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Social Studies: Mapping distrust; the cost of avoiding censorship; getting to know the cops

The Charles Bridge in Prague, on which construction began in 1357. Political developments from that time may still be affecting attitudes among Europeans today.Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Borderline cynical

By analyzing recent survey data, political scientists found that people tend to have lower levels of social engagement and less trust in strangers and the government in the parts of Europe that have had the most changes in national borders since the year 1200. The researchers believe this is because border changes disrupt social networks and weaken political cohesion.

Abramson, S. et al., “Historical Border Changes, State Building, and Contemporary Trust in Europe,” American Political Science Review (forthcoming).

Censorship on the cheap

When governments block access to information, people often find a workaround — for example, the use of VPNs, online services that provide encrypted connections to foreign websites. But that doesn’t mean the censorship has no effect; using VPNs can be cumbersome enough to make a difference. In 2017, the Ukrainian government ordered Internet service providers to block VKontakte, a popular social-media website based in Russia. According to a new study, the vast majority of Ukrainian users were still able to log on to the website after the blockade, as evidenced by publicly visible time stamps. Even so, public postings dropped by about half, including those by users with many contacts in Russia. As the author of the study notes: “A pro-Ukrainian resident in Kyiv explained to me in an interview why he no longer uses VKontakte on a daily basis: the VPN on his PC required more clicks and slowed down the connection by a few seconds. Interestingly, the same person could enter VKontakte automatically on his smartphone without extra clicks, likely due to a preinstalled VPN. Despite this, he still decided to stop using VKontakte as his main platform because he felt it was too troublesome to manage his account only from a smartphone.”

Golovchenko, Y., “Fighting Propaganda With Censorship: A Study of the Ukrainian Ban on Russian Social Media,” Journal of Politics (forthcoming).


Revolving door


Using a mathematical model, political scientists show that hiring industry insiders into government can, counterintuitively, reduce the industry’s ideological influence over policy. This is because former industry insiders can boost the government’s policymaking expertise, making it less dependent on industry in formulating and implementing quality policy, which in turn reduces the need for making ideological concessions to industry.

Hübert, R. et al., “Going Into Government: How Hiring From Special Interests Reduces Their Influence,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Known unknowns

In a series of experiments, researchers found that providing basic information about an anonymous stranger not only makes people think they know the stranger better but it also makes them think the stranger knows them a little better too. In turn, this intuition leads people to think that it would be easier for the stranger to catch them lying or cheating. The researchers tested this in a real-world experiment with the New York City Police Department and New York City Housing Authority, in which similar housing developments were randomly assigned to receive some personalizing information about a neighborhood police officer. In a survey two months later, the residents who received the information were more likely to believe the officer would find out whether they committed a crime. The researchers believe this experiment may even have reduced crime in those developments.

Shah, A. & LaForest, M., “Knowledge About Others Reduces One’s Own Sense of Anonymity,” Nature (forthcoming).

The essence of legalese


A study from MIT spells out just how bad the language in legal contracts is. The worst offender is the center-embedded clause. For example: “In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, being hereinafter referred to as the ‘Total Payments’) would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced.” A more comprehensible version might be: “In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced. All payments and benefits by the Company shall hereinafter be referred to as the ‘Total Payments.’ This includes the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof.” Indeed, people had more difficulty understanding and recalling contract language written in traditional legalese, particularly when it included center-embedded clauses, compared with simplified language. The researchers say their findings “undermine the specialized concepts account of legal theory, according to which law is a system built upon expert knowledge of technical concepts.” In other words, what sets lawyers apart from laypeople is not necessarily their greater familiarity with legal concepts. It’s that they’ve been trained in how to handle such esoteric language.

Martínez, E. et al., “Poor Writing, Not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language,” Cognition (forthcoming).