Uncommon knowledge

Hug to win!

Normally, touching co-workers is a big no-no. Unless you want your team to win. That’s the implication of a recent analysis of all NBA basketball teams during the 2008-2009 regular season. Researchers recorded all non-game-play touching (e.g., fist bumps, head slaps, high fives, hugs) among players in a game during the early part of the season. The amount of touching in this one game predicted both player and team performance the rest of the season, even when controlling for preseason expectations and early season performance. The relationship also held when controlling for player salary, which was highly correlated with touching. The overall effect of touching on performance appears to operate by increasing cooperation and trust among teammates.

Kraus, M. et al., “Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA,” Emotion (October 2010).

Protesting too much

It might seem odd that political partisans argue their ideology so fervently, even when faced with reasonable counter-arguments. Yet, recent research seems to confirm what many psychologists have long suspected — that self-doubt tends to increase the energy people put into persuading others. In one experiment, when people were asked to defend their opinion on the use of animals in laboratory testing, they wrote a longer defense if they wrote it with their nondominant hand (which is supposed to undermine confidence). In other experiments, people expended more effort to persuade others of their dietary or computer preferences if they had been asked to think about uncertain situations. Interestingly, the effect of doubt was attenuated if the person’s sense of self had also been affirmed.

Gal, D. & Rucker, D., “When in Doubt, Shout! Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing,” Psychological Science (November 2010).

Hard to read, easy to learn

Most economists will tell you that education is a key driver of economic competitiveness — for individuals and nations alike. So, when innovations come along that boost learning at little or no cost, we should pay close attention. And that’s exactly the secret behind one innovation suggested by a new study. Researchers gave people 90 seconds to memorize fictitious biology data and then distracted them for another 15 minutes. People who had been given the data in a somewhat-hard-to-read font recalled 87 percent of the data correctly vs. 73 percent for an easy-to-read font. To see if this could be repeated in real classrooms, the researchers asked teachers in a public high school in Ohio to hand out worksheets in somewhat-hard-to-read fonts to one of their sections, while worksheets in easy-to-read fonts were handed out to another section. Students in the sections with the harder-to-read fonts performed better on tests.

Diemand-Yauman, C. et al., “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes,” Cognition (forthcoming).

Kindler, gentler roughnecks

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is undoubtedly one of the defining events of 2010. Among the factors that may have contributed to the accident was the safety culture aboard the rig. In a recent case study, professors at Harvard and Stanford spent time aboard two other rigs whose culture underwent a profound change. Although the initial motivation for the change was safety, the new operational culture also reformed the macho culture that normally prevails in the male-dominated industry. In the old days, as one rig manager put it: “They decided who the driller was by fighting. If the job came open, the one that was left standing was the driller. It was that rowdy.” After the changes, the workers discussed things more openly, were more supportive of each other, and didn’t try to show how tough they were all the time.

Ely, R. & Meyerson, D., “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms,” Research in Organizational Behavior (forthcoming).

Can bad things make you happier?

To quote Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” But is this really the case? Sure, it’s reasonable to expect that we can all adapt to suffering up to a point, but could it be that the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are the key to happiness? Researchers surveyed a representative sample of Americans over the course of several years and found that well-being is related to the amount of prior adversity (e.g., sickness, violence, bereavement, family hardship, disaster), and that it follows a particular pattern: Experiencing some adversity in the past seemed to contribute to a sense of well-being, but too much trouble in the past — or too little — and the sense of well-being dropped.

Seery, M. et al., “Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/21/hug_to_win/

‘Resonate’

Allan Curry writes: “What’s to account for the ubiquity of the word resonate, once largely confined to the concert hall, now more (and more) often used to suggest receptivity (to an idea, a political message, etc)?”

Twenty years ago in this space, William Safire pegged resonate as a “vogue word” that had “gone out of control” in the 1980s. He said he would gladly join the crusade of a longtime correspondent, the linguist Louis Jay Herman, against resonate and other words that suffered from “pretentious overuse,” like frisson.

A quick check of the Corpus of Historical American English, an endlessly useful resource made available by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, finds that the vogue for frisson seems have peaked in the 1990s. Resonate, on the other hand, shows no sign of abatement. Among the sources collected by Davies, the frequency of resonate has risen steadily, from about two appearances per million words during its supposed heyday in the 1980s, to more than five per million in the past decade.

For most of its history in English, resonate led a peaceful life. Its Latin root, resonare, meaning “to make a prolonged or echoing sound,” had already entered the language by Chaucer’s time in the form resound. It was reborrowed with a more classical air as resonate in the 17th century. The word took on a more technical meaning in the science of acoustics, where resonance is understood as “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection or by the synchronous vibration of a surrounding space or a neighboring object,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun resonance and the adjective resonant first made the semantic trip from sonorous acoustic qualities to more metaphorical vibrations, suggesting a person’s sympathetic response to something — “striking a chord,” to use another musical figure of speech. In 1607, for instance, an English translation of Henri Estienne’s “World of Wonders” included the line, “So ought our hearts … to have no other resonance but of good thoughts.”

By the early 20th century, the verb resonate began to shimmer with sympathetic vibes. The O.E.D. credits H.G. Wells with the first known figurative use in 1903: “The men and women of wisdom, insight and creation, as distinguished from those who merely resonate to the note of the popular mind.” Wells wrote “resonate to,” but as the metaphorical meaning took off in later decades, the word more typically took the preposition with. Other acoustical metaphors have followed suit: if someone else’s ideas resonate with you, you could also say that the two of you are “on the same wavelength” or “in sync” (two idioms that haven’t aged particularly well, either).

There’s nothing wrong with transferring sonic lingo to the realm of personal sympathies, but if Safire and Herman found resonate hackneyed in 1990, the increased usage in the intervening years has done it no favors. These days we can blame management types in particular for overuse, as the term frequently gets hauled out to convey how “resonant leaders” connect emotionally with a team or audience. No matter what your line of work is, it’s best to use resonate sparingly if you want your words to fall on receptive ears.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/magazine/21FOB-onlanguage-t.html