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Uncommon Knowledge

Why Madoff’s boxer shorts sell at a discount

And more surprsing insights from the social sciences

AN auction house employee displayed a pair of men’s boxer shorts that once belonged to Bernard Madoff.

Bloomberg

AN auction house employee displayed a pair of men’s boxer shorts that once belonged to Bernard Madoff.

The ‘JFK touched this’ effect

Can a little bit of Kennedy literally rub off on you? Apparently, people think so. Yale researchers analyzed the estate auctions of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, and Bernard and Ruth Madoff. Even controlling for the auction house’s pre-auction estimates, items that were seen as more likely to have been in physical contact with Kennedy, Onassis, and Monroe garnered significantly higher prices. In the Madoff auction, physical contact was associated with lower prices for the convicted financial criminal Bernard, but not his wife. Likewise, in an experiment, telling participants that an admired celebrity’s sweater would be sterilized resulted in a significantly lower bid—an effect that was larger than telling participants that the sweater could not be resold. However, if the celebrity was despised, sterilizing the sweater resulted in a higher bid.

Newman, G. & Bloom, P., “Physical Contact Influences How Much People Pay at Celebrity Auctions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Drones make us more sensitive

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One argument against the rise of high-precision drone weapons has been that they dehumanize war—reducing our sensitivity to the costs of war by making deaths seem more remote. A recent study suggests their effects might be quite the opposite. Americans presented with scenarios involving strikes on militants in the Middle East were more sensitive to civilian casualties than to US military casualties or mission failure—and their sensitivity to civilian casualties was higher if strikes involved precision weapons rather than low-precision bombing.

Walsh, J., “Precision Weapons, Civilian Casualties, and Support for the Use of Force,” Political Psychology (forthcoming).

When women negotiate for themselves

In explaining the gender pay gap, women’s negotiating skills have come in for scrutiny. But is it really a matter of negotiating skill, or relative position in the negotiation? In an experiment in Germany that pitted men and women against each other as prospective employer and employee negotiating a wage, women acting as employers, were “able to reach bargaining outcomes that are not worse than those of male employers.” This parity shifted, however, when women were in the role of employee: “Men propose wages that are more in their own favor when bargaining with women and also obtain low wages when they are acting as employers and the women as employees.”

Dittrich, M. et al., “Gender Differences in Experimental Wage Negotiations,” Economic Inquiry (April 2014).

Generosity can backfire

If you damage someone else’s property—and you’re the kind of person who likes to make amends—think twice about giving more than you owe. When considering situations where financial losses were unfairly imposed by one person on another, people judged a perpetrator who offered restitution that exceeded actual costs to be less moral and less trustworthy.

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Haesevoets, T. et al., “What Money Can’t Buy: The Psychology of Financial Overcompensation,” Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming).

Segregation by SAT score

One of the core objectives of affirmative action is to expose whites and minorities to each other. However, a study of friendship patterns at elite colleges suggests that affirmative action may have unintended consequences for interracial relationships. Black students had a substantially higher share of same-race friends than would be expected—given the proportion of blacks in the student body—at elite colleges than they did in high school. The researchers found that the segregation is partly caused by academic gaps between black and white students, “with students preferring to form friendships with those of similar academic backgrounds.”

Arcidiacono, P. et al., “Racial Segregation Patterns in Selective Universities,” Journal of Law and Economics (November 2013).

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

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