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Hello, my entirely unique name is: Dave

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

iStockPhoto; Globe Staff Photoillustration

Is charity partisan?

Are conservatives more generous than liberals? Arthur Brooks, president of prominent conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, recently made the case that they are. However, a new paper by a pair of MIT graduate students challenges this claim. The authors found no statistically significant difference in overall charitable donations across the political spectrum. They did find differences in how ideologues donate: Conservatives tend to donate more to religious organizations, especially their own congregations, while liberals tend to donate more to secular causes. In addition, partisans seem to react to the party of the president: Small nonprofits in Democratic states get more donations when a Democrat is president; small nonprofits in Republican states get more donations when a Republican is president.

Margolis, M. & Sances, M., "Who Really Gives? Partisanship and Charitable Giving in the United States," Massachusetts Institute of Technology (September 2012).

No one’s named Dave like I am

If you have a common name like Kevin or Kate, can you still think of yourself as having a special name? Apparently you can—and you will, darn it. A psychology professor at Plymouth State University found that students judged their own name to be more unusual than peers judged it. This was true for both men and women, common and rare names, and names with alternative spellings, and was especially pronounced for those named after an entertainer. Perceiving one’s name as unique also correlated with liking it.

Kulig, J., "What's in a Name? Our False Uniqueness!" British Journal of Social Psychology (forthcoming).

How expectations create discrimination

In many fields, women are concentrated in the middle of the job ladder—neither at the top nor the bottom in terms of authority and pay. Some people—for example, Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University—have argued that this may be the result of lower variation in women’s “human capital,” or ability and education: that women’s abilities actually do cluster in the middle, while men’s show up at the top and bottom of the curve. But newly published research suggests that the explanation may have more to do with discrimination based on people believing this in the first place: As the authors write, “the belief that the female human capital distribution has a lower variance than the male distribution can be self-fulfilling.” Employers will discriminate in favor of a woman against a similarly qualified man for a low-to-mid-level job, while discriminating in favor of a man against a similarly qualified woman for a high-end job: “The first effect results in a ‘sticky floor’ for men, and the second in a ‘glass ceiling’ for women.” For social scientists and commentators this means that “comparing average outcomes across groups may mask potentially severe discrimination, in that discrimination at [one end of the curve] is offset by discrimination in the opposite direction at [the other end].”

Klumpp, T. & Su, X., "Second-Order Statistical Discrimination," Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

More birth control, more babies?

Though conservatives and liberals generally share the goal of preventing teen pregnancy, liberals are more likely to favor achieving this in part by making contraception freely available, while social conservatives argue that this just encourages sex among teens. A recent analysis by economists from Duke, Yale, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the latter group has a point: At least in terms of pregnancy, providing contraception can backfire. Increasing access to contraception among teens yields a short-term drop in teen pregnancy, they found, but, because teens adapt their behavior to the availability of contraception, and given “high contraceptive failure rates under ‘typical’ use,” teen pregnancy can be higher in the long run.

Arcidiacono, P. et al., "Habit Persistence and Teen Sex: Could Increased Access to Contraception Have Unintended Consequences for Teen Pregnancies?" Journal of Business & Economic Statistics (Spring 2012).

The power of grandmas

Female apes and humans lose their fertility at about the same age, yet humans—even primitive populations—have evolved to live much longer than apes. Anthropologists have struggled to explain what differences, over many, many generations, created this change. In a new study, researchers designed a computer model to simulate population evolution and found that, without assuming any other differences between apes and humans, even a small amount of grandmothering—when post-reproductive females take over child care from a young mother—can explain humans’ longer lifespan. By relieving the young mother of child care, grandmothering allows young mothers to have more kids, favoring the evolution of longer-lived females.

Kim, P. et al., "Increased Longevity Evolves from Grandmothering," Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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