Are Smart People More Likely to Believe Stereotypes?

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A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General finds that people who score higher on one type of intelligence test are more likely to buy into stereotypes. Fortunately, they’re also more likely to discard them.

There are many different kinds of intelligence, each reliant on its own set of skills and abilities. One such ability is pattern recognition, without which we’d have trouble recognizing faces, learning languages, or reading other people’s emotions. Because it’s so central to our cognitive and social functioning, pattern recognition is sometimes used by researchers as a shorthand for overall intelligence.

Researchers at New York University wondered if there was any downside to this kind of intelligence—if a person’s ability to make quick associations could make them more susceptible to harmful generalizations and stereotypes.

To find out, they designed a series of six online experiments to compare more than 1200 participants’ pattern recognition skills with how easily they bought into stereotypes.

In one experiment, the researchers showed participants a collection of men’s faces, along with a description of something each man had done in the past. Some of the men’s actions were good, like sending flowers to someone who was sick. Others were unpleasant.

What the participants didn’t realize was that the researchers had rigged the setup so that one facial feature, either a wide nose or a narrow one, was paired more frequently with bad behavior, essentially inventing a negative stereotype.

After this subconscious introduction, participants were invited to play a trust game with a virtual partner (actually a research bot). The “partner” avatars had subtle differences in the shape and size of their noses.

Sure enough, participants who aced the pattern recognition test were more distrustful of participants with the “bad” kind of nose, whichever type that happened to be. Their ability to jump quickly to conclusions seemed to lead them right into the stereotype trap.

“Superior cognitive abilities are often associated with positive outcomes, such as academic achievement and social mobility,” lead author David Lick said in a statement. “However, our work shows that some cognitive abilities can have negative consequences.”

The news wasn’t all bad. Another experiment tested people’s ability to let go of harmful existing stereotypes—in this case, relating to gender. The researchers subtly exposed participants to information that challenged their beliefs, showing women behaving assertively, for example, or men stepping aside to let others lead.

As it turned out, participants who scored higher on the pattern recognition test were also better at taking in this new information and letting it change their minds. After exposure, they were less likely to buy into harmful gender stereotypes.

“Finding that higher pattern detection ability puts people at greater risk to detect and apply stereotypes, but also to reverse them, implicates this ability as a cognitive mechanism underlying stereotyping,” co-author Jonathan Freeman said in the statement.

“Our findings may help pave the way for future research that leverages pattern detection or other cognitive abilities for reducing social biases.”

A Team of Cigarette Butt-Collecting Birds Are Keeping a French Theme Park Litter-Free

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The six rooks pecking at litter within the Puy du Fou theme park in Les Epesses, France, aren't unwelcome pests: They're part of the staff. As AFP reports, the trained birds have been dispatched to clean up garbage and cigarettes butts from the park grounds.

Rooks are a member of the corvid family, a group of intelligent birds that also includes ravens and crows. At Puy du Fou, an educational amusement park with attractions inspired by various periods from French history, the rooks will flit around park, pick up any bits of litter that haven't been properly disposed of, and deliver them to a receptacle in exchange for a treat. At least that's how the system is set up to work: The full team of six rooks has only been on the job since August 13.

Employing birds as trash collectors may seem far-fetched, but the experiment has precedent. The Dutch startup Crowded Cities recently started training crows to gather cigarette butts using a vending machine-like device. Once the crows were taught to associate the rig with free peanuts, the machine was tweaked so that it only dispensed food when the crow nudged a cigarette butt resting on a ledge into the receptacle. The cigarette butts were eventually removed, and the birds figured out that they had to find the litter in the wild if they wanted to continue receiving their snacks.

Crowded Cities had planned to conduct more research on the method's effectiveness, as well as the potentially harmful effects of tobacco on crows, before bringing their vending machines to public spaces. Puy du Fou, meanwhile, has become one of the first—if not the first—businesses to fully implement the strategy on a major scale.

Even if it doesn't prove to be practical, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP that cleaning up the park is only part of the goal. He also hopes the birds will demonstrate that "nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

[h/t AFP]

Online Daters Tend to Be Interested in Partners 25 Percent More Desirable Than They Are

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Online dating may not bring out the best in people (as anyone who’s been ghosted can attest) but it does bring out our optimistic side. A new study suggests that people tend to reach out to fellow online daters who are approximately 25 percent more attractive than they are, according to The Washington Post.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, looked at online dating messaging behavior from heterosexual men and women in four different U.S. cities. Researchers analyzed how many messages people sent and received in January 2014, how long those messages were, and how many messages went unanswered.

They examined daters in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston, including age, ethnicity, and education of the users in their analysis, but kept the profiles anonymous and did not read the messages themselves. (The researchers don’t name the particular site they got their data from, merely describing it as a “popular, free online dating service.” From the details, it sounds a lot like OkCupid or a very similar site: one that allows users to answer open-ended essay questions and list attributes like their religion and body type on their profiles.)

To quantify how desirable a person was, the researchers looked at the hard numbers—how many messages someone received, and how the senders themselves ranked on the desirability scale.

Both men and women tend to aim high, messaging someone more desirable than themselves by about 25 percent, on average. For the most part, users didn’t contact people who ranked lower than themselves on the desirability scale. When they did contact people who were hotter, daters tended to write much longer messages than they did when they contacted someone on their own level, so to speak—sometimes up to twice as long. Women tended to use more "positive" words (like "good" and "happy") when they were writing to hotter dudes, while men actually used fewer positive words when talking to hotter ladies. Men in Seattle sent the longest messages, perhaps because of the city’s makeup—in some populations, there are twice as many men there as women, so heterosexual men face a lot of competition. Although wordy messages in Seattle did have a slightly higher response rate, in other cities, the extra time spent typing out missives didn’t pay off. Given that those messages weren’t any likelier to get a response than a short note, the researchers write that the “effort put into writing longer or more positive messages may be wasted.”

The data also showed how desirability in online dating can be influenced by attributes like age, education level, and ethnicity. For instance, at least as far as averages go, older men tended to be viewed as more desirable than younger men until they hit 50. Women’s scores peaked when they were 18 years old (the youngest age when you can join the site) and decreased until age 60.

Even if you aren’t in the pool of the most attractive users, sometimes, aiming high can pay off. “Even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off,” co-author Elizabeth Bruch explained in a press release.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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