Behavioral Scientist’s Research Lead Highlights of 2022

You’re reading highlights from 2022's Research Lead collection, our monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

As the editor who heads our monthly collection of new research, it’s not uncommon for me to feel both daunted and exhilarated. 

Daunted because there’s a lot out there. In 2021, the American Psychological Association alone published over 5,000 articles. That’s about 417 articles per month from one publisher in one field. From economics to sociology, neuroscience to management, plus the applied worlds of government, business, and nonprofits, the ever-expanding, ever-evolving sphere of the social and behavioral sciences keeps us busy.

Exhilarated because the payoff is well worth it. The right piece of research can educate, delight, and inspire. It’s a privilege to identify new work that readers might not have otherwise come across. To build bridges between fields and showcase the creativity and endeavor of behavioral scientists across the world.

Below, I’ve selected eight highlights from this year’s Research Leads—ideas that I found myself returning to long after we’d written about them.

Here’s to what we learned in 2022 and to questions we’ll ask in 2023.

— Heather Graci, Assistant Editor

P.S. You can access our full collection of Research Leads here.

“Can behavioral interventions be too salient? Evidence from traffic safety messages” [From our May Research Lead]

“1669 DEATHS THIS YEAR ON TEXAS ROADS,” read a digital highway sign along the interstate. If you had to guess, what impact do you think this would have on your driving? Twenty-eight states use a similar program, where highway signs display the number of state-wide traffic deaths so far that year, reaching over 100 million drivers annually. 

Recently, a research team led by Jonathan Hall and Joshua Madsen identified an opportunity for a natural experiment to evaluate the impact of these signs on traffic accidents. In Texas, these messages are only displayed during the week leading up to the Texas Department of Transportation’s monthly board meeting. The authors looked into the effect of the signs and report that not only are these signs ineffective in preventing crashes, there are actually more crashes while these messages were displayed—an estimated 4.5 percent increase in the first six miles (10 kilometers) downstream from one of these signs. They present back-of-the-envelope calculations which suggest the Texas signage leads to an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths each year at a cost of $377 million.

Why do the signs backfire? Hall and Madsen suggest that these signs temporarily distract drivers, increasing cognitive load and inducing anxiety which makes it more difficult to safely react to changing traffic conditions. These findings imply that the other 27 states would do well to evaluate the impact of the signs on their drivers. Additionally, the study serves as a cautionary tale for all those who are working to incorporate behavioral insights into public policy—the authors remind us that “measuring an intervention’s effect is important, even for simple interventions, because good intentions need not imply good outcomes.” [Science]

Source: Hall & Madsen, Science.

“The cultural evolution of love in literary history” [From our May Research Lead]

If Tina Turner was an economist as well as a singer, maybe she would have sung, “What’s love got to do with … economic development?” And she would have been onto something. In his 1994 book, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, medieval historian Georges Duby posited that economic development can help explain the increased importance of romantic love in the Western world. Interestingly, historians of literature have observed that romantic love became more culturally significant beyond the West during roughly the same time period, including in India, Persia, China, Japan, and the Arab world. 

Across a series of four studies published in Nature, Nicolas Baumard and a team of researchers examined this cross-cultural convergence to figure out if economic development could help explain the rise in the significance of romantic love. The authors first built a database of 3,800 years of ancient literary fiction and their narrative elements, such as love at first sight, tragic separations, and vows of eternal fidelity. Then, they analyzed the relationship between these mentions of love and measures of economic development in a given region. The authors report a positive relationship between the mentions of love and economic factors like GDP per capita, population density, and size of the largest city. [Nature]

“What’s next? Artists’ music after Grammy Awards” [From our September Research Lead]

How does winning a Grammy Award influence a musician’s subsequent art? What about losing one? A team of researchers recently investigated what happens to an artist’s music after they are nominated for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, or Best New Artist. The research team found that after winning, artists were more likely to differentiate their musical style from other artists, and even from their own prior work. They observed the opposite effect in Grammy nominees who did not win, whose music became less stylistically distinct from comparable artists. 

Why this shift? One reason, the authors suggest, is that the increased recognition gives winning artists leverage in their relationships with their record labels to pursue their personal artistic inclinations. Nonwinners, by contrast, may interpret their loss as a signal that their previous efforts were undeserving of recognition, which could make them more inclined to imitate features of successful artists.

Because there are more nominees who lose than win, “The award system apparently exerts a chilling effect on artistic differentiation in a cultural field,” the authors write, “even though the intentions of award sponsors are often the reverse.” [American Sociological Review, open access]

Tap into the wisdom of your “inner crowd” [From our July Research Lead]

How much does a newborn African elephant weigh? What percentage of its oil does Saudi Arabia consume versus export? The United States is home to what percent of the world’s airports?

If you don’t have Google at your fingertips, your best bet to get these questions right is to phone a friend. Or, even better, to phone several friends—the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon assumes that aggregating independent estimates from a diverse set of individuals is more accurate than any single estimate. But if your friends aren’t answering their phones, a new study illustrates a way to tap into the wisdom of your “inner crowd.” 

