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Uncommon Knowledge

The Internet is making musical taste converge

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Strength through prayer

Pray to God for strength—and you may get it. That’s what psychologists in Germany found in a recent experiment. People were instructed to either pray or think intensively for five minutes alone in a room. Then they watched a funny video—either normally or while trying to suppress emotion and facial expression. Those who tried to suppress themselves during the video performed worse in a subsequent test of self-control, unless they had prayed before watching the video.

Friese, M. & Wänke, M., “Personal Prayer Buffers Self-Control Depletion,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

You’re playing my song

The Internet is making it easier for everyone to stay connected, but is it also making it easier for people to shelter themselves within like-minded cliques? According to an analysis by researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the opposite may actually be true. Users of a music recommendation service—akin to recommendation services used on many popular consumer websites—purchased music that was more similar than the music purchased by otherwise similar consumers not using the service. Users’ song lists become more similar, and users purchased more music overall, increasing the chance of overlap. And it wasn’t just users with already similar tastes who became more similar: “Contrary to theories that recommenders keep far users far, these are the people whose similarity increases the most.”

Hosanagar, K. et al., “Will the Global Village Fracture into Tribes? Recommender Systems and Their Effects on Consumer Fragmentation,” Management Science (forthcoming).

Oxytocin makes you hotter

Women spend millions of dollars on cosmetics and products designed to make them look more attractive. But once they’ve found partners, it might be just as effective to invest in a simple prescription for hormones—for their mates. Men perceived pictures of their romantic partners to be more attractive after having oxytocin, a hormone associated with intimacy and bonding, sprayed into their noses, relative to how attractive they perceived pictures of unfamiliar women rated as equally attractive by other men. Brain scans also revealed a greater response in areas of the brain associated with reward.

Scheele, D. et al., “Oxytocin Enhances Brain Reward System Responses in Men Viewing the Face of Their Female Partner,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

The Supremes can change your mind

Next time you sit down to read about a Supreme Court decision, be aware that it may change your opinion on the issues, and even what you think your neighbors believe. People who were incidentally exposed to a liberal court decision on obscenity regulation, simply by having to transcribe a newspaper summary, adopted—and perceived their community to have—more liberal attitudes on sexual content and divorce. However, there was a backlash effect among more religious individuals, who became more socially conservative and Republican.

Chen, D. & Yeh, S., “The Construction of Morals,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.