Bill von Hippel used a survey to test people on their “inhibitory ability” — how well they managed to suppress irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts.

It wasn’t clear how well the test would predict actual behavior. So then he divided his subjects into two social groups and served them chicken feet for dinner.

Each person in one group was served a fowl foot by a Chinese woman who described it as the national dish of China and her own favorite. Von Hippel’s idea was that this would create a high-pressure social situation, as proper etiquette would suggest the diner not offend the woman.

The other group was served their arguably awful morsels by a non-Chinese woman who just said that it was Chinese food. This, presumably, was a lower-pressure situation for the patron.

“People who responded most negatively to the chicken foot dish under high social pressure turned out to be those who also performed worst on the inhibitory ability test,” von Hippel reports. “They were much more likely to make a disapproving face and a negative statement such as: ‘That’s bloody revolting!'”

The study revealed an interesting detail.

“Even people with good inhibitory ability were likely to behave inappropriately when distracted,” von Hippel said. “This suggests that our ability to suppress our true feelings is disrupted under demanding conditions.”

Von Hippel says it’s well known that the old and the very young are more prone to what many consider social blunders.

“However, this new research suggests that important variations occur in the general population in this inhibitory ability — some of us are naturally better at holding our tongue than others,” he said.

More here.