Uncommon Knowledge

Is he black? Depends on your politics

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Surprise: jail not good for kids

Should juvenile delinquents be taught a lesson by being made to spend some time behind bars? Probably not, according to research by economists from Brown University and MIT. They analyzed data from the Chicago juvenile justice system—and exploited the fact that judges are randomly assigned to cases—to determine the consequences of sending a juvenile to a temporary detention center versus putting him on probation. Compared to similar juvenile
delinquents who were put on probation, those who were detained were less likely to eventually graduate high school and more likely to be incarcerated in adulthood.

Aizer, A. & Doyle, J., “Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly-Assigned Judges,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2013).

The nebulous female politician

When you hear the word “politician,” you probably think of some charismatic and ambitious guy—perhaps a little too charismatic and ambitious. But what’s your stereotype of a female politician? A recent study suggests that stereotypes of female politicians occupy a sort of no-man’s land: The public doesn’t seem to have a strong impression of their character, either as masculine or feminine. They aren’t seen as having as much leadership or competence as male politicians; at the same time, they aren’t seen as having the same level of positive traits—like compassion—as women in general, nor the professional ability of female professionals in general.

Schneider, M. & Bos, A., “Measuring Stereotypes of Female Politicians,” Political Psychology (forthcoming).

Newer immigrants aren’t catching up

As immigration reform works its way through Congress, debate around the issue is heating up again, and a new analysis by an economist at Harvard is likely to add fuel to the fire. Based on data from recent censuses, the analysis finds that the wages of immigrants who’ve entered the country since the 1980s are
converging more slowly to the wages of natives, compared to the rate of convergence for earlier immigrants. This, in turn, appears to be the result of slower English-language assimilation, which, in turn, is partly explained by an increase in the size of national-origin groups, which makes it easier for these immigrants to rely on their peers and resist pressure to assimilate.

Borjas, G., “The Slowdown in
the Economic Assimilation of
Immigrants: Aging and Cohort
Effects Revisited Again,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2013).

Bad math financial ruin


If math has never been your strong suit, you may wonder how you’re going to fare financially over time. Is innumeracy going to doom you to the poorhouse? Not necessarily, according to economists with the Federal Reserve and Ohio State University. They analyzed results from a survey of older Americans, administered several times to the same individuals over several years, that included mathematical and financial quiz questions. The odds of giving a correct answer varied significantly, even for the same question or for questions with the same underlying calculation. In many cases, the same individual got the question right one time and wrong
another time. But it appeared that these tests did not foretell anyone’s financial future: After controlling for subjects’ demographic background, there was “little relationship between correctly responding to these particular questions and changes in wealth.”

Schmeiser, M. & Seligman, J.,
“Using the Right Yardstick: Assessing Financial Literacy Measures by Way of Financial Well-Being,” Journal of Consumer Affairs (forthcoming).

Is he black? Depends on your politics

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President Obama had a black father and a white mother, but he’s generally considered to be “black,” not “white.” He’s not the only multiracial American to be perceived as part of whatever race faces greater discrimination—and, as new research by psychologists from New York University suggests, that perception may be further colored by the observer’s politics. Conservative Americans had a lower threshold for judging biracial faces to be black rather than white. Researchers explained this association as arising out of an opposition to equality—to “justify racial divisions that are part of the historical legacy of the social system in the United States.” When the same faces were presented as either American or Canadian, conservative Americans had a lower threshold for ascribing blackness only in the case of American faces.

Krosch, A. et al., “On the Ideology of Hypodescent: Political Conservatism Predicts Categorization of Racially Ambiguous Faces as Black,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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