Uncommon Knowledge

When boys get more competitive (or don’t)

And other surprising insights from the social sciences


Peace through complaining

In 1974, in response to a rash of prison riots, the Federal Bureau of Prisons initiated a grievance system that remains in place today. Prisoners have 20 days to file a complaint from the date of an incident, and prison officials have 20 days to respond. Although this system might seem like window dressing, a criminologist with the US Marshals Service finds otherwise. According to his analysis, late responses — but not judgments on the complaints themselves — are associated with more inmate violence. In other words, inmates seem to be satisfied when their grievances are heard, regardless of outcome, and angered only by a lack of response.

Bierie, D., “Procedural Justice and Prison Violence: Examining Complaints among Federal Inmates (2000–2007),” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (forthcoming).

Throwing cash at chaos

We live in a volatile, unpredictable world, but how you respond to that may depend on whether you feel like you can solve that problem with money. In a series of experiments in which people were prompted to think about chaos, those who reported higher socio-economic status responded by becoming more materialistic, while people of lower socio-economic status responded by becoming more communitarian.

Piff, P. et al., “Class, Chaos, and the Construction of Community,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When gender norms sink in

Research has shown that many of the behavioral differences between men and women are culturally imprinted rather than innate. Now, researchers have zeroed in on just when the paths of men and women might diverge — at least when it comes to competitiveness. Children in both matrilineal and patriarchal villages in Northeast India were asked to toss tennis balls into a bucket 10 feet away. They could choose whether to be rewarded solely for their own performance or relative to their peers, the latter choice being an indicator of competitiveness. In preadolescent children, there was no difference in competitiveness between the two social environments. However, around puberty, girls became less competitive — and boys more competitive — in the patriarchal environment, while there was no such divergence in the matrilineal environment.

Andersen, S. et al., “Gender, Competitiveness and Socialization at a Young Age: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

He’s guilty! Now vote
for me


In many jurisdictions, judges are elected, not appointed. Both supporters and critics agree that judicial elections increase accountability. But a new study suggests that this accountability may actually work against fair judicial outcomes, with judges being swayed by election concerns. Superior Court judges in Washington State handed out significantly longer sentences for serious crimes as the judges approached reelection. Just after elections, sentences drop sharply. The authors claim that the effect is robust: “In contrast to much of the existing literature, we are able to test — and rule out — alternatives to the hypothesis that longer sentences are the effect of political pressure on judges.” Retiring judges don’t exhibit the same pattern, nor do sentences for less serious crimes, which are less politically salient.

Berdejó, C. & Yuchtman, N., “Crime, Punishment, and Politics: An Analysis of Political Cycles in Criminal Sentencing,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

The power of quick ID

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Because eyewitness testimony plays an important role in criminal prosecutions, the procedure used in lineups must be sound. A recent study suggests one way to improve upon prevailing practice. Instead of asking witnesses for a positive identification, without any time pressure, researchers asked witnesses to indicate their confidence level in the guilt of each suspect on a scale from 0-100 percent in less than three seconds. This yielded a significant improvement in accuracy, even for events witnessed a week earlier.

Brewer, N. et al., “Identifying the Bad Guy in a Lineup Using Confidence Judgments under Deadline Pressure,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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