Uncommon Knowledge

How fast food destroys patience

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Give me my burger NOW!

How fast is fast food? So fast that it can change the way you think—even about other things—without you even noticing. Analyzing surveys and experiments, researchers at the University of Toronto found that fast food makes people impatient. Having more fast-food restaurants was associated with lower household saving, both in the neighborhoods where those restaurants were and as fast-food outlets increased nationwide, and having more local fast-food restaurants was associated with people preferring more immediate gratification. The
researchers were also able to induce a preference for immediate gratification simply by asking people to recall a meal at, or even just interviewing people in front of, a
local fast-food restaurant.

DeVoe, S. et al., “Fast Food and Financial Impatience: A Socioecological Approach,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Training for parents

Ensuring equal opportunity for children from poor families is an ongoing challenge. However, a new study out of Oregon suggests that an early intervention targeting the thinking and behavior of both parents and children can make a big difference. Children in Head Start were randomly assigned to a program in which parents attended eight weekly, two-hour, small-group sessions focusing on “family stress regulation, contingency-based discipline, parental responsiveness and language use, and facilitation of child attention,” while children concurrently participated in small-group activities focused on “improving regulation of attention and emotion states.” Compared to children in regular Head Start or children assigned to a similar program but with less parental training, children in the parent-and-child program had significantly improved attentive brain function, aptitude, social skills, and behavior, while parents in the program had improved stress levels and interaction with their children.

Neville, H. et al., “Family-Based Training Program Improves Brain Function, Cognition, and Behavior in Lower Socioeconomic Status Preschoolers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Wii: the pacifist case

Research on the effects of violent video games has found mixed results: Some evidence has indicated that playing these games leads to increased aggression, while other evidence has suggested it doesn’t. Now, new research from Pennsylvania State University suggests that the effects can depend on how the games are played. Compared to playing a nonviolent video game or no game, students who played a violent video game for 20 minutes were not more aggressive—measured as the amount of punishment inflicted on another person in a subsequent competitive task—as long as they played the game using motion-capture controls (as on the Nintendo Wii). If played with a traditional controller, by contrast, violent video games left players behaving in a more aggressive way. The authors speculate that the difference could lie in real motion being cathartic, or, as they think most likely, that the pro-aggression effect of video games is simply somewhat fickle.

Charles, E. et al., “Motion Capture Controls Negate the Violent Video-Game Effect,” Computers in Human Behavior (November 2013).

Call me Social Science Abstract Guru


In today’s corporate bureaucracies, job titles seem to be less about uniquely identifying who does what and more about status and politics. Large companies may have dozens of nondescript “vice presidents” and “directors”; they may also have lots of “assistant,” “junior,” or “associate” employees, which can be a demoralizing place to get stuck. A new study suggests that there’s an easy—and free—way to make people feel better about what they do. Management researchers from the Wharton School and the London Business School found that allowing employees to come up with their own creative job titles significantly reduced subsequent emotional exhaustion on the job, compared to other interventions.

Grant, A. et al., “Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion,” Academy of Management Journal (forthcoming).

How a poker face hurts you

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It’s always tempting to play it cool in a negotiation. But before you bust out the poker face, consider the results of a recent experiment: Keeping your face expressionless inhibits you from reading the expressions of others. Participants were shown neutral faces that gradually morphed into faces showing a distinct emotion. Participants who had been instructed to suppress their own facial expressions took longer to correctly identify the emotion that was emerging in the morphing faces.

Schneider, K. et al., “That ‘Poker Face’ Just Might Lose You the Game! The Impact of Expressive Suppression and Mimicry on Sensitivity to Facial Expressions of Emotion,” Emotion (forthcoming).

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