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Uncommon Knowledge

Marry in doubt, divorce in haste

Alli Arnold for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Marry in doubt, divorce in haste

Hey, engaged ladies, are you experiencing serious qualms before the wedding? Your cold feet might be telling you something, according to psychologists at UCLA. They recruited more than 200 newlywed couples, interviewed them individually, and followed up with them over four years. It turns out that wives’—but not husbands’—premarital doubts more than doubled the risk of divorce, while reducing relationship satisfaction for those who remained married, even controlling for wives’ personality, whether the couple lived together before marriage, whether there was a difficult engagement period, and whether the wives’ parents were divorced. (Premarital doubts turned out to be evenly shared by people with different age, income, education, race, relationship history, and parental divorce backgrounds.)


Lavner, J. et al., “Do Cold Feet Warn of Trouble Ahead? Premarital Uncertainty and Four-Year Marital Outcomes,” Journal of Family Psychology (forthcoming).

Memo to Mitt: Don’t say unemployment

Conventional wisdom among political pundits and strategists is that high unemployment makes it harder for incumbents—like Barack Obama—to get reelected. Indeed, Mitt Romney’s campaign takes every opportunity to highlight unemployment under President Obama. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? By comparing gubernatorial and presidential election results with unemployment data at the county level, a political science professor at Ohio State University has found that higher unemployment helps Democrats, regardless of incumbency. The Democratic advantage is especially pronounced after Republican administrations but is also significant after Democratic ones. In other words, Obama may actually be getting a polling boost from high unemployment, while Romney may be undermining himself every time he brings it up.

Wright, J., “Unemployment and the Democratic Electoral Advantage,” American Political Science Review (forthcoming).

Women ‘braid,’ men ‘knot’

Who’s the best person for the job? Given our gender stereotypes, somewhat disturbingly, that might depend on what the job is called. Researchers in the business school at UCLA randomly paired men and women to work on a paper-folding task or a weaving task. The paper-folding task was labeled as either a “Building Project” or an “Art Project,” while the weaving task was labeled as either a “Knot-Tying Task” or a “Hair-Braiding Task.” Even though the actual task was the same, the more feminine name for the task caused women to be seen as more competent in the task and caused them to be more likely to speak up and exhibit leadership.


Ho, G. et al., “Labels and Leaders: The Influence of Framing on Leadership Emergence,” Leadership Quarterly (October 2012).

Can’t buy me empathy

In our materialistic culture, it sometimes seems that people will only perform well if they’re provided with an economic incentive. New research, however, adds to the list of areas where economic incentives may actually make our performance worse. People who were offered money as a direct reward for empathic performance instead exhibited less of it. They were less able to infer the emotions of another person and described themselves in less relational terms. The authors of the study conclude that “money causes individuals to focus more on self-related concerns and less on other-related concerns.”

Ma-Kellams, C. & Blascovich, J., “The Ironic Effect of Financial Incentive on Empathic Accuracy,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Why we laugh together

If you love someone, you can give him a hug. But what if you want to bond with a whole group of people? Social scientists have theorized that laughter is one way that humans have evolved to implement “social grooming”—the emotional equivalent of primates grooming each other—in groups larger than two. To investigate just how efficient laughter might be, researchers observed groups of people hanging out in bars in Europe: “Our findings suggest that the ‘grooming’ group for laughter is a little over three individuals. Since all members of the laughter group gain an endorphin surge (unlike the grooming [primate pair], where endorphins are triggered only in the groomee), this would make laughter three times as efficient as grooming, which would in turn allow a very significant increase in the size of the community that could be bonded.”


Dezecache, G. & Dunbar, R., “Sharing the Joke: The Size of Natural Laughter Groups,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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