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Uncommon Knowledge

Unfair bosses, unfair employees

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

21 minutes to a happier marriage

How much time do you have to put in to improve your marriage? Maybe less than you think. A team of psychologists surveyed heterosexual married couples over the Internet about their relationships every four months for two years. After the first year, the survey also asked half of the couples to write for seven minutes about reappraising their disagreements from a neutral third-party perspective. The researchers also sent an e-mail to these couples in between surveys reminding them of the reappraisal task. That’s all: less than half an hour, plus three e-mails. Nevertheless, these couples reported a better trend in relationship quality than the other couples, regardless of race, age, income, length of marriage, number or age of children. The psychologists conclude: “Given the major health and well-being correlates of marital distress—both for the spouses themselves and for their children and broader social networks—spending 21 minutes a year reappraising conflict appears to yield a spectacular return on investment.”

Finkel, E. et al., “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality over Time,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Trusted brands of the GOP

Conservatives believe in free markets and supply-side economics, but don’t count on them to be freewheeling at the grocery store. An analysis of consumer purchases from supermarkets across the country reveals that the market share of both generic and new products is lower in more conservative counties, even controlling for the county’s median income, proportion of elderly, proportion of
African-Americans, unemployment rate, average education, and average household size. These preferences, the authors note, “are consistent with traits typically associated with conservatism, such as aversion to risk, skepticism about new experiences, and a general preference for tradition, convention, and the status quo.”

Khan, R. et al., “Ideology and Brand Consumption,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

End-of-life plan: whatever

Do you know how you want to die? That may be an uncomfortable question, but it’s one that doctors have to bring up with patients and families all the time—and new research suggests that we’re not putting much thought into this important decision. A recent study involving patients with incurable chest diseases at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania found that simply changing the default option—i.e., comfort-oriented care vs. life-extending care—on an advance directive form caused a large percentage of patients to prefer that particular default option. This happened even though the researchers “informed patients that different types of advance directives would be assigned by chance, that patients in all groups could select or decline the same interventions and treatment goals, and that patients could change their choices at any time....Only 2.1 percent of patients in this study elected to reconsider their selections after being alerted to the manipulation of the default option, but ultimately these patients did not change their original selections.”

Halpern, S. et al., “Default Options in Advance Directives Influence How Patients Set Goals for End-Of-Life Care,” Health Affairs (February 2013).

The contagion of jerks

Organizations often tolerate unfair jerks in their ranks, even near the top of the power hierarchy, if only because they seem to be productive. However, a new study suggests that their presence may contaminate co-workers more than we assume. Researchers presented subjects with a profile and picture of someone described as a fair leader and someone else described as an unfair leader. Then, in a computer task, the participants were subliminally exposed to the image of either the fair or unfair leader. Later, in an ostensibly unrelated managerial role-playing task, participants who had been exposed to the unfair leader wrote a harsher dismissal letter—with less contrition and explanation—to a fired employee.

Zdaniuk, A. & Bobocel, R., “The Automatic Activation of (Un)Fairness Behavior in Organizations,” Human Resource Management Review (forthcoming).

Free-associate, feel great!

Previous research has shown that people in a good mood tend to think more broadly and creatively. But is the converse true: Does thinking more creatively improve mood? In two free-association experiments, a team of psychologists found that people who came up with freer word associations (e.g., given the word “race,” they associated the more creative “rat” rather than the narrower association “win”)—whether on their own or because they were prompted with broadly associable words—subsequently reported being in a better mood.

Brunyé, T. et al., “Happiness by Association: Breadth of Free Association Influences Affective States,” Cognition (April 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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