Uncommon Knowledge

Lonely days for ugly boyfriends

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Lonely days for ugly boyfriends

Note to guys: If your wife or girlfriend gets snippy with you for a few days every month, it may not be what you think. Instead, it may be time for an extreme makeover...for you. Researchers at UCLA studied over a hundred women who were romantically involved but not using hormonal contraceptives. On high-fertility days, the women felt less close to, and found more fault with, their partner if he was less attractive. This seemed to represent a biological impulse to seek fertilization services elsewhere. The good news is that the women didn’t report any change in commitment to their relationships.

Larson, C. et al., “Changes in Women’s Feelings about Their Romantic Relationships across the Ovulatory Cycle,” Hormones and Behavior­

How parole reduces crime

Over the last several decades, many states and the federal government have gutted the parole system, mandating fixed prison sentences for crimes. However, the findings of a recent study by an economist at Columbia University suggest that this may be one of the bigger misjudgments in modern crime policy. Analyzing the ­effects of changes in Georgia’s parole system, the study found that parole boards actually did a good job of making parole decisions based on recidivism risk. When the possibility of parole was removed, inmates’ behavior and efforts toward rehabilitation worsened, and their post-release recidivism rates surged. As the study concludes, “the decline of parole may thus help explain why recidivism rates have remained high while crime rates for the rest of the population have fallen over the past two decades.”

Kuziemko, I., “How Should Inmates be Released from Prison? An Assessment of Parole versus Fixed-Sentence Regimes,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming).

The roommate race effect

Does the race of those around us affect our behavior? That’s a difficult proposition to examine in the wild, but the undergraduate population offers a useful captive audience for academic researchers. Psychologists at Tufts University measured the effect of random roommate assignments that caused some students to live with someone of another race. After one
semester, white freshmen with an other-race roommate reported having more nonwhite friends and, in a staged interview with a black student on the topic of affirmative action, were less anxious and awkward, as judged by the participants themselves and independent viewers. The difference in demeanor was not explained by differences in expressed opinions on affirmative action, nor was it explained by differences in the reported quality of the roommate relationship.

Gaither, S. & Sommers, S., “Living with an Other-Race Roommate Shapes Whites’ Behavior in Subsequent Diverse Settings,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Invasion of the tax evaders

If companies doing business in the United States are foreign-owned, does it matter? A new study suggests that it does—but in fact, it depends on the values of the specific country the owners are from. Researchers, including two who worked in the Office of Tax Analysis at the US Department of the Treasury, analyzed thousands of IRS corporate tax audits. They found that small and medium-sized foreign-owned corporations evaded more tax in the United States if their owners were from countries with more corruption.

DeBacker, J. et al., “Importing Corruption Culture from Overseas: Evidence from Corporate Tax Evasion in the United States,” Journal of Financial Economics (forthcoming).

You already know this, we promise


In the popular science-fiction movie “The Matrix,” the protagonist’s mentor enigmatically instructs him to be better: “Don’t think you are, know you are.” That may seem like a trivial distinction, but it may help you on your next trivia test. Psychologists asked people to take a test of general knowledge and, before the test, trained some of the participants to think they would be receiving subliminal messages conveying the correct answer before each question. These participants were told to follow their intuition because “on some level you already know the answer.” On the test, these participants scored significantly higher, even though the subliminal messages were random letters.

Weger, U. & Loughnan, S., “Mobilizing Unused Resources: Using the Placebo Concept to Enhance Cognitive Performance,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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