There’s always something interesting going on in the world of the social sciences. Normally, though, we as the general public don’t find out about these research findings until they are written up months later by journalists sniffing out a good story. Of course, if the research is particularly novel and spectacular, it can hit the press fairly quickly. But there are all kinds of less glamorous, more nuanced studies that get left behind in the archives of academic journals. Well, not anymore. I’m here to save them.
Over the last 6 months, I’ve been following the research from some of my favorite journals in various social science fields: economics, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. Below, I’ve recapped my favorite 30 academic research articles by answering, in just a few short sentences, the questions I believe the studies are asking.
Before I begin, I must mention the great caveat of all caveats: take my interpretations with a grain of salt. I’m not a social scientist, or even a journalist. I’m just a curious person who likes finding things out. My observations are extremely simplified. The realities in all of these research findings are much more nuanced, and the actual articles (linked by the doi number) typically highlight the various exceptions to the rules that are discovered.
And even if I’ve got the interpretation spot on, there’s a good possibility that the results won’t be accepted for long. Especially in the social sciences, there is little room for absolutes. Science is more about raising deeper questions than it is about giving shallow answers. So, why even bother calling these findings out? I think it’s fair to say that the answers to these questions consist of “the latest findings” or is “where the research is headed.” But we must always keep in mind that there is more to learn. When scientific findings ceased to be challenged, they cease to be scientific.
Now, that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s answer some questions…
1. Why do people give to charity?
To assuage a guilty conscience. People give more because recipients expect them to be charitable. Researchers led participants in a dictator game, and found that dictators were more generous both when recipients expected more and when they thought the dictator should, morally speaking, give more. The authors explain: “If dictators were motivated by pure altruism or equity concerns, the receiver’s expectations or moral beliefs should not matter.”
Hauge, K.E. (2016). “Generosity and guilt: The role of beliefs and moral standards of others.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 54, 35-43. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2016.03.001
2. How do math skills affect personal wealth?
More math = more money. In a longitudinal study, subjects with higher numeracy (that means they’re better at math) accumulated more income over a five year period. Moreover, those with lower numeracy lost more wealth over the same time period. Researchers found that an increase of one point on an 11-point scale was correlated with a 5% increase in wealth.
Estrada-Mejia, C., De Vries, M., & Zeelenberg, M. (2016). “Numeracy and wealth.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 54, 53-63. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2016.02.011
3. Which has a greater effect in social media marketing: positive or negative word of mouth?
It depends on what they’re buying (or why they’re buying it). Conventional wisdom in the marketing world is that negative customer reviews are more damaging than positive customer reviews are helpful. But, that’s not always the case. In 3 laboratory studies, researchers found that negative word of mouth has a greater impact when the product being sold is functional for the personal buying it (toothpaste, clothes, a car), but positive word of mouth has a greater impact when the product being sold has associates with social good (eco-friendly products, charity, etc.).
Relling, M., Schnittka, O., Sattler, H., & Johnen, M. (2016). “Each can help or hurt: Negative and positive word of mouth in social network brand communities.” International Journal of Research in Marketing, 33, 42-58. doi:10.1016/j.ijresmar.2015.11.001
4. Do accompanying charitable donations incentivize people to buy products?
It depends on what you’re selling. You know the model: buy a pair of shoes and the company donates a pair of shoes. Buy a pound of coffee, and the company plants a coffee tree for farmers. But, does this model actually work for the companies using it? In 6 studies, the researchers found that the key determining factor in whether or not the buy-donate model works is whether the product being sold can be classified as a “guilty pleasure.” In turns out, people feel like they can indulge (in the fancy shoes, in the luxurious coffee, etc.) if they feel like they’re giving to a good cause. But, if you’re selling printer paper, dish rags, or motor oil, it’s probably not going to work.
Zemak-Rugar, Y., Rabino, R., Cavanaugh, L., & Fitzsimons, G. (2016). “When donating is liberating: The role of product and consumer characteristics in the appeal of cause-related products.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26, 213-230. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2015.06.001
5. Why don’t people lose weight when you never see them eating anything unhealthy?
It’s because they’re doing it behind your back. Researchers found that overweight people eat mostly healthy food in public context, due to the shame they feel from being overweight. However, in private, they consumer more calories from unhealthy food to compensate.
Sinha, J. (2016). “We are where we eat: How consumption contexts induce (un)healthful eating for stigmatized overweight consumers.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26, 289-297. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2015.06.015
6. Does getting divorced make people more or less happy?
Okay, that’s not really the question this article is answering. But, that’s a question people may ask when they’re considering divorce. Here’s what the study found: people who are married have similar levels of life satisfaction. If one partner is happy, the other tends to be. And, vice versa, if one partner is miserable, the other tends to be as well. After divorce, though, this relationship no longer holds. So, if you’re in an unhappy marriage, getting a divorce won’t make more happy or less–it will just mean that your happiness is no longer tied up in the happiness of your spouse.
