Uncommon Knowledge

If God is with you, take a risk!

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff Illustration; istock/Yuriy Mazur

Functional families, better health

Could better family functioning improve kids’ health? That’s the implication of a newly published study on one surprisingly efficient intervention. Rural, low-income, African-American mothers and their 11-year-old children were randomly assigned to receive a total of 14 hours of family training in seven weekly group meetings: “Parents were taught nurturant-involved parenting techniques along with high levels of monitoring and control, adaptive racial socialization strategies, methods for communicating about sex, and establishment of clear expectations about alcohol use. Children learned the importance of having and abiding by household rules, adaptive behaviors to use when encountering racism, the importance of setting goals for the future and making plans to attain them, and strategies for resisting alcohol use. Each meeting also included a 1-h joint parent–child session during which families practiced the skills they had learned.” Eight years later, children whose families had received this training had significantly lower levels of inflammatory molecules in their blood (which is associated with a range of better health outcomes)—an effect that was partially explained by better parenting, especially among more disadvantaged families.

 Miller, G. et al., “A Family-Oriented Psychosocial Intervention Reduces Inflammation in Low-SES African American Youth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Heaven’s got my back!

A God-fearing person is generally presumed to be a humble, responsible person. But it turns out that a sense of the presence of God may actually encourage us to be daredevils. A new study found that people who were simply exposed to the word “God”—whether as a subliminal message or as an incidentally observed headline—were more willing to take a risk in a game. This effect was observed for people of different religious affiliations, but it was not observed if people were also made to think about having little control or being immoral. In other words, in situations that are not morally charged, “god” leads to risk-taking, by imbuing people with a sense of control.

 Chan, K. et al., “Taking a Leap of Faith: Reminders of God Lead to Greater Risk Taking,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Killing the competition: the downside

Combat rhetoric is common in business. But what’s the collateral damage? In two experiments, researchers found—counterintuitively—that a manager’s use of combat rhetoric prompted people to make more ethical business decisions. On the other hand, combat rhetoric from the CEO of a rival firm prompted people to make less ethical business decisions—and not to see those decisions as less ethical.

 Gubler, J. et al., “Them’s Fightin’ Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business,” Journal of Business Ethics (forthcoming).

When warnings raise murder rates

Many states, including Massachusetts, require mental-health professionals to commit, or warn police or potential victims about, a patient who presents a credible threat. However, according to a study by an economist at the University of Alabama, this policy may actually be causing harm. In a statistical analysis comparing states before and after they changed their laws, he finds that “all else being equal, mandatory duty-to-warn laws cause an increase in homicides of 5 percent”—and an even greater increase for nonstranger homicides—ostensibly because under such laws “the patient has an incentive to withhold homicidal tendencies, and the doctor has an incentive to not explore homicidal tendencies.”

 Edwards, G., “Doing Their Duty: An Empirical Analysis of the Unintended Effect of Tarasoff v. Regents on Homicidal Activity,” Journal of Law and Economics (May 2014).


How to make football suspenseful

College football season is almost here. This season will see the debut of the four-team, two-round playoff, with teams selected by a committee, instead of the two-team, single-game championship that existed previously. But a new mathematical analysis suggests there’s one problem with the new system: It cuts down on narrative drama. The authors note that a large playoff with many teams reduces the suspense of regular-season games by making the outcome of each regular-season game less critical. Meanwhile, the gain in total playoff-game suspense is not enough to make up for the loss of total regular-season suspense. Thus, the previous single-game championship was actually more “suspense-

optimal” for the whole season, which “may help explain the historical resistance” to changing it, even though “it may have been difficult for defenders of the status quo to explain why it deserved defending.” One caveat to this analysis: It’s all about optimizing suspense, but doesn’t consider “optimal” profit or fairness.

 Olson, J. & Stone, D., “Suspense-Optimal College Football Play-Offs,” Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming).

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