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Social Studies: Only so much you can worry about; liberals in college; discounts on Oath Keeper membership

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers, in 2017. An economist analyzed the group's membership records and tracked how the organization morphs its messages. "Surprisingly," the researcher wrote, "the propensity to join an organization that commits political violence is highly influenced by an $11 discount.”Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Viral climate

A study found that there was a large drop in the number of tweets that included the words “climate change” from 2019 to 2020 and 2021. Higher daily numbers of COVID cases and deaths were associated with fewer climate change tweets, even controlling for the amount of climate change coverage on TV and the number of wildfires and hurricanes in the news. In other words, there seems to be a “finite pool of worry” in the public square.

Smirnov, O. & Hsieh, P.-H., “COVID-19, Climate Change, and the Finite Pool of Worry in 2019 to 2021 Twitter Discussions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 2022).


Crazy elections

Researchers surveyed Americans right before the 2020 presidential election and resurveyed the same people right after. Two months later, the researchers did the same thing with residents of Georgia around the time of the US Senate runoff election in that state. Conspiracy-theory beliefs tended to decrease among participants who supported the winners in both elections (i.e., Democrats), while such beliefs tended to increase among participants who supported the losers (i.e., Republicans).

Kim, S. et al., “Do Voting and Election Outcomes Predict Changes in Conspiracy Beliefs? Evidence From Two High-Profile U.S. Elections,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (November 2022).

Legacy admissions

Prestigious universities are known to lean to the political left. But do the political orientations of graduates simply reflect students’ orientations when they enrolled, or does attending a prestigious university shift orientations? To answer this question, a study looked at students who attended schools in the University of California system. After voters in that state banned affirmative action with Proposition 209 in 1996, the university system began giving admissions preference to students in the top 4 percent of their high school class. Comparing students just above this cutoff with those just below it, the study found that admission in this context led to a shift in post-graduation voter registration away from the Republican Party and a higher likelihood of voting in primaries, particularly on the Democratic side. This did not appear to be explained by indoctrination by faculty. It was better explained by higher rates of on-campus living and exposure to peers who were more liberal and affluent and less white and Christian than students at less prestigious colleges and universities.


Firoozi, D., “The Effect of Research Universities on Student Partisanship and Turnout,” University of California, Irvine (October 2022).

Keeping company

An economist analyzed the membership and messaging records of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia organization that played a major role in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Instead of being run like a social club, the Oath Keepers are “best summarized by a model of a profit maximizing firm. . . . There is no signal of commitment; they accept anyone willing to pay dues, offer discounts to increase membership and change their message” to align with the potential membership market. The hard-hitting conclusion: “Surprisingly, the propensity to join an organization that commits political violence is highly influenced by an $11 discount.”

Klinenberg, D., “Selling Violent Extremism,” University of California, Santa Barbara (October 2022).

Field of relative dreams

Are interdependent (i.e., collectivist) cultures happier? One might think so, since social relationships are important for happiness, but a new study suggests otherwise. Survey data from across China shows that people in rice-farming regions, which have a more interdependent culture, are less happy than people in wheat-farming regions, which have a less interdependent culture, even controlling for other demographic and regional characteristics. To test the effect of interdependence on happiness more directly, the researchers surveyed farmers at two neighboring government-created farms, one growing rice and one growing wheat. Rice farmers compared themselves with others more than wheat farmers did, and this reduced their happiness, even controlling for age, gender, education, and income.


Lee, C.-S. et al., “People in Historically Rice-Farming Areas Are Less Happy and Socially Compare More Than People in Wheat-Farming Areas,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).