Is social status hardwired?

Imagine a conversation between two people: Preston Power, the CEO of a prestigious corporation, and Alan Awkward, the assistant to the assistant to the regional manager. It wouldn’t take very long to pick up on the difference in social status between these two individuals even if you had no information about who they were. Body language, the tendency to interrupt, volume of speech, and a host of other nonverbal behaviors automatically cue us in to who is the alpha dog in this scenario. While these behaviors are often viewed as personal choices that we can control, Fei Wang and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggest that poor Mr. Awkward may not be at fault for his plight—his neurons may be to blame.  Continue reading


Red scare, quite literally

The color red is commonly used to caution us. Used prominently in alerts ranging from stop signs to warning labels, we generally associate red with some kind of threat or danger. Some have even suggested that athletes whose team color is red dominate more than those with other team colors (although having been a Stanford Cardinal during a period of particularly embarrassing athletic performance, I have my doubts).

In any case, the roots of this phenomenon are interesting from an evolutionary psychological perspective—is our association between a color and certain emotions hardwired or culturally based (or a mix of both)? Researchers at Dartmouth have reason to believe the former. Continue reading

Are you more of a conformist during flu season?

Looking back on social psychology’s greatest hits, my mind always drifts first to studies on conformity, largely because they make such good stories. Take Asch, for instance. Who would’ve thought that so many people would willingly follow the crowd in giving a blatantly wrong answer about line length? And then, of course, there’s Milgram. It is still shocking to imagine two-thirds of participants agreeing to shock another person up to the highest possible voltage. (Ok, so that’s technically obedience, not conformity, but you get the picture.)

Although studies of conformity fell out of fashion years ago, interest in the origins of conformist behavior are back in a big way, and the theorized reasons are definitely not what you might expect. Continue reading

I got chills, they’re multiplying

Many of us have experienced chills when listening to music, those weird, almost indescribable sensations sometimes likened to shivers down the spine. If you’re very meta, the line serving as this post’s title might even do it for you (but probably not—chills don’t tend to occur until later on in a song).

Despite our inability to describe chills in words, they are surprisingly easy to identify with the aid of neuroimaging. In a Nature Neuroscience study out this month, researchers at McGill with a history of interest in the topic take typical imaging work on music and chills one step further and describe not only the patterns of neural activation but also their time course.
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Moniker mumbo jumbo

Social psychology research is known for its counterintuitive, surprising, sometimes even “cute” findings. One of the latest findings in this series is that your initials can affect how successful you are; for instance, students whose names start with C or D get worse grades than students whose names start with A or B. Authors Lief Nelson and Joseph Simmons (2007) describe this effect as a manifestation of implicit egotism, or the tendency to like things that bear some resemblance to you, in their article “Moniker maladies: When names sabotage success.” In this case, because your name is Donald and you like the letter D, you are less averse to getting a bad grade than Amy is, so you don’t try as hard. Similarly, Nelson and Simmons find that baseball players whose names start with K (the letter posted after a strikeout) strike out more than other players, students with C and D names attend lower rank law schools than A and B name students, and people whose initials match a consolation prize solve fewer puzzles.

Sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is. A scathing analysis of Nelson and Simmons’ results (McCullough & McWilliams, in prep.) reveals that multiple misapplications of statistics and a few just plain odd assumptions actually account for the results. Take the baseball letter K finding, for example. Nelson and Simmons compared the strikeout rate of players whose names start with K against the average of all other letters. When the analysis was re-run using other letters, McCullough and McWilliams discovered that all initials except C, M, R, U, and V were statistically significant. Basically, any letter you test is likely to correlate with more strikeouts than average or fewer strikeouts than average simply because of variance from the mean. But, of course, the original authors didn’t test the letters that weren’t convenient to them.

Or the GPA example. The natural hypothesis would be that GPA(A) > GPA(B) > GPA(C) > GPA(D) > GPA(F), but that’s not what Nelson and Simmons tested. Rather, they combined A and B into one group, C and D into another group, and left out F altogether. According to a footnote, they “did not consider F initials to be grade relevant because, compared with A through D, F is much less universally associated with an academic-performance outcome” (p. 1107). I’m not sure how that one got past reviewers, but it seems like if you’re looking for initials associated with grades, F should probably be one of the first letters you try.

And the list goes on. The point here is not that implicit egotism as a whole doesn’t exist; there is a wealth of strong evidence that it does. However, the way in which it has been misapplied in this article is troubling. Do reviewers really sacrifice rigorous examination of the methods and analysis used for a cute and memorable set of conclusions? Let’s hope “Moniker maladies” was just a fluke.