Wortman, J. & Lucas, R.E. (2016). “Spousal similarity in life satisfaction before and after divorce.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 625-633. doi:10.1037/pspp0000065
7. How can curiosity be a bad thing?
Well, it turns out (Noooooooooo!!!) that the adage “curiosity killed the cat” has some merit. Despite all of its amazing benefits (I sorta wrote a book about this), it does have one drawback: merely to satisfy curiosity, people will be willing to subject themselves to pain without any other benefit whatsoever. In the experiments, participants were even willing to expose themselves to electric shocks just to satisfy their curiosity.
8. Can money actually buy happiness?
There has actually been a great deal of research done on this subject, and the consensus has been that–yes–money can buy happiness, if you spend it the right way. In this study, researchers found that people who spend more money in accordance with their personality type (“OCEAN” big five model) are indeed happier, but people who spend money in ways that is inconsistent with their personality are less happy.
Matz, S., Gladstone, J., & Stillwell, D. (2016). “Money buys happiness when spending fits our personality.” Psychological Science, 27, 715-725. doi: 10.1177/0956797616635200
9. Does alliteration influence persuasive appeal?
People will actually spend more money on something if the persuasive messaging sounds better phonetically. Specifically, if the language of the sales message uses, people will be more likely to buy even if it’s slightly more expensive. For example, consumers were more likely to be when the message read “Two T-Shirts for $21” than when it read “Two T-Shirts for $19.” This is surprising, because the alliteration effect appears to override even the time-tested marketing strategy of ending the price with a “9.”
Davis, D., Bagchi, R., & Block, L. (2016). “Alliteration alters: Phonetic overlap in promotional messages influences evaluations and choice.” Journal of Retailing, 92, 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.jretai.2015.06.002
10. Does getting older make us feel more or less like we’re victims of fate?
Famed Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo has identified various perspectives on time that influence our dispositions in life. One of these is the “present-fatalistic time perspective, which means that we feel a weighty sense of futility in our present lives in light of what we see as inevitable impending doom in the future. When we take this perspective, we (not surprisingly) feel anxious and depressed. In the current study, the researchers found that the link between taking this perspective and being satisfied with life diminishes over time. In other words, as we get older, we stop being bothered so much by the prospect of death and the brevity of life.
Chen, T., Liu, L, Cui, J., et al. (2016). “Present-fatalistic time perspective and life satisfaction: The moderating role of age.” Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 161-165. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.05.017
11. How do we perceive the malleability of our strengths and weaknesses?
My least favorite question from the job interview is “what’s your greatest weakness?” And, like most people, I’ll try to answer the question by either spinning it into a strength or emphasize that I’m working to improve it. The current research found that most people do consider that their weaknesses can be improved with time and effort. However, people don’t think they’re strengths can be diminished. Probability not a bad thing to belive for the job interview…
Steimer, A. & Mata, A. (2016). “Motivated implicit theories of personality: My weaknesses will go away, but my strengths are here to stay.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 415-429. doi: 10.1177/0146167216629437
12. How can conscientiousness be a bad thing?
Personally, I’m not very conscientious. It takes a great deal of effort for me to notice my surroundings. I’m quite oblivious, and I’m always kicking myself for what I believe to be is a personality deficiency. But, alas, there is hope for me yet! This research found that people who are more conscientious are actually more susceptible to loss aversion. When people are “loss averse,” it means that they are unwilling to give something up even when it could mean a greater gain. So, people who are low on consciousness are at least less susceptible to this debilitating cognitive bias.
Boyce, C., Wood, A., & Ferguson, E. (2016). “Individual differences in loss aversion: Conscientiousness predicts how life satisfaction responds to losses versus gains in income.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 471-484. doi: 10.1177/0146167216634060
13. Does forgiving people make them more or less likely to hurt you again?
It depends on what kind of people they are. In this study, researchers found that different types of people respond differently to receiving forgiveness. Specifically, people who are more agreeable are less likely to hurt you again if you forgive them. After receiving forgiveness, they feel a sense of obligation to you. However, people who are less agreeable are more likely to hurt you again because, since you’ve forgiven them, they feel you are more tolerant of the pain.
