Uncommon knowledge

Believing in meritocracy is good for you

And more surprising insights from the social sciences.

Distrust dissolves prejudice

What does it take to overcome prejudice? Maybe, oddly, a little distrust. Psychologists in Germany found that stereotypes based on gender, ethnicity, and weight were reduced after people were put in a distrustful frame of mind, even via subliminal messages. Given that a distrustful frame of mind caused people to judge pairs of nonhuman objects as less similar, and that the distrust prompt had no effect when people were also put in a similarity-focused frame of mind, the psychologists theorize that distrust causes people to focus on dissimilarity—including how others may be dissimilar from their stereotypes.

Posten, A.-C. & Mussweiler, T., “When Distrust Frees Your Mind: The Stereotype-Reducing Effects of Distrust,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Write it out, heal faster

Express yourself: That’s the lesson of recent research on healing. In a new study, researchers in New Zealand asked elderly people to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days about either their most traumatic life experience or about their daily activities. A couple weeks later, the researchers cut small holes in the participants’ skin. Those who had written about their most traumatic life experience exhibited significantly faster healing of the wound.

Koschwanez, H. et al., “Expressive Writing and Wound Healing in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Psychosomatic Medicine (forthcoming).

Someday I’ll be on top

Two questions for those who are not currently on top of the world: Do you control your destiny? And, one day, will you get what you deserve? If you said yes, that may be a good sign for your psychological and physical health. According to psychologists: “In two studies, among women, lower socioeconomic status women, and women of color, we found a positive relationship between the belief in meritocracy and well-being (self-esteem and physical health)” that was explained by having a greater sense of control over life outcomes.

McCoy, S. et al., “Is the Belief in Meritocracy Palliative for Members of Low Status Groups? Evidence for a Benefit for Self-Esteem and Physical Health via Perceived Control,” European Journal of Social Psychology (June 2013).

The expressive parent


When parents say more words to young children every day, it prepares them better for learning—and higher-income parents tend to talk to their kids so much more that lower-income ones may start school with a huge “word gap.” (Ideas wrote about a major initiative around this problem in Providence earlier this year.) But new research suggests that it also makes a difference how well you demonstrate what those words mean. Parents were randomly videotaped interacting with their 1-year-old children, and these videos were subsequently shown to strangers with one of the parent’s words bleeped out, which the strangers had to guess. Children of parents whose words were more easily guessable had larger vocabularies several years later, even controlling for the quantity of words parents spoke to their children. Although the quantity of words was correlated with the family’s socioeconomic status, the guessable quality of those words was not.

Cartmill, E. et al., “Quality of Early Parent Input Predicts Child Vocabulary 3 Years Later,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Boss: I’m sure you agree!

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Power corrupts in many ways—for one, it tends to make you think everyone else feels just like you do. In a new study, people who were put in a high-power frame of mind more readily assumed that their own personal traits and organizational values would be shared by other group members. People in a high-power frame of mind also more readily projected their own bad moods onto others.

Overbeck, J. & Droutman, V., “One for All: Social Power Increases Self-
Anchoring of Traits, Attitudes, and Emotions,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

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