Flashback Friday.

In the talk embedded below, psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks the question: How many of our decisions are based on our own preferences and how many of them are based on how our options are constructed? His first example regards willingness to donate organs. The figure below shows that some countries in Europe are very generous with their organs and other countries not so much.


A cultural explanation, Ariely argues, doesn’t make any sense because very similar cultures are on opposite sides: consider Sweden vs. Denmark, Germany vs. Austria, and the Netherlands vs. Belgium.

What makes the difference then? It’s the wording of the question. In the generous countries the question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does NOT want to donate:


In the less generous countries, it’s the opposite. The question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does want to donate:

Lesson: The way the option is presented to us heavily influences the likelihood that we will or will not do something as important as donating our organs.

For more, and more great examples, watch the whole video:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

What creeps us out? Psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke wanted to know.

Their hypothesis was that being creeped out was a signal that something might be dangerous. Things we know are dangerous scare us — no creepiness there — but if we’re unsure if we’re under threat, that’s when things get creepy.

Think of the vaguely threatening doll, not being able to see in a suddenly dark room, footsteps behind you in an isolated place. Creepy, right? We don’t know for sure that we’re in danger, but we don’t feel safe either, and that’s creepy.


They surveyed 1,341 people about what they found creepy and, among their findings, they found that people (1) find it creepy when they can’t predict how someone will behave and (2) are less creeped out if they think they understand a person’s intentions. Both are consistent with the hypothesis that being unsure about a threat is behind the the feeling of creepiness.

They also hypothesized that people would find men creepy more often than women since men are statistically more likely than women to commit violent crimes. In fact, 95% of their respondents agreed that a creepy person was most likely to be a man. This is also consistent with their working definition.

Generally, people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t follow social conventions were thought of as creepy: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, stood closer to other people than was normal, dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, or laughed at unpredictable times.

Likewise, people who had taboo hobbies or occupations, ones that spoke to a disregard for being normal, were seen as creepy: taxidermists and funeral directors (both of which handle the dead) and adults who collect dolls or dress up like a clown (both of which blur the lines between adulthood and childhood)

If people we interact with are willing to break one social rule, or perhaps can’t help themselves, then who’s to say they won’t break a more serious one? Creepy. Most of their respondents also didn’t think that creepy people knew that they were creepy, suggesting that they don’t know they’re breaking social norms. Even creepier.

McAndrew and Koehnke summarize their results:

While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual nonverbal behaviors… odd emotional behavior… or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This activates our “creepiness detector” and increases our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.

An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.

Is there another way?

Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.

Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)

This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A new article reports the findings from a longitudinal study that followed 667 women who had early- and later-term abortions for three years after their procedure. Dr. Corinne Rocca and her colleagues asked women if they felt that the abortion was the “right decision” at one week and approximately every six months thereafter.

This is your image of the week:


Percent of women reporting that abortion was the right decision over three years:


Over 99% of the women said that the abortion was the right decision at every time point. The line that looks like the upper barrier of the graph? That’s the data.

Overall, measures of negative emotions were relatively low — an average score of under 4 on a 16-point scale at one week and declining to about 2 at three years — and were higher for women who had a more difficult time deciding whether to get an abortion or who subsequently had planned pregnancies. Whether the abortion occurred in the first trimester or near the legal limit did not correlate with emotional response.

In contrast, women reported twice as many positive emotions at one week. Over time, positive feelings about the abortion declined along with negative ones, suggesting that the experience became less emotionally charged overall with distance from the procedure.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Hey, they did a study.


Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and three colleagues decided that it was time to take a closer look at the word “moist,” writing:

The word “moist” … has been the subject of a Facebook page (called “I HATE the word MOIST”) with over 3,000 followers and was rated as the least liked word in the English language by a Mississippi State Poll … ; feature articles have been written in Slate Magazine … and The New Yorker … ; and popular TV shows like“How I Met Your Mother” (“Stuff”) and “The New Girl” (“Birthday”) have devoted entire plot-lines to the comic consequences of word aversion.

Now it’s not just anecdotal. Thibodeau found that between 13 and 21% of people have an aversion to the word.

But why?

Is it just a gross-sounding word? If so, then people who hate moist should also hate foist and rejoiced. Verdict: No. Hating the sound moist is independent of one’s appreciation for words that rhyme.

Is it because it makes people think of sex? Verdict: Yes! Priming people to think of sex versus, say, cake, makes people dislike the word more. Bonus: People who scored higher on a measure of disgust for bodily functions were more likely than those who scored lower to claim an aversion to the word.

So, if you don’t like the word moist, get your mind out of the gutter. And, if your aversion is severely hampering your life, just think about cake!

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A Gallup poll of a random sample of Americans conducted in May finds that, for the first time, a majority of Republicans report that they believe that gay and lesbian relations are “morally acceptable.” This is your image of the week:


And this, showing that a plurality of Republicans — meaning more than not — think sexual orientation is inborn, not chosen or learned:


Now, to be fair, Gallup specifies a sampling error of ±4 percentage points. So, they’re 95% confident that at least 47% of Republicans now approve of gayness, but also as many as 55%. Also, I don’t know what “gay and lesbian relations” means — sexual relations? relationships? — and neither do the pollsters or the respondents, as far as I know, which is some interesting slippery question asking. Still, that’s the data. Here’s some skepticism, just in case you’ve got an eyebrow raised.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

I am excited to see that sociologist Linda Blum has come out with a new book, Raising Generation Rx: Mothering Kids with Invisible Disabilities in an Age of Inequality. Here’s a post from the archive highlighting some of her important and powerful findings.

