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    Uncommon Knowledge

    Fight death with alcohol

    And more surprising insights from the social sciences

    Judging music by its looks

    Do you win music competitions by sounding good—or by looking that way? In a new study, a Harvard-trained psychologist with a background as a pianist conducted a series of experiments asking both novices and experts to guess the actual winners from among the finalists in prestigious international classical music competitions. Experiment participants were presented with very brief recordings, some with only audio, some with audio and video, and some with only video. Both novices and experts guessed significantly worse than chance in picking the actual winner from only audio, guessed no better than chance with both audio and video, and guessed significantly better than chance with only video. The demographics of the musicians didn’t appear to matter; what did appear to matter was their movement, as silent video containing only the musicians’ outlines also yielded above-chance guessing.

    Tsay, C., “Sight over Sound in the Judgment of Music Performance,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

    When doves negotiate

    Republicans have accused President Obama of not taking a hard enough line with America’s enemies. But according to new research, Obama shouldn’t let the opposition get to his head; he should be grateful, and let the opposition get to our enemies’ heads. A political scientist at Louisiana State University analyzed data on post-World War II international disputes and found that an adversary was more likely to negotiate and offer concessions to a dovish government with a more hawkish domestic opposition, especially compared to a hawkish government with a more dovish domestic opposition. In other words, the good-cop/bad-cop strategy works at the international level, too.

    Clare, J., “Hawks, Doves, and International Cooperation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).

    Drink away your mortality

    There are many reasons people consume alcohol, but perhaps this is the granddaddy reason of them all: fear of death. Several hundred people were approached at a university in Israel and given one of two fliers that offered to help those “concerned about death” or “dealing with severe back pain.” After getting the flier, people were solicited by a nearby booth selling either an alcoholic or a nonalcoholic drink. People who had received the flier mentioning death were significantly more likely to buy the alcoholic drink.

    Ein-Dor, T. et al., “Implicit Death Primes Increase Alcohol Consumption,” Health Psychology (forthcoming).

    You’re less blind than
    you think


    There’s blind and then there’s blind. People who are legally blind can’t see better than 20/200, even with correction. Beyond that, there are plenty of people who can see better than that only while wearing lenses—so when they wake up in the morning and look over at the clock, they can’t make out the time. Or can they? In a recent experiment, people with uncorrected vision of 20/200+ in both eyes were shown one-handed clock faces for one second on a computer screen and asked to guess the position of the hand. Even though participants generally reported not being able to see the hand, they were able to guess the hand’s location significantly better than chance, even when presented with four clock faces with only one hand present on one of the faces.

    Brown, A. et al., “More than Meets the Eye: Implicit Perception in Legally Blind Individuals,” Consciousness and Cognition (September 2013).

    The cost of false
    medical beliefs

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    Curbing America’s high health care costs is one of the country’s most pressing public policy issues, especially as Obamacare rolls out. But who is hiking those costs—demanding patients, or overprescribing doctors? A new study suggests it’s the latter—and that doctors are all over the map. Medicare patients and physicians were surveyed about preferences for aggressive treatment. Regional differences in patient preferences explained little of the variation in Medicare spending. Nor were regional spending differences explained by regional malpractice concerns. Instead, “the largest degree of regional variation appears to be due to differences in physician beliefs about the efficacy of particular therapies. Physicians in our data have starkly different views about how to treat the same patients, and these views are not highly correlated with demographics, background, and practice characteristics, and are often not consistent with professional guidelines for appropriate care. As much as 36 percent of end-of-life Medicare expenditures, and 17 percent of overall Medicare expenditures, are explained by physician beliefs that cannot be justified either by patient preferences or by clinical effectiveness.”

    Cutler, D. et al., “Physician Beliefs and Patient Preferences: A New Look at Regional Variation in Health Care Spending,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2013).

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