Uncommon Knowledge

The breast-feeding penalty

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
April 3, 2011

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Over the past couple decades in America, there’s been increasing support for breast-feeding. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, there’s no free lunch. A new study finds that breast-feeding mothers suffer a psychological penalty in the eyes of both men and women. When told that Brooke Shields had written a book including “experiences with breast-feeding,” people viewed her as less competent, especially in math, and more likely to experience sexism than if her book had included “experiences with bottle-feeding.” Likewise, after overhearing a woman playing back a voice-mail message, people rated that woman as less competent and less hirable if the voice mail implied that the woman was a breast-feeding mother.

Smith, J. et al., “Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Our genius overlords The controversial 1994 book “The Bell Curve” advanced the hypothesis that IQ is largely responsible for life outcomes. In a new analysis, researchers in Europe go even further, arguing that the IQs of the smartest citizens are largely responsible for the success of society in general. While the IQ of the average citizen does benefit productivity, the IQs of the top 5 percent are more critical for the development of science, technology, and the institutions that underlie economic freedom, which, in turn, drive economic output. The authors estimate that an increase of one IQ point among this top echelon has over twice as much effect on gross domestic product per capita as an increase of one IQ point for the average person.

Rindermann, H. & Thompson, J., “Cognitive Capitalism: The Impact of Ability, Mediated through Science and Economic Freedom, on Wealth,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

She pretty. Me fight. All’s fair in love and war, which may be why glimpsing a pretty woman is enough to make men more militant, according to a new study. Students in China were shown pictures of attractive and unattractive members of the opposite sex. Pictures of attractive women prompted men to give more militant answers to war-related, but not trade-related, foreign policy questions. There was no comparable effect for women. In subsequent experiments, men were also faster to respond to images or words related to war — compared to images or words related to farms, flags, or general aggression — after seeing attractive female faces or legs, even if the image lasted just a 10th of a second.

Chang, L. et al., “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Mating-Warring Association in Men,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

The problem with meritocracy In this country, social and legal norms compel organizations to operate on merit, but does this really make them meritocracies? In a recent study, researchers asked business school students to evaluate several fictitious employee performance reviews. Some were supposed to be evaluated in the context of an organization that emphasized meritocratic principles — fair, performance-based rewards — and some were evaluated in the context of an organization that didn’t emphasize those principles. Ironically, in the meritocratic context, men were awarded higher bonuses than women with equivalent performance reviews. This suggests, the authors say, that an organization with an explicit meritocratic identity may instead be giving cover to managers to express prejudice in subtle ways.

Castilla, E. & Benard, S., “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly (December 2010).

Maybe ‘free’ doesn’t hurt music In the music industry, much of the last decade has been spent fighting the scourge of illegal downloading. While it’s pretty clear that sales have slumped, what’s not clear is whether society as a whole has suffered. In other words, has good music not been produced due to weakened economic incentives? An economist who sits on a National Academies committee on copyright policy thinks the answer is no. To create a consistent benchmark for the supply of new music, he integrated numerous retrospective quality rankings (e.g., Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums) going back decades to see if there’s been a drop-off in the supply of quality music since the advent of illegal downloading. He found no statistically significant change, suggesting that lower production incentives have been balanced by lower production costs.

Waldfogel, J., “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie? The Supply of New Recorded Music since Napster,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2011).

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

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