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Uncommon Knowledge

Eww, your baby is so cute!

Surprising insights from the social sciences

Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff

More money, fewer abortions

What’s the relationship between welfare and abortion? Since family economics are known to be important in the abortion decision, it might seem that government support for families should make women more willing to give birth and thus reduce the abortion rate. However, a recent study found a somewhat different, and puzzling, result. Using state-by-state data from 1975 to 2005, the study did indeed find that a $1,000 increase in the maximum amount of the Earned Income Tax Credit--essentially an income boost for poorer families--reduced the abortion rate by about 8 percent. However, that same $1,000 increase also reduced birth rates and pregnancy rates by about the same amount. In other words, government support for families doesn’t appear to affect the abortion decision itself but, instead, as the author of the study put it, affects “earlier decisions about the level of sexual activity and contraceptive intensity.”


Herbst, C., “The Earned Income Tax Credit and Abortion,” Social Science Research (November 2011).

Wins (and losses) teach the wrong lessons

The book (and recently released motion picture) “Moneyball” highlights the value of statistical analysis in Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, a new analysis from economists at Brigham Young University suggests that the National Football League could use its own “Moneyball” revolution. Coaches are having trouble figuring out which plays to stick with: They’re too eager to change plays after a loss, and too reluctant to change plays after a win. For example, after a narrow win--which, statistically speaking, is about as informative as a coin toss--coaches tend to stick with their previous mix of run and pass plays more than they do after a narrow loss.

Lefgren, L. et al., “Sticking with What (Barely) Worked,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2011).

Eww, isn’t he cute?

That the consequences of reproduction can seem quite off-putting--childbirth and soiled diapers, to name just two--doesn’t seem to deter people from engaging in it. New research shows how we might overcome our innate feelings of disgust in this case. Young women were exposed to either neutral words or words associated with motherhood. They were then shown pictures of babies with runny noses, dirty diapers, and other disgusting characteristics. For women in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, but not for other women, being primed with motherhood words diminished feelings of disgust at the baby pictures.


Shidlovski, D. & Hassin, R., “When Pooping Babies Become More Appealing: The Effects of Nonconscious Goal Pursuit on Experienced Emotions,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

The buyout party

How much does politics affect the business environment? When it comes to leveraged buyouts--that is, buying established companies by taking on a lot of debt--it appears to have a pretty direct influence. A recent analysis of leveraged-buyout investments from 1980 to 2003 found that states that voted Republican in the previous presidential election experienced significantly more buyouts, and that those buyouts were more successful over time. There was an even bigger boost in states that switched from voting Democratic to voting Republican, while there was a bigger loss in states that switched from voting Republican to voting Democratic. These swings in activity suggest that leveraged-buyout investors act on the promise of change, since it takes a while for tax and regulatory policy to catch up with the ballot box.

Pe’er, A. & Gottschalg, O., “Red and Blue: The Relationship between the Institutional Context and the Performance of Leveraged Buyout Investments,” Strategic Management Journal (December 2011).


Better identification through headscarves

Does your culture affect your ability to recognize people? Researchers showed people in Britain and people in Egypt a video of a woman stealing something. In some cases, the woman in the video was wearing a headscarf; in others, her hair was uncovered. Later, when given a photo lineup, British witnesses were much more accurate in identifying the woman if neither the suspect nor the women in the photos wore headscarves. Egyptian witnesses, on the other hand, were somewhat more accurate if the suspect and the women in the photos both wore headscarves. This held true whether the suspect was Egyptian or British, suggesting that Middle Easterners are more attuned to central features of the face.

Megreya, A. et al., “The Headscarf Effect: Direct Evidence from the Eyewitness Identification Paradigm,” Applied Cognitive Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.