1 Weird Science votes all the useful people off the island on Sat Sep 11, 2010 9:20 am
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You've been extremely helpful, so bugger off: What started out as a routine study of group behavior ended up turning a bit surreal. According to the authors of a new paper, they started out trying to find out how long a group would tolerate members that abused the common good. In the process, they found that members who put the most into the common good were quickly expelled from the group. Not entirely believing it, they replicated the findings—twice. Some of the hate comes from the overly officious group members, who viewed those who gave more than they needed to as breaking the rules. But some of it also comes from people who think that altruistic behavior like this simply raises expectations unnecessarily.
Bonus points go to the people who put the press release together for the best two opening sentences I've probably read all year: "You know those goody-two-shoes who volunteer for every task and thanklessly take on the annoying details nobody else wants to deal with? That's right: Other people really can't stand them."
Why ethical decisions are like ordering a cheeseburger: We tend to attach great weight to moral decisions, deliberating over principles and agonizing over competing imperatives. But, based on brain-imaging studies, our actual decisions get made in the same way we might plan a purchase. When subjects were given a choice between saving a few lives with certainty and a chance of saving far more, the same regions of the brain that engage during a financial decision—areas that encode relative values and probabilities—light up with activity. It's possible that these areas of the brain contain a substructure devoted to moral decision making, but it seems more likely that the brain simply reuses the same evaluation capacities for multiple processes.
Alcohol boosts productivity! (But only if you use it to kill germs.): In the wake of some of the recent flu epidemics, hand sanitizers popped up in workplaces and other public locations. Although the fears of the flu may have been overhyped, it turns out that the hand sanitizers are probably a good idea. Researchers randomized municipal workers in the lovely sounding town of Greifswald, giving one group alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and leaving the other as controls. Even though the researchers didn't check up on the participants, the incidence of cold and flu symptoms dropped significantly in the experimental group, cutting down on the sick days they took.
Speaking on two channels at once: Most of us sprinkle our conversations with a variety of gestures that provide emphasis and added detail, but the combination of hand gestures and mouthing is an integral part of many sign languages. And, although we tend to think of conversation (gestures and all) as a single flow of thought, a study of signers indicates that this may not be the case. The study had a set of signers engage in two tasks, either translating some text, or naming the contents of pictures. They turned out to be more likely to make semantic mistakes with their hands when performing translation, but switching to the naming task reversed this trend.
There's a metaphor in here somewhere: Cigarette smoke, either direct or secondhand, has been associated with all sorts of problems among newborns, from low birth weight to incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But carefully assessing the risks is often difficult, since you can't track a mother's exposure 24 hours a day. It's possible you don't have to, though—you can get a more direct measure of fetal exposure by checking baby poop. Most samples the authors looked at contained nicotine and its metabolites, and the levels were inversely proportional to birth weight.]