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Uncommon Knowledge

Math for baby boys

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Make me a leader!

Are leaders born or made? According to new research, the answer depends in part on what you believe--and whether there’s a leader you can identify with. In one experiment, women who wrote about a female leadership role model felt more confident and less anxious about delivering a managerial speech--but only if they believed that leaders are made. In another experiment, after reading an article stipulating that leaders are made, both men and women were more likely to identify with a role model, becoming more confident and less anxious, and ultimately delivering a managerial speech that was judged better by independent observers.


Hoyt, C. et al., “I Can Do That: The Impact of Implicit Theories on Leadership Role Model Effectiveness,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

The bias of lawyers

Since the 1950s, the American Bar Association has been asked by presidents to rate the qualifications of federal judicial nominees. However, due to conservative dissatisfaction with these ratings, President George W. Bush stopped the practice. President Obama has since reinstated it. So how neutral is the ABA in reality? Based on an analysis of the ratings and backgrounds of all nominees to the US Courts of Appeals from 1977 to 2008, a recent study found that nominees of Democratic presidents were significantly more likely to get a higher rating, even controlling for legal and judicial experience. This bias doesn’t appear to be explained by greater extremism of Republican nominees, since removing the more conservative Federalist Society members from the analysis did not change the results. The study also revealed a bias against nominees with any political experience, since they get lower ratings, controlling for legal and judicial experience.

Smelcer, S. et al., “Bias and the Bar: Evaluating the ABA Ratings of Federal Judicial Nominees,” Political Research Quarterly (forthcoming).


One step to a more powerful you

If you ever find yourself feeling like a minion, here’s one thing that might help: lower your voice. In several experiments, psychologists found that people who were instructed to read a text out loud with a lower pitch described themselves as having more powerful traits and exhibited more abstract thinking.

Stel, M. et al., “Lowering the Pitch of Your Voice Makes You Feel More Powerful and Think More Abstractly,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

The hive mind made me do it

The Nuremberg Trials established that individuals cannot fall back on a claim that they were merely conforming and “following orders” to justify immoral actions.

Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff

Nevertheless, a new study suggests that people consider those involved in group behavior to have less responsibility for their actions. An individual in a group with more of a “group mind”--as in a more cohesive group--is judged to have less of “a mind of his or her own.” As such, responsibility is attributed to the group and not the individual. Even when judging something as simple as animated videos of fish, people attribute more “group mind” to same-sized fish swimming in the same direction and, as a result, judge individual fish in this group to have less responsibility for their own actions.

Waytz, A. & Young, L., “The Group-Member Mind Tradeoff: Attributing Mind to Groups versus Group Members,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Math for baby boys

While the biological differences between the sexes are innate, the origin of their somewhat different career trajectories is less obvious; it’s certainly due at least in part to boys and girls being socialized differently. In the ongoing debate about the dearth of women in technical fields, a recent study suggests that socialization may play a bigger--and earlier--role than we think. An analysis of transcripts of interactions between mothers and their preschool-age children, including many from white middle-class families, revealed that mothers referred to numbers more than twice as much in talking to sons than in talking to daughters.


Chang, A. et al., “Gender Biases in Early Number Exposure to Preschool-Aged Children,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology (December 2011).

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