Uncommon Knowledge

Commuting, enemy of political action

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Commute less, vote more

Politics may dominate the news, but many Americans remain politically uninvolved. Why? Well, for some, the patience they might have for politics is being spent on something even more frustrating: their daily commute. Political scientists found that longer commutes were associated with less political interest and involvement—but only among low-income Americans—even after controlling for demographic and community characteristics. More time spent at work, by contrast, was not associated with less political interest and involvement.

Newman, B. et al., “The ‘Daily Grind’: Work, Commuting, and Their Impact on Political Participation,” American Politics Research (forthcoming).

Forensics: Who’s buying?

A recent National Research Council report criticized the forensic science community for a lack of scientific grounding in their work. Now another study adds insult to injury, suggesting it also matters who’s paying experts’ fees. Researchers “recruited more than 100 experienced forensic psychologists and psychiatrists” and provided them with “‘gold standard’ training (and continuing-education credits) on the two most commonly used measures in sex-offender risk assessments.” Several weeks later, these experts were paid to provide risk assessments of several offenders—ostensibly on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense. Even though these experts reviewed the same case files, “those who believed they were working for the prosecution tended to assign higher risk scores to offenders.”

Murrie, D. et al., “Are Forensic Experts Biased by the Side That Retained Them?” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Money, the glue of society

Money is said to be the root of all evil, but a new study finds that it may also be what allows us to get along with those beyond our immediate tribe. Students at Purdue University were assembled in groups of various sizes and were repeatedly and randomly paired up with other members of the group in a cooperation game. Consistent with previous research, there was less cooperation in larger groups. However, this collapse of cooperation was precluded when the researchers distributed tokens at the outset that could be transferred between players, even though the tokens were intrinsically worthless. The tokens evolved into de facto currency, although their use did cause quid-pro-quo cooperation to displace the more charitable cooperation that otherwise prevailed.

Camera, G. et al., “Money and Trust among Strangers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Welfare without the lightning rod


In the United States, economic redistribution policies are controversial. One explanation is that they have become stereotypically associated with poor minorities whom some voters see as undeserving. But not all redistribution policies carry the same stereotype. According to a political scientist at Notre Dame, protectionism has become a racially safe form of welfare. Trade-themed political ads contain few minorities; protectionist attitudes are positively correlated with local racial diversity, while support for “welfare” is negatively correlated with local racial diversity. In other words, in areas where there is likely to be racial antagonism, support for “welfare” is lower, but support for protectionism is higher.

Guisinger, A., “Racial Diversity and Redistribution: Explaining (White) Americans’ Continued Support for Trade Protection,” University of Notre Dame (August 2013).

A gift for the doctor

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In China, gift-giving is an important part of the culture, including in health care, where patients often give small gifts to physicians. Meanwhile, antibiotic over-prescribing is rampant, in part because physicians in the country earn drug kickbacks. What happens when you put the two together? It creates health implications not only for the person giving gifts, but for other people as well. In a recent experiment, researchers sent college students to clinics in China posing as patients with mild cold-like symptoms. If the patient offered a token gift (a bookmark), the physician subsequently prescribed fewer drugs and provided somewhat better service. However, the next patient got worse service, unless the first patient identified the second patient as a friend, in which case the second patient was also prescribed fewer drugs and got better service.

Currie, J. et al., “Social Networks and Externalities from Gift Exchange: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).