Research Lead: Who Cheats at Wordle, the Case for ‘Critical Ignoring’, Building a Rat Utopia, and More

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

“C-H-E-A-T: Wordle Cheating Is Related to Religiosity and Cultural Tightness”

Every morning when I wake up, I text my dad. Not to say good morning, not to see how things are going back in Charlotte . . . our exchange usually looks something like the screenshot to the right.

I trust my dad—he’s a pretty honorable guy. But a recent paper was a stark reminder to keep a close eye on your Wordle competition.

A team of researchers from Arizona State University used Google Trends data to measure state-level Wordle cheating between March 2021 and March 2022. They focused on the following search terms: “wordle answer,” “today wordle,” and “wordle word today.” Their goal was to find out what psychological factors are associated with Wordle honesty, or a lack thereof. They found that more religious states tended to cheat less, as did states with “tighter” cultures (or stricter norms).

The researchers also visualized their Wordle cheating index, with higher-scoring states more likely to turn to Google for the answer. Check out the map below to figure out how paranoid you should be. Readers from Vermont—we’ve got our eyes on you. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Source: Wormley & Cohen (2022)

Moving beyond critical thinking to “critical ignoring” 

We have long been taught to think critically about what we’re reading online. In a new paper, a team of researchers argues that thinking critically isn’t enough anymore—not when our digital lives are characterized by a constant barrage of information from friends, advertisers, and algorithms all vying for our attention. We must learn to ignore critically too. They explain: “In an era where attention is the new currency, the admonition to ‘pay careful attention’ is precisely what attention merchants and malicious agents exploit. It is time to revisit and expand the concept of critical thinking, often seen as the bedrock of an informed citizenry.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science

“In an era where attention is the new currency, the admonition to ‘pay careful attention’ is precisely what attention merchants and malicious agents exploit.”

“A framing effect in the judgment of discrimination” 

“Discrimination is not just an objective fact but also a subjective judgment,” write Christopher Hsee and Xilin Lee in a recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And sometimes, they demonstrate, the two don’t align. 

In their first study, they present participants with a scenario: a principal who plans to hire 10 new teachers from a pool of 20. The candidate pool is 20 percent women and 80 percent men, and the principal opts to hire a group of the same composition. Half of the participants then learn the gender breakdown of accepted candidates: 8 men and 2 women. The other half learn about the rejected candidates: 8 men and 2 women. 

Although the two participant groups effectively received the same information, because they could easily infer the makeup of the “other” group, their perceptions of discrimination were starkly different. Participants who learned about the accepted candidates judged the principal as discriminatory against women. Conversely, participants who learned about the rejected candidates judged the principal as discriminatory against men. 

In subsequent studies, they identify two mechanisms that drive this effect. First, people tend to overlook information that’s available but not made explicit. Second, people default to expecting a 50-50 split, regardless of the composition of the larger population. A group that deviates from that expectation tends to set off alarm bells. 

They conclude with a call to take greater care with how we interpret and share information about discrimination. The authors explain that painting a complete picture, one that captures both sides of a decision, can “help the public identify real discrimination while minimizing false accusations.” [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

The “streak-end rule” in the retention of volunteer crisis counselors 

For counselors fielding phone calls at a crisis center, navigating difficult situations is inevitable. It’s the job. However, certain situations are more difficult than others. While some calls might focus on processing past trauma, others might be emergency situations, such as a suicidal individual. Over time, these conversations can take an emotional toll and eventually lead to burnout. 

A recent study with over 14,383 volunteer crisis counselors found that while each difficult call slightly increases the likelihood that a counselor quits, the real damage is done when a single counselor fields too many difficult calls in a row. Counselors who experienced a streak of several consecutive suicide conversations were between 22 percent more likely to quit (when they faced short, 2-conversation streaks) and 110 percent more likely to quit (when dealing with longer, 8-conversation streaks).

