Uncommon Knowledge

I feel powerful — and so tall!

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

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Power makes you feel tall

Growing up, children learn to associate tallness with power, and, among adults, we tend to assign power to those who are tall. But does this association also go the other way? Apparently it does: A new study finds that power makes people feel taller. After writing about an experience in which they had power over someone else, people significantly overestimated their height relative to a taller pole and created taller avatars to represent themselves in a computer game. Likewise, people significantly over-reported their height after being randomly assigned to be a manager (vs. employee) in a business exercise.

Duguid, M. & Goncalo, J., “Living Large: The Powerful Overestimate Their Own Height,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How Gingrich changed politics

One of the most remarkable political stories of 2011 was Newt Gingrich’s comeback in the Republican primary campaign, from disintegration to leading the pack. It was especially surprising because most people, even Republicans, don’t seem to think of Gingrich as a model. However, those people may be overlooking the fact that, next to Ronald Reagan, Gingrich has arguably been the most influential figure in contemporary Republican politics. Just how influential? In a recent study, political scientists at the University of Texas and Duke University found that Republicans who were first elected to the House of Representatives during Gingrich’s tenure and were later elected to the Senate--what the political scientists call “Gingrich Senators”--are largely responsible for the increasing polarization of the Senate, notwithstanding its reputation as the more deliberative body. Not only do Gingrich Senators have “substantially more conservative voting records” than other Republicans who entered the Senate at the same time, but differences in constituency or electoral factors cannot explain the effect. Nor is there a similar pattern on the Democratic side.

Theriault, S. & Rohde, D., “The Gingrich Senators and Party Polarization in the U.S. Senate,” Journal of Politics (October 2011).

A good reason not to value your time

Time equals money, but, unfortunately, money divided by time (e.g., your hourly wage) equals impatience and frustration. In a new study, after people were asked to explicitly calculate their hourly wage from their annual income and hours--as opposed to just reporting their annual income and hours or performing meaningless calculations--they were significantly more impatient during leisurely activities like surfing the Internet or listening to music, and, as a result, they derived less happiness from such activities. Offering some compensation for time spent on the leisurely activity mitigated the effect of having calculated one’s hourly wage.

DeVoe, S. & House, J., “Time, Money, and Happiness: How Does Putting a Price on Time Affect Our Ability to Smell the Roses?” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The torture paradox


What happens when the law of unintended consequences meets the law against torture? A recent study by political scientists suggests that the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment might be more aptly named the Convention for Torture. That’s because it actually offers ruthless regimes a way to advertise just how tough they are: They’re so tough they can even sign a treaty ostensibly protecting human rights, yet still torture, and withstand any consequences from the international community. Indeed, the study found that regimes that torture more are also more likely to sign the treaty. They also survive longer, because they’ve advertised their toughness to their domestic opposition, who are further deterred from challenging the regime. So, while torture declines somewhat in signatory regimes, this is only because the opposition becomes more compliant.

Hollyer, J. & Rosendorff, P., “Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Sign the Convention against Torture? Signaling, Domestic Politics and Non-Compliance,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (December 2011).

Equal-opportunity rotation

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Research has shown that “of all cognitive sex differences, the mental rotation of abstract figures in 3-dimensional space is the most robust.” But how durable is this particular difference? Only as durable as your confidence, according to a new study. When taking a mental rotation test that allowed for nonanswers or reporting a lack of confidence in answers, women did worse than men and reported less confidence. However, women’s lower performance seemed to stem from lower confidence, not less ability. When taking a mental rotation test that simply required an answer for every question, women did just as well as men. Moreover, after taking a challenging line judgment test, women who were randomly told they had performed above average did just as well in a subsequent mental rotation test as men who were randomly told they had performed below average.

Estes, Z. & Felker, S., “Confidence Mediates the Sex Difference in Mental Rotation Performance,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (forthcoming).

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