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Social Studies: Cultural staying power; meddling parents; looking tough on crime

New York's Mario Cuomo, seen here in 1984, was an example of a Democratic governor eager to appear tough on crime.AP

Ghosts of cultures past

A study newly published in a top economics journal quantitatively analyzes a large database of folklore motifs from nearly a thousand cultures going back hundreds to thousands of years. It turns out that the folklore of the past still shapes cultures today. Cultures whose folklore more often depicted unsuccessful tricksters are more trusting and prosperous today; cultures whose folklore more often depicted heroes overcoming challenges are more risk-taking and entrepreneurial today; and cultures whose folklore more often portrayed females as submissive are less accepting of females in the workforce today.

Michalopoulos, S. & Xue, M., “Folklore,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming).



Researchers found that parents who helped their child with a puzzle by stepping in to do it themselves also reported that their child was less persistent in general. Of course, this correlation could be driven by the child’s actual personality and not the parents’ behavior. So to assess causality, the researchers conducted an experiment that randomly assigned children to do a puzzle with an adult who stepped in to take over, and then observed the child’s persistence on a subsequent independent task. Children who did not have an adult take over the experience were more persistent on the second task.

Leonard, J. et al., “Children Persist Less When Adults Take Over,” Child Development (forthcoming).

Prisoner of the election

A political scientist found that Democratic governors who barely won their elections subsequently expanded their states’ prison systems more than Republicans who barely won, ostensibly because these Democrats felt compelled to fight the stereotype of being soft on crime. As an example, the political scientist cites Mario Cuomo, who “presided over a massive $7 billion prison construction program and added more prison beds to the state than all the previous governors in New York history combined.”


Gunderson, A., “Who Punishes More? Partisanship, Punitive Policies, and the Puzzle of Democratic Governors,” Political Research Quarterly (forthcoming).

First impressions

A study suggests that user reviews for products on shopping websites are surprisingly contingent on the positivity or negativity of a site’s first review for that product. Researchers looked at the same vacuum cleaners and toasters on Amazon’s and Best Buy’s websites and noted that the products had lower ratings and fewer reviews if the first review was negative, even when it had been written years earlier. This effect also showed up in comparisons of the same product on Amazon’s US and Canada websites.

Park, S. et al., “The Fateful First Consumer Review,” Marketing Science (forthcoming).