Hidden Brain Puzzle #34: Why Ka-Boom! and Ka-Ching! Go Together

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Anger can make people want things more, according to a counterintuitive new study which found that when people associate a product with anger, they desire it more.

Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues showed people a number of objects such as pens and mugs. Before the picture of the object appeared on a screen, Aarts subliminally primed his volunteers with an angry, fearful or neutral face. He found that people later reported wanting the object more when they had been primed with the angry face rather than the fearful face. They also exerted more physical effort in acquiring the object in a subsequent test.

Aarts thinks there is an evolutionary reason for the phenomenon: In a statement issued via Psychological Science, where the paper was published, he said, that in competitive environments such as the struggle over a limited food supply or in battle, “If the food does not make you angry or doesn’t produce aggression in your system, you may starve and lose the battle.”

In a recent puzzle posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, I asked:

You have to decide whether to buy something. You are most likely to make the purchase when
A) You are angry
B) You are fearful
C) You are angry and fearful
D) You are neither angry nor fearful

The correct answer is A.

Does this theory explain the behavior of all those angry couples we see in movies who patch up fights by having sex?

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 31: Tragedy Increases Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior

By | Blog, Business, Cool Findings, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Morality, Puzzle | No Comments Tragedy tends to bring out the best in people, according to new research into cooperative behavior. The more people are affected by tragedy, the more they cooperate and engage in “prosocial” behavior.

In a study of 2,447 residents in five provinces at the epicenter of a 2008 earthquake in China, researchers found that residents who were hardest hit were more generous with their help than people who were slightly affected or not affected at all. The study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, was co-authored by Li-Lin Rao, Ru Han, Xiao-Peng Ren, Xin-Wen Bai, Rui Zheng, Huan Liu, Zuo-Jun Wang, Jin-Zhen Li, Kan Zhang and Shu Li.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page, where all puzzles get posted first, I asked:

After a natural disaster, the people most likely to behave in prosocial (cooperative) ways are
A) Those worst affected
B) Those least affected
C) Those in the middle

The correct answer is A.

The researchers wrote, “residents in more devastated areas demonstrated more prosocial behavior, but the degree of prosocial behavior declined with the passage of time. These findings suggest that prosocial behavior can be induced in individuals by being at a disadvantage. Indirect evidence for our claim includes the fact that commitment works best under harsh conditions: the more individuals are challenged by nature to survive, the more compelled they are to cooperate with each other in durable relationships.”

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Why Juan Williams Fears Muslims at Airports

By | Blog, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Prejudice, Terrorism | No Comments

Ever hear of the phenomenon called an “illusory correlation”? It explains why commentator Williams, who was recently fired from NPR, associates Muslims at airports with terrorists.

I am going to be writing my next column for Slate about this issue. To whet your appetite, here’s a radio interview about illusory correlations and other biases with Steve Fast of WJBC. 

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 29: Women in Satisfied Relationships Bring Work Related Stress Home

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Lots of people come home from work feeling upset. But it turns out there are systematic gender differences in the way heterosexual men and women bring work-related unpleasant feelings home.

Men, on average, tend to shield their families from unpleasant things that happened at work, and the more satisifed men are in their relationships, the more they seem to shield their families from work-related stressors. Whether or not these men are actually pursuing an effective strategy is questionable, however, because the data suggests that men often tend to withdraw from their emotions as a way to not bring unpleasant conversations and interactions from work to the dinner table.

Women, by contrast, tend to be more open about what happened at work, and the happier they are in their personal relationships, the more likely they are to bring work related stressors home. In a new study, researchers Zhaoli Song, Maw-Der Foo, Marilyn A. Uy, and Shuhua Sun explored the effects of the ongoing recession – and the challenge of finding work for those who are unemployed – on domestic dynamics.

One possible explanation for this is previous research that shows that men are slower than women (on average) to calm down after a stressful event, which may be why men tend to compartmentalize their lives — it’s a way to avoid dealing with painful feelings that would take a long time to process. Women on the other hand seem to be better able to deal with their feelings in an open manner, and to calm down more quickly after experiencing stressful emotions.

I recently posted a puzzle on my Facebook page – all puzzles are posted here first, so click on the “Like” button at to hear about new puzzles: At the end of a long, hard and stressful day, couples often bring their problems home from work. Among heterosexuals, the group most likely to vent anger that is brought home from work are
A) Men in satisfied relationships
B) Men in dissatisfied relationships
C) Women in satisfied relationships
D) Women in dissatisfied relationships

The correct answer is C.

