Uncommon Knowledge

Bad deeds? You better be making a lot

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

If you’re going to do something that could be seen as unethical, make sure you do it for big money. That’s the lesson from experiments in China, where participants witnessed a peer get paid to lie or viewed pictures of a person pushing another person out of the way to get to money on the ground. If participants shook hands with the peer or saw a close-up of the hand reaching for the money, they spent more time washing their hands when offered the chance to do so afterwards—as if they were more morally contaminated—but only when the amount of money was small. When the amount of money was large, participants blamed money itself, absolving the person.

Xie, W. et al., “Money, Moral Transgressions, and Blame,” Journal of Consumer Psychology (forthcoming).

I’m excited, not scared!

Just about everyone assumes that you should tell yourself to calm down before a test, interview, or presentation. However, new research from a professor at Harvard Business School throws this strategy into question. In several experiments, participants who were simply asked to state that they were “excited” (whether or not they actually were) subsequently performed better in singing karaoke, delivering a public speech about why they’re a good work partner, or answering difficult math questions, compared to participants who were asked to state that they were “calm” or “anxious.”

Brooks, A., “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

When big looks beautiful

Why do the affluent value female thinness, while more disadvantaged populations value a heavier figure? A new study from psychologists at Texas Christian University suggests that coming of age in a more challenging environment conditions the brain to think differently about reproductive fitness. Controlling for their own body size, both men and women who had experienced earlier puberty or grew up poor preferred a larger female body—but only after reading a news article about recession or crime.

Hill, S. et al., “The Effect of Ecological Harshness on Perceptions of the Ideal Female Body Size: An Experimental Life History Approach,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Ignore Facebook, recruiters


With so many people posting on social networking websites like Facebook, it’s become common for recruiters to look at those websites when considering potential hires. However, a new study suggests that recruiters should reconsider. Researchers asked recruiters to evaluate the Facebook profiles of graduating university students. These evaluations did not significantly correlate with graduates’ subsequent job performance or turnover, nor did the evaluations add anything to the predictive value of established factors like test scores and personality measures. Moreover, the evaluations tended to favor females and whites, which “could leave organizations in a precarious situation if use of such information yields adverse impact against protected groups of applicants (e.g., racial minorities, older applicants) and there is no validity evidence to defend the use of the procedure.”

Van Iddekinge, C. et al., “Social Media for Selection? Validity and Adverse Impact Potential of a Facebook-Based Assessment,” Journal of Management (forthcoming).

Emotion, friend of the GOP

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Previous research has found that fear, anxiety, and disgust can make people more conservative. But psychologists at the University of Toronto think this is only half the story—that, in fact, any emotional arousal makes people more conservative. In two experiments, Americans were significantly more likely to agree with conservative viewpoints after watching an amusing or frightening film clip—but not after watching a non-emotional film clip. The effect was the same for people across the political spectrum and was even somewhat enhanced if people were specifically asked to amplify their reactions to the film clips.

Tritt, S. et al., “Preliminary Support for a Generalized Arousal Model of Political Conservatism,” PLoS ONE (December 2013).

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