Uncommon knowledge

How class affects your brain

Most of the kids who attend top colleges come from affluent families. As if that isn’t discouraging enough for kids from lower-class families, a new study at Northwestern University suggests that, even for kids who’ve already made it to a top university, coming from a lower-class background can wear them down. After talking about their own academic achievement, lower-class students ate more candy and had more trouble with self-control than more affluent students. This didn’t happen when they talked about a nonacademic topic, suggesting that lower-class students are more self-conscious about their academic status; the psychological pressure of discussing it wears them out. However, the researchers did find a way to psychologically undermine students from all backgrounds more equally: comparing them to students at an even more elite university!

Johnson, S. et al., ”Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Mom, get away!

One of the stereotypes of a detached personality is that such a person will not only avoid close relationships but must not have been loved by his or her mother. In a novel experiment, researchers found that the word “mom” does indeed have an automatic negative association for these people. The researchers asked people to stand in front of a screen that randomly displayed various words and push a lever as fast as possible upon seeing the words. People with more detached personalities pushed the lever away faster than other people in response to the word “mom” but not in response to other words.

Fraley, C. & Marks, M., “Pushing Mom Away: Embodied Cognition and Avoidant Attachment,” Journal of Research in Personality (forthcoming).

I am yours

A longstanding feminist critique of dating culture is that men are expected to be promiscuous, while women are expected to be loyal, doting partners. This may be unfair, but evolutionary psychology would suggest that women are compelled to signal their faithfulness to prospective partners because men can’t be certain about paternity, and are therefore wary of unfaithful women. In a recent study, women who were made to think about long-term romance reported that they wouldn’t want to go to a concert with — and would otherwise distance themselves from — another woman who is unfaithful to the men she dates. Women were not as put off by the company of a cheater if they were made to think about short-term romance or just hanging out with friends. Although men had a generally negative reaction towards a cheating friend, this reaction wasn’t particularly sensitive to the romantic context, suggesting that the signaling of faithfulness is more important for women.

Dosmukhambetova, D. & Manstead, A., “Strategic Reactions to Unfaithfulness: Female Self-Presentation in the Context of Mate Attraction Is Linked to Uncertainty of Paternity,” Evolution and Human Behavior (March 2011).

Sorting the dead

TV crime dramas like “CSI” usually present the autopsy as a clear-cut analytical exercise. However, criminal investigators and medical examiners are prone to biases just like everyone else. Comparing a nationally representative sample of death certificates to survey responses from next of kin, researchers found that the racial identity of decedents was often misclassified — at a rate of about 1 percent for whites, and up to almost 9 percent for Native Americans. Worse, misclassification to a particular race was more likely if the cause of death fit the stereotype for that race: Death by cirrhosis was associated with misclassification as Native American, while being murdered was associated with misclassification as black.

Noymer, A. et al., “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates,” PLoS ONE (January 2011).

Speed thinking

In the race to boost brain performance, some British psychologists have found one trick: the click. When various mental tasks were preceded by several seconds of clicking — compared to silence or white noise — people’s minds seemed to perform a little bit better. Not only was this the case for reaction times to basic stimuli, but math problems were solved slightly faster, data was recalled a little bit more fluently, and previously seen pictures were more likely to be recognized. The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure how clicks produce this effect but figure that the clicks might speed up the perception of time, speeding up the underlying thought process.

Jones, L. et al., “Click Trains and the Rate of Information Processing: Does ‘Speeding Up’ Subjective Time Make Other Psychological Processes Run Faster?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (February 2011).

Don’t say it

The art of dodging bad words

What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.

We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)

Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)

For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.

Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians…presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”

This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.

But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.

In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.

But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/dont_say_it/