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Uncommon Knowledge

Think yourself full

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Greg Mees/Globe staff

Could the right go green?

People tend to think of morality along one dimension: good versus bad. But recent scholarship by Jonathan Haidt and others has identified that there can be multiple moral values commanding our attention—namely “harm/care,” “fairness/reciprocity,” “in-group/loyalty,” “authority/respect,” and “purity/sanctity”—and has shown that liberals are more focused on harm/care while conservatives are more focused on the others. A new study applies this moral framework to environmental politics and reveals that conservatives aren’t necessarily more opposed to environmental action; it depends how that action is framed. While the study confirmed that liberals see the environment as more of a moral issue and that the predominant framing of pro-environment messages in the media is based on harm/care rhetoric, the study also found that exposing conservatives to a purity/sanctity framing—focusing on pollution and contamination—caused them to feel more disgust and adopt more pro-environment attitudes, including support for pro-environment legislation and belief in global warming.

Feinberg, M. & Willer, R., “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Job advice: Take a hike

If you need your workforce to generate great new ideas, you might be tempted to have your employees look for options online. You’d do better to take away their computers and pack them off to the woods. In a study by psychologists from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah, people who went on a backpacking trip run by Outward Bound—and were banned from using electronics the whole time—performed 50 percent better on a test of creative problem-solving after several days out in nature than people who hadn’t yet started the trip.

Atchley, R. et al., “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” PLoS ONE (December 2012).

America’s hidden achievers

Education, especially at the
university level, can be a great engine of socioeconomic mobility. But are top universities finding the top-notch, low-income students they’d like to see apply? According to economists at Stanford and Harvard, “a large number—probably the vast majority—of very high-achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a selective college or
university” and so “the number of low-
income, high-achieving students is much greater than college admissions staff generally believe.” It’s not like these students are avoiding selective institutions because they’re more expensive—they offer “so much financial aid that the students would often pay less to attend a selective institution than the far less selective or nonselective post-secondary institutions that most of them do attend.” So what’s going on? Apparently, because most of these students “are fairly isolated from other high achievers, both in terms of geography and in terms of the high schools they attend,” they’re relatively ignorant of the opportunities available to them. Unfortunately, sending generic brochures to these students doesn’t seem to make a big difference, and it’s not practical for admissions staff to visit all of them in person.

Hoxby, C. & Avery, C., “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students,”
National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2012).

Think yourself full

Your eyes can be bigger than your stomach. Interestingly, your eyes are also more powerful than your stomach in reminding you what happened at dinner. In an experiment conducted by a team of British psychologists, people were presented with a bowl of tomato soup and asked to eat all the way down to a line marked on the side of the bowl. Unbeknownst to participants, a tube was attached to the bottom of the bowl—invisible underneath the soup—that pumped soup into or out of the bowl to manipulate the actual amount that participants ended up eating. Although participants were less hungry right after eating a greater quantity of soup, the actual quantity of soup eaten bore little relation to appetite after a couple hours. What mattered at that point was how much soup participants had initially seen—and thought they had eaten.

Brunstrom, J. et al., “Episodic Memory and Appetite Regulation in Humans,” PLoS ONE (December 2012).

The smoking-tax gene

Genetics isn’t destiny, but a new analysis by a professor of public health at Yale illustrates the importance that even a single letter in your DNA sequence can wield. It turns out that the tax rate on a pack of cigarettes only deterred smoking for people with the G/G genotype—versus the C/C or C/G genotypes—at a particular location in the DNA sequence of a particular gene, which encodes nicotine-sensitive neurons in the midbrain. In other words, “the results are stark in that a single [letter of the DNA sequence] is used to completely segment the population into the approximately 50% of adults who are likely to respond to tobacco taxation and the 50% who are unresponsive.”

Fletcher, J., “Why Have Tobacco Control Policies Stalled? Using Genetic Moderation to Examine Policy Impacts,” PLoS ONE (December 2012).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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