Uncommon knowledge

Don’t hold that thought

At some point, you’ve probably heard (or even uttered) the phrase “try not to think about…” Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that this is likely to backfire. Researchers asked regular smokers to spend a week either suppressing or promoting thoughts about smoking, without changing their actual smoking habits. Those who had tried to suppress their thoughts ended up smoking more the following week. The researchers also found that smokers who tended to suppress thoughts in their everyday lives reported having tried and failed to quit smoking more times than other smokers.

Erskine, J. et al., “I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke: Effects of Thought Suppression on Smoking Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How helplessness changes what you believe

Atheists may wonder why people believe in God, while believers may wonder about them. But perhaps their worlds are not so different after all. In an experiment with mostly secular Dutch university students, researchers found that people are quite willing to change their worldview to maintain some semblance of order. First, the students were asked to recall a situation where they lacked control and to come up with several reasons why the future is uncontrollable. Then they were asked to choose which of two theories “provides the best framework to explain the origin of life on this planet.” The students who had contemplated being without control were more inclined to endorse intelligent design — or, alternatively, a more deterministic version of evolution — over the randomness of standard evolutionary theory.

Rutjenslow, B. et al., “Deus or Darwin: Randomness and Belief in Theories about the Origin of Life,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

What narcissists are good for

At work, in the news, or on “reality” shows like “Survivor” or “The Apprentice,” narcissism and success seem to go hand-in-hand. However, according to a new study, the direct influence of narcissists is probably less important than their indirect influence. While the study finds that narcissists are perceived to be more creative — ostensibly because they do a better job of selling themselves — there is little objective evidence of their superior creativity. Yet, the narcissist manages to create more than a self-serving reputation; he can also stimulate his peers to be more creative, especially if there is another narcissist competing for attention. Of course, like cooks in a kitchen, a group can sustain only so many narcissists before it breaks down.

Goncalo, J. et al., “From a Mirage to an Oasis: Narcissism, Perceived Creativity, and Creative Performance,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Prison, engine of crime

The incarceration rate in this country quadrupled between 1975 and 2005. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the reasons behind this surge, the assumption all along has been that prison does what legislators and judges expect it to do: reduce crime. However, a new analysis challenges this assumption. While prison tends to reduce crime by keeping dangerous people off the street and deterring future crime, most inmates get released back into the community, where they may have trouble reintegrating, leading to more crime. The question is whether the number of crimes averted by the incapacitation and deterrent effect of prison is greater than the number of additional crimes caused by inmates after their release. Indeed, the analysis finds that prison is a net creator of crime, especially violent crime.

DeFina, R. & Hannon, L., “For Incapacitation, There Is No Time Like the Present: The Lagged Effects of Prisoner Reentry on Property and Violent Crime Rates,” Social Science Research (forthcoming).

The weak link in privacy: you

With the Internet reaching into every corner of our lives, many people are understandably concerned about privacy. Or so they say. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people are unwittingly flexible when it comes to disclosing sensitive information. For example, the researchers presented hundreds of students with computer surveys asking questions about “the types of behaviors that college students engage in.” Some of the surveys had an informal look (with the title “How BAD Are U???”) and some of the surveys had an official look (with the title “Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors”). Students were more willing to admit bad behavior — especially for more intrusive questions — and reported less concern about their privacy in the informal-looking survey, even though one would expect the official-looking survey to offer more protection from misuse. As the authors note, “marketers may be particularly successful in obtaining private information when they make the fewest promises to protect consumers’ privacy.”

John, L. et al., “Strangers on a Plane: Context-dependent Willingness to Divulge Sensitive Information,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/12/surprising_insights_from_the_social_sciences/