for people with bachelor’s degrees. However, the correlation re-emerges among people with advanced degrees. People from privileged backgrounds are more likely to attend selective institutions, get more valuable degrees, and earn more. For example, “a male professional with an advanced degree and origins in the lower income tertile receives earnings that are only about 60% of his upper-background counterparts.” Moreover, this intergenerational correlation among advanced-degree holders appears to be a recent phenomenon.


Torche, F., “Is a College Degree Still the Great Equalizer? Intergenerational Mobility across Levels of Schooling in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology (November 2011).

Fighting discrimination by…overpaying?

Research has shown that racial stereotypes not only limit opportunities for minorities but also undermine their thinking and behavior. According to a new study, this includes compelling them to pay more than they otherwise would. When race was brought up, blacks were willing to pay significantly more than whites for headphones or a travel upgrade, especially if they perceived themselves to have more of a status disadvantage or weaker racial identification. Also, when race was brought up among blacks who perceived themselves to have more of a status disadvantage, contemplating poor customer service subsequently caused them to pay more for a room upgrade, whereas they paid much less when race wasn’t brought up.

Ivanic, A. et al., “Status, Race, and Money: The Impact of Racial Hierarchy on Willingness to Pay,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

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