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Uncommon Knowledge

What makes kids smoke

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

The enduring Protestant soul

When someone does the right thing, do you assume it’s because that person is inherently good? Conversely, when someone commits a heinous act, do you assume that person is inherently evil? A new study suggests that being a Protestant or a Catholic makes a difference in your judgment. Protestants were more likely to attribute behavior to someone’s personality rather than the situation, ostensibly because Protestants have a greater belief in the soul. (Among Protestants, those assigned to argue for the existence of a soul were more likely to attribute behavior to personality.)

Li, Y. et al., “Fundamental(ist) Attribution Error: Protestants Are Dispositionally Focused,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).


Bring your Ivy League game face

Competitors are often told to put on their “game face.” New research from psychologists at the University of Michigan finds that formidable--i.e., high-ranked--competitors adopt a more formidable look. Based on their official photographs, deans of top-ranked business schools were seen as less cooperative than lower-ranked deans, even when judged without knowledge of ranking or identity. These higher-ranked deans were also expected to be less willing to approve a student request. And this correlation doesn’t just appear to be the result of higher achievement of less cooperative-looking people. Male students from the University of Michigan who were told they would be competing in a trivia contest against a male student from a local community college adopted a less cooperative look than if they were told they would be competing against a male student from Yale.

Chen, P. et al., “The Hierarchical Face: Higher Rankings Lead to Less Cooperative Looks,” Journal of Applied Psychology (forthcoming).

Lose control, get analytic

It’s been observed that Eastern thinking is more holistic and less analytical than Western thinking. In a series of experiments, psychologists confirmed this--for example, in looking at pictures, Westerners tend to focus on foreground objects more than the background, in contrast to Chinese people--but also found that this pattern is sensitive to one’s sense of control. When Chinese subjects were temporarily deprived of a sense of control, they became more like Westerners, with a more analytical style of thinking. Losing a sense of control also induced Westerners to become even more analytical. The shift to analytical thinking seems to be adaptive, as it was shown to restore one’s sense of control. However, frustrating one’s sense of control for an extended period caused the Chinese participants to acclimate to a loss of control and become even more holistic.


Zhou, X. et al., “Control Deprivation and Styles of Thinking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

What makes kids smoke

Decades ago, you could hardly see an advertisement, a TV show, or a movie

-Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff

without seeing a smoker. Since then, smoking has become more taboo, but it still makes an occasional appearance, even in media that kids get to see (e.g. top-grossing PG-13 movie “Avatar”). A new study finds that the apparent motive for smoking in the depicted scenes is of paramount importance--and that different motives appeal to different viewers. Kids between the ages of 11 and 14 were shown two sets of movie scenes a week apart--the first with no smoking, the second with smoking--and were asked after each session whether they might try smoking in the near future. Kids who initially reported a low risk of smoking reported a significantly greater risk after watching scenes that depicted social smoking, whereas kids who initially reported being at risk of smoking reported a significantly greater risk after watching scenes that depicted relaxation-motivated smoking.


Shadel, W. et al., “Motives for Smoking in Movies Affect Future Smoking Risk in Middle School Students: An Experimental Investigation,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence (forthcoming).

So how deep is Mitt’s voice?

Barack Obama may be tall and charismatic--traits that are associated with being presidential--but another trait may serve him just as well: his deep voice. Researchers asked people to listen to voice clips--manipulated to be either higher- or lower-pitched--both of US presidents and unknown males. People clearly preferred the lower-pitched voices, and presidents with lower-pitched voices were judged to have significantly more dominance, attractiveness, leadership, economic competence, trustworthiness, intelligence, and honesty. They were seen as less likely to be involved in a scandal, and more likely to get the person’s vote. The authors’ conclusion: “It is possible that artificially lowering one’s voice pitch in audio recordings could help candidates gain votes.”

Tigue, C. et al., “Voice Pitch Influences Voting Behavior,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

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