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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
April 25, 2010

As if politicians didn't have enough to worry about, a recent study found that voters assess a politician's health from his movement, which, in turn, affects votes. Brief video clips of Barack Obama and John McCain from their second presidential debate were converted into unnamed stick-figure animations and were shown side-by-side to people who were asked to assess each figure's traits and decide who to vote for. The best predictor of voting was the perceived health of the moving figure. The researchers repeated the experiment with stick-figure versions of British politicians David Cameron and Gordon Brown, and, again, the perceived health of the figure was the best predictor of the voting. In both experiments, though, there was no consensus on what constituted "healthy" movements and, thus, no consensus on which figure was healthier. With a little more time, of course, researchers may yet learn how politicians can tailor their mannerisms to different audiences. Kramer, R. et al.,

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"Perceived Health from Biological Motion Predicts Voting Behaviour," Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (April 2010).

. . .

Light bulbs = ideas

Students and employers take note: Light bulbs are illuminating in more than one way. A team of psychologists conducted several experiments to see whether a nearby light bulb would improve insightful problem-solving. Compared to people in a room with an overhead fluorescent light, people in a room with an unshaded 25-watt light bulb performed better on tests of spatial, verbal, and mathematical insight. A shaded 40-watt bulb didn't have the same effect, the effect didn't seem to be caused by a change in mood, nor was the effect observed for problems that didn't require insight. So, turning on a light bulb may indeed be the mark of a good idea.

Slepian, M. et al., "Shedding Light on Insight: Priming Bright Ideas," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (July 2010).

. . .

Feeling like knockoff If you find yourself short on cash and tempted to buy a cheap imitation product, think again - it comes with a hidden cost. Psychologists recruited women to try on what were billed as authentic brand-name sunglasses or counterfeit sunglasses. In reality, all of them were $300 brand-name sunglasses. Women who thought they were wearing counterfeit sunglasses were much more likely to be dishonest - as the counterfeit sunglasses made them feel inauthentic - and to perceive others as dishonest.

Gino, F. et al., "The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It," Psychological Science (forthcoming).

. . .

Better vision through belief Eyesight obviously depends on the eyes, but it's easy to forget that it also depends on the brain. Researchers conducted experiments to see whether eyesight would improve if people did things they associated with good eyesight. ROTC students at MIT were tested on their ability to read letter markings on drawings of airplane wings presented outside the window of a flight simulator. Some of the students were told that the flight simulator was working and were allowed to operate it, pretending to be a pilot, and other students were told that the simulator was broken and that they would sit in it without really using it. The students who played pilot were able to read significantly more letters. Likewise, in another experiment, people were told that exercise would improve eyesight and either did jumping jacks - an activity associated with being an athlete, which is associated with good eyesight - or skipped around a room. People who did jumping jacks were subsequently better at reading an eye chart. The researchers also found that people who read an inverse eye chart - with the smaller letters at the top - were able to read significantly more of the smaller letters, suggesting that it's easy to trick the brain into seeing better.

Langer, E. et al., "Believing Is Seeing: Using Mindlessness (Mindfully) to Improve Visual Acuity," Psychological Science (forthcoming).

. . .

The eyes have it Poker players often wear sunglasses, believing that their own eye movements will reveal their thoughts. New research lends support to this intuition. Twelve right-handed men were asked to call out a bunch of random numbers, while their eye positions were measured. When the men looked to the left or down, the next number they named was likely to be lower, whereas looking to the right or up preceded naming a higher number. In addition, a larger change in eye position was associated with a larger difference from one number to the next.

Loetscher, T. et al., "Eye Position Predicts What Number You Have in Mind," Current Biology (23 March 2010).

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

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