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Uncommon Knowledge

Obesity? We’re used to it

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Better than promised? Who cares

If you’re the kind of person who keeps your promises, your friends and associates are probably grateful. If you’re the kind of person who delivers even more than what you promised, however, that’s between you and God, because other people probably don’t care. In several experiments at the University of California San Diego and the University of Chicago, researchers found that while keeping a promise was more appreciated than failing to keep a promise, exceeding a promise was not more appreciated than simply keeping it. Because keeping a promise was appreciated more than meeting an expectation (and in the case of expectations, exceeding them was more appreciated than simply meeting them) the researchers conclude that “promise receivers appear to place a premium on keeping one’s promise, a premium that comes from fulfilling a social contract.”

 Gneezy, A. & Epley, N., “Worth Keeping but Not Exceeding: Asymmetric Consequences of Breaking versus Exceeding Promises,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Obesity? We’re used to it

What you see is what you accept. In experiments, people who were shown a series of pictures of obese men developed more favorable attitudes toward obesity. Compared to a group who had been shown pictures of men with a healthy weight, the first group judged an obese man to be more acceptable, more intelligent, and less in need of losing weight.

 Robinson, E. & Christiansen, P., “The Changing Face of Obesity: Exposure to and Acceptance of Obesity,” Obesity (May 2014).

Free, but dodging the system

The lesson from the movies is clear: A smart fugitive goes off the grid. Unfortunately, it looks like many real-life people who’ve had a run-in with the law have learned this lesson, too. A sociologist at Princeton analyzed data from national surveys that followed up with young people over many years and found that contact with the criminal justice system was associated with greater avoidance of medical care, not having a checking account, and not being in work or school—even controlling for many other personal factors. These same individuals were not less likely to be involved in volunteer or religious activity, suggesting that they were mainly worried about being in the “system.”

 Brayne, S., “Surveillance and System Avoidance: Criminal Justice Contact and Institutional Attachment,” American Sociological Review (forthcoming).

That person smells female

Do men and women smell differently? In at least one way, it seems that they do, and it may cause them to make different assessments about people as well. In a recent experiment, participants inhaled two different chemicals that appear to be human pheromones—androstadienone, notably produced by men, and estratetraenol, by women—while participants watched dot-outlines of a walking person. Smelling androstadienone caused heterosexual females and homosexual males to perceive gender-ambiguous outlines to be more masculine, whereas smelling estratetraenol caused heterosexual males to perceive gender-ambiguous outlines to be more feminine; the responses of bisexual/homosexual females fell in between heterosexual males and females.

 Zhou, W. et al., “Chemosensory Communication of Gender through Two Human Steroids in a Sexually Dimorphic Manner,” Current Biology (forthcoming).

Too pretty to need help

Note to disaster-relief charities: Keep the pretty girls under wraps. At least that’s one conclusion of a recent study on people’s reactions to charitable solicitations that display attractive girls. Whether a sense of attractiveness was generated by simply stipulating that a particular girl was considered attractive, by manipulating the image of the girl, or showing a girl who was actually considered attractive, people assumed that an attractive girl was more sociable, intelligent, and helpful. As a result, people had less empathy for the girl and were less inclined to help—but only when her need wasn’t severe.

 Fisher, R. & Ma, Y., “The Price of Being Beautiful: Negative Effects of Attractiveness on Empathy for Children in Need,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).


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