Some studies are mental snacks, but others are food for action

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Every day notes from the field come in, each exploring some aspect of human behavior.

Periodically, I like to offer up a few for mental snacking. Some are even useful.

If folks who crafted a Seattle Public Schools plan to save money by moving up some school start times had paid attention to established research, they’d have saved themselves some embarrassment.

Parents complained, and the district backed off. Studies that have been around for a while say students function better when school start times are late enough to accommodate their natural sleep patterns.

We often ignore inconvenient truths.

Of course, the district had lots of considerations to juggle, and it can be hard to make decisions anyway for anyone, whether they are about critical issues or smaller matters.

Sometimes people struggle most with decisions about trivial things, like which toothbrush to buy. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Florida tried to figure out why that is.

They found that if it’s difficult to make a choice, the choice comes to seem more important. Just having test subjects squint at small type rather than large type while sorting through options made a decision seem more important.

Another study offered shoppers a way to overcome temptation. The researchers at the University of Houston and Boston College were focused on food choices. They found that people who were instructed to think and say, “I don’t want that,” did better than those who said, “I can’t have that” or who used a “just-say-no” strategy.

The first group felt more in control and didn’t feel deprived. A person who feels deprived really, really wants whatever is forbidden.

Some recent experiments even show that people told not to do something will immediately want to do it even if they had no interest before.

Here’s something about consuming and gender. In several studies in the U.S. and Britain, researchers tried to discover why male consumers tend to avoid vegetarian options.

I know, you could have told them that, but sometimes you need to confirm what seems obvious. They found people view meat as more manly than veggies and men who eat meat as more masculine than vegetarian men.

The researchers went deeper and studied 23 languages and found meat-related words tended to be more masculine. Maybe talking about food differently would help, or they suggested putting grill marks on a veggie burger.

Another gender-related study, this one by University of Cincinnati researchers, found that the sexes approach entrepreneurship differently. Women are more likely to start social ventures or environmental ventures, while men are primarily focused on money making.

Don’t know if this will be surprising, but studies by two British universities found that in mixed families, it is the mothers who teach children about their heritage, even about the father’s heritage and culture when the father is of a different racial or ethnic background than the mother.

Gentlemen, thank your wives, or better yet, put down that steak and lend a hand.

My son, whose mother taught him to be a voracious reader, sent me an article that shows the value of a nurturing approach in settings outside the home. It’s a look at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla.

Numerous studies have shown that the way schools typically handle discipline, especially the use of suspensions, expulsions and even police involvement, causes longterm damage, and is often biased against black, Latino and Native American children.

Lincoln was no different until it tried a new approach beginning with the 2010-2011 school year.

Instead of dressing down an offending student and sending him home, an administrator would sit the student down and say, there must be something bad happening in your life for you to behave this way.

Students opened up about their problems, educators armed with a new understanding were able to help them cope.

Kids still had punishment, but it was in-school detention with help available.

Negative behavior fell dramatically. It was two researchers, John Medina from Seattle Pacific University and the University of Washington and Natalie Turner of Washington State University, who sparked the change at Lincoln.

Some social-science studies just make good conversation starters, but others give us insight that can improve lives if we put them to use.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or