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Social Studies: How college football affects politics; you’re built to survive an ice age; the most intimidating tennis players

Surprising findings from the social sciences.

Novak Djokovic at the Western & Southern Open in Ohio this month.Matthew Stockman/Getty

Fake news for the win

A study by a newly minted PhD in economics from MIT suggests that big college football games in October 2016 distracted voters from seeing fake news stories that favored Donald Trump. Counties around colleges that played a big game in that month had fewer online searches for pro-Trump fake-news-related terms and had lower percentages of votes for Trump than would otherwise have been expected, given other political demographics. The extent of fake-news consumption didn’t have an impact on turnout or down-ballot election results, suggesting the presidential race was uniquely affected.

Cheng, A., “Does Fake News Affect Voting Behavior? An Instrumental Variable Approach Using Big College Football Games,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology (July 2023).


Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.

Based on an economic model and anthropological and climate data, an economist argues that the big brains of modern humans were precipitated by longer and more severe ice ages in the last million years. Natural selection favored bigger brains as parents needed to be proficient with fire, shelter, and communication to successfully raise offspring.

Petersen, B., “An Economic Model and Evidence of the Evolution of Human Intelligence in the Middle Pleistocene: Climate Change and Assortative Mating,” PLoS ONE (August 2023).

Thinking diversity

Are demographically diverse groups more creative? The evidence on that question is mixed. But the public appears to think it is true, at least according to a new study. For example, when researchers asked study subjects to bet real money on whether a team of three guys would come up with creative uses for a newspaper, people bet less on a team that was all white than on a multiracial team or even a team that was all Black or all Asian. This stereotype was counteracted if the nondiverse group was depicted as having more cognitive diversity (e.g., different backgrounds, occupations, personalities), which suggests that people use demographic diversity as a proxy for cognitive diversity.


Proudfoot, D. et al., “The Diversity Heuristic: How Team Demographic Composition Influences Judgments of Team Creativity,” Management Science (forthcoming).

Exporting revolution

As noted by professors at Stanford and Yale, initial attempts to storm the Bastille in the summer of 1789 were unsuccessful, but the tide turned when French veterans of the American Revolution stepped in. (Fun fact: The following year, George Washington received one of the keys to the Bastille from the Marquis de Lafayette.) The professors found that areas in France with more veterans who had served in America were more likely to submit pro-democracy grievances before the start of the French Revolution and were more likely to mobilize for the Revolution once it started. The professors also note that a majority-Black militia from Haiti that was brought with French troops to fight at Savannah in the American Revolution played a central role in Haiti’s own revolution.

Jha, S. & Wilkinson, S., “Revolutionary Contagion,” Stanford University (March 2023).

Tournaments of champions

Analysis of hundreds of tennis tournaments reveals that top-ranked players who fell short of superstar status were psyched out by the mere possibility that they’d have to face a superstar player. The non-superstars were less likely to win matches and more likely to quit matches if the superstars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, or Andy Murray were in a tournament, especially when one of those superstars was a potential opponent in the next round. This effect vanished after the superstars were eliminated from the tournament or if a superstar was in a slump or playing on a surface on which he was known to be weaker.


Deutscher, C. et al., “Who’s Afraid of the GOATs? — Shadow Effects of Tennis Superstars,” Journal of Economic Psychology (forthcoming).