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Uncommon Knowledge

Nap your way to excellence

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Common sense and plenty of research suggest that getting enough sleep is good for you. But a new study finds that even a relatively short nap can boost your ability to solve problems. Women who took a nap after getting stuck on a challenging level in a video game were almost twice as likely to solve the level after taking a nap, compared to being quietly awake, for 90 minutes.

Beijamini, F. et al., “After Being Challenged by a Video Game Problem, Sleep Increases the Chance to Solve It,” PLoS ONE (January 2014).

Did an academic paper change the NBA?

In May 2007, an academic study by economists received a lot of media attention for showing that NBA referees called more fouls against players who were not of the same race. As one of the authors told The New York Times, “it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games.” The NBA challenged these findings, with commissioner David Stern telling the Times that “our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias.” Now the economists have revisited the topic and generated a further insight: A little self-awareness can be enough to level the field. Their analysis of data from games after those analyzed in the original study but before 2007 is consistent with the original finding of referee racial bias. Yet the statistics also reveal no bias after 2007. This suggests that attention paid to the original study may have ameliorated the bias, though apparently not because of anything the league did: “A phone conversation with NBA league administrators who oversee the NBA’s officiating department suggests that [the] NBA did not take any specific action to eliminate referee discrimination.”

Pope, D. et al., “Awareness Reduces Racial Bias,” National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2013).

Parents: beware praise inflation

It’s natural for parents to want to heap praise on their children. But depending on the kid, it may not be as helpful as they might think. In a new study, researchers found that even though parents offered more inflated praise to children with lower self-esteem, children with low self-esteem were actually more motivated to challenge themselves after receiving non-inflated praise (“You made a beautiful drawing!”) than if they heard inflated praise (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”)

Brummelman, E. et al., “‘That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful!’: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-Esteem,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Charity for the wrong reasons

How do we see a guy who volunteers every week at a homeless shelter to gain the affection of a woman who works there versus a guy who volunteers there once a month without a crush? The ulterior motive makes a difference, according to a new study from the Yale School of Management. People judged charitable activities or donations more negatively if they also generated self-serving benefits—e.g., impressing a prospective mate or making a profit—even if the benefits to charity were greater.

Newman, G. & Cain, D., “Tainted Altruism: When Doing Some Good Is Evaluated as Worse than Doing No Good at All,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

In search of the multitasking gene

Welcome to the future of human resources! A study funded by the Air Force examined the multitasking performance of individuals in a simulated drone targeting exercise and found that individuals improved their performance a lot more if they had a specific gene variation associated with greater dopamine levels in the brain.

Parasuraman, R. et al., “Interactive Effects of the COMT Gene and Training on Individual Differences in Supervisory Control of Unmanned Vehicles,” Human Factors (forthcoming).


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