Uncommon Knowledge

Too modest, ladies? You need this mysterious black box

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Tony the Tiger forever

Kids don’t have much money to spend on their own, and most parents are skeptical about what kids want to buy. So why do companies spend so much on advertising to kids? A recent study suggests that marketers are making a good long-term investment. Adults were more positive about, and gave a higher health rating to, sugar cereals associated with advertising icons to which the adults were exposed in childhood, compared to sugar cereals with advertising icons to which the adults were exposed in adulthood. Positive feelings toward these icons also seemed to protect the cereals from attempts to induce skepticism about their healthiness.

Connell, P. et al., “How Childhood Advertising Exposure Can Create Biased Product Evaluations That Persist into Adulthood,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

For women, a modesty antidote

Because social norms dictate that women should be more modest than men, many women feel uncomfortable tooting their own horn—but being more modest often inhibits women’s career advancement. A new study by psychologists at Montana State University suggests a surprising way to free women from this constraint: a fake “subliminal noise generator.” Women were asked to write an essay promoting either themselves or a friend for a scholarship. Under normal conditions, they were less motivated and wrote essays that were judged less positively when writing about themselves. But when they were told they would be writing their essays in the presence of a “subliminal noise generator” (an ominous-looking, but entirely bogus, black box device), women were actually more motivated and wrote essays that were judged just as positively when writing about themselves. The psychologists theorize that the presence of the “subliminal noise generator” allowed women to blame the device for their feelings of discomfort from being immodest.

Smith, J. & Huntoon, M., “Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion,” Psychology of Women Quarterly (forthcoming).

Self-affirmation in the soup kitchen

In the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the angel notes that “no man is a failure who has friends.” Based on a recent study, the angel might also note that no man is a failure who remembers a time when he was successful and proud. Among people at an urban New Jersey soup kitchen, those who “were asked to describe a personal experience that made them feel successful and proud” subsequently performed better on cognitive tests—an effect that “was comparable in size to the difference in cognitive performance between an average 55-year-old and 45-year-old.” There was no similar effect from having participants watch funny videos, or among more affluent people. Those in the soup kitchen who engaged in this self-affirmation were also significantly more likely to take a flier about a government assistance program on their way out of the soup kitchen.

Hall, C. et al., “Self-Affirmation among the Poor: Cognitive and Behavioral Implications,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Nations get greener with age


Note to environmentalists: Go long. In a new study, researchers found that countries that were older had better environmental performance, even controlling for GDP and governance. Also, in an experiment, Americans who were made to think about the environment as a longer-term concern and saw a timeline that made the United States look older were then willing to donate more money to an environmental cause—but only if they felt close to future generations.

Hershfield, H. et al., “National Differences in Environmental Concern and Performance Are Predicted by Country Age,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Teen moms as birth control

Teen pregnancy is a major challenge for families and communities, and many fear social-contagion effects from teens seeing their friends having babies. In fact, though, data from a national survey of teens reveal that a girl whose friend had a baby is significantly less likely to have a baby herself, compared to a girl whose friend had a miscarriage. This negative effect is stronger in schools where fewer teens have babies and for friends whose partners didn’t help, which suggests that girls are being deterred after learning how hard motherhood is. The finding also suggests that efforts to reduce teen pregnancy may, paradoxically, be somewhat undermined by their own success, in that teens are less likely to see peers facing hardship.

Yakusheva, O. & Fletcher, J., “Learning from Teen Childbearing Experiences of Close Friends: Evidence Using Miscarriages as a Natural Experiment,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

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