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The 12 Most Interesting Things We Learned in 2012

• December 28, 2012 • 12:29 PM

The healing power of Batman, and other great tales from academia this year.

batmanguy

1. Muscular superheroes change men’s body image

It’s easy to mock the latex-bound fantasy buffs at the local Comic Con, but a study from the University of Buffalo showed that bonding with a superhero character can have a positive effect on the way men view themselves. Among 98 male undergrads, those who reported no emotional connection to Batman or Spider-Man gave lower ratings to their own bodies after seeing muscly images of the Dark Knight and the Webbed Wonder. Those who reported an affinity with the superheroes, however, had higher self-marks and showed greater strength on a hand-grip exercise later.

Sad orangutan

2. Even great apes get the midlife blues

As with humans, chimps and orangutans also experience that curved pattern of well-being, their happiness dipping to its lowest point in midlife and rebounding as they move into late adulthood. This, from an international study of 508 great apes. “We ended up showing that [the midlife crisis] cannot be because of mortgages, marital breakup, mobile phones, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life,” wrote one of the study’s five authors. “Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of these.”

americacandobetter2

3. Children raised by authoritarian parents are more likely to become conservatives

Providing the best evidence yet to back up a decades-old theory, researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science reported a link between a mother’s attitude toward parenting and the political ideology her child eventually adopts. In short, authoritarian parents are more prone to produce conservatives, while those who gave their kids more latitude are more likely to produce liberals.

mouthwash

4. Rinsing your mouth with sugar water improves your self-control

Really. One of the strangest bits of academic research we wrote about this year was a finding from an Australian university subtitled “The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources.” Building on previous studies that had suggested eating something sweet may replenish one’s self-control (ironically), this report found that even just having something sweet in your mouth can achieve similar results. The researchers found that those rinsed who their mouths with a sugary solution before tackling a series of challenges tended to stick it out longer than those who had rinsed with a non-sugary solution. The implications of the study are … well, we’re still trying to figure out what the implications of the study are.

trickyfonts

5. Odd typefaces reduce bias

Got a great idea but worried that people won’t give it the time of day? Print it up in a hard-to-read font. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people’s attitudes became less polarized if they read a short article in a difficult-to-decipher font. The lack of ease apparently forced them to slow down and use more brain power to understand the text. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that they would respond to the material with an open mind.

beautyqueen

6. Attractive people are more likely to have conformist self-centered values

OK, so we already suspected this was probably true, but new research from Israel suggests that “the beautiful strive for conformity rather than independence, and for self-promotion rather than tolerance,” according to one of its authors. For the study, a group of 236 university students filled out questionnaires on their values, then half were paraded around while the other half judged them on their looks. The ones deemed attractive, it turned out, were more likely to be motivated to conform and submit to social expectations.

studyabroad

7. Studying abroad boosts creativity

If you’re looking to hire an employee with a mind for innovation, you might give a second look to that applicant who boasts of “an eye-opening semester in Amsterdam” on his resume. In research from the University of Florida, three groups of students—45 who had studied abroad, 45 who planned to, and 45 who had no interest—were faced with two creativity tests. On both tests, the students who had studied abroad “significantly outperformed” members of the other two groups. On the second, those who had spent time studying overseas generated “ideas and solutions that were richer in description, detail and humor” than their classmates—including those who were predisposed to studying abroad, and planned to do so.

baldheads

8. Men with shaved heads are seen as less attractive but more powerful

Men: Do you want to project an aura of confidence, strength and overall masculinity? Just shave your head. A report on three studies, published in July, indicates that men with shaved heads are perceived as being dominant (even if they might be considered less attractive). So rather than spending billions each year trying to reverse or cure their hair loss, the report suggests, the best strategy for balding men may be to shave their heads. It may not make them better looking, but it could help them come across as someone with leadership potential.

ballet

9. Ballet lessons can protect against the sexualization of young girls

There’s increasing evidence that the pressure to look, and act, alluring is being felt by younger and younger girls. How can parents help? Dance lessons, for starters. A Knox College study of 6- to 9-year-old girls living in the Midwest found a strong desire to look sexy and to equate sexiness with popularity—except among those girls who either had a highly religious mother, had a mother who monitored their viewing and discussed with them the shows they watch, or who were enrolled in dance class.

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10. Commuting can draw couples closer

This is a strange one. Studies conducted in both the U.S. and Hong Kong found a correlation between a couple’s satisfaction with their relationship and whether they took roughly the same route to work. It didn’t matter how long the couple had been married, how many kids they had, what their income level was, how long each partner’s commute was, or even whether each partner left the house at the same time. Apparently, the study suggested, heading in the same direction physically also makes couples feel like they’re heading in the same direction emotionally.

smiths

11. Pop music is getting sadder and sadder

A study published by the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts concluded that Top 40 hits since 1965 have become longer, slower and sadder, and they increasingly convey “mixed emotional cues.” According to the study: “As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous.” So if you’re looking for an uplifting toe-tapper, best stick to the oldies.

12. Women want to have casual sex; they just don’t want to be called sluts

Last year, University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley led a study challenging evolutionary psychology’s thesis that women are less interested in casual sex than men. Under the right circumstances, the study suggested—when the experience promises to be safe and pleasant—women are just as likely as men to engage in casual sex. This year, in four separate experiments, Conley and her team found that one of the big reasons women don’t is not because of the relative merits of the act but for fear of how they’ll be perceived if they do.

Joel Smith
Joel Smith is a web producer at Pacific Standard. His previous work includes seven years as a staff writer and media editor at the Pacific Northwest Inlander, the alternative weekly in Spokane, Washington.

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