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Uncommon Knowledge

A cure for nuclear proliferation backfires

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Lesley Becker/Globe staff

You really do smell sick

Next time someone says that you stink, you might want to take it as friendly medical advice. In an experiment, healthy volunteers were injected with either saline placebo or lipopolysaccharide—a molecule found on the surface of bad bacteria and that prompts a strong immune reaction. After several hours, researchers collected the volunteers’ shirts, cut out the armpit areas, and stored them in plastic squeeze bottles with flip-top caps. People who later sniffed from these bottles rated the odor worse if it happened to come from the volunteers whose immune systems had been activated. In other words, sickness stinks.

 Olsson, M. et al., “The Scent of Disease: Human Body Odor Contains an Early Chemosensory Cue of Sickness,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

The short, trusting constitution

When you trust someone, it’s easy to do business based on nothing more than a handshake; when you don’t trust that person, you may want a lawyer and a lengthy contract. It looks like it’s the same story for nations. In nations where people were more likely to answer yes to the question “In general do you think most people can be trusted?”, constitutions were shorter—even controlling for constitution age, regime type, legal origin, gross domestic product per capita, and population size.

 Bjornskov, C. & Voigt, S., “Constitutional Verbosity and Social Trust,” Public Choice (forthcoming).

What’s comforting: less prejudice

Thanks for the support, but I want civil rights. That’s the gist of a new study on how to support victims of prejudice. On the #ItGetsBetter channel on YouTube, most of the videos created to support nonheterosexuals emphasize social connection, not social change. And when straight people were asked to create messages in an experiment, the same held true. But for nonheterosexuals, social-change messages were significantly more comforting than messages about social connection.

 Rattan, A. & Ambady, N., “How ‘It Gets Better’: Effectively Communicating Support to Targets of Prejudice,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Poor, and a harsher judge

Given that poverty can force hard choices, you might assume that being poor makes you more permissive morally. Not so, according to a new study. Analysis of data from the World Values Survey indicates that those with lower incomes, especially amid higher inflation, render harsher moral judgments, even controlling for education, status, religiosity, and race. Also, among Americans, those who were made to think that they were lower on the income scale subsequently made harsher judgments of harmful interpersonal acts—due to a greater sense of vulnerability—but not of nonharmful, though otherwise offensive, acts.

 Pitesa, M. & Thau, S., “A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

A cure for nuclear proliferation backfires

Nuclear nonproliferation has been a top priority of our foreign policy, for obvious reasons. And a key part of that system—the folks who do the inspections to make sure countries aren’t developing nuclear weapons—is the International Atomic Energy Agency. But, ironically, according to a pair of political scientists, the IAEA is a proliferator too, via its Technical Cooperation, or TC, program, which rewards countries for nonproliferation by assisting them in the development of nuclear energy: “An increase in the number of fuel cycle–
related TC projects in which a state participates in a given year is associated with an increase in the likelihood of the state pursuing nuclear weapons. This result persists even when controlling for other forms of nuclear assistance, the level of overall nuclear development, and other determinants of proliferation that have been tested in the literature,” such that “many of the states that have pursued nuclear weapons during the time period considered here, including Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, are significant beneficiaries of IAEA TC.”

 Brown, R. & Kaplow, J., “Talking Peace, Making Weapons: IAEA Technical Cooperation and Nuclear Proliferation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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