Distractions, Robin Hood, and Goodwill

Associated Press/File

By Kevin Lewis  

Too busy to care

In experiments, researchers had participants wait in a room while a TV was either off or playing CNN coverage of a famine in Niger. If the TV was on but participants were offered distractions, they subsequently assigned less importance to famine-related political issues, compared with participants who were not distracted — or even had the TV off. A similar effect was found in an online experiment where participants were presented with an ad before getting to view a video they had chosen. If the ad was for the same CNN famine coverage, but participants could press a button to skip it after watching only eight seconds, famine issues became less important. In other words, the act of ignoring something for the moment has lasting effects.

Paluck, E. et al., “Ignoring Alarming News Brings Indifference: Learning about the World and the Self,” Cognition (October 2017).

Robin Hood begets merry men

Analysis of survey data collected from 33 countries over 24 years revealed that increases in income inequality in a country were associated with lower life satisfaction.Indeed, 5 percent more inequality was comparable to the effect of a more than 10 percent reduction in GDP per capita. Redistribution that decreased inequality was associated with exactly the opposite, and was positive for both “taxpayers and welfare-receivers, for liberals and conservatives, and for the poor and the rich.”

Cheung, F., “Income Redistribution Predicts Greater Life Satisfaction across Individual, National, and Cultural Characteristics,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Good cop, bad cop


Researchers recruited “community members from a large Northeastern city” to role-play as couriers in a mock environmental terrorism conspiracy. They were then interviewed by a “real counterintelligence agent with 10 years of experience conducting intelligence interviews and interrogations.” Participants who were interviewed in a spacious room with windows disclosed more details about the plot, compared with participants who were interviewed in a stereotypical police interview room (small, two-way mirror, no windows).

Dawson, E. et al., “A Room with a View: Setting Influences Information Disclosure in Investigative Interviews,” Law and Human Behavior (August 2017).

Goodwill pictures

In an experiment at Penn State, flyers urging “Don’t Pack up Your Sentimental Clutter. . . Just Keep a Photo of It, Then Donate” were put up in the bathrooms of several sorority dorms before the winter holiday break. In several other sorority dorms, there were flyers that urged people merely to donate sentimental possessions. More items were donated in the keep-a-photo dorms.

Winterich, K. et al., “Keeping the Memory but Not the Possession: Memory Preservation Mitigates Identity Loss from Product Disposition,” Journal of Marketing (forthcoming).

Juris imprudence

Political scientists at Harvard and the University of Chicago found that the federal courts have repeatedly cited a fallacious argument to avoid having to consider statistical evidence. From 1960 onward, various Supreme Court and lower-court decisions have stipulated some version of the phrase “it is never easy to prove a negative.” As recently as 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts cited the phrase as a way to ignore credible statistical evidence that would’ve undermined his argument striking down an Arizona campaign-finance law. The fallacy here is that, while it may be hard to prove that a thing does not exist, this is not the same as statistically estimating the magnitude — positive or negative — of a cause-effect relationship, which is what the courts were actually considering.

Enos, R. et al., “The Negative Effect Fallacy: A Case Study of Incorrect Statistical Reasoning by Federal Courts,” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (September 2017).

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