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Uncommon Knowledge

Do you lie more in the morning?

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Pretty people do have it all

What makes a person attractive? They may have well-shaped bodies and faces, but they’re probably also healthier—and better health may be one reason we see them as “attractive.” Data from interviews of a national sample of young adults confirmed that those who were more attractive also reported fewer health problems, even controlling for age, race, gender, personal income, and parents’ income. The one exception: Attractive individuals had more STDs, even controlling for number of sexual partners.

 Nedelec, J. & Beaver, K., “Physical Attractiveness as a Phenotypic Marker of Health: An Assessment Using a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adults,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Bad guys have more kids

Evolutionary theory predicts that the fittest survive and proliferate, but in modern society, they may not always be those who we consider “successful.” A new study from Sweden finds that criminals actually do a better job of reproducing than law-abiding people do. Among the total population of Sweden, criminals were not only more promiscuous than average, but they ended up having more offspring—by mating with multiple partners, rather than having many children with one partner. This was true for both male and female criminals, and even controlling for their psychiatric disorders and parental socioeconomic status.

 Yao, S. et al., “Criminal Offending as Part of an Alternative Reproductive Strategy: Investigating Evolutionary Hypotheses Using Swedish Total Population Data,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Do you lie more in the morning?

Don’t trust a morning person in the evening, and don’t trust an evening person in the morning. In two experiments, researchers found that morning people cheated significantly less in the morning, while evening people cheated significantly less around midnight. Not only might this be useful in planning your daily interactions, but it may have national security implications, as even presidents are known to have different chronotypes (George W. Bush was known to be a morning person, while Obama has admitted that he’s a night owl).

 Gunia, B. et al., “The Morality of Larks and Owls: Unethical Behavior Depends on Chronotype as well as Time-of-Day,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

The ‘I can change’ effect

Is your personality fixed or malleable? Can you change who you are? Your answer to that question is more important than you think—not just when you’re an adult, but also when you’re a kid. A study found that ninth-graders with a fixed view of personality had more negative reactions in a social-adversity experiment and reported more stress, worse health, and lower grades at the end of the school year. When researchers randomly manipulated ninth-graders’ views of personality at the beginning of the school year—with just half an hour of reading and writing on the malleable nature of personality—they reacted less negatively in the social-adversity experiment and reported less stress, better health, and higher grades at the end of the school year.

 Yeager, D. et al., “The Far-Reaching Effects of Believing People Can Change: Implicit Theories of Personality Shape Stress, Health, and Achievement during Adolescence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2014).


Cheer up! No, wait.

When a friend needs your support after a personal failure, you might be tempted to rush in with your best cheery song and dance. But hold on. If your friend has low self-esteem, your efforts may backfire. In a series of experiments, psychologists found that validating a low-self-esteem friend’s negative emotions—with phrases like “that’s an awful feeling, isn’t it?” or “that’s happened to me before too”—was more favorably received than positively reframing the situation (“don’t worry about it too much, it’s just one test” or “I’m sure you’ll do better next time”). One warning, though: It seems like the cheery impulse is hard to control. Even though people seemed to understand that positive reframing might be less helpful for their low-self-esteem friends, they were just as likely to do it.

 Marigold, D. et al., “You Can’t Always Give What You Want: The Challenge of Providing Social Support to Low Self-Esteem Individuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (July 2014).

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