Uncommon Knowledge

The pleasure of pursuing

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
November 1, 2009

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Traditionally, men are expected to seduce women, while women are expected to be demure and picky. Thus, women “play hard to get,” while men “sow their wild oats.” However, a new study suggests that this disparity in mating standards is more tenuous than you might expect. Several hundred college students participated in a speed-dating experiment. In some sessions, the men were the ones who moved from table to table, and in other sessions the women moved. In the former, the men reported significantly higher levels of interest than the women. In the latter, the women reported as much or more interest than the men. It seems that the act of approaching someone else gives people more confidence and warmth than being approached. In other words, a seemingly trivial change in dating protocol undermines centuries of tradition.

Finkel, E. & Eastwick, P., “Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity,” Psychological Science (October 2009).

The power of a baby face
Media analysts have argued that a major factor in Barack Obama’s political success is his nonthreatening demeanor, to counteract the stereotype of the threatening black man. Researchers wondered if there might be a similar counter-stereotypical pattern for black CEOs, even on a purely visual level. They asked people to rate pictures of CEOs for baby-facedness, warmth, and competence. Relative to white CEOs, black CEOs were rated as more baby-faced - and, consistent with prior research on baby-faced stereotypes, seen as warmer and less competent. For blacks, being baby-faced meant earning more money, the study found, whereas white CEOs earned less money if they were baby-faced. According to the authors, this confirms that blacks need “disarming mechanisms” to be successful in corporate America.

Livingston, R. & Pearce, N., “The Teddy-Bear Effect: Does Having a Baby Face Benefit Black Chief Executive Officers?” Psychological Science (October 2009).

Do fence me in
Anyone who has fenced in their yard knows it’s not cheap, in labor or materials. So, imagine having to fence in an entire farm, covering hundreds of acres, to keep out grazing livestock. In fact, according to research by an economist at Harvard, the annual fencing repair cost in the United States in 1872 was greater than tax revenues across all levels of government. And, up through this period, fences were wooden, which meant that you had to have access to trees, a nontrivial issue on the Great Plains. As a result, much of the region was underdeveloped. That is, until the invention of barbed wire in the mid-1870s. In just a couple decades, the intensity of farming increased significantly in those areas without much woodland, and land values increased by an amount equal to about 1 percent of national GDP at the time. Barbed wire helped build the nation.

Hornbeck, R., “Barbed Wire: Property Rights and Agricultural Development,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming).

Your politics are in your head
What makes people Democrats or Republicans? This may be the most important question in political science, but there isn’t much of a consensus on the answer. However, a team of researchers in California is reporting new evidence that partisanship is grounded in brain function. The brains of 31 Democrats and 23 Republicans were scanned while making decisions involving risk. Democrats exhibited significantly more activation in the insula, a part of the brain associated with internal feelings, whereas Republicans exhibited significantly more activation in the amygdala, associated with externally oriented emotions, especially fear. The effect of these brain differences was such that they were better predictors of one’s partisanship than knowing the partisanship of one’s parents, a strong predictor of partisanship.

Schreiber, D. et al., “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans,” University of California (March 2009).

The real story of the recession?
By now, most everyone knows that the current recession was the consequence of a housing bubble spurred by a credit bubble. And, as economists point out, the credit bubble was spurred by foreigners who took the money they made from selling us things and plowed it back into our credit markets. Nevertheless, in a new paper, several economists argue that the ultimate problem is the massive increase in the number of workers around the world competing for jobs, thanks to globalization. The first phase of this “shock” was the outsourcing of work to millions of workers in developing countries, whose newfound savings helped precipitate our bubble and crash. Unfortunately, the next phase of this shock will still involve plenty of outsourcing, but without the consolation of living in a bubble. The authors conclude that this may require more aggressive policies to make sure that the increasing ranks of the unemployed in this country are actually put back to work building up our own stock of productive capital.

Jagannathan, R. et al., “Why Are We in a Recession? The Financial Crisis Is the Symptom Not the Disease!” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2009).

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