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Uncommon Knowledge

A cure for insomnia: sleepy, subliminal words

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Men feel bad when partners succeed

Is your romantic partner rooting for you to win? In a series of experiments, psychologists found that when men thought about their partner doing well at something compared to their partner doing poorly, they had lower implicit self-esteem (as measured by how readily they associated themselves with positive words). Women who thought about a partner succeeding, on the other hand, did not have lower implicit self-esteem. After thinking about their partner’s success, men were also less optimistic about their relationship, while women were somewhat more positive about it.

Ratliff, K. & Oishi, S., “Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Subliminal Ambien

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, instead of telling yourself to try harder, consider playing a trick on your subconscious. A new study found that participants—especially those who previously had trouble falling asleep—reported taking a longer nap immediately after performing a cognitive task in which the researchers had inserted a 13-millisecond subliminal message of sleep-related words. These participants also had lower heart rates during the nap period.

Shimizu, M. et al., “The Effect of Subliminal Priming on Sleep Duration,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Does policing create delinquents?

This past week, a federal judge in New York City concluded that the “stop and frisk” policy of police there was racially biased and therefore unconstitutional. A new study suggests that that’s not the only problem with such policies: Contact with police in and of itself contributes to delinquency. Criminologists at the University of Missouri analyzed data from a program that surveyed a large sample of young people several times during a two-year period. Among youth of the same age, sex, and race, and with the same initial levels of delinquency, related attitudes, and risk factors, youth who were stopped by police became more delinquent and developed more delinquency-oriented attitudes. These outcomes were even worse for youth who were arrested.

Wiley, S. & Esbensen, F.-A., “The Effect of Police Contact: Does Official Intervention Result in Deviance Amplification?” Crime & Delinquency (forthcoming).

The my placebo effect

A growing body of research has demonstrated the power of the placebo effect. Now, researchers have found placebos can be even more effective when we have space to choose among them. In several experiments, people with a greater need for control experienced a larger placebo effect if they got to choose between treatments. This choice-enhanced placebo effect occurred even when the need for control was induced (by making participants think about not having control). On the other hand, when a lower need for control was induced, the placebo effect was somewhat enhanced by not having a choice.

Geers, A. et al., “Why Does Choice Enhance Treatment Effectiveness? Using Placebo Treatments to Demonstrate the Role of Personal Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Obama, more American than Romney

How did Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012? Maybe because he just seemed more American—in a way that trumped voters’ attention to racial difference. In two experiments right before the 2012 election, psychologists measured participants’ implicit associations between the candidates and various stimuli. Compared to Romney, Obama was more readily associated with American and positive stimuli. However, when race words were added to the mix, Obama was not more readily associated with Americanness—and he was less readily associated with positive stimuli—than Romney.

Ma, D. & Devos, T., “Every Heart Beats True, for the Red, White, and Blue: National Identity Predicts Voter Support,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (forthcoming).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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