McNulty, J.K. & Russell, V.M. (2016). “Forgive and forget, or Forgive and regret?: Whether forgiveness leads to less or more offending depends on offender agreeableness.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 616-631. doi: 10.1177/0146167216637841
14. How should you structure your initial listing price to maximize the final negotiated sale price of your home?
Conventional wisdom says that you should end your price with a 9, so $199k would be a better starting price than $200k. Researchers in this study, however, discovered that conventional wisdom is wrong–at least in the context of home sales. The higher the initial listing price is, the higher the final negotiated price tends to be. While the low listing may catch more eyeballs, it is also likely to lead to fiercer negotiations…
Cardella, E. & Seiler, M.J. (2016). “The effect of listing price strategy on real estate negotiations: An experimental study.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 52, 71-90. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2015.11.001
15. How does social proof influence charitable giving?
Social proof is a phenomenon that is well-documented in social psychology. People are more likely to engage in certain behaviors if they believe other people are doing it too. Does this apply to charitable giving? It turns out it does. When researchers told donors “this is what most people do,” they were much more likely to give to the charitable cause.
Agerstrom, J., Carlsson, R., Nicklasson, L., & Guntell, L. (2016). “Using descriptive social norms to increase charitable giving: The power of local norms.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 52, 147-153. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2015.12.007
16. Does reading the comments influence readers’ perspectives toward online articles?
You know the ubiquitous warning: “Don’t read the comments!” But does reading the comments actually make a difference in how we feel about what we read online? Researchers found that it actually doesn’t. In an eye tracking study, researchers found that 40% of participants read the comments to an article but the comments did not affect their prior opinion of the article.
Steinfeld, N., Samuel-Azran, T., & Lev-On, A. (2016). “User comments and public opinion: Findings from an eye-tracking experiment.” Computers in Human Behavior, 61, 63-72. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.004
17. Which incentivizes more charitable giving, the “opt-in” or the “opt-out” option?
Not all that surprising, but still interesting. When charities give people the option to “opt-out” while making a donation the default, donations increase by 25% versus when the option is to “opt-in” with no donation as the default.
Zarghamee, H.S., Messer, K.D., Fooks, J.R., et al. (2016). Nudging charitable giving: Three field experiments.” Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, in press–corrected proof. doi:10.1016/j.socec.2016.04.008
18. Does a deadline influence whether or not people give to charity?
Conventional wisdom may suggest that imposing a deadline on people makes them more likely to act. In charitable giving, does a deadline make people more likely to give? Researchers found that it doesn’t. Instead, people who are going to give typically give immediately–whether or not there is a deadline. So, if you work with a charity and are trying to elicit more donations, you’re better off not using that artificial deadline as a sales tactic–it’s probably not going to work.
Damgaard, M.T. & Gravert, C. (2016). “Now or never! The effect of deadlines on charitable giving: Evidence from two natural field experiments.” Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, in press–corrected proof. doi:10.1016/j.socec.2016.04.013
19. Do people actually read the “terms and conditions” for online privacy policies?
Steinfeld, N. (2016). “”I agree to the terms and conditions”: (How) do users read privacy policies online? An eye-tracking experiment.” Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 992-1000. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.09.038
20. How can gender bias be eliminated in team settings?
More frequent exposure. Familiarity, it turns out, breeds comfort. In this study, researchers found that females were less likely to be considered suitable squad leaders than their male counterparts. However, when males were forced to share a room and work with female soldiers over an extended period of time, this bias against female leadership dissipated.
Finseraas, H., Johnsen, A., Kotsadam, A., & Torsvik, G. (2016). “Exposure to female colleagues breaks the glass ceiling: Evidence from a combined vignette and field experiment.” European Economic Review, in press–corrected proof. doi:10.1016/j.euroecorev.2015.11.010
21. Do negative ads in political campaigns actually work?
Yes and no. According to this research, running negative campaign ads does not have any greater effect on fundraising than running positive campaign ads does. However, running negative campaign ads is much more effective at getting people to show up to vote than positive campaign ads are. So, that explains why see all of the attack ads, despite our disgust for them. They actually work.
Barton, J., Castillo, M., & Petrie, R. (2016). “Negative campaigning, fundraising, and voter turnout: A field experiment.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 121, 99-113. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2015.10.007
22. Do men or women work better under pressure?
When pressed for time, is there a difference between how well men and women perform? In this study, researchers administered a series of tests among male and female participants–giving time restrictions to some of them and allowing others as much time as was needed. It turns out that the time pressure did not affect how well males performed. For females, however, time pressure negatively impacted their performance.
