Uncommon knowledge

Green and fat

Next time you reach for that “healthy” product at the grocery store, think carefully about the consequences. According to psychologists at the University of Michigan, an “organic” label acts as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for people concerned about their weight. If told that some Oreo cookies were “made with organic flour and sugar,” people judged them to have fewer calories, even when labeled with the same number of calories. This bias was especially strong for environmentalists. People also judged exercise as less important for someone trying to lose weight if that person had just eaten an “organic” rather than a regular dessert.

Schuldt, J. & Schwarz, N., “The ‘Organic’ Path to Obesity? Organic Claims Influence Calorie Judgments and Exercise Recommendations,” Judgment and Decision Making (June 2010).

Know fair

You don’t have to watch too many hours of sports to witness a “bad” call. And if the call goes against your team, it’s infuriating. But what if the call goes against the other team? Would that bother you, too? A new study suggests that at least the players themselves are bothered. From analyzing videotapes of over a hundred NBA games, researchers found that players made just over 50 percent of their first free-throws after a dubious foul. Normally, players shoot over 70 percent on their first free-throw. However, free-throw percentages were back to normal on the second free-throw and closer to normal on the first free-throw when the player’s team was behind, suggesting that fairness only goes so far.

Haynes, G. & Gilovich, T., “ ‘The Ball Don’t Lie’: How Inequity Aversion Can Undermine Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

How down payments affect marriage

Who says money can’t buy love? An economist at the University of Georgia has found evidence that helping people save also greases the wheels of the marriage and divorce market. In the late ’90s, hundreds of low-income individuals in Tulsa, Okla., were randomly assigned to receive funds they could use to help make a down payment on a house. Initially unmarried individuals were over 40 percent more likely to be married after four years in the program. Meanwhile, initially married individuals were even more likely to be divorced after only 18 months in the program. Not surprisingly, divorces were especially likely among those with already poor spousal relations; couples with good relations were actually less likely to divorce.

Eriksen, M., “Homeownership Subsidies and the Marriage Decisions of Low-Income Households,” Regional Science and Urban Economics (forthcoming).

The ‘Lie to Me’ effect

Tomorrow night, you can watch one of the final episodes of season two of “Lie to Me,” a crime drama on Fox based on a real-life psychologist who reads body language to determine if someone is lying. But just as some have observed a “CSI effect” (which can lead people to develop unrealistic expectations of forensic science), there also appears to be a “Lie to Me effect.” People were randomly assigned to watch an episode of “Lie to Me,” an episode of another crime drama (“Numb3rs”), or no show at all. Then they watched a series of interviews, half of which were truthful. Those who watched the “Lie to Me” episode were more likely to think people were lying but were actually less accurate in figuring out who lied. Moreover, according to the authors, “when looking at the evidence generated across several hundred individual studies, the idea of ‘Lie to Me’ is highly implausible and almost certainly misleading.”

Levine, T. et al., “The Impact of ‘Lie to Me’ on Viewers’ Actual Ability to Detect Deception,” Communication Research (forthcoming).

When helping hurts

One of the big debates in foreign policy is whether foreign aid works. Political scientists at New York University looked down the street, at the United Nations, for clues. Because the United States has been known to try to influence Security Council members by promising aid, the rotating two-year terms of nonpermanent members provide a test of the effect of foreign aid. Compared to countries not on the Security Council, countries on the Security Council experienced lower economic growth, became less democratic, and were less friendly to the press for several years after being elected to their two-year term. This pattern was largely confined to nondemocratic regimes and casts doubt on the wisdom of providing generous aid to such regimes.

Bueno de Mesquita, B. & Smith, A., “The Pernicious Consequences of UN Security Council Membership,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/18/green_and_fat/

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