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Uncommon Knowledge

Stoic people make utilitarian decisions

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Art Institute of Chicago/AP/Associated Press

When you’ve got to make a tough, utilitarian decision, you’re more likely to conceal your feelings. But it works the other way, too: After you conceal your feelings, you’re more likely to make a utilitarian decision. Researchers at Harvard found that people try to control their emotions more when choosing a more utilitarian option (for example, letting one child die to possibly save many others in the future). However, people also tend to choose a more utilitarian option after engaging in emotional self-regulation, even if this self-regulation is carried over from an unrelated emotionally difficult task.

Lee, J. & Gino, F., “Poker-Faced Morality: Concealing Emotions Leads to Utilitarian Decision Making,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (January 2015).

Fine, let the white guy run it

More women and people of color make it into leadership roles these days—but when something goes wrong, people tend to default back to the white guy. In several experiments at Penn State, psychologists made students think that they were leading a team in a virtual capture-the-flag competition. After playing a round, these “leaders” were given arbitrary performance feedback and could then choose to give up the leadership role. After ostensibly delivering poor performance, they were more likely to hand off leadership to team members with stereotypically white male names than to team members with stereotypically black male names or stereotypically white female names. Also, women leaders were more likely to give up leadership than men after ostensibly poor performance.

Ratcliff, N. et al., “(Still) Waiting in the Wings: Group-Based Biases in Leaders’ Decisions about to Whom Power Is Relinquished,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Sex offenders: the fear and the reality

Since the 1990s, many jurisdictions have set up sex-offender registries and posted them online, while also barring sex offenders from living in many neighborhoods, on the assumption that victimization is more likely when offenders live nearby. But a new analysis of neighborhood crime and sex-offender residency in Baltimore County, Maryland, questions the efficacy of these policies. The analysis finds that neighborhoods with more sex offenders generally have a lower risk of reported sex offenses, controlling for other neighborhood characteristics.

Agan, A. & Prescott, J., “Sex Offender Law and the Geography of Victimization,” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (December 2014).

How to talk like you’re in charge

What is the sound of power? Well, it’s high-pitched and monotonous, and alternately loud and soft. In a study, men and women were told they would be involved in a negotiation exercise, were put in a low- or high-power frame of mind, and then read a negotiation statement out loud. Those who were put in a high-power frame of mind spoke differently (higher pitch, more variable loudness, more monotone) than those who were put in a low-power frame of mind. Moreover, other people who later listened to recordings of these speakers—without knowing which speakers had been assigned to which frame of mind—were able to accurately guess which speakers were in a powerful role.

Ko, S. et al., “The Sound of Power: Conveying and Detecting Hierarchical Rank Through Voice,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

The real upside of my made-up flaws

Negative qualities can have a positive upside—at least if you believe they do. In fact, it’s even true for imaginary negative qualities. In several experiments, psychologists at New York University gave people bogus feedback that they were or were not impulsive, and then had them read an article purportedly from The Boston Globe “describing ostensible scientific findings on the association between impulsivity and creativity,” with one version supporting, and one version refuting, this link. People who were told they were impulsive not only came to believe they were impulsive—and behave impulsively—but they also internalized the impulsivity-creativity link: They came up with more creative uses for everyday objects.

Wesnousky, A. et al., “Holding a Silver Lining Theory: When Negative Attributes Heighten Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).


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