De Paolo, M. & Gioia, F. (2016). “Who performs better under pressure? Results from a field experiment.” Journal of Economic Psychology, 53, 37-53. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2015.12.002
23. Do those pesky lawn signs actually do any good for candidates during political campaigns?
Yes, they do. Researchers founds that campaign yard signs increased voter share by 1.7 percentage points, across four different studies. When it’s a close race, a good old-fashioned yard sign can actually make a difference.
Green, D.P., Krasno, J.S., Coppock, A., et al. (2016). “The effects of lawn signs on vote outcomes: Results from four randomized field experiments.” Electoral Studies, 41, 143-150. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2015.12.002
24. Does being a jerk make you more or less successful?
The scientific terminology for being a jerk is what has come to be known as the dark triad–the personality traits including narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. So, are people who have these tried more or less likely to be successful? The verdict is a mixed bag. In the study, researchers found that narcissism positively related to a higher salary and Machiavellianism is positively related to a higher position and greater career satisfaction. However, psychopathy is negatively related to all measures of success considered. So, yes being a jerk can make you more successful. But being a psychotic jerk? Not so much.
Spurk, D., Keller, A., & Hirshi, A. (2016). “Do bad guys get ahead or fall behind?: Relationships of the dark triad of personality with objective and subjective career success.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 113-121. doi: 10.1177/1948550615609735
25. Which makes us happier, time or money?
In this study, researchers found that placing a greater emphasis on time leads to greater life satisfaction than focusing on money. So, “time = money” isn’t quite as true as “time > money”.
Whillans, A.V., Weidman, A.C., & Dunn, E.W. (2016). “Valuing time over money is associated with greater happiness.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 213-222. doi: 10.1177/1948550615623842
26. Does greater religiosity make people more generous?
In this study, researchers offered Mechanical Turk workers a bonus as well as the opportunity to share a portion of the bonus with other workers. It turns out that the more religious the workers were, the more likely they were o share a percentage of their bonus with others. Moreover, it did not matter whether or not the recipients of the shared bonus was religious. So, at least in this study, religiosity does make us more generous–with fellow religious people and atheists alike.
Everett, J.A.C, Haque, O.S., & Rand, D.G. (2016). “How good is the samaritan, and why?: An experimental investigation of the extent and nature of religious prosociality using economic games.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 248-255. doi: 10.1177/1948550616632577
27. Does having sex more frequently make us happier?
It might be a handy pick up line, but is it true? According to this research, the relationship between sexual frequency and happiness is curvilinear. It peaks at once per week but then, at frequencies greater than that, there is no relationship between sex and happiness. Moreover, any relationship between sexual frequency and happiness only holds in committed relationships. So, having sex with multiple partners on a frequent basis has no effect on your happiness. It only matters in a committed relationship.
Muise, A., Schimmack, U., & Impett, E.A. (2016). “Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 295-302. doi: 10.1177/1948550615616462
28. How is the behavior of children affected by sleep?
Does the amount of sleep that children get influence their moods throughout the following day? It turns out that it’s the quality that really matters. When children sleep better, they have better moods the following day. The actual amount of sleep has no effect. However, when children are in better moods in the evening, they tend to get more sleep and better sleep. So, there is a close relationship between behavior and children and sleep, but it’s somewhat bidirectional.
Konen, T., Dirk, J., Leonhardt, A., & Schmiedek, F. (2016). “The interplay between sleep behavior and affect in elementary school children’s daily life.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 150, 1-15. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2016.04.003
29. Are Instagram users really full of themselves?
Yes, yes they are. I mean, like, literally–in the textbook sense. Instragrammers, it’s true, are narcissistic. Or, at least, Instagram users who are narcissistic are more active than those who aren’t. Narcissistic Instagram users post more selfies and update their profile pictures more frequently than their counterparts. They also tend to rate their profile pictures as more attractive. Now, here, look at this Instagram.
Moon, J.H., Lee, E., Lee, J., Choi, T.R., & Sung, T. (2016). “The role of narcissism in self-promotion on Instagram.” Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 22-25. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.05.042
30. Are homosexuals ‘born that way’?
As in many others, the typical debate on homosexuality revolves around “nature vs nurture.” Is the behavior primarily genetic or environmental? But, recent research into epigenetics has determined that there is a third factor that shapes who we are: how we form in the womb. In this study, researchers find that male homosexuality is influenced by the variation in hormone exposure prior to birth (and, curiously, this also manifests itself in the ratio between the length of the 2nd and 4th finger on the hands). So, genetics aside, it does appear that homosexuals are born as homosexuals (an innate attraction to members of the same sex).
Li, C., Jia, M., Ma, Y., et al. (2016). “The relationship between digit ratio and sexual orientation in a Chinese Yunnan Han population.” Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 26-29. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.05.043