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Opinion/Ideas

Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

(Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Lewis
February 10, 2008

CURRENT EVENTS, IT now appears, shape sex appeal. According to a recent theory in psychology, individuals react defensively when the world around them (the "system") is threatened. This defensiveness generally prompts them to embrace the status quo, along with any of its associated stereotypes. In a new test of the theory, researchers found that men who read one article conveying pessimism about their country became significantly more interested in traditionally feminine women - women who were portrayed in profiles as "vulnerable, pure, and ideal for making men feel complete."

Lau, G. et al., "Loving those who justify inequality: The effects of system threat on attraction to women who embody benevolent sexist ideals," Psychological Science (January 2008).

IF THE PATRIOTS had won the Super Bowl last Sunday, would you be a happier person today? Probably not, studies suggest, because major happy events (a big promotion, winning the lottery, etc.) do not have an enduring effect. So how do we become happier? One answer may be to incorporate small, repeated positive events into our lives. Researchers randomly interviewed people going to a religious service, the gym, or a yoga class, asking them to answer, using a scale of 1 to 100, several simple questions: "How do you feel right now?," "How satisfied are you with your life in general?," and "How satisfied are you with your spiritual and religious life?" They found that people scored higher after the activity. But they also found that the people who went more often scored higher. This has broad economic implications, the authors write: "single-shot events such as a one time tax refund will probably have little lasting impact on the well-being of the country, while policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."

Mochon, D. et al., "Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being," Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming).

. . .

SMOKING BANS CAN be hazardous to some people's health. A rigorous statistical examination has found that smoking bans increase drunken-driving fatalities. One might expect that a ban on smoking in bars would deter some people from showing up, thereby reducing the number of people driving home drunk. But jurisdictions with smoking bans often border jurisdictions without bans, and some bars may skirt the ban, so that smokers can bypass the ban with extra driving. There is also a large overlap between the smoker and alcoholic populations, which would exacerbate the danger from extra driving. The authors estimate that smoking bans increase fatal drunken-driving accidents by about 13 percent, or about 2.5 such accidents per year for a typical county. Assuming a smoking ban is still worth it, the results suggest the need for a more aggressive approach to drunken driving - or a nationwide smoking ban.

Adams, S. and Cotti, C., "Drunk driving after the passage of smoking bans in bars," Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

. . .

IN POLITICS, IT'S an article of faith that "moral values" is a Republican issue, but it turns out that moral conviction may be a nonpartisan force - and that its main role in politics is to get people to show up at the polls. Based on surveys of people in 2000 and 2004, a pair of psychologists have found that supporters on both sides were motivated similarly by "core moral values and convictions." Although there was some disparity with regard to moral conviction on the issue of gay marriage, the psychologists do not think the difference was enough to generate an electoral advantage. However, the data do show that people are more likely to vote if their position on issues or candidates is motivated by moral conviction. Likewise, holding extreme positions on the issues, but without a sense of moral conviction, is not a reliable gauge of turnout. The psychologists conclude that making issues and candidates seem morally relevant is probably an effective electoral strategy.

Skitka, L. and Bauman, C., "Moral conviction and political engagement," Political Psychology (February 2008).

. . .

IN THE DRUMBEAT of bad news about global warming, some economists offer a ray of light: people are getting older, and old people use less energy. The economists calibrated a sophisticated model of the economy and emissions with three divergent population growth scenarios, corresponding to different assumptions about fertility, mortality, and immigration. In every scenario, accounting for aging reduced predicted emissions - by almost 40 percent in one scenario. Models being what they are, other potentially important variables were left out, such as household and neighborhood trends, increasing labor force participation by seniors, and globalization, all of which could diminish the effect of aging on emissions. However, to the extent that aging is a global trend, the authors believe that global emissions projections may be too high.

Dalton, M. et al., "Population aging and future carbon emissions in the United States," Energy Economics (March 2008).

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

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