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Uncommon Knowledge

Hello, I’m Superman

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

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You, superman

Could pretending to be a superhero make you more of a hero in real life? Apparently so, according to researchers from Stanford. Students donned virtual reality equipment and flew—as if they were in a helicopter or as if they could fly like a superhero—through a virtual city. After this experience, while the experimenter was putting away the virtual reality equipment, the experimenter knocked over a cup full of pens, ostensibly by accident. Students who had flown like a superhero were quicker to offer help and picked up more pens than students who had flown as if in a helicopter.

Rosenberg, R. et al., “Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior,” PLoS ONE (January 2013).

The misery of online popularity

Do more friends make you happier? It depends if they’re real, offline friends or just online “friends.” Analyzing the “2011 Happiness Monitor survey sponsored by Coca-Cola and conducted in Canada,” two economists found that the number of online friends had little, or even negative, correlation with happiness. The economists note that “among middle-aged females, having the largest size of online network (300 online friends or more) has a large, negative and significant association with [subjective well-being]. The estimated effect is so large that it exceeds that of being unemployed by a substantial margin.” Meanwhile, doubling the number of offline friends is associated with a happiness boost comparable to 50 percent more income, particularly for single people.

Helliwell, J. & Huang, H., “Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2013).

Does this make you feel gay?

Born this way? Well, maybe in part. In a new study, psychologists at UCLA find that self-reported heterosexuals shift their sexuality somewhat depending on context. After reading that homosexuals are accepted (compared to being unaccepted), both heterosexual men and women reported more homosexual orientation and were more willing to rate a same-sex model as attractive. Even a subliminal presentation of a happy face (compared to an angry face) right before seeing an image of a same-sex couple induced more homosexual orientation.

Preciado, M. et al., “The Impact of Cues of Stigma and Support on Self-Perceived Sexual Orientation among Heterosexually Identified Men and Women,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Why artists love democracy

The United States has worked hard to support democracy around the world. New research suggests that these efforts may be of financial benefit to two unexpected groups: artists and art collectors. An economic analysis of the work of famous artists during the last two centuries showed that paintings produced in more democratic political environments sold for more money in recent auctions. This effect was especially large for paintings produced before World War II. There have also been more—and more renowned—artists working in countries that were more democratic.

Hellmanzik, C., “Democracy and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from the Superstars of Modern Art,” European Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Invisible? Not when I’m drunk!

Alcohol may make it harder to concentrate, but recent research has found that, in certain situations, it can improve cognitive skill. Men who were intoxicated to around a .08 blood-alcohol level were significantly faster in detecting “small changes that occurred throughout large complex visual displays”—the classic example is the “invisible gorilla” experiment in which subjects watching a video and focused on a counting task fail to recognize a gorilla wandering across the screen. The tipsy subjects’ were more likely to notice such disruptions—which the researchers write, “could be the result of intoxication causing participants to switch from attention-
demanding controlled search processes, to a more passive search style.”

Colflesh, G. & Wiley, J., “Drunk, but Not Blind: The Effects of Alcohol Intoxication on Change Blindness,” Consciousness and Cognition (March 2013).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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