Uncommon Knowledge

Jihad as career strategy

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Jihad: the career strategy

Since 9/11, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain Islamic radicalization. But recent work by a political scientist at Harvard suggests a fairly mundane explanation: careerism. Specifically, clerics with connections and cushy state-sponsored jobs are least likely to preach jihad, while those outside the fold can signal their independence and integrity—and attract lay Muslim followers—by preaching jihad, simply because it shows “they will speak their mind even when it is costly.” One clerical student in Cairo told the author: “You just try to get into people’s networks....Being in Ali Gomaa’s crew [the current Grand Mufti of Egypt] is really the way to move up right now. That’s how you get appointed to teach, how you get a position in the Dar al-Ifta [Egyptian Fatwa Ministry], which gets you a nice car.” The implication is that governments in Muslim countries should focus more on inclusion and less on repression, since the latter only increases the signaling value of provocative rhetoric for marginalized clerics.

 Nielsen, R., “Jihadi Radicalization of Muslim Clerics,” Harvard University (August 2012).

In business, men + women = $

In business, women are still a distinct minority. A recent experiment, however, suggests that, for purely self-interested reasons, businesses may want to redouble their efforts to get gender parity on their team. College students in an entrepreneurship program were grouped into teams with different gender ratios and had to spend a year developing and starting up a real business. Teams with an equal gender mix performed the best on average, in terms of sales and profits.

Hoogendoorn, S. et al., “The Impact of Gender Diversity on the Performance of Business Teams: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Management Science (forthcoming).

The high morals of moral judges

How do you become a more moral, trustworthy person? In a new study, sociologists show that thoughtful judging of other people’s moral behavior might be just the ticket. After being randomly assigned to render a judgment about another’s unfair behavior, people were subsequently more willing to reciprocate an act of generosity from someone else. Likewise, people who wrote about a recently observed immoral act—and were asked to explicitly judge it—reported a stronger moral identity. In turn, people were more apt to trust someone else who had strongly condemned an immoral act.

Simpson, B. et al., “Hidden Paths from Morality to Cooperation: Moral Judgments Promote Trust and Trustworthiness,” Social Forces (forthcoming).

Look, I’m an obstructionist


As the harsh cuts of the sequester take effect, Americans of both parties are flummoxed. How could relations in Congress have come to such a disastrous standstill? Well, sorry, everyone: It may be partly the media’s fault. In a new paper, a professor of economics at Bowdoin uses game theory to model partisan legislative behavior and finds that the minority party has stronger incentives to obstruct—and be seen obstructing—when news reporting is less reliable in discerning good policy. As such, obstruction sends a useful signal to uncertain voters. It damages the majority’s reputation and chances of reelection, although the minority’s reputation suffers, too, leaving it with little to lose, creating a “feedback process in which gridlock has caused lower approval ratings, which have in turn caused further gridlock, and so on.” Sound familiar?

Stone, D., “Media and Gridlock,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

My precise offer is unstoppable

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Next time you find yourself in a negotiation, don’t just throw out a round number. In a series of experiments, researchers from Columbia University found that offering a precise number—e.g., $4,925 compared to $5,000—resulted in a significantly more deferential counteroffer, due to the perception that a precise opening offer was more reasoned and informed.

Mason, M. et al., “Precise Offers Are Potent Anchors: Conciliatory Counteroffers and Attributions of Knowledge in Negotiations,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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