Uncommon Knowledge

Had sex, forgot about church

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Save your ordinary memories

We don’t yet have the technology to build a time machine, but we do have the technology to revisit the past—and a new study out of Harvard suggests that we should be taking more advantage of it. After writing about recent experiences, people predicted how interested they would be in rereading their own accounts weeks or months into the future. People consistently under-predicted their future interest. For example, most people preferred to watch a talk-show video rather than write about a recent conversation with a friend, even though many of these same people later preferred to read the account of the conversation rather than watch another talk-show video. People also under-predicted their appreciation for accounts of ostensibly ordinary experiences with their partner, relative to accounts of ostensibly special experiences with their partner.

 Zhang, T. et al., “A ‘Present’ for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

What sex does to religion

Religion and sex don’t go well together—at least in the short term, according to research from Pennsylvania State University. In the year after they lost their virginity, college students reported a significant drop in attendance at religious services and in the importance of religion in their lives. However, after a year, these measures snapped back to their previous trajectory. The researchers suggest that the initial drop-off in religion may be “a way to relieve cognitive dissonance that results from engaging in prohibited behaviors” such as premarital sex, which are eventually incorporated into one’s identity.

 Vasilenko, S. & Lefkowitz, E., “Changes in Religiosity after First Intercourse in the Transition to Adulthood,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (forthcoming).

Women in engineering:
two approaches

In the United States, technical fields are known for their gender imbalance, and many women are deterred by this imbalance and the associated culture. However, in a recent experiment among first-year engineering students in Canada, psychologists found that just a one-hour exercise early in the year made a significant difference to women in male-dominated majors (e.g., computer or mechanical engineering). In the exercise, students heard and wrote about one of two approaches to starting out in engineering: One emphasized common interests and fellowship among engineering students, while the other emphasized identity and value affirmation. The psychologists found that “both interventions raised women’s grades in male-dominated majors over the full academic year, eliminating gender differences....They also led women to report more positive experiences in engineering immediately and, by the second semester, greater confidence they could succeed in the field.” Results were somewhat different: Women who did the exercise focused on fellowship developed more friendships with male engineering students and more positive attitudes about female engineers by the second semester, while women who did the exercise affirming identity and values developed stronger gender identification and more friendships with women outside of engineering. The exercises had no significant effects on men.

 Walton, G. et al., “Two Brief Interventions to Mitigate a ‘Chilly Climate’ Transform Women’s Experience, Relationships, and Achievement in Engineering,” Journal of Educational Psychology (forthcoming).

Words vs. pictures,
the smackdown


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but words are where we turn when thinking about the big picture. In a series of experiments, a team of psychologists found that words tend to be associated with abstract, inclusive thinking, while pictures tend to be associated with specific, detail-oriented thinking. People who were presented with words describing various items—compared to being presented with pictures of the items—tended to come up with higher-level and more inclusive categorizations of the items. And when people were asked to think about why they would engage in a behavior or were asked to categorize items—compared to thinking about how they would engage in a behavior or coming up with examples of items—they were more likely to report contemplating their answer in words rather than in pictures.

 Rim, S. et al., “How Words Transcend and Pictures Immerse: On the Association Between Medium and Level of Construal,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Better SSRI access,
less suicide

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To be or not to be, and whether drugs are available: Those are the questions. A new analysis of the suicide rate across the United States finds that counties with better socioeconomic conditions have a lower adult suicide rate. However, this was not true until after 1988, with the introduction of the antidepression medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Since then, counties with better socioeconomic conditions have experienced falling adult suicide rates, while there’s been no decrease in counties with worse socioeconomic conditions.

 Clouston, S. et al., “Social Inequalities in Suicide: The Role of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors,” American Journal of Epidemiology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
He can be reached at