Here’s how it worked: first, researchers asked participants to estimate unknown quantities, like the elephant, oil, and airport questions above. Then, they asked participants to make a second guess from one of three perspectives: their own, a friend they often agree with, or a friend they often disagree with. When they averaged the participant’s two guesses, they found that participants who took on a disagreeing perspective along with their own produced more accurate estimates compared with participants in the other two conditions. [Psychological Science]

Oh, kale no! [From our October Research Lead]

When I (Evan) was a kid, about five or so, I loved Popeye—the cartoon sailor man with ridiculously large forearms and a passion for spinach. In a violation of unspoken kid law, I loved spinach too. My brother Max was around one at the time, and I convinced my mom he needed to get on the Popeye diet. My mom dutifully bought a jar of the green stuff. As the spoon-turned-airplane made its approach, my brother’s face contorted, it did not have permission to land. It was the only food my brother spit out as a baby. 

Max would empathize with the participants of a recent study that explored the taste of leafy greens, albeit they were a bit younger. Recently, a team of scientists wondered how and whether fetuses near their due date, between 32 and 36 weeks, experience taste. To figure it out, they exposed fetuses to the flavor of either carrots or kale, via a pill taken by the mother. Then, they used an ultrasound to observe the real-time facial reactions of the fetuses.

Certain combinations of these facial movements were of particular interest—they combined to form a “cry-face” or a “laughter-face.” If you’ve ever eaten carrots or kale, you can probably guess which caused which. They found that fetuses exposed to kale made a “cry-face” more frequently than those exposed to carrots or to nothing, whereas those exposed to carrots were the most likely to make “laughter-face.” [Psychological Science]

An example of a kale-induced grimace (left) and a carrot-induced grin (right). Source: Ustun, et al. (2022).

What do friends have to do with economic mobility? [From our September Research Lead]

How does social capital relate to economic mobility? In a two-part study recently published in Nature, Raj Chetty and his team analyzed data from over 70 million Facebook users to find out. Their work revealed the importance of friendships across socioeconomic class lines. More specifically, they found that economic connectedness, or the degree to which high-SES and low-SES people are friends with each other, is one of the most powerful predictors of economic mobility identified to date. 

In their second paper, the authors focus on the potential policy implications of this newly uncovered connection between friendships and economic mobility. If policymakers can successfully foster economic connectedness, the authors argue, they might be able to boost mobility too: “If children with low-SES parents were to grow up in counties with economic connectedness comparable to the average child with high-SES parents, their incomes in adulthood would increase by 20% on average.”

The authors provide clear but nuanced advice: in places where people already tend to form cross-class friendships, increased exposure (via more integrated schools, neighborhoods, and religious organizations) might help boost economic connectedness. In places where people predominantly befriend those within their own group, extra steps may be necessary to foster these connections, such as restructuring local institutions and community spaces. To help policymakers integrate these considerations into their decision-making, the authors created an interactive visualization of all of their data here. [Nature: Part 1, Part 2]

Source: Opportunity Insights Social Capital Atlas.

An anti-poverty policy that worked left to expire [From our May Research Lead]

During the pandemic, congress passed a temporary expanded child tax credit. Parents received $3,000 for every child aged six to 17 and $3,600 for children under six. The Center on Poverty & Social Policy (CPSP) at Columbia University estimated the program reduced the percentage of children in poverty from 15.8 percent to 11.9 percent. But that credit expired in December 2021. In January 2022, an estimated 3.7 million more were in poverty than the month before. One working paper estimated the program would recoup its cost 10 times over, and a group of behavioral scientists penned an open letter urging Congress to extend the credit. Without the credit, the CPSP reported the poverty rate for children in the United States at around 17 percent. [Center on Poverty & Social Policy report, open letter, National Bureau of Economic Research working paper]

Rediscovery: The Turnaway Study, a data-driven look at abortion and health (2012) [From our July Research Lead]

In 2007, the Supreme Court banned “partial-birth” abortion without exception to protect the patient’s health. In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy speculated on the impact an abortion might have on a woman’s mental health, despite having no data to support his argument. “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon,” he wrote, “it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.”

In response to the Court’s speculation, Diana Greene Foster began “The Turnaway Study”—a 10-year research project conducted to better understand the impact of getting an abortion (or being denied one) on a person’s mental, physical, and socioeconomic well-being. She and her team recruited about 1,000 women who either had an abortion or were denied the procedure. They interviewed each of the women every six months for five years, amassing a collection of over 8,000 interviews.

Foster and her team found that women who were denied an abortion experienced worse long-term physical health and increased economic insecurity, which in turn took a toll on the development of their existing children. They found no evidence of negative mental health outcomes among women who receive an abortion, contrary to Justice Kennedy’s speculation. Foster documents the ten-year project in her 2021 book, The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion. [The Turnaway Study]