The hidden hand behind soap operas

By Kevin Lewis
May 10, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message." A recent study on the link between TV and divorce adds a new twist to this theme. In Brazil, TV was rolled out in most parts of the country in the 1970s and '80s. Along with TV came soap operas - influenced by progressive writers who challenged traditional values and were otherwise censored by the military regime in power at the time. Using census and TV network data, researchers found that the share of separated or divorced women in a given municipal area increased after the introduction of the TV network that was broadcasting soap operas, especially in smaller areas with more comprehensive signal coverage.

Chong, A. & La Ferrara, E., "Television and Divorce: Evidence from Brazilian Novelas," Journal of the European Economic Association (April 2009).

Ranking your grandparents
If you suspect that some of your grandparents loved you less than others, there may be a scientific answer. A longstanding theory proposes that fathers are more reluctant to invest in offspring because they are less sure the child is theirs. Applied over two generations, one implication of this theory is that maternal grandmothers will invest the most, while paternal grandfathers will invest the least in their grandchildren. Indeed, in a survey of college students whose four grandparents were all alive, researchers found that maternal grandmothers were the most likely, and paternal grandfathers the least likely, to write, give gifts, visit, send money, or call. Maternal grandfathers and paternal grandmothers ranked in the middle.

Bishop, D. et al., "Differential Investment Behavior between Grandparents and Grandchildren: The Role of Paternity Uncertainty," Evolutionary Psychology (Winter 2009).

The case for regime change
It's hard to overstate the legacy of the American and French Revolutions. For Europe, the French Revolution was particularly acute, as French armies invaded much of the continent and imposed radical institutional change - removing privileges for nobility, clergy, and guilds, and imposing civil codes - on conquered territories. Historians and social scientists have debated whether imposing such change from the outside helps or hurts economic development in the long run. A new statistical analysis by scholars at MIT and Harvard suggests that it can help. The territories conquered by the French experienced greater economic development in the second half of the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam. If revolutionary reforms were the cause, then perhaps today's deep skepticism about regime change and nation-building is exaggerated.

Acemoglu, D. et al., "The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution," National Bureau of Economic Research (April 2009).

Low prices! Easy shoplifting!
For retail merchants who worry about shoplifting, a natural response is to increase surveillance, and then to increase prices to compensate for the cost of surveillance and merchandise losses. A mathematical analysis by an Israeli economist implies that the profit-maximizing response to a shoplifting problem may be just the opposite: cut surveillance and cut prices. The underlying logic is that, while extra surveillance can deter shoplifting, raising prices to cover associated costs can increase shoplifting - because merchandise is less affordable - and more than offset the gain from extra surveillance. Although more surveillance and lower prices would minimize shoplifting, that approach cannot be expected to maximize profits.

Yaniv, G., "Shoplifting, Monitoring and Price Determination," Journal of Socio-Economics (forthcoming).

The secret to better performance: kittens
Few people can resist the charms of a cute child or animal. A study at the University of Virginia suggests that experiencing cuteness can actually change how we behave. Students who watched a slideshow with pictures of puppies and kittens scored higher in the board game "Operation" - which requires manual precision - than students who watched a slideshow with pictures of mature cats and dogs. Although the effect was most pronounced in women, it was also evident in men. The authors speculate that evolution favored those who became more careful in the presence of their young.

Sherman, G. et al., "Viewing Cute Images Increases Behavioral Carefulness," Emotion (April 2009).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at