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Uncommon Knowledge

Expensive placebos work better

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Placebo effects are well known, but a new study suggests you get the placebo effect you pay for. A team of researchers administered two different drugs to patients with Parkinson’s disease—except that both of these drugs were actually placebos. Patients were told that both drugs were believed to have similar efficacy, but that differences in manufacturing resulted in cheap and expensive versions. When administered first, the “expensive”—but not the “cheap”—placebo was associated with significantly better motor function and brain activity, consistent with (though less than) the effect of the real Parkinson’s-treating drug levodopa.

Espay, A. et al., “Placebo Effect of Medication Cost in Parkinson Disease: A Randomized Double-Blind Study,” Neurology (forthcoming).

Think multiracially—that is, creatively

As Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” But the results of a new study suggest that causality can run the other way, too: If you focus on the breadth of who you are, it can broaden your thinking. When multiracial—but not mono-racial—individuals were made to think about their racial identity, they were more creative in solving word-association problems. Likewise, when mono-racial individuals were made to think about having multiple identities—not necessarily racial—they were also more creative in solving word-association problems and coming up with new names for pasta that didn’t end in the letter “i.”

Gaither, S. et al., “Thinking outside the Box: Multiple Identity Mind-Sets Affect Creative Problem Solving,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Help you? You’re not that sick

Few Americans would argue we should stop providing assistance to the disabled, but that doesn’t mean it’s cost-free—and not just in terms of money. A researcher at Harvard asked Americans to read descriptions of adults with back pain or depression, or a child with ADHD. For half of those surveyed, the descriptions included a simple sentence noting that disabled individuals may be eligible for financial assistance from the government. The addition of this sentence led to more doubt about the severity of symptoms, and more blaming of the ostensibly disabled individuals.

O’Brien, R., “Monetizing Illness: The Influence of Disability Assistance Priming on How We Evaluate the Health Symptoms of Others,” Social Science & Medicine (March 2015).

SEC won’t bust job providers

Government agencies are supposed to enforce the law evenhandedly, not enforce it selectively to benefit politicians. But according to a professor at the Harvard Business School, the latter is exactly what the Securities and Exchange Commission has been doing. He finds that the SEC is less likely to take action against accounting violations at corporations where relatively more jobs are at stake, even controlling for other operational, financial, and accounting characteristics of the corporation, its political activity, and its union membership. This is especially true in presidential election years in swing states, or when the corporation is headquartered in the district of a congressman who serves on a committee overseeing the SEC.

Heese, J., “Government Preferences and SEC Enforcement,” Harvard University (December 2014).

When sadness makes you lonely

Being in a bad mood can make you feel disconnected from your community, but this depends in part on whether you think you’re expected to be cheerful. College students who reported being in a bad mood, but perceived that others expected them not to be, reported feeling more lonely than those in a bad mood who didn’t perceive such social expectations. In other words, if you think people will judge you harshly for a bad mood, then it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing you to be lonely as well.

Bastian, B. et al., “Sad and Alone: Social Expectancies for Experiencing Negative Emotions Are Linked to Feelings of Loneliness,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).



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