Uncommon Knowledge

Sitting in my giant cheating chair

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

iStockphoto; illustration Dan Zedek/Globe Staff

The cheating seat

Ah, for a nice, big, comfortable seat, where you can stretch out and be totally unethical. According to a team of researchers from top universities, expansive postures encourage people to relax the rules. In one experiment, people in Boston and New York who had been asked to adopt a wide (vs. narrow) pose were subsequently much more likely to stay quiet when they were accidentally over-reimbursed for their participation. In another experiment, students who had worked with a large (vs. small) amount of desk space were more likely to cheat by changing answers on a test. And students who played a car-
racing video game in a spacious (vs. compact) seat were more likely to ignore instructions not to hit-and-run. Likewise, on the streets of New York City, cars that were observed to be double-parked had larger passenger compartments than the cars that were blocked in.

Yap, A. et al., “The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

I’m with team conservative!

Are you a conservative or a liberal? Are you sure? Two psychologists surveyed young people about their partisanship but also about their views on specific issues. It turns out that people who reported being in the center and on the right actually held views on the issues that were more liberal than their partisanship would suggest. Nevertheless, their partisanship affected their votes, above and beyond their positions on the issues. The psychologists theorize that people who are somewhat conservative identify as even more conservative as an expression of loyalty.

Zell, E. & Bernstein, M., “You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal than They Realize,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Make mine double-size

Which would you pick: a quarter-pound burger billed as “double-size” or a quarter-pound burger billed as “regular”? New research from Cornell University suggests that the “regular” would be worth less to consumers—and that they’d also find it less filling. People were willing to pay more for equivalent portions with larger-sounding labels. They were also willing to pay more for an upgrade from a portion labeled “regular” to a portion labeled “double-size” than for the equivalent upgrade from a portion labeled “half-size” to a portion labeled “regular,” suggesting that these judgments weren’t due to social norms or reference points. Also, although they were willing to pay more, people generally ate less of a portion when it had a larger-sounding label.

Just, D. & Wansink, B., “One Man’s Tall Is Another Man’s Small: How the Framing of Portion Size Influences Food Choice,” Health Economics (forthcoming).

Vaccines for Democrats


If you want to survive an epidemic, here’s your first order of business: Get control of government. During the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009, when Democrats controlled the House, states received tens of thousands of extra doses of vaccine—a large share of what the typical state received—in the first weeks of distribution for every Democrat it had on the relevant House oversight committee. There was little sign of attempting to assign the vaccine fairly: The author of the study found that “no evidence exists that doses of swine flu vaccine were directed toward areas with higher shares of at-risk age groups”; “there is no evidence to show that states with higher concentrations of first responders receive higher levels of vaccine”; “there is no evidence that the degree of influenza propagation played a role in the initial Week 1 allocation of swine flu vaccine”; and “proximity to Mexico, despite its role as a perceived threat to the health of American citizens, also played no role in the distribution pattern of H1N1 vaccine units.”

Ryan, M., “Allocating Infection: The Political Economy of the Swine Flu (H1N1) Vaccine,” Economic Inquiry (forthcoming).

Facebook? More like Breakupbook

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If you have a new boyfriend or girlfriend, you might want to dial back on the Facebook use—and make sure he or she does, too. A new study of Facebook users found that spending more time on Facebook was associated with a greater likelihood of cheating and/or breakup with one’s partner—precipitated by arguments related to the use of Facebook. However, this was only true for relationships less than three years old.

Clayton, R. et al., “Cheating, Breakup, and Divorce: Is Facebook Use to Blame?” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking (forthcoming).

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