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Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

How to get happier in a hurry; the cost of daylight saving; smokers on the prowl

By Kevin Lewis
November 23, 2008
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How to get happier in a hurry

QUICK, READ THIS paragraph out loud as fast as you can! Feel better? You should, if a team of Princeton and Harvard psychologists is right. Motivated by the observation that euphoria is often accompanied by "racing thoughts" among manic individuals, the psychologists conducted a series of experiments - including one that had people narrate the famous "Job Switching" episode of "I Love Lucy," at fast or slow playback speeds - to test whether being forced to think faster results in a more positive mood. Not only was thinking faster significantly associated with positive mood, but there was some evidence that thinking faster inflated self-esteem and made it harder for people to stop talking. Other research by the authors even found that thinking fast about ostensibly depressing things can improve mood too. The authors conclude that "experiences that can succeed in making us think fast may have desirable consequences for affect (and, perhaps, for energy and self-confidence). In a world where we often could use an extra boost to our mood, simple manipulations of thought speed may have valuable practical importance."

Pronin, E. et al., "Psychological Effects of Thought Acceleration," Emotion (October 2008).

The cost of daylight saving

UNLESS YOU'VE BEEN living life without clocks, you probably have some sort of opinion on daylight saving time. Now comes reason to hate the hassle. Historically, DST has been motivated by the desire to save energy. However, a new study on the statewide implementation of DST in Indiana in 2006 questions this assumption. According to the authors, the study provides "the first empirical estimates of DST effects on electricity demand in the United States since the mid-1970s," using household-level data, backed up by simulations from an engineering model. The study concludes that DST increases residential electricity demand by 1 percent overall, with an increase of as much as 2-4 percent in October. Although DST saves energy on lighting, it increases consumption for heating and cooling by a greater amount. The incremental cost of DST for each Indiana household is estimated at $3.29 per year, although the cost could be higher for southern regions with higher cooling costs.

Kotchen, M. & Grant, L., "Does Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Indiana," National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2008).

Smokers on the prowl

THE MARLBORO MAN is alive and well. Psychologists wanted to see if smoking might be associated with "mating effort" (i.e., how hard one tries to gain and retain access to sexual partners). In theory, people who exhibit more mating effort should be more willing to take risks to secure mates and, therefore, should be more willing to smoke in social situations, given that smoking - despite, but also because of, its risky and restricted nature - can still have an aura of cool. Students at the University of Arizona filled out questionnaires about their smoking history and their love lives. Students who were ranked as showing more mating effort were indeed more likely to smoke in social situations.

Jones, D. and Figueredo, A., "Mating Effort as a Predictor of Smoking in a College Sample," Current Research in Social Psychology (July 2007).

How credit cards play with your mind

IDEALLY, EVERYONE READING this column pays their credit-card balance in full every month. But, for those of you who don't, read carefully. Both survey and experimental data suggest that printing a (small) minimum payment on a credit-card statement leads people to reduce their payment. The low minimum acts as a mental "anchor," and the credit card company then earns more interest down the road.

Stewart, N., "The Cost of Anchoring on Credit Card Minimum Payments," Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Four tipsy friends are less stupid than one

DOING ANYTHING THAT requires attention would seem to be incompatible with being drunk. However, a recent study found an exception to this rule: a group effort. Researchers broke college students up into groups, giving some of them beverages with alcohol, and some without. The students were asked to count the number of times they heard the word "the" in a 300-word passage and individually record an estimate. As would be expected, students were less accurate when they were drunk. However, when the students were told to decide, as a group, on an answer, they didn't do nearly as badly: The consensus was nearly as accurate in the alcohol condition as in the placebo condition! The authors conclude that the evidence is consistent with a model of group behavior that doesn't just average individual inputs, but instead tries to zero in on areas of agreement - which allows the group, as a whole, to see past the more wild individual estimates.

Frings, D. et al., "Groupdrink: The Effects of Alcohol and Group Process on Vigilance Errors," Group Dynamics (September 2008).

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

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