Research Lead: Friends at First Sniff, Transformation at Burning Man, the Wisdom of Your Inner Crowd, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Tap into the wisdom of your “inner crowd”

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]

Friends at first sniff 

Ever wonder why some people just “click”? A team of olfactory researchers offers one explanation: their smell. Inbal Ravreby, Kobi Snitz, and Noam Sobel recruited same-sex pairs who reported a “click” friendship—one that formed rapidly upon first meeting. They found that click friends smelled significantly more similarly than random pairs according to both an analytical device that captures smell (an eNose) and human raters, who had the good fortune of smelling body odor extracted from each participant. 

The research team also tested if smell could predict whether two complete strangers would “click.” Participants were brought into the lab and asked to play the Mirror Game, where two individuals face each other and mirror each others’ hand motions. Using the “distance” between each person’s smell as assessed by the eNose, researchers were able to predict 77 percent of the stranger pairs that reported “clicking” during their first meeting and 68 percent of those that didn’t. In the words of the authors: “There is indeed chemistry in social chemistry.” [Science Advances]

Team dynamics of escape rooms

Escape rooms used to be a frequent afternoon pastime on my (Heather) family vacations. Year after year, it was the same old story: I’m the bossy one, Dad is the logical one (who moonlights as the goofy one), my sister is the creative one, and Mom just wants everyone to get along. A recent study details how network science might help us understand how relationships unfold during an escape room game.

The research team analyzed video footage of 40 different escape room teams. In their initial foray into escape room–based network science, they observe a fast-paced conversational environment with an average of 30 brief (approximately 3 seconds) interactions per minute among team members. They also found that women on male-dominated teams are often forced to interrupt to make their voices heard, and that the behavior of successful and unsuccessful teams started to diverge as early as the 20-minute mark. Escape rooms, they argue, are useful settings to investigate and advance the science of team dynamics. [Scientific Reports]

Source: O. Szabo et al., Scientific Reports

Transformative experiences at mass gatherings like Burning Man

Over the course of five years, a team of researchers investigated whether attendees of secular, mass gatherings, like Burning Man, are psychologically transformed by the event. The research team embedded themselves in six different events in the United States and the United Kingdom, surveying participants before, during, and after the events. They defined a transformative experience as “events that may lead to changes in values and behavior characterized by an increased sense of connection to other human beings and an expanded moral circle.”

Over 60 percent of respondents report being somewhat transformed, and 20 percent report being absolutely transformed. Most closely linked with feelings of transformation were “feeling socially connected to something larger than oneself” and “perceiving something new in others.” In contrast, when the research team explored psychedelic use at mass gatherings, the strongest associations were to “changes to perceptions of reality and oneself.” [Nature Communications]

A guide on how to apply behavioral science ethically

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) recently published a guide on how to implement behavioral science ethically in public policy. Across four chapters, the guide offers a set of practical tools, including an ethics checklist, prompting questions teams can use to evaluate their projects, and advice on how to maintain ethics while scaling an intervention. [OECD]

How a history of racial inequality begets present day poverty 

Sociologist Regina Baker recently investigated how the prevalence of four racist institutions during the slavery and Jim Crow eras—slavery, sharecropping, voter disenfranchisement, and segregation—relate to present day poverty among 16 states in the southern United States. She found that states with a history of racist policies have comparably worse rates of poverty today, but only among Black Americans. Baker argues that historical oppression doesn’t simply disappear overnight—it evolves and ultimately contributes to modern day racial inequality. She concludes: “To better inform such contemporary debates regarding poverty and racial inequality in the United States, we must emphasize the role of history in addressing the important questions of who gets (or does not get) what, where, and why. As this study underlines, America’s racialized past still matters.” [American Journal of Sociology, open access]

Panel A depicts the relationship between HRR and Black poverty (r = .46). Panel B depicts the relationship between HRR and White poverty (r = 0). The relationship between HRR and the Black-White poverty gap is even stronger than either individual trend (r = .77). Source: Baker, American Journal of Sociology

Rediscovery: The Turnaway Study, a data-driven look at abortion and health (2012) 

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]

“Lost in the Mall”: Researchers replicate the original false memory study 

A team of researchers in Ireland recently replicated one of the original studies on false memories, they report in a new working paper. In 1995, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell reported that it’s possible for people to recall “false memories”—that is, remember events that didn’t happen. In their study, participants were presented with three actual events from their childhood and a fake event—getting lost in the mall. After discussing the events in a survey and interview, 25 percent of participants reported remembering being lost in the mall as a child, even though it never happened to them. 

A number of studies since have shown that participants can be led to remember events that didn’t occur. But Loftus and Pickrell’s work remains central to this body of research—it’s frequently cited, in everything from introductory textbooks to court cases. Yet it’s open to a number of critiques—for one, it had a small sample size of only 24 people. The recent replication followed the methods of the original as closely as possible, this time with 123 participants. They found that participants reported the false memory at similar rates as the original, bolstering confidence in the seminal finding of false memory research.

One note: “There are some additional criticisms of the original study that could not be addressed in this replication project,” the authors write. “The most prominent of these is whether memories of getting lost in a mall can really be compared to memories of abuse, and whether the use of a familial informant is comparable to a therapeutic setting (Blizard & Shaw, 2019). These criticisms cannot be addressed here and are beyond the scope of a replication project.” [Working paper, PsyArXiv]

Updated October 15, 2022: In the “Lost in the Mall” section, the additional note was added to clarify that the replication effort in the working paper did not attempt to address links between the study and memories of abuse.