Uncommon Knowledge

When single ladies ovulate, they vote Barack

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

AP photo/Globe staff photoillustration

Tylenol, take my confusion away!

Although we consider Tylenol to be a treatment for things like knee pain, it turns out that it’s also a treatment for our sometimes harsh reactions to mortality and confusion. Researchers at the University of British Columbia administered 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol or placebo to students, some of whom were subsequently asked to write about death or watch a surrealistic video. Finally, the students were asked to give an assessment of the proper punishment for a criminal offender. Those who had taken the placebo—but not those who had taken Tylenol—were more punitive after writing about death or watching the surrealistic video.

Randles, D. et al., “The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

That Barack time of the month

Which way do you vote, ladies? For fertile women, choices in the voting booth seem to be influenced by the time of the month—but single women and married ones swing different ways. Women of child-bearing age and not using hormonal contraceptives reported being less religious on high-fertility days if they were single, and more religious on high-fertility days if they were engaged, cohabiting, or married. Single women were also less socially conservative on high-fertility days, while partnered women were more socially conservative on high-fertility days. These shifts in attitudes were linked to more support for Barack Obama among single women on high-fertility days, and more support for Mitt Romney among partnered women on high-fertility days. The authors of the study speculate that “increased religiosity and conservatism at ovulation may serve to deter married women from cheating on their spouse.”

Durante, K. et al., “The Fluctuating Female Vote: Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How do you spell ‘intimidated’?

The National Spelling Bee is one of the highest-stakes competitive events for kids. Contestants take turns standing alone on a stage, spelling a word that most adults wouldn’t know, with the prospect of elimination for a single error. The pressure is intense, and an analysis by an economist at the College Board suggests that the kids do indeed get psyched out. The odds of making a mistake increase by up to 64 percent if the kid who went before the current speller spelled her word correctly, especially in the early rounds and for newcomers to the bee.

Smith, J., “Peers, Pressure, and Performance at the National Spelling Bee,” Journal of Human Resources (Spring 2013).

May-December couples vs. July-July


There’s a certain glamour to May-December relationships—where one partner, male or female, is much older, and the other is much younger. But in slightly awkward news for these couples, it sounds like spouses with a big age gap may actually have some less desirable qualities, on average, than couples where partners are similar in age. Economists at the University of Colorado analyzed data from several nationwide surveys and found that spouses of the same age had higher test scores, higher educational attainment, worked in higher-wage occupations, and were more attractive and (among women) had lower BMI in high school. Evidence suggests that “higher quality individuals spend more time in age-homogenous settings at ages when marriages most often form,” as in selective universities and “in jobs with high upward mobility, so that other individuals who share their same job description are similarly-aged.”

Mansour, H. & McKinnish, T., “Who Marries Differently-Aged Spouses? Ability, Education, Occupation, Earnings, and Appearance,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

The case for blue laws

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Although Massachusetts still has “blue laws” that restrict commercial activity on Sundays and holidays, there are now plenty of exemptions—for example, malls can now be open on Sundays. While people may appreciate the chance to shop, a new study suggests that the shift may have had some negative consequences. Analyzing trends across the states, an economist at the University of Missouri finds that the repeal of blue laws was associated with lower odds of completing high school, fewer years of overall education, and weaker earnings as an adult. Contributing factors may include the lure of retail work, more alcohol and drug use, and lower church attendance.

Lee, D., “The Impact of Repealing Sunday Closing Laws on Educational Attainment,” Journal of Human Resources (Spring 2013).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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