My little baby hurricane
Choosing a name for a baby is a momentous decision, and you might guess that most parents would pick names with lovely, inspiring associations. But new research suggests that sometimes parents just go with whatever they’re hearing, even if it’s the name of something terrible. Analyzing baby names from Social Security Administration records, researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that a name’s popularity is influenced by the popularity of other recently popular names with similar sounds, especially the first sound (e.g., “K” in “Katrina”). Even the names of recent hurricanes can shift baby-name popularity, wherein hurricanes that cause more damage make their names more salient: “Following Hurricane Katrina, for example, names that begin with ‘K’ saw an approximately 9% increase in usage.”
Berger, J. et al., “From Karen to Katie: Using Baby Names to Understand Cultural Evolution,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).
Up with political protest
DESPITE THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN and political gridlock, many Americans seem unmotivated to protest against the system. To many, protests just seem pointless and ineffectual. But this perception is mistaken: According to a recent analysis of the Tea Party, protests can make a real difference at the polls. Random variation in the size of 2009 Tax Day protests due to weather reveals that greater protest turnout led to significant and persistent increases in Tea Party membership, monetary contributions, subsequent protests, media coverage, Republican voter turnout, and conservative voting in Congress. Indeed, every additional protester is estimated to have motivated an additional seven to 14 Republican votes in the 2010 mid-term elections.
Madestam, A. et al., “Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement,” Harvard University (December 2011).
A law that increases homicide
The ongoing controversy surrounding the Trayvon Martin case has put stand-your-ground firearm self-defense laws in the spotlight. Now, there’s a new study that gives ammunition to foes of these laws. Comparing trends in FBI crime statistics across states that did and didn’t pass these laws, the authors find that “estimates are sufficiently precise as to rule out meaningful deterrence effects” on burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. Meanwhile, the authors “find significant evidence that the laws increase homicides...by a statistically significant 7 to 9 percent, which translates into an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year nationally” across the affected states.
Cheng, C. & Hoekstra, M., “Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence from Castle Doctrine,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2012).
Stop her cheating: try religion
In modern life, religion may seem like just another personal choice. But to social scientists, one key question is why religion evolved in the first place. A recent study suggests that one of the main functions of religion—which even today often includes antiquated restrictions on female sexuality—is to prevent cuckoldry. The authors use genetic data from a population in Africa, where some families practice the local religion while others practice Islam or Christianity, to compare the rate of cuckoldry for adherents of each religion. The rate of cuckoldry was several times higher for Christians than for those following the local religion or Islam—a disparity the authors “attribute to the abandonment of menstrual taboos by the Christians.” Specifically, the local religion requires women to go to “menstrual huts,” allowing the men in the family to closely monitor women’s menstrual cycle. Although both Muslims and Christians have abandoned menstrual huts, Muslims have other ways—like requiring wives to notify husbands of menses—to enforce sexual purity.
Strassmann, B. et al., “Religion as a Means to Assure Paternity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 19, 2012).
Do women fear being wrong?
If you’ve taken standardized tests like the SAT, then you may remember the agony of risking a wrong-answer penalty in deciding whether to answer a question you weren’t sure of—unless you’re a guy, in which case this may not have bothered you at all. When men and women were asked to answer the same SAT-like questions with penalties for wrong answers, women skipped significantly more questions than men, whereas everyone tended to answer every question when there was no penalty. The gender disparity was not explained by actual knowledge, as women performed just as well as men when required to answer all questions. Among students from elite colleges, the gender disparity in an SAT-like test was even more pronounced, with men skipping very few questions. To the extent that women are skipping questions on these tests even when they have a good shot at a correct answer, their scores will be handicapped relative to men.
Baldiga, K., “Gender Differences in Willingness to Guess and the Implications for Test Scores,” Harvard University (January 2012).
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