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Uncommon Knowledge

Kennedys and Bushes really are different

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Kennedys and Bushes really are different

During the 2007-2008 Democratic presidential primary contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, one argument against Clinton was that her election would just be perpetuating the political dynasties—Bush and Clinton—of the previous two decades. A new analysis suggests that these electoral dynasties do matter—in fact, leaders from those dynasties may make different decisions in office. Among governors who couldn’t run for reelection, those who had close relatives who subsequently sought elective office supported lower tax and spending policies than governors without such relatives. In fact, the lack of electoral accountability that came with term limits was largely offset by the prospective electoral accountability inherent in protecting the family name.


Crowley, G. & Reece, W., “Dynastic Politica12l Privilege and Electoral Accountability: The Case of U.S. Governors, 1950-2005,” Economic Inquiry (forthcoming).

Hunters were socialists

Whether through taxes or charity, most people take it for granted that those with a lot are supposed to share with those who have little. But people could just as well hoard what they have—so why do we share at all? A recent experiment suggests that it’s because of the uncertainty of the hunt in our hunter-gatherer past. Researchers set up a virtual hunter-gatherer environment where men and women could interact anonymously as uniquely colored avatars. People who cultivated resources with small payoffs but low uncertainty—i.e., they gathered—shared little. On the other hand, people who cultivated resources with big payoffs but high uncertainty—i.e., they hunted—evolved into sharing groups and, as a result, were more successful. Men were especially likely to pursue the big-payoff/high-uncertainty strategy and to share their gains.

Kaplan, H. et al., “Risk and the Evolution of Human Exchange,” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (Aug. 7, 2012).

Productivity trick: Hide!

In recent years, there’s been a big movement toward open offices in the United States, partly based on the notion that transparency is good for business. But based on a recent study, the lack of privacy in those offices could be stifling innovation and efficiency. An in-depth study in a Chinese factory by a researcher from Harvard uncovered a “transparency paradox”: Workers in an open environment hide their procedural innovations from management for fear of being caught deviating from the “best practices” script. The workers are so good at hiding this behavior that the researcher had to arrange for several undergraduates who were originally from China to infiltrate the assembly line as regular workers. When management wasn’t nearby, the workers used “little tricks” to improve efficiency, but, when management approached, the workers went back on script. The researcher then tried an experiment, with the following result: “Performance on each of the four lines surrounded by curtains, measured in defect-free units per hour (UPH), increased by as much as 10–15 percent after the first week and maintained a lead over the 28 control lines for the remaining five months of the experiment....[T]he curtained lines quickly also became the loudest, with the most talking inside.”


Bernstein, E., “The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control,” Administrative Science Quarterly (forthcoming).

So Don Juan was a tiny baby?

When parents announce their new baby’s birth weight, they may be announcing more likelihoods about that child’s future than they realize. A recent analysis based on college students found that males with higher birth weights grow up to have a lower prevalence of ADHD and less interest in casual sex. The author theorizes that smaller males, who might otherwise be disadvantaged in mating, compensate by being more opportunistic.


Frederick, M., “Birth Weight Predicts Scores on the ADHD Self-Report Scale and Attitudes towards Casual Sex in College Men: A Short-Term Life History Strategy?” Evolutionary Psychology (Spring 2012).

Grab first, think later

From an early age, we learn that it’s generally better to be first in line, and in a series of choices, to grab the first option that appeals to us. As adults, of course, we’re supposed to be thoughtful and patient. But a recent study suggests that the first-is-best instinct is lurking just below the surface. When allowed to make a thoughtful choice between essentially equivalent teams, salespeople, bubble gum packages, or criminals up for parole, people didn’t display a preference for the option that was presented first. However, when giving more automatic responses, people exhibited a significant preference for the first option.

Carney, D. & Banaji, M., “First Is Best,” PLoS ONE (June 2012).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at