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Music makes you powerful!

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


How racism shapes prison policy

Why does America incarcerate so much of its population compared to other first-world countries? New research from psychologists at Stanford University suggests that some of our toughness on crime may be driven by racism. In one experiment, white voters in California were significantly less likely to sign a petition to weaken California’s three-strikes law after viewing a series of mug shots of which 45 percent were black men, compared to viewing a series of mug shots of which 25 percent were black men. In another experiment, white residents of New York City were significantly less willing to sign a petition against the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy after being told that the prison population was 60 percent black, compared to 40 percent black.

 Hetey, R. & Eberhardt, J., "Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies," Psychological Science (November 2014).

Why Hulk like music

If you’re feeling low, consider empowering yourself...with music. In several experiments, researchers found that the right music could make people think and act like they were more powerful. Listening to powerful music caused people to think of more power-related words, think more abstractly, want more control, and want more to be the one to go first. In another experiment, just turning up the bass on a given song made people feel more powerful and think of more power-related words.

 Hsu, D. et al., "The Music of Power: Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Powerful Music," Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Money makes you bury your feelings

Money, or the lack thereof, can lead to emotional highs and lows, but a new study finds that it also encourages us to sweep those feelings under the rug. In multiple experiments, people who were exposed to pictures or words related to money subsequently thought it was less desirable to express emotions, expressed less anger in a customer complaint, expressed less emotion after watching a comedy movie, judged emotional expressions in public (but not in private) to be more intense, and were less interested in interacting with someone who displayed an emotional expression.

 Jiang, Y. et al., "Impact of Money on Emotional Expression," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

A trustworthy, subliminal face

How long does it take to decide whether to trust a new face? So little time that you may not even realize you’ve seen it. Psychologists scanned the brains of people as they viewed faces of varying trustworthiness (as rated by others) for only 33 milliseconds (i.e., subliminally). Even though their brains couldn’t consciously perceive the faces, the amygdala—a part of the brain involved in emotional response—did respond to differences in trustworthiness of the faces.

Freeman, J. et al., "Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces," Journal of Neuroscience (Aug. 6, 2014).

McCarthy’s surprising non-influence

Even in today’s data-obsessed, second-guessing political environment, politicians and the media can often be seen piling onto the latest narrative bandwagon, without waiting to see whether the facts bear out the story. So just imagine how bad it was during the McCarthy era. Back then, politicians and the media inferred that McCarthy had broad popular support, in part because he had campaigned against Democratic senators who subsequently lost. But it turns out that may have been a statistical illusion. Political scientists at MIT and the University of California Berkeley compared the outcomes of campaigns where McCarthy was involved to those where he wasn’t and “found little evidence that McCarthy reliably influenced the outcomes of the 1950 and 1952 Senate elections.”

 Berinsky, A. & Lenz, G., "Red Scare? Revisiting Joe McCarthy's Influence on 1950s Elections," Public Opinion Quarterly (Summer 2014).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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