In a paper in The Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers said, “gender differences were amplified for participants with greater marital satisfaction. Women in more satisfying marriages were more likely than dissatisfied women to increase their angry behavior toward their husbands after busier workdays. By contrast, men in more satisfying marriages were less likely than their maritally dissatisfied counterparts to be angrier and more critical toward their wives after negatively arousing workdays. These gender differences in angry responses may reflect different goals in intimate relationships and different responses to negative emotional arousal. Past research suggests that men tend to disengage when negatively aroused whereas women prefer to engage with others and talk about their distress more directly. In laboratory based research on marital interaction, husbands displayed larger autonomic nervous system responses to conflictual discussions with their wives and recovered more slowly from this physiological arousal than wives did. This gender based physiological difference might lead men to rely more on strategies such as withdrawal and avoidance of angry interactions to facilitate their recovery from negative affective arousal after a difficult workday. Women may not be compelled to “compartmentalize” their affective workday experience in this way and, in fact, may be more likely to want to engage with and talk about their stressful day with their partners. The existence of these gender patterns is supported by previous research showing that men were more likely than women to attempt to prevent their job distress from entering the marital relationship.”

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

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A variety of research studies show that attractiveness helps people in a variety of professional settings. Defendents in the criminal justice system and children in daycare get away with more lenient punishments when they are attractive, compared to when they are not.

But new research shows that there is a downside to being attractive — when people evaluating you are peers, but are not attractive themselves. Subordinates who are attractive are penalized by managers who are unattractive, according to new research by Maria Agthe, Matthias Spörrle and Jon K. Maner.

In many ways, the research confirms an intuition most of us have — while attractive people are, well, attractive, our hidden brain can also perceive them as potential threats. Interestingly, the bias was only observed among same-sex participants — meaning unattractive male managers discriminated against attractive male subordinates and unattractive female managers discriminated against attractive female subordinates.

A recent puzzle I posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page (where all puzzles get aired first) read:

When a manager evaluates a subordinate belonging to the same sex, the manager is most likely to give a negative review when
A) The manager is attractive and the subordinate is not
B) The subordinate is attractive and the manager is not
C) Both the manager and subordinate are attractive
D) Neither the manager nor the subordinate are attractive

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 27: Children Who Like Others Just Like Themselves Tend to Make Friends More Easily

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In any class of children, you’ll see the usual bunch of outgoing kids and those who like to play by themselves or in smaller groups. But being gregarious in itself is not the only predictor of developing friendships – new research suggests that children who are drawn to others who are like themselves (as opposed to children who are drawn to others different from themselves) are more likely to have best friends — and to acquire best friends if they don’t have them already.

That’s the conclusion of research by Julie C. Bowker, Bridget K. Fredstrom, Kenneth H. Rubin, Linda Rose-Krasnor, Cathryn Booth-LaForce and Brett Laursen. The researchers observed fifth and sixth grade children as they made, lost and sought friendships over the period of a little more than a year. One group of children had best friends at the start and best friends at the end of the study period, a second group had no best friend at the start but a best friend at the end. A third group, for whom we may now shed a silent tear, had no best friends at either the beginning nor the end of the study period.

The researchers found that compared to the kids who never had a best friend, the children who always had best friends and those who acquired best friends when they didn’t have one tended to be those who were drawn to others just like themselves – or to use the lingo of the academics, these children were drawn to “similar others.”

I speak at length in The Hidden Brain about how the friendship-formations of children are one of the earliest examples of the hidden brain at work and how, without anyone intending it, friendships are shaped by unconscious biases. Having a close friend from another race, researchers have found, is one of the best predictors of a sympathetic worldview toward the other race in general, whereas not having close friends from another race tends to close the door to a generous view.

The fact that children who make friends easily are drawn to others like themselves is an example of how something that has clearly positive benefits – the ability to make friends – also has a side to it that is less attractive. It also shows why we are stuck with many of the biases that dog us everyday. The same thing that helps us make friends (being drawn to others like ourselves) can also prompt us to close our minds to those from other groups.

No one would recommend that children stop making friends, or stop enjoying the company of those who share the same interests (or race or sports team or socioeconomic background.) The only way to eliminate the bad without eliminating the good is to supplement our unconscious bias to be drawn to others who are like ourselves by consciously encouraging ourselves and our children to form friendships with those who are different in all kinds of ways.

