Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
August 28, 2011

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Don’t call it a speed trap Speeding enforcement by the police is not particularly popular with drivers, especially if it’s seen as motivated by the desire to raise revenue. A recent study confirmed that labeling speed limit enforcement as opportunistic has real consequences. After a billboard was put up by the American Automobile Association outside the town of Waldo, Florida (population: 821), labeling the town a “Speed Trap” - and it was, given that it issued almost as many speeding citations as the city of Gainesville - the rate at which people contested citations suddenly jumped. Most of this jump was driven by white, male, in-state drivers.

Ward, J. et al., “Caught in Their Own Speed Trap: The Intersection of Speed Enforcement Policy, Police Legitimacy, and Decision Acceptance,” Police Quarterly (September 2011).

Inequality makes us unhappy - well, some of us Although many people blame modern-day angst and cynicism on a materialistic, media-driven culture, a recent analysis of national survey data going back to 1972 finds that another possible explanation may be income inequality. In years with greater income inequality, Americans perceived their fellow citizens to be less fair and trustworthy and, as a result, were less happy. However, this reaction was only significant in poor people. Controlling for perceived fairness, trust, and income, affluent people were actually happier in years with greater income inequality.

Oishi, S. et al., “Income Inequality and Happiness,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How mobility creates Burger Kings One thing that sets America apart is the chain stores and restaurants that dominate the suburban retail environment. While much of the success of retail chains is undoubtedly the result of economies of scale, new research suggests that a significant factor in the demand for chains is how often Americans move. In an analysis of Census data, states with a higher proportion of people who had recently moved also had more national chains, controlling for median income and population. A 10 percent increase in residential mobility had about the same positive effect on chains as an increase in population of one million. In another analysis, people who had moved more in their youth exhibited a stronger preference for national chains, even after controlling for personality, political views, and socioeconomic status. Further experiments showed that people who were made to think about mobility were subsequently more anxious and were therefore more attracted to familiarity.

Oishi, S. et al., “Residential Mobility Breeds Familiarity-Seeking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

On taxes, income trumps beliefs Among political analysts, much has been made in recent years of people who appear to be voting against their self-interest, as when the wealthy liberal votes for a tax increase or the poor conservative votes for limited government. A new experiment, though, suggests that self-interest may often trump political identity after all. Researchers had people compete in multiple rounds of a timed spelling contest, earning money based on their own performance. However, after several rounds, people could vote to institute a redistributive tax. Surprisingly, people didn’t follow their stated political positions when voting on the tax rate. Liberals tended to vote for lower taxes when they did well, and conservatives tended to vote for higher taxes when they did poorly. The only notable political difference was that conservatives were more responsive to their self-interest. Another surprise was that a higher tax rate didn’t reduce performance.

Esarey, J. et al., “What Motivates Political Preferences? Self-Interest, Ideology, and Fairness in a Laboratory Democracy,” Economic Inquiry (forthcoming).

More honor, more suicide The idea of defending your honor means not only acting against others who threaten your honor but also against yourself, to avoid shame. While we tend to associate this attitude with more traditional cultures than our own, it’s not uncommon in this country. States that have a stronger culture of honor - specifically, Southern and Western states - have higher suicide rates, especially among rural whites, even controlling for deprivation, gun ownership, and medical access. Moreover, depression rates are higher and are strongly correlated with suicide rates in these states. Unfortunately, antidepressant prescriptions are also lower in these states. Individually, both men and women who endorse honor values are more likely to be depressed.

Osterman, L. & Brown, R., “Culture of Honor and Violence against the Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

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