Uncommon Knowledge

My fancy handbag says: He’s mine!

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

What a Vuitton bag really says

When women spend money on clothes, handbags, and jewelry, just what are they trying to accomplish? A new study from the University of Minnesota suggests that they’re flashing a warning signal to female rivals: Back off. Women believe that expensive accessories are signals to other women that a woman has a caring and committed partner, and a woman’s desire for conspicuous consumption goes up after thinking about other women flirting with her partner. And, indeed, promiscuous women report being more deterred from flirting with a man if his partner bears expensive accessories—especially if the man is thought to have paid for them.

Wang, Y. & Griskevicius, V., “Conspicuous Consumption, Relationships, and Rivals: Women’s Luxury Products as Signals to Other Women,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Now you’re talking my speed

In a situation where you’re trying to reach consensus, sometimes it’s not so important what you say; it’s more important how fast you say it. Researchers from UCLA assembled students into small groups to talk about anything they wanted. After 10 minutes of conversation, researchers then tested how cooperative group members were toward each other. When their speech rates—but not other measures of their speech—had converged over the course of the previous conversation, cooperation was higher.

Manson, J. et al., “Convergence of Speech Rate in Conversation Predicts Cooperation,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Individual donors, extreme candidates

Everyone laments the influence of money in the political system, but not all money is the same, especially as it affects partisanship and gridlock. A political scientist at Princeton
analyzed data on the fund-raising sources and ideological positions of state legislators and found that individual contributions may be contributing to polarization. Individual contributions tend to be more partisan and ideological than political action committee contributions, and, as such, states that have raised the limits on individual contributions or lowered the limits on PAC contributions have experienced more polarization.

Barber, M., “Ideological Donors, Contribution Limits, and the Polarization of State Legislatures,” Princeton University (September 2013).

The cheater’s high


When prominent athletes like Lance Armstrong get busted for using performance-enhancing drugs, it’s hard not to wonder how they dealt with the guilt all those years. But new research suggests most cheaters might not feel guilty at all. Although people expect to feel bad after cheating, a series of experiments found that people actually felt relatively better after cheating, even if the cheating was done by someone else on their behalf or if there were no financial incentives. In fact, cheaters were even more self-satisfied after being confronted about whether they cheated, suggesting that “the cheater’s high may be triggered by the thrill of getting away with something rather than by self-deception or moral rationalization. In other words, for cheaters, greater awareness of their own cheating appears to increase self-satisfaction and fuel rather than curb the cheater’s high.”

Ruedy, N. et al., “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (October 2013).

Private prisons aren’t better

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Many prison systems have outsourced some of their prisoners to private prison companies, which claim to deliver better results at lower costs. But is it true? The latest study on the matter—from researchers at the Minnesota Department of Corrections—compared offenders with similar backgrounds and recidivism risk who had spent time at the state’s private prison to those who had not, and found “if anything, that private prisons produce slightly worse recidivism outcomes among the healthiest and best-
behaved inmates for the same amount of money.”

Duwe, G. & Clark, V., “The Effects of Private Prison Confinement on Offender Recidivism: Evidence from Minnesota,” Criminal Justice Review (September 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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