Uncommon Knowledge

Heavy guilt, light lunch

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Gerrymandered but true

It’s generally assumed that politicians will say anything to get elected. However, a recent analysis of the infamous redistricting of Texas in 2003—when Republicans redrew the boundaries of congressional districts to undermine the reelection of white Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation—suggests they’re more likely to stick to their guns than we realize. After the redistricting, there was no significant change in the voting positions of these Democrats to accommodate their new district constituency. In other words, they stayed who they were, ideologically speaking, even if that worsened their chances of reelection.

Lo, J., “Legislative Responsiveness to Gerrymandering: Evidence from the 2003 Texas Redistricting,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (January 2013).

Danes, no; Danish people, sure

In a study reported in this column a few months ago, people were less likely to cheat if they were instructed not to be a “cheater” compared to being instructed not to “cheat.” Now, researchers in Europe have uncovered a similar phenomenon in the domain of nationalistic identity—and with nouns versus adjectives. Whether evaluating an abstract painting, a penalty call in an international soccer match, or reparations from World War II, Europeans were more biased towards their own nationality if a person or group was described with a noun (e.g., a Dane) compared to an adjective (e.g., Danish).


Graf, S. et al., “Nouns Cut Slices: Effects of Linguistic Forms on Intergroup Bias,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology (March 2013).

Heavy guilt, light lunch

Greg Klee/Globe staff

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Metaphorically, if something’s weighing on you, you feel responsible for it. According to a new study, though, you can bring that metaphor to life, literally—and harness it for good. When asked to write about a guilty experience, people who were wearing a heavy backpack reported more guilt than people wearing a light one. They also were more willing to perform an arduous task, chose a healthier snack, and cheated less.

Kouchaki, M. et al., “The Burden of Guilt: Heavy Backpacks, Light Snacks, and Enhanced Morality,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

How to undermine boys

In the corporate world, men still dominate in many respects, but in school, girls tend to do better than boys. And just as negative stereotypes have been shown to affect the opportunities and choices of women in the workplace, a new study shows that negative stereotypes may also help explain the scholastic underachievement of boys. As boys progressed through primary school, they increasingly believed—and believed that adults believed—that girls do better in school. Moreover, boys performed significantly worse on an aptitude test after being told that boys generally didn’t do as well on the test (compared to hearing no gender information). However, boys performed significantly better after being explicitly told that boys do as well as girls (compared to hearing no gender information). The performance of girls, meanwhile, was unaffected by hearing the negative stereotype about boys’ performance.

Hartley, B. & Sutton, R., “A Stereotype Threat Account of Boys’ Academic Underachievement,” Child Development (forthcoming).

Hire me—I’m just like you!


If you’re an individual who could potentially face discrimination—say, because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, or weight—what’s the best way to get ahead? A recent study suggests that one key strategy is to play up whatever you have in common with the person you’re addressing. A job application from a gay male candidate was evaluated much more favorably by straight men if the candidate “referred to a superordinate identity (i.e., Americans), his preference for solving problems via teamwork, and used the pronoun ‘we’ throughout.” Meanwhile, this strategy didn’t help—and may have even hurt—a straight candidate.

Schmader, T. et al., “A Peek Inside the Targets’ Toolbox: How Stigmatized Targets Deflect Discrimination by Invoking a Common Identity,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology (January/February 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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