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Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
August 21, 2011

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When power makes us cruel Although absolute power is supposed to corrupt absolutely, a recent experiment suggests that power without status is the most corrupting. In the experiment, students were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status “Idea Producer” role or low-status “Worker” role. They were then told that they and their partner would also be entered in a raffle after the study, but, regardless of role, each student had to select at least one task (from a list of 10, some more demeaning than others) for their partner to do to be entered in the raffle. Some of the students could make this selection without reciprocal consequences (i.e., high power), while others faced potential retaliation (i.e., low power). Students assigned to the low-status role but who were subsequently granted power selected the most demeaning tasks for their partners.

Fast, N. et al., “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Don’t believe your eyes All of us--but especially those in certain professions and pursuits--rely on visual intuition to make consequential decisions. Unfortunately, visual intuition can go horribly wrong, as when drivers or pilots misjudge their surroundings. A newly published study from a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley highlights just how easily this can happen. Students shown a simple pattern of blue and red squares consistently overestimated the percentage of squares of whichever color was clustered in the middle. This was true even when students could bet money on their judgment. When dealing with a more intricate pattern, however, students had less confidence in their visual judgment and didn’t let it affect their bets.

Andrade, E., “Excessive Confidence in Visually-Based Estimates,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (forthcoming).

Bringing whites down a peg Advocates of affirmative action have struggled against lackluster public support for years. A new study suggests that support may be affected by how you talk about affirmative action. In a series of online survey experiments, whites were more willing to support affirmative action if it involved penalizing whites for perceived white advantage, but not if it involved boosting minorities as a response to perceived white advantage. By penalizing themselves, whites were attempting to restore their self-esteem, which was undermined by the perception of being “advantaged.” The researchers found that preemptively boosting white self-esteem eliminated the motivation to penalize white advantage.

Lowery, B. et al., “Paying for Positive Group Esteem: How Inequity Frames Affect Whites’ Responses to Redistributive Policies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Sick in the face Health may seem like a private matter, but we may be telegraphing information about our health all the time: A recent study by British researchers suggests that we are remarkably adept at reading other people’s health simply by looking at their faces. Photographs of faces--without facial expressions, makeup, glasses, or facial hair--were shown to independent observers. Faces of people who were stressed or suffered more frequent colds were more likely to be perceived as stressed and unhealthy.

Little, A. et al., “Accuracy in Assessment of Self-Reported Stress and a Measure of Health from Static Facial Information,” Personality and Individual Differences (October 2011).

The perils of a sociable wife Manhood is associated with having autonomy and control, at least in the minds of many men. According to a recent study, this relationship goes both ways: A loss of autonomy and control impairs one’s manhood. A national survey of older adults found that a man whose female partner had more frequent contact than he did with at least one of his close confidants--that is, encroaching on his social network--was significantly more likely to have experienced erectile dysfunction, controlling for general relationship, psychological, and health issues. This effect was strongest among men age 57 to 64, for whom the effect was comparable to having prostate trouble.

Cornwell, B. & Laumann, E., “Network Position and Sexual Dysfunction: Implications of Partner Betweenness for Men,” American Journal of Sociology (July 2011).

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