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U.S. Census: List Your Race as BLACK, since all humans are descended from African ancestors

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The Southern Legal Resource Center wants people to list their race as “Confederate Southern American” on their U.S. Census form. I think all Americans should list their race as BLACK — because humans are all descended from African ancestors.

If you agree, TELL YOUR FRIENDS about this idea. Census workers are currently visiting the homes of millions of people who have not yet completed their census forms.

There is strong scientific evidence that all humans have African ancestors. See, for example, this article in Science. Some of the best evidence comes from research biologists, who study how genes spread through the human population. Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan Wilson studied the DNA of people from five disparate geographical regions in the world. The researchers found that all the people had mitochondrial DNA that could be traced back to a single woman in Africa who lived 200,000 years ago.

The Southern Legal Resource Center wants you to list your race as Confederate Southern American. Wouldn’t you rather trust the science?

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 6 Answer: Anti gay-marriage laws associated with increase in mental disorders/distress among gays & lesbians

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Gays & lesbians in 16 U.S. states suffered steep increases in depression, anxiety & addictions between 2001-05. The states were Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

What happened in those states in that time period that may have caused such distress? Those states all passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that time period, according to new research by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Katie A. McLaughlin, Katherine M. Keyes and Deborah S. Hasin. Heterosexuals in those states did not show the same increase in mental disorders/distress, and gays and lesbians living in the other 34 U.S. states (that did not pass such constitutional bans) also did not see such increases in distress and disorder.

The increases were striking: Generalized anxiety disorders among gays and lesbians in those 16 states rose 248.2%, alcoholism increased by 41.9 percent and mood disorders (including depression) increased by 36.6% according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers themselves note the appropriate caveats that their data could not address: It’s possible, for example, that gays and lesbians who were healthier to begin with (or privileged in other ways) moved to states with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, leaving behind those who were sicker to begin with. It’s unclear whether the new laws were themselves responsible for the change, or if the general climate surrounding these laws were to blame. It’s also unclear whether liberal policies toward gays and lesbians would result in decreases in disorders. Such questions cannot be addressed without conducting randomized experiments, and such experiments (which would involve randomly assigning gays and lesbians to different states, for example) would be both impractical and unethical.

It’s good to keep the caveats in mind, but I think this study raises profoundly important questions about the effects that our national conversation about homosexuality has on the mental health of gays and lesbians. It’s never been a secret or surprise that there are human beings at the receiving end of these policies and debates, but this research brings home clearly the effects that laws and institutional actions can have on the personal well being of individuals.

In making what is essentially a civil rights argument against constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, the researchers write, “although the constitutional amendments largely codified policies that existed de facto, the sociocultural environment surrounding the approval of these amendments made them no less psychologically harmful. Creating constitutional amendments banning gay marriage reinforced the marginalized and socially devalued status of lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals. Moreover, the negative political campaigns against gays and lesbians by proponents of these amendments, which were well-circulated in the media, further promulgated the stigma associated with homosexuality.”

Since the time the study was completed other states, including California, have passed similar bans. Research is ongoing about whether the same changes in mental health among gays and lesbians is occurring in those states.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle (and answer): How does the use of Native American mascots for sports teams affect stereotypes about other groups?

By | Cool Findings, Diversity, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Sports | No Comments

American Indian mascots are a popular choice for sports teams. Controversy has raged, however, about whether such mascots encourage stereotypes about native Americans. New research suggests that there may be a problem of another sort entirely — the use of these mascots seems to increase stereotyping of other groups. The implications of the research are still not clear, but it is almost as though once your hidden brain is encouraged to use mental shortcuts such as “American Indian chief = sports warrior” it more easily comes up with other kinds of mental shortcuts that have nothing to do with American Indians. Sloppy thinking begets sloppy thinking.

Boosters point out the mascots are much loved and used respectfully. Recently, however, Chu Kim-Prieto, Lizabeth A. Goldstein, Sumie Okazaki and Blake Kirschner tested how the use of a University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, affected the tendency of volunteers to stereotype an unrelated group — Asians. They randomized volunteers into groups — one read about or was shown materials depicting the athletics program and Chief Illiniwek and the other was given materials about a university arts center. All the depictions about Chief Illiniwek were exactly as boosters of American Indian sports mascots described — respectful and admiring. The researchers found that volunteers shown the American Indian mascot were quicker to come up with stereotypes about Asians that suggested Asians were socially inept, overly competitive, and not fun-loving.

The University of Illinois retired the mascot after reviewing these findings. Read more about the controversy here.

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PS: What do you think these data mean for the famous logos of these professional sports teams?