Learning to push that drink away
Surprising insights from the social sciences
By Kevin Lewis
March 27, 2011
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Substance abuse is one of the most vexing social problems, which is why it’s so important to find ways to curb it. New research suggests one straightforward approach. As part of a several-month treatment program, a couple hundred alcoholics in Germany were enrolled in an experiment. Some were asked to push a joystick away from themselves when shown an image of an alcoholic drink — thereby zooming out from the image — but to pull the joystick toward themselves when shown an image of a soft drink. They did this for 15 minutes on each of four consecutive days. One week later, psychological tests indicated a persistent inclination to avoid alcohol for those who pushed the joystick away. More importantly, these people were more likely to have abstained from alcohol one year later.
Wiers, R. et al., “Retraining Automatic Action Tendencies Changes Alcoholic Patients’ Approach Bias for Alcohol and Improves Treatment Outcome,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).
How affirmative action can boost quality
It’s generally assumed that race-based preferences lower the average quality of admissions to academic institutions. However, in a model of the admissions process, economists at Kansas State University showed that race-based preferences can actually increase average student quality, given the simultaneous existence of legacy preferences (not to mention athletic preferences). Specifically, if the pool of legacy candidates is of lower average quality than the pool of minority candidates, or if the pool of high-quality legacy candidates is not as deep as the pool of high-quality minority candidates, then eliminating race-based admissions allows lower-quality legacy admissions to take their place. This substitution may be especially tempting in the face of fiscal challenges at these institutions, where legacy students tend to pay full tuition.
Li, D. & Weisman, D., “Why Preferences in College Admissions May Yield a More-Able Student Body,” Economics of Education Review (forthcoming).
Groupthink your way to profits
Trading on inside information is illegal. Trading on other traders’ information is not illegal, though, and a new study from Northwestern University suggests that synching with other traders is a profitable strategy. Researchers obtained data on all the trades made by all the day traders in one firm from September 2007 to February 2009. Especially on days when there was high volatility, different traders tended to trade at the same time, as if they were synchronized. Such synchronous trading was, in turn, significantly associated with profits: The more a trader tended to move at the same time as others, the more money was made. Perhaps they had found the pulse of the market.
Saavedra, S. et al., “Synchronicity, Instant Messaging, and Performance among Financial Traders,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).
The ‘hold it’ solution
A lot of research has shown that exerting self-control in one situation can undermine self-control in the next situation. On the other hand, it would be nice to know how to make self-control self-reinforcing rather than self-defeating. It turns out that “holding it” may be one way to keep yourself in line. In several experiments, controlling the urge to pee made it easier to hold out for a larger reward instead of a smaller immediate reward. Not only was this the case when people were given lots of water before making their choices, but it was true even when people were simply exposed to words like “urination,” “toilet,” and “bladder.”
Tuk, M. et al., “Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).
A prescription for happiness
With the increasing cost of health care and the constant threat of litigation, doctors and hospitals are under enormous pressure to keep patients and their families happy. Although health care is not a typical consumer product, “customer satisfaction” does count. According to a recent study, something as simple as a whiteboard can make a significant difference. A team of researchers placed whiteboards in each patient room on the general medical wards of their hospital. Patients reported being more satisfied with nurse and doctor communication and involvement in decisions.
Singh, S. et al., “It’s the Writing on the Wall: Whiteboards Improve Inpatient Satisfaction with Provider Communication,” American Journal of Medical Quality (March/April 2011).
Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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