Uncommon Knowledge

Want to quit smoking? Try love

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

anthony schultz/globe staff

Parents: the anti-anti-drug

One cardinal assumption of parenting is that you should talk to your kids about drugs and sex before they fall under outside influences. But maybe you should think before you speak. An analysis of data from the National Survey of Parents and Youth suggests that more communication between kids and parents about drugs may be associated with a higher likelihood of trying marijuana, even when controlling for risk factors like delinquency, thrill-seeking, tobacco and alcohol use, being offered marijuana, and positive and negative family dynamics. The researchers also found that the effects of race and socio-economic status were insignificant, and, in good news, that positive family dynamics do appear to reduce the odds of trying marijuana.

Nonnemaker, J. et al., “Parent–Child Communication and Marijuana Initiation: Evidence Using Discrete-Time Survival Analysis,” Addictive Behaviors (December 2012).

Photos make you credulous

You have to see it to believe it, goes the old maxim. But new research suggests that seeing things may actually be too convincing, in that we tend to believe anything accompanied by photographic or descriptive information, even if that material is completely incidental. In experiments, people were more likely to make a snap judgment that a claim was true when it was simply presented alongside a photo or description of the subject of the claim, even though the photo or description didn’t address the validity of the claim.

Newman, E. et al., “Nonprobative Photographs (or Words) Inflate Truthiness,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (forthcoming).

Does climate breed empire?

What controls the rise and fall of empires? To governments facing the current rash of heat, drought, and storms, one emerging answer may be less than comforting: climate change. A recent paper by a group of historians, archaeologists, and climate scientists suggests that climatic variation was correlated with the evolution of the Roman Empire. Specifically, “exceptional climate stability characterizes the centuries of the Roman Empire’s rise,” including stable solar and volcanic activity, and “unnoticed until now, Egypt, the Roman Empire’s breadbasket, appears to have enjoyed exceptionally favorable conditions for cereal production during this period.” Then, climate “stability began to dissipate between about 150 and 200 A.D.” According to the researchers, “the crucial development was the severe drought of the fourth century that lasted nearly forty years,” pushing the Huns toward Europe, which then pushed the Goths to invade the Empire.

McCormick, M. et al., “Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Autumn 2012).

More potential, more aid


Do you think people have an innate intelligence, or do you think most people have the potential to become really smart? According to a new study, your answer to that question says a lot about your politics. White Americans who were experimentally manipulated to believe that most people have the potential to become really smart—compared to being manipulated to believe in innate intelligence—were more likely to support redistributive and affirmative action policies. Meanwhile, exposure to the slightly different view that people can make themselves smarter increased support for general public investment but had no effect on redistributive policy opinions.

Rattan, A. et al., “Can Everyone Become Highly Intelligent? Cultural Differences in and Societal Consequences of Beliefs about the Universal Potential for Intelligence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The nicotine patch of love

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Love is often said to be like a drug, and new research suggests that it might actually be a good substitute. Heavy-smoking young men who reported being in a loving relationship but who had abstained from smoking for at least eight hours had their brains scanned in an MRI machine while viewing images of their female partner or a female acquaintance, alongside an image of a cigarette. For those with moderate cravings, the image of the partner curbed activation in areas of the brain associated with addiction, while the image of the acquaintance stimulated it.

Xu, X. et al., “Intense Passionate Love Attenuates Cigarette Cue-Reactivity in Nicotine-Deprived Smokers: An fMRI Study,” PLoS ONE (July 2012).

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