Uncommon knowledge

Walmart makes us fat

One cause of increasing obesity is cheap food. Therefore, it should be no coincidence that the largest company in the world — whose motto is “Save money. Live better.” — may contribute to obesity. And, indeed, the geographic expansion of Walmart stores can explain 10.5 percent of the rise in American obesity since the late 1980s, according to a new study. This translates into a 2.3 percentage point increase in the probability of being obese for residents — especially women, low-income married people, and those in rural areas — near a Walmart store. Nevertheless, Walmart can still justify its motto; the extra medical cost associated with this obesity was only 5.6 percent of the savings enjoyed by the Walmart shoppers.

Courtemanche, C. & Carden, A., “Supersizing Supercenters? The Impact of Walmart Supercenters on Body Mass Index and Obesity,” Journal of Urban Economics (forthcoming).

We really do want to be more like Sweden

As the political fight over taxes and spending heats up in Washington again, it’s worth asking just how divided Americans are on the question of economic inequality. A recent study suggests that there is more consensus than one would assume. A nationally representative sample of people was shown three unlabeled pie charts representing an equal distribution of wealth, the mildly unequal distribution found in Sweden, or the more unequal distribution found in the United States. The overwhelming majority of people preferred the Swedish distribution over the United States distribution or the equal distribution. Even more surprising, this preference was similar for men and women, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor.

Norton, M. & Ariely, D., “Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science (forthcoming).

God or government?

When people think of a higher power, they tend to think of God. But, technically, there’s another higher power: government. And a team of researchers has found that the two entities serve as psychological substitutes for each other. For example, people in Malaysia were more apt to believe in a controlling God — a God that “is in control of events in the universe” — just before an election than just after an election. The mere fact that political uncertainty was higher before the election was enough to boost faith in that kind of involved deity. The same thing happened to Canadians after reading a fictitious news article predicting a fractured parliament, yet belief in a controlling God diminished if government was portrayed as a stabilizing force. Conversely, if people read a fictitious scientific article claiming that God intervenes in world affairs, they were less likely to support government. One implication of this phenomenon is that increasing instability in American politics may drive people to God — and to political candidates like Mike Huckabee.

Kay, A. et al., “For God (or) Country: The Hydraulic Relation between Government Instability and Belief in Religious Sources of Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (November 2010).

Blind, but not race-blind

Do blind people see race? To find out, a sociologist interviewed dozens of blind people, particularly those who had been blind since birth. Although they can’t literally see someone’s race, it seems that they do understand race in visual terms, by internalizing the way sighted people talk about race. For example, one blind white respondent noted that “white is pretty generic to me….Most black people look pretty much the same with a few exceptions. Of course it always depends on the person, but in general, they look pretty much the same I think.” This bolsters the notion that skin color is about more than just coloring; it incorporates a broad set of social characterizations about what it means to be “black” or “white.”

Obasogie, O., “Do Blind People See Race? Social, Legal, and Theoretical Considerations,” Law & Society Review (September/December 2010).

Get a grip

Next time you find yourself in need of extra willpower, firm up. In one experiment, researchers asked people to grab a pen in their left hand while they immersed their right hand in a bucket of ice water. Squeezing the pen allowed people to keep their hands in the ice water significantly longer than people who were asked to hold the pen loosely. In another experiment, after being primed to think about being healthy, people were asked to drink what they were told was a health tonic (but was really just diluted vinegar). Those who were also asked to contract their calf muscles and keep their heels lifted off the floor while drinking were able to drink more of the unpleasant tonic than people who didn’t lift their heels. The same pattern occurred when people were asked to grasp a pen when approaching a snack bar for healthy items: The firm grip made it easier to resist buying unhealthy snacks.

Hung, I. & Labroo, A., “From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/14/walmart_makes_us_fat/