Kevin Lewis, at the Boston Globe, routinely assembles intriguing collections of abstracts for his outstanding “Uncommon Knowledge” series. Here is a sample from recent installments.
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It’s true, your dog relaxes you
THE DOG MAY indeed be one of man’s best friends. New research suggests that people get the same hormonal reaction from bonding with their dogs as with humans. The hormone oxytocin, which is secreted during childbirth and breastfeeding, has been shown to facilitate human bonding. A study in Japan had dog owners sit in a chair and give commands to their dogs. Some owners could look at their dogs, while other owners couldn’t. The owners who could look at their dogs, especially owners who spent more time looking at their dogs and had a closer relationship with them, were found to have significant increases in oxytocin levels in their urine after interaction with their dogs.
Nagasawa, M. et al., “Dog’s Gaze at Its Owner Increases Owner’s Urinary Oxytocin During Social Interaction,” Hormones and Behavior (forthcoming).
Profiting from the honor system
DESPITE THE OLD saying that the customer is always right, businesses generally assume that they must dictate prices to customers. But a team of marketing researchers wanted to see if the opposite extreme – “pay what you want” – could also be profitable. They conducted experiments in Germany at a restaurant, a movie theater, and a delicatessen where customers could pay whatever they wanted for a buffet lunch, tickets, or hot drinks, respectively. Every customer paid something, and only a few customers paid very low prices. In fact, the average price paid for drinks at the delicatessen was slightly higher than normal. . . . The authors suggest that such a pricing strategy is most applicable to products with high fixed, but low variable, costs.
Kim, J. et al., “Pay What You Want: A New Participative Pricing Mechanism,” Journal of Marketing (January 2009).
Variety can change your mind
WE LIKE TO believe in personal responsibility and freedom, but, in reality, choices are often guided by subtle external forces. Marketing researchers have found that the sheer variety of options is one of those forces – in other words, variety itself can affect our decisions. Across several experiments, the researchers tested the hypothesis that people would choose a more justifiable, or virtuous, option when making a choice among many options rather than just a few options. The percentage of people choosing low-fat over regular ice cream almost doubled when they made that choice among five potential flavors rather than one. People who passed by a self-serve tray filled with fruit and desserts were more likely to choose the healthier fruit if there was a greater assortment of both items. Likewise, people chose a printer over a music player if there was a greater assortment of either one.
Sela, A. et al., “Variety, Vice, and Virtue: How Assortment Size Influences Option Choice,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).
Aren’t we great (and wrong)!
ONE OF THE most famous phenomena in social psychology is groupthink, the tendency of a group to converge on a consensus without much critical evaluation, even if the consensus is wrong. Various remedies have been proposed over the years, but some management researchers are presenting an interesting new angle on it. They invited a couple hundred members of fraternities and sororities to participate in a problem-solving experiment. The students were given 20 minutes to read a murder mystery and deduce the most likely perpetrator out of three suspects. Individually, only 44 percent of the students got it right, which is slightly better than chance. The students were then sorted into groups of three, all from the same fraternity or sorority, and were given 20 minutes to come to agreement on the most likely suspect. After a few minutes, a fourth member was added to the group – sometimes from the same fraternity or sorority, sometimes from a different one. If the new member came from a different fraternity or sorority, the group performed objectively better then the totally homogeneous groups (75 percent vs. 54 percent correct), and members with incorrect guesses were much more likely to change their minds. Nevertheless, the homogeneous groups perceived themselves as having more confidence, consensus, and effective interaction.
Phillips, K. et al., “Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).
The one-second racial gap
SOMETIMES, WHEN NEWS shows do live interviews from remote locations, there is a noticeable time delay in the conversation, which can be painful to watch. Researchers tested the same scenario – but in a laboratory where two strangers discussed politics over a one-second-delayed closed-circuit television link – and found a remarkable pattern. If one person was white and the other was nonwhite, there was more anxiety in the conversation with the one-second delay. This suggests that a brief hesitation in an introductory interracial conversation is over-perceived as a signal of anxiety in the other person. This could be of special concern, the authors note, because “police officers, judges, and prosecutors frequently use apparently apprehensive behavior as a marker of deceptiveness during interrogations.”
Pearson, A. et al., “The Fragility of Intergroup Relations: Divergent Effects of Delayed Audiovisual Feedback in Intergroup and Intragroup Interaction,” Psychological Science (December 2008).
When punishments don’t satisfy
IF SOMEONE WRONGED you, do you think you’d feel better after meting out justice? Most people would say yes, but this, at least according to a new study, turns out to be wrong. Psychologists asked people to play a computer game against other people for money (though, in reality, the computer was simulating the other players). During the game, one of the other “players” took advantage of the group, thereby earning more money. After the game, some participants were given the opportunity to impose a penalty (at a small cost) on the bad player, and some were allowed to see someone else impose a penalty. A control group wasn’t allowed to consider penalties at all. Although people expected to feel better after imposing the penalty, those who penalized the bad player themselves felt significantly worse afterward than the control group, because, it appears, they couldn’t stop thinking about the bad player. Seeing someone else impose the penalty was no worse, but no better, than being in the control group.
Carlsmith, K. et al., “The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 2008).
Malpractice reform is no cure
IN THE NEVER-ENDING public debate about healthcare reform, medical malpractice is one of the big issues at center stage. Some widely cited research has estimated that defensive medicine – extra care provided mainly out of fear of being sued – adds over 5 percent to the cost of medical care, without improving the quality of care. Researchers at Duke and UNC examined more recent and extensive data, and found that malpractice reforms (e.g., damage caps) had an insignificant effect on total cost, without any apparent effect on quality, suggesting that defensive medicine may not be as big an issue as feared.
Sloan, F. & Shadle, J., “Is There Empirical Evidence for ‘Defensive Medicine’? A Reassessment,” Journal of Health Economics (forthcoming).
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For a previous Situationist post including excerpts from “Uncommon Knowledge,” see “Situatiolympics – Abstracts.”