In an article titled Mother-Blame in the Prozac Nation, sociologist Linda Blum describes the lives of women with disabled children. While mothers are held to an essentially impossibly high standard of motherhood in the contemporary U.S. and elsewhere, mothers of disabled children find themselves even more overwhelmed.

The daily care of their child is often more intensive but, in addition to that added responsibility, mothers were actively involved in getting their children needed services and resources. The need for mothers to be proactive about this was exacerbated by the fact that they had to negotiate different social institutions, each with an interest in claiming certain service spheres, but also limited budgets. “While each system claims authoritative expertise,” Blum writes, “either system can reject responsibility, paradoxically, when costs are at issue.”  Because they often had to argue with service providers and find ways to beat a system that often tried to keep them at bay, they had to become experts in their child’s disability, of course, but also public policy, learning styles, the medical system, psychology/psychiatry, pharmaceutics, manipulation of jargon and law, and more.

Mothers often felt that they were their child’s only advocate, with his or her health and future dependent on making just one more phone call, getting one more meeting with an expert, or trying one more school. Accordingly, they were simultaneously exhausted and filled with guilt.  I wondered, when I came across this Post Secret confession, if this mother was experiencing some of the same things:

 Originally posted in 2012.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Yesterday I went to Marshall’s to take some photos for this post and overheard a conversation between a teenager and her mother that perfectly illustrated what I was planning on posting about. The teen pulled her mom over to look at a purse she wanted for Christmas. It was $148, but she was making a case to her mom that it was actually a great buy compared to how much it would have been at the original price, which, as she pointed out to her mom, was listed as $368.

Ellen Ruppel Shell discusses this topic at length in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Here’s a relevant photo I took:

It indicates that you are getting a great deal by shopping at Marshall’s compared to the original price of the item.

Except that is not, in fact, what they are saying. Look at the image again: the wording is “compare at…” The tags do not say “marked down from” or “original price” or “was.” There is a crucial difference: when you are told to “compare at,” the implication is that the shoes were originally $175, making them a super steal at $49. The “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (MSRP) gives you the same info.

But as Shell points out, these numbers are largely fictional. Marshall’s is not actually telling you that those shoes were ever sold for $175. You’re just supposed to “compare” $49 to $175. But $175 may be an entirely meaningless number. The shoes may never have been sold for $175 at any store; certainly no specifics are given. Even if they were, the fact that a large number of them ended up at Marshall’s would indicate that many customers didn’t consider $175 an acceptable price.

The same goes for the MSRP: it’s meaningless. Among other things, that’s not how pricing works these days for big retail outlets. The manufacturer doesn’t make a product and then tell the retailer how much they ought to charge for it. Retailers hold much more power than manufacturers; generally, they pressure suppliers to meet their price and to constantly lower costs, putting the burden on the suppliers to figure out how to do so (often by reducing wages). The idea that manufacturers are able to tell Macy’s or Target or other big retailers how much to charge for their items is ridiculous. Rather, the retailer usually tells the manufacturer what MSRP to print on the tag of items they’ll be purchasing (I saw some tags at Marshall’s where it said MSRP but no price had been printed on it).

So what’s the point of a MSRP on a price tag, or a “compare at” number? These numbers serve as “anchor” prices — that is, they set a high “starting” point for the product, so the “sale” price seems like a great deal in comparison. Except the “sale” price isn’t actually a discount at all — it’s only a sale price in comparison to this fictional original price that was developed for the sole purpose of making you think “Holy crap! I can get $175 shoes for just $49!”

The point is to redirect your thinking from “Do I think these shoes are worth $49?” to “I can save $126!” This is a powerful psychological motivator; marketing research shows that people are fairly easily swayed by perceived savings. A sweater we might not think is worth $40 if we saw it at Banana Republic suddenly becomes worth $50 if we see it at Marshall’s (or T.J. Maxx, an outlet mall, Ross, etc.) and are told it used to sell for $80. We focus not on the fact that we’re spending $50, but on the fact that we’re saving $30.

And that makes us feel smart: we’ve beat the system! Instead of going to the mall and paying $368 for that purse, we hunted through the discount retailer and found it for $148! We worked for it, and we were smart enough to not get conned into buying it at the inflated price. Shell describes research that shows that, in these situations, we feel like we didn’t just save that money, we actually earned it by going to the effort to search out deals. When we buy that $148 purse, we’re likely to leave feeling like we’re somehow $220 richer (since we didn’t pay $368) rather than $148 poorer. And we’ll value it more highly because we feel like we were smart to find it; that is, we’re likely to think a $148 purse bought on “sale” is cooler and better quality than we would the identical purse if we bought it at full price for $120.

And stores capitalize on these psychological tendencies by giving us cues that seem to indicate we’re getting an amazing deal. Sometimes we are. But often we’re being distracted with numbers that seem to give us meaningful information but are largely irrelevant, if not entirely fictional.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.