uncommon knowledge

Nazi propaganda is still working

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Joseph Goebbels.

Via Wikimedia

Joseph Goebbels was the Nazis’ propaganda minister.

New research is showing how tremendously effective Nazi propaganda was. In fact, it’s still working. An analysis of survey data from Germany in 1996 and 2006 reveals that native German respondents who were born in the 1930s showed significantly more anti-Semitism than those who were born earlier or later, even controlling for other individual and contextual factors. This was especially true for residents of areas with an early history of anti-Semitism — as measured by vote shares of anti-Semitic parties from 1890 to1912.

And while this generation is dying off, younger residents of those same areas also exhibited more anti-Semitism, even controlling for historical anti-Semitism — what the researchers term an “echo effect.” Other sources of propaganda — radio, movies, or Nazi member prevalence — did not appear to explain the attitudes of the 1930s generation, suggesting that propaganda in schooling and youth organizations was the source.

Voigtländer, N. & Voth, H.-J., “Nazi Indoctrination and Anti-Semitic Beliefs in Germany,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

The logic of Legos


Are we getting better or worse at thinking creatively? A new study thinks we may be getting worse: “Google provides immediate answers, teachers ‘teach to the test,’ and over-scheduled lives leave fewer opportunities to discover or pursue new interests. Essentially, many of the problems we face on a daily basis are becoming increasingly more structured and well-defined. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the toy aisle. What used to be a staple of childhood, a box of loose Lego bricks and pieces, has been crowded out on the store shelves by the company’s themed kits.”

So, in an experiment, participants were asked to either build a Lego kit or just build something from a bag of Legos. Those who built the kit subsequently earned a lower score on a creative drawing exercise. Another experiment found that showing participants the design on the Lego box — rather than providing the step-by-step instructions — was responsible for the effect, which led to lower originality of the uses that participants came up with for a paper clip. A third experiment found that preferences were affected, too. Those who worked on several well-defined tasks (with a single, correct solution) — compared to working on creative tasks — were subsequently more likely to choose to play with a Lego kit rather than just a bag of Legos.

Moreau, P. & Engeset, M., “The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with Legos Influences Creativity,” Journal of Marketing Research (forthcoming).

Faking it

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Counterfeiting money isn’t rocket science. The Secret Service recently prosecuted a woman who was making counterfeit money by bleaching low-denomination bills and then printing a higher-denomination image on them. But there’s also a deeper game of cat and mouse involved, as modeled in a recent study by two economists. They predict — and confirm with data from the government — that the fraction of bills in circulation that are counterfeit is actually the lowest for both small and large denominations, relative to middling denominations. That’s because people are both much more careful when dealing with large denominations and don’t bother with the small stuff.

Quercioli, E. & Smith, L., “The Economics of Counterfeiting,” Econometrica (May 2015).

Deep green

Carbon-dioxide emissions have generally increased with growth in population and affluence. But researchers at Michigan State University want to emphasize another factor: environmentalism. Their analysis of data across all 50 states from 1990-2007 finds that the average score given by the League of Conservation Voters to a state’s congressional delegation is strongly associated with lower emissions in that state, even controlling for a state’s population, output per capita, employment rate, and political ideology.

Dietz, T. et al., “Political Influences on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from US States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Eye of the beholder

Are we objective about vivaciousness? Or are we just responding to the stereotype that pretty people are happy? Researchers asked people to judge a set of faces on either their attractiveness or their expression. Faces of highly attractive women tended to be perceived as expressing more positivity, whereas faces of unattractive women tended to be perceived as expressing more negativity. Some of this was explained by actual differences in the expressions of the women. Faces of men of different attractiveness did not exhibit actual differences in expression, but faces of less-attractive men were perceived less positively.

Rennels, J. & Kayl, A., “Differences in Expressivity Based on Attractiveness: Target or Perceiver Effects?” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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



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