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For bright ideas, dim the lights

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Sad fans eat their feelings

When you’re rooting for the Red Sox or the Patriots to win, turns out you’re rooting for something else, too: your waistline. Data from a survey of daily American food consumption indicated that there was significantly more unhealthy eating the day after the local NFL team lost. The effect was especially pronounced for narrow losses with evenly matched teams in cities with strong fan bases, and it was the same for both men and women. Researchers also tested the effect experimentally in France, where people had a stronger preference for unhealthy food after writing about the defeat of their favorite team or athlete, or after watching a video of the defeat of the French national soccer team. The effect disappeared when people affirmed their personal values.

Cornil, Y. & Chandon, P., "From Fan to Fat? Vicarious Losing Increases Unhealthy Eating, but Self-Affirmation Is an Effective Remedy," Psychological Science (forthcoming).

For bright ideas, dim the lights

Do you need to be in the dark to see the light? People who were put in dim rooms—or even just made to think about dim light—were more creative and insightful, owing to a sense of being free of constraints. However, being in a dim-light frame of mind inhibited careful and logical thinking.

Steidle, A. & Werth, L., "Freedom from Constraints: Darkness and Dim Illumination Promote Creativity," Journal of Environmental Psychology (September 2013).

I feel like a leader!

Leadership and high status within groups is something that comes more naturally to some people than others. But what if you can give yourself an advantage artificially? In several experiments, researchers assembled participants into same-sex groups of three to work on group judgment tasks. Before joining the group, one member of each group had been put in an aspirational, powerful, or happy frame of mind (by writing about it), while another member of each group had been put in the opposite frame of mind. Members in the aspirational, powerful, or happy frames of mind were more proactive in group discussion and, as a result, achieved significantly higher status, as recognized by the other group members, even when the same group was brought back together two days later to work on additional tasks.

Kilduff, G. & Galinsky, A., "From the Ephemeral to the Enduring: How Approach-Oriented Mindsets Lead to Greater Status," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

How teachers can build trust

One of the ways that teachers teach is by correcting students’ work. But negative feedback can be discouraging, especially in sensitive contexts, such as classrooms with white teachers and black students. To address this situation, a team of researchers tested a simple solution. In two experiments, seventh-grade students wrote an essay about a personal hero. The essay was returned to the students with teacher feedback and, for some of the students, a note
stating, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Students who received this note—especially black students who didn’t think they were treated fairly at school—were much more likely to want to revise their essays and earned higher scores when they did so. In another experiment at a public high school in New York City, black students got significantly fewer bad grades over the course of the semester after being exposed to the testimonies of other students explaining that teacher criticism was meant to help students reach their potential.

Yeager, D. et al., "Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback across the Racial Divide," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

What charter schools do

Charter schools are controversial, but a new analysis of Boston’s charter high schools has found that they have had persistent positive results. Students attending these schools—which use lotteries for admission—were more likely to pass the state graduation exam and qualify for a state-sponsored college scholarship, got higher SAT scores, sat for more AP exams, and were more likely to attend four-year public colleges in Massachusetts. These gains were larger for boys, special education students, and students with initially low achievement.

Angrist, J. et al., "Stand and Deliver: Effects of Boston's Charter High Schools on College Preparation, Entry, and Choice," National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2013).


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