Uncommon Knowledge

Public defenders beat private defenders

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Less busy, but still cranky

It feels like modern life gets more hectic every year—and we often assume that’s making us unhappier. But according to a sociologist at the University of Maryland, this may be less true than we think. In recent surveys, “respondent reports of feelings of being ‘always rushed’ declined by 6–9 points from those reported in 2004. The decline was found both among employed and unemployed respondents, indicating it was not simply a function of higher unemployment.” However, feeling less rushed didn’t seem to have much benefit; people reported feeling no happier even when they were less overwhelmed. The highest levels of happiness were found among people who reported almost never having excess time but almost never feeling rushed.

Robinson, J., “Americans Less Rushed but No Happier: 1965–2010 Trends in Subjective Time and Happiness,” Social Indicators Research (forthcoming).

Where mixed-race couples live


As mixed-race couples become more common but many neighborhoods remain racially homogeneous, one question is where these couples choose to live. Researchers analyzed confidential neighborhood-level census data on heterosexual mixed-race couples from 12 cities and found some gender asymmetry. Specifically, mixed-race couples with white male partners were more likely to live in a whiter neighborhood than mixed-race couples with white female partners. Also, if a partner listed as white had a mixed ancestry, the couple was less likely to live in a whiter neighborhood, but if the nonwhite partner had a mixed ancestry, the couple was more likely to live in a whiter neighborhood.

Wright, R. et al., “Gender and the Neighborhood Location of Mixed-Race Couples,” Demography (forthcoming).

Public defenders beat private defenders

The Sixth Amendment stipulates that the accused has a right to “Assistance of Counsel.” The quality of that counsel is another matter. Researchers at RAND analyzed the outcomes of several thousand murder cases in Philadelphia, where the public defender’s office represents only one out of every five indigent defendants, with private attorneys appointed to represent the remainder. Which type of attorney defendants get can make a huge difference to their fate: Compared to the private attorneys, the public defenders “reduce their clients’ murder conviction rate by 19% and lower the probability that their clients receive a life sentence by 62% [and] reduce overall expected time served in prison by 24%.” This disparity may be particularly exacerbated in Philadelphia because of meager compensation for court-appointed private attorneys, conflicts of interest in the appointment and reimbursement process, and the solo nature of many private practices—all of which seem to cause court-appointed private attorneys to have less time with the client, less time investigating and preparing the case, and a greater inclination to go right to trial.

Anderson, J. & Heaton, P., “How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes,” Yale Law Journal (October 2012).

Older moms, healthy kids


In a study published almost a century ago, Alexander Graham Bell noted that children born to younger mothers lived longer. Since then, this hypothesis has only become more established. Nevertheless, a recent study suggests that young mothers, not old mothers, are the bigger public health problem. Children born to mothers aged 25-34 did have better adult health and height than those born to mothers of other ages. But these advantages disappeared with respect to older mothers—but not with respect to younger mothers, whose adult offspring remained worse off—when controlling for the mother’s education and how long she was alive during the child’s life. In other words, children of older mothers may have grown up with different levels of affluence or struggled with losing their mothers earlier in life, but they weren’t physiologically disadvantaged.

Myrskylä, M. & Fenelon, A., “Maternal Age and Offspring Adult Health: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study,” Demography (November 2012).

The future’s on the right

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That you’re reading this sentence from left to right is an arbitrary feature of your being an English-speaker, but you’d be surprised how much it can affect your judgment. In one experiment, English-speakers evaluated a weight-loss advertisement more favorably if the before and after pictures were arranged from left to right, rather than right to left. There was no such preference, however, if people had first worked on a task that involved arranging something in chronological order in the vertical, rather than the horizontal, dimension. In another experiment, when shopping for antique-style furniture, people evaluated a lamp more favorably when it was on the left side of an advertisement but, when shopping for modern-style furniture, evaluated the same lamp more favorably on the right side. The preference was reversed for Hebrew speakers, who read from right to left.

Chae, B. & Hoegg, J., “The Future Looks ‘Right’: Effects of the Horizontal Location of Advertising Images on Product Attitude,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

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