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Uncommon Knowledge

Dressing for success


When you dress nicely, you dress for the big picture. Students who were wearing more formal clothes — even when randomly assigned to do so — adopted a more high-level perspective in describing actions, categorizing things, and processing visual patterns. This effect was not explained by differences in financial or social status but did appear to be related to feelings of power.

Slepian, M. et al., “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Antigreed pill has limits

So you want to make someone more leftist? There’s a pill for that. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco gave tolcapone pills to subjects who were then asked to unilaterally decide how to share money with an anonymous recipient. (Tolcapone is a drug prescribed for Parkinson’s disease and increases levels of dopamine in the brain.) Compared to placebo pills, tolcapone caused subjects to share more equally, but not to be more generous per se: When the effect of transfers was amplified, subjects curbed their sharing so that recipients would not be too much better off.

Sáez, I. et al., “‘Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans,” Current Biology (forthcoming).

Not all press is good press

Conservatives may not love the “mainstream media,” but it has its uses. In a new study, an economist analyzed the effect of newspaper coverage on disparities in lawsuit outcomes across jurisdictions. She found that damage awards were significantly larger in Democrat-leaning jurisdictions — but only if there were limited newspaper coverage. This was particularly the case in jurisdictions where judges were elected rather than appointed. In other words, newspaper coverage isn’t necessarily a win for trial lawyers.

Lim, C., “Media Influence on Courts: Evidence from Civil Case Adjudication,” American Law and Economics Review (forthcoming).

Me, me, me . . .

If it’s all about you, does that make you a narcissist? Not necessarily. A team of psychologists found that one’s use of first-person singular pronouns was unrelated to narcissism, even after controlling for self-esteem. This was true for subjective, objective, and possessive pronouns; for multiple samples of individuals in both the United States and Germany; and across situations with varying degrees of privacy and self-disclosure. The largest — though still small — correlations with narcissism were for subjective first-person singular pronoun use by women in a public setting, and for objective first-person singular pronoun use by men in an impersonal setting.

Carey, A. et al., “Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Cheering on the underdog

After the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, it would have been hard to guess that they’d go on to finish last in their division in 2014. Then again, they also finished last in 2012; at the time, who would have thought they’d win the 2013 World Series?

According to psychologists at Cornell University, we tend to think it’s more likely that one will rise from the bottom than fall from the top. This was true when football fans estimated next-season NFL rankings, and when people estimated business-school rankings, NBA rankings, and student-grade rankings. However, there was no such bias when the estimating was done by those who think that people can’t change who they are, or when there was little opportunity or motivation for those being ranked to improve their performance, suggesting that the bias reflects a faith in the striving of underdogs. The psychologists also connect this bias to socioeconomic mobility, in that “people appear to overweight the impact of others’ motivation to better their life circumstances and underweight the strong situational factors that work against their efforts to do so. The upward mobility bias therefore may make it easier for people to accept considerable economic inequality because it leads to an inflated sense of how likely it is to better one’s economic position.”


Davidai, S. & Gilovich, T., “What Goes Up Apparently Needn’t Come Down: Asymmetric Predictions of Ascent and Descent in Rankings,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (forthcoming).

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


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