Back in the day, the unwritten rule of “women and children first” always used to govern who got a spot in a lifeboat, and who went stoically down with the ship. After all, 70 percent of the women and children on the Titanic were rescued, versus a mere 20 percent of the adult men. But then a 2010 study compared survival rates for the Titanic and the Lusitania and concluded that this chivalrous doctrine only prevailed in slow wrecks, when social norms had a chance to gain control of the situation. In fast descents, like the Lusitania’s 18-minute destruction, it was the fittest passengers, between the ages of 16 and 35, who had the best chance of survival. And now a new study deals another blow to “women and children first,” suggesting that this norm wasn’t normal at all.
Two days ago, Penn State students rioted in support of the university’s longtime football coach, Joe Paterno, who had just been fired. The reason? When he learned in 2002 that his then-assistant Jerry Sandusky had been seen sexually assaulting a child in the football team’s showers, according to the grand jury indictment of Sandusky [pdf], he directed the witness to go to the athletic director, and the police were never contacted. Sandusky has now been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, and Paterno, who has won more games than any other coach in college football, has lost his job.
And yet, to the shock of many around the country who found the grand jury’s report extremely disturbing, students still stood up for him. Karen Schrock at Scientific American delves into the social science of group-think and explains why, when you’re part of a group, especially one defined by a charismatic individual, it changes the way you think:
According to psychological theory, every person has a social identity, which depends on being a member of various groups. “The social groups you belong to become a part of the very essence of who you feel you are,” explains psychologist Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. These groups can include our families and circles of friends; the clubs, churches and schools we attend; our race, ethnicity and nationality; and the list goes on. The more strongly we identify with a particular group, the more vehemently we defend its members and ideals—a trait that experts think evolved along with early human society. Banding together and protecting one another allowed our ancestors to survive, and so to this day we are quick to cheer on our comrades and feel animosity toward rival groups. Many scientists think this in-group psychology explains prejudice, racism and even sports fandom.
We want others to think well of us—so if we know someone’s watching, most of us tend to behave a little better. People with autism spectrum disorders, however, don’t, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. Since most people, psychologists think, clean up their acts out of concern for their social reputation, the new study bolsters the idea that people with autism and related conditions don’t take into account, or perhaps fully understand, what others think of them.
In the justice system, a confession is often treated as proof of guilt—and yet, a surprising number of people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. In its latest issue, the Economist reviews recent research showing just how frequently innocent people ‘fess up, and what factors lead them to do it.
When an experimenter falsely accused subjects of crashing a computer, 25% of them confessed even though they’d done nothing wrong, one study found. If the accusation was corroborated by a (lying) eyewitness, that number jumped to 80%. Read More
What’s the News: Fitting in is a perennial problem for almost everybody, especially immigrants and their children (for more, see The Joy Luck Club). And anxiety about food is definitely part of it: when your friends think your mom’s home cooking is weird, well, maybe you’ll just pretend you don’t like it either. In fact, maybe you’ll eat more French fries and pizza than is entirely healthy to fit in, something that might explain why newly arrived immigrants balloon to the rest of the U.S. population’s levels of obesity in just 15 years. In a study designed to see how being perceived as un-American changed peoples’ food choices, scientists behaved badly and then brought out the menus.