August 23, 2006

“Remedy” Ads May be Hazardous to Your Health

by Richard Morin

Warning labels on cigarette packs may be well and good, but a new study suggests that advertisements for products designed to help people stop smoking – or, for that matter, to lose weight, reduce debt, or otherwise stop us from behaving badly – should carry a health warning of their own.

That’s because so-called “remedy” advertisements appear to have a boomerang effect: by suggesting the risks of misbehavior are manageable, they actually make it less likely that those who need help will try to get it, claims Lisa E. Bolton, an assistant professor of marketing in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues.

“Remedy messages undermine risk perceptions and increase risky behavioral intentions as consumer problem status rises,” Bolton wrote in the latest Journal of Consumer Research.

In one test, smokers and nonsmokers read material about the benefits of a stop-smoking aid. A second group, also comprised of smokers and non-smokers, read material about how to quit cigarettes unaided. Then both groups were given a questionnaire that asked about whether they thought an aid would help them quit cigarettes, and also about the perceived risk of smoking and about their intentions to stop (non-smokers were asked to assume they smoked.)

The results were unequivocal: Both the smokers and non-smokers in the first group (the one that read the material about the stop-smoking aid) saw smoking as less of a health risk and indicated they were less likely to quit smoking. Moreover, the study found, the strongest harmful reactions occurred among those who smoked the most.

“This result seems rather detrimental to consumer welfare—the remedy message boomeranged on the very consumers (smokers) that it was intended to help,” the authors noted.

Additional experiments produced equally compelling evidence, Bolton said. One tested an advertisement for smoking patches. Another pushed a bill-consolidation program to manage or eliminate credit card-related debt. Still another touted “Chitosan RX Ultra”-a diet aid.

Again, those who most needed to stop smoking, cut credit card debt or shed pounds were the most likely to downplay the risks of their respective problem after reading about a remedy. They also expressed greater intention to continue behaving badly after seeing the ads promising help — even if they doubted the claims made in the ad.

“As problem status rises, remedy messages undermine risk perceptions and increase intentions to engage in risky behavior” — essentially offering badly behaving men and women “a get out of jail free card,” Bolton and her colleagues concluded.

What in the World?

Our favorite mapmakers have done it again. University of Michigan physicist Mark Newman and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in Great Britain have just released their latest cartographic creations: World maps made so that the size of each country and territory is proportional to the growth or decline in wealth that occurred there between 1975 and 2002.

This striking cartogram tells an important story: The rich got really richer. North America and much of Asia look about ready to burst. At the same time, the African continent virtually vanishes, reflecting the region’s economic stagnation. So does most of South America.

Overall, two-thirds of the world’s countries experienced an increase in their gross domestic product, led by China, the United States, Japan, India and Germany. The biggest losers: Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Saudi Arabia (though $3 a gallon gas will fix that, pronto).

What In the World: Countries that got richer 1975-2002

Map

…and the countries that got poorer.

Map

Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan). Used by permission.

Is Your Boss A Narcissist?

If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect.

– Ted Turner

Some social scientists have long suspected a link between narcissism and entrepreneurial success. Narcissists tend to think big. They’re fearless innovators whose inner drive propels them to succeed in the face of daunting challenges and long odds.

Think: Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner and the Donald. Case closed.

Think again, say Arijit Chatterjee and Donald C. Hambrick of Penn State University’s school of business.

The researchers found there’s another side of narcissism. The same ego-driven will to succeed can also run companies right into the ground, Chatterjee and Hambrick write in a paper they presented last week at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting.

To measure narcissistic tendencies they looked at the prominence of the CEO’s photograph in the company’s annual report, the prominence of the CEO in company press releases, the length of the boss’s Who’s Who entry, the executive’s use of “I” and “me” in interviews and the exec’s cash and non-cash income divided by that of the second-highest paid executive in the firm Then they compared the CEO’s narcissism score with their company’s performance.

Narcissistic CEOs were more likely to make big changes in corporate strategy and were more likely to buy other firms and bigger firms—moves that typically get them mentioned in industry and popular media.

Narcissists also took bigger risks—with spectacularly mixed results. “Narcissistic CEOs… tend to generate more extreme performance – more big wins and big losses – than their less narcissistic counterparts,” they wrote.

The researchers found that those big gains and losses tended to cancel each other out, and that narcissists were no more or less successful than their more modest peers.

The Signs Your Boss is a Narcissist

Does your employer exhibit these four tell-tale signs of narcissism? If the answer is yes to all four, your boss could be a narcissist, psychologists say.

Leadership/Authority (I like to be the center of attention)

Superiority/Arrogance (I am better than others)

Exploitativeness/Entitlement (I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me)

Self-absorption/Self-admiration (I am preoccupied with how extraordinary and special I am)

Source: Arijit Chatterjee and Donald C. Hambrick

Who Would Have Thought?

The Language of Music and Workplace Romances

“Individual Differences in Second-Language Proficiency: Does Musical Ability Matter?” and Robert Slevc and Akira Miyake. Psychological Science, Vol. 17, No. 8. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego and University of Colorado determine that people with musical abilities are also better at learning foreign languages.

“Working Late: Do Workplace Sex Ratios Affect Partnership Formation and Dissolution?” by Michael Svarer. University of Copenhagen Centre for Applied Microeconometrics Working Paper 2006-11. A Danish economist finds that the probabilities that a worker will get divorced increases in direct proportion to the percentage of the opposite sex in his or her workplace but the gender ratio has no impact on whether single people will find romance, suggesting that “the workplace constitutes a more important marriage market segment for individuals who are already in a partnership.”

Richard Morin is a senior editor at the Pew Research Center. Versions of this column appear at washingtonpost.com and pewresearch.org