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    Uncommon Knowledge

    Philosopher, reason with thyself!

    And more surprising insights from the social sciences

    Judging like an only child

    If you’re trying to predict the Supreme Court’s verdict on the health care overhaul, you might want to examine one heretofore unconsidered factor: whether each justice has older or younger siblings. A political scientist at the University of North Carolina analyzed the votes of justices from 1873 through 1970 in cases that contemplated applying the Bill of Rights to the states, which constituted a major shift in legal doctrine. He found a strong correlation between birth order and support for the status quo. Only 43 percent of the votes of first-born/only children were in support of the change in doctrine, in contrast to 73 percent of the votes of last-born children. This relationship held even when controlling for ideology, age, family background, and judicial precedents. He theorizes that later-born justices “learned to value divergence and adaptability since their share of parental attention was contingent on finding a place in the family in which they could shine.”

    McGuire, K., “The Psychological Origins of a Constitutional Revolution: The Supreme Court, Birth Order, and Nationalizing the Bill of Rights,” Political Research Quarterly (forthcoming).

    One reason women earn less

    Women tend to earn less money in high-intensity, high-payment jobs like those on Wall Street, but it’s not clear why. Are they less aggressive, or less connected? One argument is that they just get less support, even within firms that presumably pay them to succeed. An analysis of personnel records from two major stock brokerage firms in the 1990s seems to confirm this. When managers divvied up the clients of departing brokers, women tended to get the clients with smaller accounts and/or commissions. However, when assigned similar clients, women generated just as much in commissions, if not more, than men.

    Madden, J., “Performance Support Bias and the Gender Pay Gap among Stockbrokers,” Gender & Society (forthcoming).

    Philosopher, reason with thyself!

    We all have trouble being consistent with our principles, but if anyone should be able to do it, it should be trained philosophers. Or so you’d think. When both philosophers and nonphilosophers were asked to judge various ethical dilemmas, philosophers--even ethics PhDs from top schools--were more influenced than nonphilosophers by the order in which the dilemmas were presented, which shouldn’t have happened if the philosophers were consistently applying moral principles. The authors of the study conclude: “Perhaps the simplest interpretation of our results is that philosophers’ skill at moral reasoning is most effective during post-hoc rationalization.”

    Schwitzgebel, E. & Cushman, F., “Expertise in Moral Reasoning? Order Effects on Moral Judgment in Professional Philosophers and Non-Philosophers,” Mind & Language (April 2012).

    Tiger, Tiger, morphing into someone else


    Giving new meaning to the term “face value,” researchers at the University of Wisconsin have found that digitally morphing a person’s face with the face of a celebrity has a powerful subliminal effect. In several experiments, people rated faces that were partially morphed with the faces of Tiger Woods or George W. Bush as more trustworthy, even though no one seemed to recognize the resemblance. Ironically, people’s ratings of the real Bush’s trustworthiness had little to do with their ratings of the morphed-Bush face’s trustworthiness. Public image can still matter, though: When people were asked whether they’d prefer to buy something from the morphed-Woods face, most said they would, before his scandal broke...but not after. Nevertheless, the authors of the study note that “digital morphing may offer marketers a way to capitalize on celebrities’ familiarity without paying all the costs.”

    Tanner, R. & Maeng, A., “A Tiger and a President: Imperceptible Celebrity Facial Cues Influence Trust and Preference,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

    Germs make you conform

    Lady Gaga: by Jemal Countess/Getty Images; Dog: istockphotos; Globe Staff illustration

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    Judging by a new study, Lady Gaga must have no fear of germs and disease. Researchers in China found that people who were more wary of germs and disease also reported more conformity. This reaction was also induced experimentally. People who watched slide shows or movie clips depicting germs and disease subsequently reported more conformity--and aligned their ratings of abstract art more closely with peers--than people who watched slide shows or movie clips depicting accidents or danger.

    Wu, B.-P. & Chang, L., “The Social Impact of Pathogen Threat: How Disease Salience Influences Conformity,” Personality and Individual Differences (forthcoming).

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