Uncommon Knowledge

Figure skating: more corrupt than ever?

And other suprising insights from the social sciences

Globe Staff

Figure skating: more corruptthan ever?

In the Olympics, many events depend on subjective scoring from a panel of judges. But confidence in these scoring systems has been undermined by scandals, perhaps most infamously a 2002 pairs skating case in which a French judge “was reportedly pressured by some combination of her national federation and the Russian mafia to vote for a Russian pair in exchange for a Russian vote for a French couple in ice dancing.” In response, the International Skating Union, the ISU, anonymized judges’ scores—on the theory that vote trading would then be harder to carry off—and developed an elaborate score-tabulation system. A new study from a professor of economics at Dartmouth, however, suggests this has all been for naught or, even worse, for show. He finds that, if anything, a competitor with a compatriot on the judging panel can now expect even more nationalistic bias and vote trading. And he thinks the ISU may be part of the problem: “Some of the actions of the ISU after the 2002 judging scandal can only be rationalized as attempts to reduce the perception of corruption by limiting outside monitoring.”


Zitzewitz, E., “Does Transparency Reduce Favoritism and Corruption? Evidence from the Reform of Figure Skating Judging,” Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming).

Faith boosts willpower

Atheists may wonder why people are saps for religion, but, according to new research, religion actually protects your will from being sapped. Simply exposing people to religion-oriented words embedded in a word puzzle subsequently allowed them to tolerate more of a distasteful drink, delay gratification to hold out for a larger reward, and overcome mental exhaustion to persist longer on an impossible puzzle. Death-oriented words didn’t have the same effect, but morality-oriented words had an intermediate effect.

Rounding, K. et al., “Religion Replenishes Self-Control,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Diversity quiets men down

Men are generally more dominant and garrulous in social settings than women. However, a new study finds that this pattern can change depending on the racial composition of the group. Mock juries of six people were asked to deliberate on a sexual assault case involving a white female victim and black male defendant. Some of the juries were all white, and some of the juries included two black people. In the all-white juries, the typical gender disparity persisted, with men talking more and being seen as more persuasive than women. In the diverse juries, though, women did more talking and were seen as being just as persuasive. When video clips of whites talking in the diverse-jury deliberations were shown to independent evaluators, the confidence of white men was judged to start out high but then fall over the course of deliberations, while the confidence of white women started low and went up.


Toosi, N. et al., “Getting a Word in Group-Wise: Effects of Racial Diversity on Gender Dynamics,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Where blah advice comes from

When the going gets tough, the tough offer generic advice. That’s the conclusion of a professor at Harvard Business School who studied teams at a Big Four accounting firm and a top consulting firm. She found that performance pressure, while motivating higher performance, also undermined performance by shifting a team’s focus toward using general experience and away from using client-specific expertise held by particular members of the team. That more specific expertise is what clients appreciate, though, especially in more critical projects. Teams under pressure appear to fall into this trap because they focus more on consensus, common knowledge, project completion, and hierarchy.


Gardner, H., “Performance Pressure as a Double-edged Sword: Enhancing Team Motivation but Undermining the Use of Team Knowledge,” Administrative Science Quarterly (forthcoming).

Turning the electable cheek

Does the direction a politician is facing say something about his or her politics? Previous research has shown that people tend to present the left side of their faces for portraits, especially when motivated to express emotion. A new study analyzed the photographic portraits of hundreds of Australian, British, Canadian, and American politicians and not only confirmed the left-side posing bias but found that conservatives posed to show their left sides 64 percent of the time, while liberals showed their left sides only 54 percent of the time. In fact, in Canada, liberal politicians actually favored a right-side pose. The authors of the study speculate that liberals have less of a left-side bias because they’re “attempting to conceal emotion” or “appear emotionally neutral.”

Thomas, N. et al., “Right-Wing Politicians Prefer the Emotional Left,” PLoS ONE (May 2012).

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