Uncommon Knowledge

I suddenly feel so…religious

AS THE SAYING goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. Yet, according to a new study, that’s not the only place where being surrounded by the enemy makes people into believers. Psychologists at Arizona State University showed dating profi les of attractive men and women to students. Men who viewed profi les of other men — and women who viewed profiles of other women — subsequently reported that they were more religious, agreeing with statements like “I believe in God” “We’d be better off if religion played a bigger role in people’s lives,” and “Religious beliefs are important to me in my everyday decisions.” It’s not clear whether this effect is due to a sincere (albeit transient) infusion of religious sentiment, or whether people are simply trying to make a good impression in the face of competition for mates.

Li, Y. et al.,”Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Living in crazy times

YOU DON’T HAVE to be Dr. Phil to know that a lot of people these days suffer from psychological problems. But is this state of affairs “normal”? Or is this a growing trend? A team of researchers across the country analyzed data from psychological tests on high school and college students over many decades and found an upward trend in various pathologies. The trend does not correlate with economic cycles, but is instead correlated with cultural factors like materialism, philosophy of life, and the divorce rate. The authors also note that their findings may underestimate the trend, given that so many people are now on medication.

Twenge, J. et al., “Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology among Young Americans, 1938-2007: A Cross- Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI”, Clinical Psychology Review (forthcoming).

How low wages make us fatter
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IN THE FIGHT against obesity, one of the main culprits is (cheap) fast food. Therefore, it stands to reason that reducing the cost of fast food — for example, by keeping the wages of fast-food workers low — makes it easier to eat more. Researchers tested this hypothesis using government data on minimum wages (adjusted for inflation) and health. They found that a lower minimum wage is indeed associated with a higher body mass index, especially among the heaviest people, and may explain 10 percent of the increase in body mass index since 1970. While it’s possible that the effect of a lower minimum wage is due to reduced spending power of minimum-wage workers — making it harder for them to afford healthier food — the data suggest that the effect is more pronounced among higher-income people, which supports the cheap-food hypothesis, especially since higher-income people are more likely to eat out and have experienced the greatest gains in obesity in recent years.

Meltzer, D. & Chen, Z., “The Impact of Minimum Wage Rates on Body Weight in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research (November 2009).

Luxury ate my morals

IF POWER corrupts, then what does luxury do? In a new study, business school researchers fi nd that it doesn’t take much for luxury to do its thing. Students reviewed pictures of either luxury or nonluxury shoes and watches. Later, they were asked to evaluate several business scenarios from the perspective of a CEO. Students who had been exposed to the luxury items were significantly more willing to produce a polluting car, sell buggy software, and sell a violence-inducing video game. In addition, these students were also less likely to identify prosocial words in a letter scramble. In other words, priming people with luxury makes them more selfish. The authors wonder if managers make different decisions “at a luxury resort as opposed to a modest conference room.”Chua, R. & Zou, X., “The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making,” Harvard University (November 2009).

The shifting landscape of college

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom is that it has become a lot harder to get into college. But an analysis by a leading education economist finds that “only the top 10 percent of colleges are more selective now than they were in 1962,” while the bottom half are actually less selective. It turns out that the number of spaces has grown faster than the number of high school graduates, and, meanwhile, the sorting of students into colleges has been transformed by the same forces driving globalization. In the old days, students rarely ventured far from home, but nowadays the college market is much less sensitive to location, thanks to falling communication and transportation costs, and much more sensitive to competitiveness, thanks to test scores and college rankings. And, for those who complain about rising tuition, it’s worth noting that tuition usually doesn’t cover the total cost of student-oriented resources. At top schools, the annual growth rate of tuition has been 6 percent, but the annual growth rate in subsidies for students has been 25 percent; at those schools, tuition now covers only one-fifth of the cost of college.Hoxby, C., “The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (Fall 2009).Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/12/06/uncommon_knowledge/

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