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Uncommon Knowledge

You smell like you agree!

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Associated Press

What does political ideology smell like? If it’s compatible with yours, new research from political scientists at Brown, Harvard, and Penn State suggests, it might smell extremely attractive. In an experiment on adults 18 to 40 years old “drawn from a large city in the northeast United States,” some participants with strong liberal or conservative views wore gauze pads under their armpits, which were later smelled by other participants. Odors from those of the opposite sex but with similar politics tended to be rated as more attractive. “In one particularly illustrative case, a participant asked the experimenter if she could take one of the vials home with her because she thought it was ‘the best perfume I ever smelled’; the vial was from a male who shared an ideology similar to the evaluator. She was preceded by another respondent with an ideology opposite to the person who provided the exact same sample; this participant reported that that vial had ‘gone rancid.’” To explain this pattern, the political scientists note that previous research has “identified several genomic regions that account for variation in ideological orientation, one of which contained a large number of olfactory receptors,” and speculate that we might have evolved to be able to choose partners with closely aligned views on relationships and parenting.

McDermott, R. et al., “Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate through Olfactory Cues,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

My kid speaks English, so I don’t

In 1998, California passed Proposition 227, which favored English immersion over bilingual education for immigrant children; a similar law was approved by Massachusetts voters in 2002. The goal, of course, was to accelerate English acquisition for those children. According to a recent study, this is indeed what happened: In California, children learned more English in areas where the shift away from bilingual education was more pronounced. However, there was also an unintended consequence: In those same areas, adults living with school-age children learned less English. In other words, these adults—especially those who were less educated and living in immigrant enclaves—appear to have relied on the children’s assimilation to lessen their own.

Kuziemko, I., “Human Capital Spillovers in Families: Do Parents Learn from or Lean on Their Children?” Journal of Labor Economics (October 2014).

How to win Olympic medals: equality

Equal rights for women are a hard sell in some parts of the world, but a new study suggests a novel sales pitch: Olympic medals. A country’s gender equality, especially educational equality, as assessed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, was significantly associated with the medal count of female and male athletes for that country at the 2012 Summer and 2014 Winter Olympics, even controlling for that country’s gross domestic product, population, and income inequality.

Berdahl, J. et al., “Win-Win: Female and Male Athletes from More Gender Equal Nations Perform Better in International Sports Competitions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Poor and tired neighborhoods

It was the best of neighborhoods, it was the worst of neighborhoods; it was the sleepiest of neighborhoods, it was the neighborhood where no one got enough rest. A team of researchers analyzed neighborhood census data along with individual data from the Boston Area Community Health Survey and found that people in low-socioeconomic-status Boston neighborhoods slept the least. Moreover, these neighborhood differences didn’t just reflect underlying individual differences. Even controlling for an individual’s age, race, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, alcohol use, and health factors, the socioeconomic status of one’s neighborhood still explained a significant amount of variation in sleep.

Fang, S. et al., “Geographic Variations in Sleep Duration: A Multilevel Analysis from the Boston Area Community Health (BACH) Survey,” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (forthcoming).

Bonding through pain

Hazing has a bad reputation, whether in the military, on sports teams, or in college fraternities, but it does serve a purpose, as demonstrated by psychologists in Australia. They randomly assigned small groups of students to experience pain together—by immersing their hands in cold water, maintaining a leg squat, or eating a hot pepper—and found that students in these groups reported bonding more with the group and were more cooperative in a game where individual and group payoffs conflicted.

Bastian, B. et al., “Pain as Social Glue: Shared Pain Increases Cooperation,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).


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