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Start with the small tasks

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Start with the small stuff

In a commencement speech this year at the University of Texas at Austin, Admiral William McRaven noted the following lesson from his SEAL training: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.” New research from economists at Texas A&M University backs him up. They rewarded people for completing a tedious task—re-typing bundles of random text—as fast as possible. For some participants, the bundles were arranged in ascending order—starting with small bundles and finishing with larger bundles—while other participants were confronted with equally sized or descending-order bundles. Participants who started small finished faster. However, when given the choice, most participants chose the other orderings.

Brown, A. & Lahey, J., "Small Victories: Creating Intrinsic Motivation in Savings and Debt Reduction," National Bureau of Economic Research (May 2014).

The rice-wheat divide

Western cultures are generally more individualistic than Eastern cultures. Why is this? New research suggests that part of the reason may just be different agricultural legacies. Even within one country—China—people from areas that grow rice “are more holistic-thinking, interdependent, and loyal/nepotistic” than people from areas that grow wheat. These cultural differences weren’t explained by differences in GDP per capita or infectious disease rates. The theory behind the rice-wheat difference is that rice paddies historically required much more cooperative labor than wheat fields.

Talhelm, T. et al., "Large-Scale Psychological Differences within China Explained by Rice versus Wheat Agriculture," Science (May 9, 2014).

Loosey-goosey Massachusetts

The culture of Massachusetts may seem rigid at times, but by some standards, it’s positively free-wheeling. In a new study, psychologists at the University of Maryland found that states differ significantly in how “tight” or “loose” they are—how much they enforce rules and tolerate deviance. Tighter states—many of which are in the South—have more restrictive notions of morality, lower circulation of pornographic magazines, lower support for civil liberties, higher incarceration rates, lower homeless rates, higher economic protectionism, higher conservatism, higher cautiousness, fewer fine-artists per capita, more employment discrimination charges, lower political and legal (but not economic) equality, and lower happiness. Tightness was also associated with facing threats, such that tighter states had more storms, pollution, disease, and mortality. As for Massachusetts, it was the sixth loosest state.

Harrington, J. & Gelfand, M., “Tightness-Looseness across the 50 United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Are minimalist classrooms better?

Teachers, take note: Consider a more minimalist look for your classroom. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that when kindergarten students were taught in a classroom with decorations on the wall—posters, maps, artwork—typical of many classrooms, they were more distracted and, as a result, performed worse on subsequent tests of the learning material, compared to students taught in an undecorated classroom.

Fisher, A. et al., "Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad," Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How health care boosts wages

The expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act has more obvious benefits for older people than healthy young ones. But a new study finds that the young get something additional along with their medical coverage. The author finds that, in the pre-Obamacare era, states that allowed parents to continue dependent coverage for young-adult children boosted the wages of those young adults, even after they were no longer covered under a parent’s plan. This appears to be the result of greater flexibility in pursuing higher education or a job. As such, “scaling the estimates for the Affordable Care Act suggests wages will increase by 3.5 percent for men and 4.6 percent for women” who were 18 or younger when it was passed.

Dillender, M., "Do More Health Insurance Options Lead to Higher Wages? Evidence from States Extending Dependent Coverage," Journal of Health Economics (July 2014).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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