Uncommon Knowledge

Does your newborn know English?

'I can hear you!'  (Or at least recognize your vowel sounds.)
Illustration by Kevin Golden
'I can hear you!' (Or at least recognize your vowel sounds.)

Land of only children

China is widely perceived to be America’s number one rival in the 21st century. But China may have inadvertently handicapped its long-term success thanks to its one-child policy, which was introduced back in 1979. A new study by Australian economists finds that Chinese adults who were born right after the policy are now “significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious” than those born right before the policy—ostensibly due to the experience of growing up without siblings. Moreover, these adults “are significantly less likely to report that their parents encouraged them to be unselfish and to trust in others [or] to be imaginative,” or to have chosen a risky occupation.

Cameron, L. et al., “Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy,” Science (forthcoming).

Baby Anglophones, baby Swedes

Note to pregnant women: Your future baby is listening. New research suggests that third-trimester fetuses have already started to learn their mother’s language. At hospitals in Tacoma and Stockholm, newborns just seven to 75 hours old were fitted with headphones that played vowel sounds from either English or Swedish and were also given a pacifier with a sucking sensor. The infants, even the newest ones, sucked more in response to nonnative sounds—suggesting an interest in novelty. According to the authors, this pattern is consistent with the notion that the newborns had already become accustomed to their native language by birth.

Moon, C. et al., “Language Experienced in Utero Affects Vowel Perception after Birth: A Two-Country Study,” ­Acta Paediatrica (February 2013).

That’s just what they want you to think

There’s something seductive about conspiracy theories—who wouldn’t want to know the secret truth about JFK, 9/11, or Area 51? But you may want to limit the time you spend steeped in such thinking, if only for your own political health. British psychologists presented people with an article either supporting or refuting the notion that governments are involved in secret plots and schemes. Reading the proconspiracy article not only made people more likely to endorse conspiracy theories but also made people feel more powerless, which reduced their interest in political engagement. Reading that climate change was a hoax had the same effect on powerlessness and interest in political engagement, in addition to making people less motivated to reduce their carbon footprint.

Jolley, D. & Douglas, K., “The Social Consequences of Conspiracism: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories Decreases Intentions to Engage in Politics and to Reduce One’s Carbon Footprint,” British Journal of Psychology (forthcoming).

Gay marriage: good for morale


As the Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage this year, including California’s Proposition 8 ban on such unions, one thing it’s likely to consider is the latest social-science research. An analysis of a survey of Californians points to one psychological implication of such a ban: Same-sex married couples were less distressed than lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who were only in registered domestic partnerships or in no legally recognized relationship at all, even controlling for other factors that might be associated with distress, like gender, race, age, education, employment, and income.

Wight, R. et al., “Same-Sex Legal Marriage and Psychological Well-Being: Findings from the California Health Interview Survey,” American Journal of Public Health (February 2013).

The price of political transparency

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Transparency is generally seen as forcing politicians to behave responsibly—but it may depend on the political system. The results of an experiment in Vietnam (which has a centralized, one-party system) suggest that when power is sufficiently concentrated, accountability can backfire. In partnership with Vietnam’s leading online newspaper, researchers posted detailed profiles of a randomly selected group of delegates serving in the National Assembly. These profiles contained up-to-date, easy-to-read transcripts and scorecards—which had been not previously available to the public in an accessible format. In response, however, profiled delegates—especially those from provinces with greater Internet access—were less likely to ask tough questions of government ministers and were ultimately less likely to be allowed to stay in office.

Malesky, E. et al., “The Adverse Effects of Sunshine: A Field Experiment on Legislative Transparency in an Authoritarian Assembly,” American Political Science Review (November 2012).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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