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Uncommon Knowledge

Study finds white people associate superhuman words with black people

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Back in March 2007, David Ehrenstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.” A new study suggests it’s not just Obama; in general, white people are more likely to think of black people as magical and mysterious. In a series of experiments, psychologists show that white people were quicker to associate superhuman words (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, and mystical) with black faces relative to white faces. Also, when explicitly asked, white people indicated that a black person was more capable of possessing superhuman qualities—and would need less medication to alleviate pain—than a white person.

 Waytz, A. et al., “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Transparency brings pay cuts

Sunshine may be a good disinfectant, but it can burn, too. After a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report in the Los Angeles Times in 2010 about excessive municipal manager compensation, California required municipalities to disclose compensation online. A new analysis by a Princeton professor and former chief economist at the US Department of Labor and the Office of Management and Budget finds that municipalities that hadn’t previously disclosed manager compensation cut it by approximately 8 percent after the disclosure mandate, relative to municipalities that had previously disclosed compensation. The cuts happened regardless of whether the compensation was particularly high given the qualities of the town or city, which suggests they were something of a hasty populist reaction, and led to a surge in managers quitting. Also, all the cuts fell on men, which the researcher speculates could be either because men are more likely to inflate pay in secret or because “city councils believed there to be a higher risk of a lawsuit by a female city manager.”

 Mas, A., “Does Transparency Lead to Pay Compression?” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2014).

Belief in self-control makes it real

Even if you’re in a relationship, it can take a lot of self-control not to flirt with attractive alternatives. That’s where faith—in yourself—comes in. Heterosexual men and women in relationships took a bogus test of self-control and were given bogus feedback about this test. Those who were told that they had above-average self-control subsequently expressed less interest in attractive members of the opposite sex, compared to those who were told that they had below-average self-control, or those who got no feedback at all. There was no such effect for single participants.

 Hamburg, M. & Pronk, T., “Believe You Can and You Will: The Belief in High Self-Control Decreases Interest in Attractive Alternatives,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (January 2015).

The unpopular rebel

Delinquent adolescents are presumed to seem cool, like James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” compared to square kids who play by the rules. But data on adolescents living in small towns in Pennsylvania and Iowa reveals that delinquent adolescents are not consistently more popular than their less-delinquent peers, especially as they get older. In fact, delinquent girls become less popular.

 Rulison, K. et al., “Delinquency and Peer Acceptance in Adolescence: A Within-Person Test of Moffitt’s Hypotheses,” Developmental Psychology (forthcoming).

A big healthy rainbow of feelings

Even “if you feel like happiness is the truth” as Pharrell Williams sings in his hit song “Happy,” an international team of psychologists has found that experiencing a variety of other emotions—even negative ones—is a good thing. A survey of thousands of French TV viewers found that experiencing a greater diversity of emotions, whether positive or negative, was associated with lower levels of depression, even controlling for average levels of positive and negative emotions, personality, age, and gender. Likewise, data from Belgian health insurance indicated that Belgians who experienced a greater diversity of emotions had lower health care usage and costs, and this correlation was at least as strong as the correlation between exercise, diet, or smoking and health care usage and costs.

 Quoidbach, J. et al., “Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).


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