The authors hope that crisis centers might integrate these findings into their work—if they can understand the difficulty of a conversation before assigning it to a volunteer, they could proactively avoid assigning too many consecutive difficult conversations to a single individual. They also suggest that these findings might apply in other settings, such as nurses who care for a variety of high and low-risk patients. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

Better omelets, better phones, better science

Over breakfast one morning, Adam Mastroianni and Ethan Ludwin-Peery found themselves deep in conversation about why people perceive some things as good and others as bad. They decided to run an experiment to investigate their omelet-fueled stroke of inspiration. One experiment quickly became eight, and all of them produced the same perplexing result: “when people imagine how things could be different, they almost always imagine how things could be better.” For example, when asked how their phones could be different, participants replied that they could be waterproof, bendable, and brighter. This effect held across different topics, people, and versions of the question. 

Why? In the words of the authors, “Honestly, who knows. Brains are weird, man.” They do speculate about an evolutionary explanation, that our ancestors who imagined better ways to find food, better ways to find shelter, better ways to survive are the ones who did. But they reinforce that at this point, the “why” behind their finding is a mystery, and might remain one for a long time to come.

Beyond this novel insight about our incessantly upward-focused imaginations, the researchers also have a greater point to make about how science is done—the cavalier tone and unabashed frankness of their writing is more than just a source of entertainment. “The paper you just read could never be published in a scientific journal,” they write. “The studies themselves are just as good as the ones Ethan and I have published in fancy journals, but writing about science this way is verboten.” The formality and rigid customs of scientific publishing, they observe, can compromise what science is meant to do. [PsyArXiv]

“Too Good to Be True: Bots and Bad Data From Mechanical Turk”

Concerns about Amazon Mechanical Turk are nothing new. Back in 2018, issues with the platform were rampant enough that the conversation found its way outside of strictly academic circles and into popular media outlets. Many scientists have continued to express concern about its legitimacy in the years since, but social science has yet to move away from the platform altogether.

A particularly startling account of a recent MTurk experiment overrun by illegitimate respondents reinforces those concerns. The researchers found that after filtering out respondents who didn’t pass participation checks, like realistic response times, completing the study in full, and producing coherent qualitative responses, they were left with a measly 14 of their original 529 participants—a little over 2 percent.

“With approximately 15,000 articles published on MTurk in the first 6 months of 2022 alone,” the authors observe, “the ripple effects of bad MTurk data are enormous: failure to find replications, erroneous effects, lines of research based on false information.”

Their work should serve as a cautionary tale for other researchers: “I feel compelled to write this as warning: If my 2.6% is even the lower bound of sample validity on MTurk, there is reason for skepticism and caution.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

“How can we apply behavioural science better? And why do we need to?” 

Michael Hallsworth, the managing director (Americas) of The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), recently discussed his forthcoming “manifesto” about the ways he feels applied behavioral science should evolve, as part of the BEAR x BI-Org Webinar Series. He focused on the challenges and criticism that the field faces, as well as possible solutions. Some of his suggestions include: leaning into complexity and using behavioral science as a lens rather than a tool. Watch the full session here (and below). And for additional thoughts from Hallsworth about the nuances of the recent debate about the effectiveness of nudges, check out this piece from our archive. [BEAR x BI-Org Webinar Series]

REDISCOVERY: The rise and fall of the 20th-century rat utopias 

“John B. Calhoun in rodent Universe 133.”
Source: Ramsden & Adams (2008)

In 1947, a biologist named John Bumpass Calhoun built a rat city in his backyard. It was part of his quest to understand why and how rats notoriously overrun so many of our largest cities. He had grand ambitions for a bustling community that would eventually grow to be home to 5,000 rats. So, he was surprised and intrigued when the population plateaued at 150. At that point, the rats lost their minds—psychologically withdrawing, fighting amongst themselves, and failing to reproduce. 

So he built a bigger rat city. Fortunately for his neighbors, he relocated to the Laboratory of Psychology of the National Institute of Mental Health for round two. Over the next 40 years, Calhoun continued to build bigger and more sophisticated cities of both rats and mice, all of which eventually collapsed past a certain population density. Calhoun published his findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, drawing parallels between the demise of his rodents and the trajectory of our own societies, “I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution.” 

For an overview of Calhoun’s eccentric life and work, check out this 2016 Atlas Obscura piece by Cara Giaimo. And you can view an interview with Calhoun in the video below. 

Disclosure: Michael Hallsworth is a member of the BIT, which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a 2021 organizational partner. BEAR and BiORG provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a 2021 organizational partner. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.