By DAVID BROOKS
Published: March 17, 2011
“The nice thing about being human is that you never need to feel lonely. Human beings are engaged every second in all sorts of silent conversations — with the living and the dead, the near and the far.
Researchers have been looking into these subtle paraconversations, and in this column I’m going to pile up a sampling of their recent findings. For example, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim wrote a fantastic book excerpt in Sports Illustrated explaining home-field advantage. Home teams win more than visiting teams in just about every sport, and the advantage is astoundingly stable over time. So what explains the phenomenon?
It’s not because players perform better when their own fans are cheering them on. In basketball, free-throw percentages are the same home and away. In baseball, a pitcher’s strike-to-ball ratio is the same home and away.
Neither is it the rigors of travel disadvantaging the away team. Teams from the same metro area lose at the same rate as teams from across the country when playing in their rival’s stadium.
No, the real difference is the officiating. The refs and umpires don’t like to get booed. So even if they are not aware of it, they call fewer fouls on home teams in crucial situations. They call more strikes on away batters in tight games in the late innings.
Moskowitz and Wertheim show that the larger, louder and closer a crowd is, the more the refs favor the home team. It’s not a conscious decision. They just naturally conform a bit to the emotional vibes radiating from those around them.
They say you only hurt the one you love. That may not be strictly true, but in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Johanna Peetz and Lara Kammrath find that people are more likely to break promises made to people they love. That’s because they are driven by affection to make lavish promises in the first place. They really mean it at the time, but lavish promises are the least likely to be kept.
If you want a person to work harder, you should offer to pay on the basis of individual performance, right? Not usually. A large body of research suggests it’s best to motivate groups, not individuals. Organize your people into a group; reward everybody when the group achieves its goals. Susan Helper, Morris Kleiner and Yingchun Wang confirm this insight in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They compared compensation schemes in different manufacturing settings and found that group incentive pay and hourly pay motivate workers more effectively than individual incentive pay.
Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel tried to figure out why groups magnify individual performance for a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They studied relay swim teams in the 2008 Summer Olympics. They found that swimmers on the first legs of a relay did about as well as they did when swimming in individual events. Swimmers on the later legs outperformed their individual event times. In the heat of a competition, it seems, later swimmers feel indispensible to their team’s success and are more motivated than when swimming just for themselves.
Not all groups perform equally well, of course. Researchers led by Thomas W. Malone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management have found they can measure a group’s I.Q. This group I.Q. is not well predicted by the median I.Q. of the group members. Measures of motivation didn’t predict group performance all that well either.
Instead, the groups that did well had members that were good at reading each other’s emotions. They took turns when speaking. Participation in conversation was widely distributed. There was no overbearing leader dominating everything.
This leads to the question: What sorts of people are good at reading emotion? Age may play some role here. Jamin Halberstadt has a paper coming out in the journal Psychology and Aging that suggests that the young may on average read emotional cues more sensitively than the old. Halberstadt showed various people videos of someone committing a faux pas. Younger viewers were able to better discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Older subjects also performed worse on emotion recognition tests.
Taste may play a role, too. For the journal Psychological Science, Kendall Eskine, Natalie Kacinik and Jesse Prinz gave people sweet-tasting, bitter-tasting and neutral-tasting drinks and then asked them to rate a variety of moral transgressions. As expected, people who had tasted the bitter drink were more likely to register moral disgust, suggesting that having Cherry Coke in the jury room may be a smart move for good defense lawyers.
It’s important to remember that one study is never dispositive. But if this stuff interests you, I have a newish blog — brooks.blogs.nytimes.com — in the Opinion section of The Times online celebrating odd and brilliant studies from researchers around the world.”