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Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
February 15, 2009
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The happy gap

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Surveys that have asked this question have found no increase in happiness for several decades - a pattern that has been the subject of much scholarly debate. However, new research finds some interesting changes in how happiness has been distributed over time. In the 1970s and 1980s, it turns out that the inequality of happiness actually fell: The gap in happiness between men and women vanished, and the black-white happiness gap converged by two-thirds. Unfortunately, the happiness gap across education levels got bigger, and overall happiness inequality has crept up since the 1990s.

Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J., "Happiness Inequality in the United States," Journal of Legal Studies (June 2008).

. . .

The narcissistic voter

SCHOLARS AT STANFORD have found a new kind of evidence that voters prefer a candidate who looks like them. The researchers presented pictures of political candidates to a random sample of voters to evaluate. The catch was that some of the pictures had been subtly combined, using a computer, with pictures of the voters themselves. When evaluating unfamiliar candidates, voters were strongly biased toward a face morphed to look more like their own. Even when evaluating familiar candidates (Bush and Kerry in 2004), those voters with little or no partisan affiliation were still somewhat biased towards the morphed face. The effect was significant enough that it tipped the balance of overall voter support between Bush and Kerry. The authors note, somewhat ominously: "Given the revolution in information technology, we have no doubt that political strategists will increasingly resort to transformed facial similarity as a form of campaign advertising."

Bailenson, J. et al., "Facial Similarity Between Voters and Candidates Causes Influence," Public Opinion Quarterly (forthcoming).

. . .

Don't open with a joke

IF YOU'VE HAD the pleasure of listening to many lectures in your lifetime, you've probably noticed that more than a few include attention-grabbing points that are extraneous to the material at hand. Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara - who surely have to compete with the surrounding scenery for the attention of their students - wanted to find out whether this practice actually aided learning. Yet they found that, across different topics and presentation formats, students who were given a bland presentation were better able to apply the material to solving new problems (as opposed to just regurgitating it) than students who were given the more gratuitously provocative presentation. So, assuming your listeners are awake, just give them the facts!

Mayer, R. et al., "Increased Interestingness of Extraneous Details in a Multimedia Science Presentation Leads to Decreased Learning," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (December 2008).

. . .

How diversity affects unity

OVER THE YEARS, social scientists have observed that group diversity seems to be negatively correlated with group unity. In politics, the implication is that citizens are less inclined to participate or invest in their community as a function of its diversity. However, using data from communities in Massachusetts and Texas, a political scientist at Harvard finds that it's the change in diversity, not the level of diversity, that matters. In Massachusetts, in particular, where diversity increased significantly in the 1990s, the odds of a community holding a vote to approve long-term capital spending were reduced if the community had recently become more diverse. Community leaders, the authors suggest, may sense that their constituents are less sure of their own future in the community - and would therefore be less inclined to support long-term investments.

Hopkins, D., "The Diversity Discount: When Increasing Ethnic and Racial Diversity Prevents Tax Increases," Journal of Politics (January 2009).

. . .

How bad will it get?

NOT THAT YOU need more bad news about the economic crisis, but we might as well get it all out now. A recent economic analysis presents some sobering statistics on the average financial crisis: housing prices fall 35 percent over six years, stock prices fall 55 percent over three and a half years, unemployment rises by seven points over four years, output falls by more than 9 percent over two years, and government debt goes up 86 percent. That last statistic is obviously pertinent to the current bailout and stimulus debate. It turns out that, historically speaking, most of the new government debt is not generated by bank bailouts, but by the deficit spending that a drop-off in tax revenues and a surge of stimulus creates. One caveat to the analysis: Most financial crises have not been global in nature, so the averages listed above may understate the severity of what lies ahead.

Reinhart, C. & Rogoff, K., "The Aftermath of Financial Crises," National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2009).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.

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