Uncommon Knowledge

Facing death? Try sex

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Fierce beliefs: built on ignorance

Do you have a strong opinion about Obamacare? Great. Now, please explain how it works. If that question gives you pause, it might also serve a purpose: A new study suggests that the intense political polarization affecting this country depends on ignorance, and that drawing our attention to how little we know could actually help us get along. Researchers asked people to indicate their position on one of several policies (e.g., cap and trade, flat tax) and then asked them to explain the mechanics of how the policy worked or didn’t work. After attempting this explanation, people reported less understanding of the issue and took a more moderate position. Asking people to come up with reasons for their position rather than a mechanistic explanation didn’t have the same moderating effect.

Fernbach, P. et al., “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Get famous, stay famous

Sorry, folks, but it seems Lindsay Lohan may be here to stay. A recent study of fame—measured by the number of articles in which someone’s name appeared—found that “the vast majority of coverage goes to names that have already been in the news for several years, and that new names rarely penetrate the higher strata of fame.” If you get famous for a single event, you will typically drop back off the radar fast, the researchers note; to get lasting fame, you need to debut with wide coverage, so that your “name locks in.” After this, “big fame appears so immobile that even a decade” after first making headlines, “top names have typically not peaked yet.”

van de Rijt, A. et al., “Only 15 Minutes? The Social Stratification of Fame in Printed Media,” American Sociological Review (April 2013).

The pitfall of strict parenting

If you’re a strict parent, new research suggests you may want to tread a little more lightly—if only to help your kids handle temptation down the road. In several experiments with students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, those who reported having stricter parents also reported more disapproval of bad behavior and temptation—but only if the researchers had asked about the parents first, thereby making parents’ strictness salient. However, after trying to suppress immoral thoughts, those who reported having stricter parents had more difficulty in a self-control test. In other words, “restrictive parenting may (unintentionally) increase the likelihood of immoral conduct, because efforts to suppress potent temptations ironically deplete the very self-control resources needed to resist these temptations.”

Sheikh, S. & Janoff-Bulman, R., “Paradoxical Consequences of Prohibitions,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Generation greedy and lazy


Researchers aren’t saying that Generations X and Y are gold diggers, but…well, actually, yes, they are. A new analysis of data from an annual survey of high school seniors going back to the 1970s confirms that Generations X and Y are more materialistic than the baby boomers were, with materialism peaking in those surveyed at the end of the 1980s. Factors associated with trends in materialism were unemployment, divorce, and the standard of living in society during one’s childhood, and advertising spending and the prevalence of unmarried adults in society during one’s adolescence. Worse, “more high school seniors acknowledged that ‘not wanting to work hard’ may prevent them from getting a desired job (25 percent agreed in the mid-1970s, compared with 39 percent in the mid-2000s),” even though they had greater material desires.

Twenge, J. & Kasser, T., “Generational Changes in Materialism and Work Centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with Temporal Changes in Societal Insecurity and Materialistic Role Modeling,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Facing death? Try sex

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After an attack on public safety—say, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings—have you ever found yourself strangely preoccupied with dirty thoughts? If so, you are not alone. In a recent study, college students who were asked to think about death were subsequently more interested in watching TV shows and movies that happened to have more sexual content. There was no effect from thinking only about physical pain, and there was no effect on interest in dramatic or violent content, nor was there any moderation of the effect based on subjects’ sexual attitudes. As the author of the study concludes, “sex may constitute another fundamental defense” against the thought of death, given that “the creation of offspring through sex tempers the threat of annihilation posed by death in that one’s offspring live on.”

Taylor, L., “Dying to Watch: Thoughts of Death and Preferences for Sexual Media Content,” Journal of Media Psychology (Spring 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at