Uncommon Knowledge

To appreciate beauty, zap your brain

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Stocks follow presidential futures

The May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout was planned with utmost secrecy, lest he be tipped off and sneak away again. But, given what killing America’s number one public enemy did for President Obama’s reelection prospects, bin Laden is not the only one who might have appreciated a tip-off. A new analysis reveals that companies that were contributors to Democrats got a boost in the stock market in the week after bin Laden’s death, while companies that were contributors to Republicans took a hit, such that “across the S&P 500, the president’s transformed re-election prospects shifted market capital worth $101 billion over one day and $245 billion over one week.”

Gaikwad, N., “Presidential Prospects, Political Support, and Stock Market Performance,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (Fall 2013).

Dial 1 for a politician of your race

We like to pretend American racial tribalism is gone, but Americans don’t seem to have gotten the message. In a recent experiment, robocalls were placed to thousands of residents in Maryland who lived in districts that happened to have both a white and black Democratic state representative: “Hello. Would you like to tell Delegate [Randomized Name of One of Subject’s State Representatives] your opinion on a political issue? Press 1 if you would participate. Press 2 if you would not participate.” Residents were more willing to participate if the named representative happened to be of the same race. This implies that “politicians receive racially distorted communication, hearing disproportionately infrequently from constituents unlike them. The fact that most racial minorities have white representatives may thus help explain both minorities’ less frequent communication to their representatives and the diminished substantive representation minorities typically receive.”

Broockman, D., “Distorted Communication, Unequal Representation: Constituents Communicate Less to Representatives Not of Their Race,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Does trade hurt immigration reform?

Why has it been so hard to enact immigration reform in Congress? According to a political scientist at Yale University, one factor that’s ironically now making it harder for politicians to embrace mass immigration is the legacy of the last half-century of free trade. Facing import competition and the option to offshore production, domestic firms haven’t needed as many low-skill workers here at home, so they haven’t lobbied Congress as much for mass immigration.

Peters, M., “Trade, Foreign Direct Investment and Immigration Policy Making in the US,” International Organization (forthcoming).

Integrity 1, PR 0


Is “corporate culture” just a lot of cheap talk? An analysis by financial economists found that the PR on a company’s website appears to be uncorrelated with its financial performance. However, employees’ positive opinion of management integrity is correlated with “higher productivity, profitability, better industrial relations, and higher level of attractiveness to prospective job applicants.” Also, the management of publicly traded companies receives lower integrity ratings than the management of private companies.

Guiso, L. et al., “The Value of Corporate Culture,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2013).

Zap! That’s gorgeous

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Beauty is in the brain of the beholder—or, more specifically, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s what a research team in Europe found after applying a small electric current to that part of the brain for 20 minutes. Relative to sham stimulation (i.e., no current), it increased subjects’ aesthetic ratings of representational artwork and photographs. Ratings of color or of abstract images were not affected.

Cattaneo, Z. et al., “The World Can Look Better: Enhancing Beauty Experience with Brain Stimulation,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis can be reached at