Ideas

Uncommon Knowledge

How rain changes voter habits

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

As long as I’m not last

No one likes to be last; in fact, it may even affect how charitable we feel toward others. A study being published in a top economics journal proposes that moderately poor people are less supportive of redistribution than we might assume because people have a general aversion to being in last place—thus, the moderately poor don’t want to see those who are poorer brought up to the same level, where they’d all be in last place, so to speak. In wealth-distribution games, people took extra risks to move out of last place, while people in second-to-last place were less willing than others to help a lower-ranked person. Likewise, in public surveys, people who earned just above the minimum wage were the least supportive of raising the minimum wage, and general support for helping the poor was lower than expected among those who were moderately poor.

Kuziemko, I. et al., “‘Last-Place Aversion’: Evidence and Redistributive Implications,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming).

Sexiness: bad for the cause

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) attracted lots of attention recently by featuring naked women in its ads. Presumably, the organization expected the ads to attract not only eyeballs but also support. However, a new study suggests that when you use sex to try to sell an ethical cause, it can backfire. Both men and women who viewed sexualized PETA ads became less supportive of PETA and came up with fewer ideas to raise awareness and concern for animals, compared with people who saw nonsexualized PETA ads.

Bongiorno, R. et al., “When Sex Doesn’t Sell: Using Sexualized Images of Women Reduces Support for Ethical Campaigns,” PLoS ONE (December 2013).

Vote? But it rained last time

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Could this year’s weather mess with a political candidate’s chances in 2017? In a new analysis matching weather data to county-level presidential election data, economists at Princeton find that not only does rain dampen turnout today, but, because people tend to get into the habit of voting or not voting, it dampens turnout in the next election four years later—specifically, 0.7 to 0.9 percentage points for every percentage-point drop in turnout today. Moreover, these changes in voting habits appear to exhibit a social-multiplier effect—feeding back into the rest of the community’s voting habits. This suggests that political parties should make turnout an even higher priority.

Fujiwara, T. et al., “Estimating Habit Formation in Voting,” National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2013).

Boy chimps will be boy chimps

How much of the difference in the behavior of boys and girls is due to cultural socialization and how much is due to biology? One interesting source of insight is to look at our relatively close relations, the chimpanzees. A new study of wild chimpanzee infants (30 to 36 months old) by a team of researchers, including Jane Goodall, reveals that male infants interact with more individuals overall and more adult males. The researchers theorize that this is linked to adult social roles, where “stable male-female social bonds are rare . . . while strong male-male bonds can be enduring.” The researchers conclude that “while gender socialization in humans may play a role in magnifying the differences between young males and females, these behavioural sex differences are fundamentally rooted in our biological and evolutionary heritage.”

Lonsdorf, E. et al., “Boys Will Be Boys: Sex Differences in Wild Infant Chimpanzee Social Interactions,” Animal Behaviour (February 2014).

To trust more, travel widely

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” That quote from Mark Twain is cited in a new study, which finds support for at least part of his proposition. People who had traveled to a larger number of countries were more trusting, whereas total time spent traveling—in and of itself—was not associated with being more trusting. This wasn’t explained by preexisting differences in personality. In experiments, people who were asked to recall a multicountry trip became more trusting than people who were asked to recall a single-country trip. And it was the experience of difference that mattered: People who were asked to list the differences among countries visited became more trusting than people who were asked to list the similarities.

Cao, J. et al., “Does Travel Broaden the Mind? Breadth of Foreign Experiences Increases Generalized Trust,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.
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