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Uncommon Knowledge

Sisters make boys conservative

And more surprsing insights from the social sciences

Sisters make boys conservative

When you meet a guy with five sisters, you might assume he has more open-minded views about women—and, hey, maybe politics in general—as a result. But think again. An analysis of surveys that followed individuals from childhood into adulthood found that “having sisters rather than brothers makes young men—but not young women—more likely to express conservative positions on gender roles and to identify as Republicans.” The survey data also hint at an explanation: “Boys with sisters are substantially less likely to have performed femalestereotyped household tasks during childhood than boys with brothers. For girls, sibling gender has no effect on chore assignment...[M]en who grew up with sisters continue to perform fewer household chores even in middle age.”

Healy, A. & Malhotra, N., “Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment,” Journal of Politics (October 2013).

Keep that annoying customer!

Conventional wisdom in management circles is that you should reward your best customers and fire your worst customers. But that may be somewhat shortsighted, according to a new study. In addition to the risk of creating bad word of mouth or publicity, shunning your less-profitable customers may make your customer base more attractive for poaching by your competitors. “For that reason,” the authors conclude, “a firm may find it profitable under certain conditions to ‘poison’ its customer base by having an additional high-cost customer rather than an additional low-cost customer. It may even be optimal to retain unprofitable customers.”

Subramanian, U. et al., “The Strategic Value of High-Cost Customers,” Management Science (forthcoming).

Low-status, angry Americans

Do you find yourself saying “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”? Unfortunately, that may be a sign of low status—but it depends on your culture. According to a new study, Americans who express anger also happen to consider themselves to have lower standing in their community. But people of lower standing wouldn’t react that way in a country like Japan. There, what drives the expression of anger—as if it were more of a privilege—is having a higher objective socioeconomic status and decision-making authority.

Park, J. et al., “Social Status and Anger Expression: The Cultural Moderation Hypothesis,” Emotion (forthcoming).

Sure, I’m gay, if you ask indirectly

How many people are gay? How many people are antigay? How would you know? You can ask people sensitive questions in surveys—while promising confidentiality—but people may not trust the researcher enough to give an honest answer. To see how well conventional surveying works and what we may be missing, three economists conducted their own survey. Some people were given a list of five statements, including one related to homosexuality, and were asked to simply say how many were true. Others were asked about the same list but without the statement related to homosexuality, which was presented separately as a direct question. By comparing the average responses of the two groups, the researchers found that both nonheterosexual identity and behavior, and antigay sentiment, were both significantly more prevalent than what was revealed by direct questioning.

Coffman, K. et al., “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment Are Substantially Underestimated,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2013).

More executive power, less security

In his first inauguration address in 2009, President Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Several months ago, though, in reaction to news about widespread government surveillance, he defended an emboldened executive prerogative to watch over citizens, noting that “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy.” So which Obama is right? A mathematical model of the actions and reactions of the government, voters, and the community to terrorism and counterterrorism indicates that “when the executive faces increased electoral incentives to provide security, and the executive has legal flexibility to choose any policy it finds optimal, security from terrorism can actually decrease. In contrast, when the executive faces increased electoral incentives to provide security and there is a known limit on executive counterterrorism actions, security from terrorism increases.” In other words, the younger Obama may have been more right than he knows.

Dragu, T. & Polborn, M., “The Rule of Law in the Fight against Terrorism,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.