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Social Studies: Basketball bias; hearing people out; the prosecutor on your side

Economists spotted small but telling signs of bias in data on NBA referees' calls and non-calls at the end of close games.Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Researchers analyzed the NBA’s reviews of referee judgments in the last two minutes of close games and found good news and bad news when it comes to racial bias. The good news is that foul calls did not appear to be influenced by referee bias. The bad news is that incorrect non-calls — times when the referee should’ve called a foul but didn’t — did exhibit racial bias. Players were more likely to get away with a foul if they were the same race as the referee, even when the researchers controlled the data to account for other factors that could explain the phenomenon. However, Black referees were not biased in favor of Black players when the other two referees on the court were white, whereas white referees favored white players only when the other two referees were Black. Incorrect foul calls carry a long-term penalty for referees — they make it less likely a ref will be chosen for playoff games — but incorrect non-calls incur no penalties, suggesting that in-group favoritism is more likely to arise if it’s not costly to the decision maker.


Mocan, N. & Osborne-Christenson, E., “In-Group Favoritism and Peer Effects in Wrongful Acquittals: NBA Referees as Judges,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2022).


Left-leaning activists trying to increase support for immigrants or for Joe Biden reported that their door-to-door and phone outreach campaigns left them with more positive sentiments toward right-leaning voters but didn’t change their sentiment toward left-leaning voters. This was attributed to the specific conversational approach used in these campaigns, in which activists shared, and asked the voters to share, reasons and stories to explain their positions. The researchers say this indicates that two-way conversations can temper partisanship.

Kalla, J. & Broockman, D., “Voter Outreach Campaigns Can Reduce Affective Polarization Among Implementing Political Activists: Evidence From Inside Three Campaigns,” American Political Science Review (forthcoming).


Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Comparing polling responses in the days before and after Nov. 7, 2020, when the Associated Press called the US election for Biden, political scientists found that support in Spain for the country’s far-right political party dropped significantly after Trump’s defeat, particularly among those who had previously supported right-wing parties. This suggests that Trump’s defeat may have helped pare back some of the supposed global growth in the populist right that his victory four years earlier had ostensibly inspired.

Turnbull-Dugarte, S. & Rama, J., “When the US Far-Right Sneezes, the European Far-Right Catches a Cold. Quasi-Experimental Evidence of Electoral Contagion From Spain,” Electoral Studies (forthcoming).

Same-sex prosecution

An analysis of thousands of federal prosecutions reveals that defendants who are the same gender as the lead prosecutor are charged with lower-severity offenses, and therefore ultimately receive shorter sentences. This finding holds up even after controlling for other characteristics of the defendant, the type of offense, and the particular prosecutor and courthouse involved.

Didwania, S., “Gender Favoritism Among Criminal Prosecutors,” Journal of Law and Economics (February 2022).