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Uncommon Knowledge

Big pro-life families are shifting the abortion debate

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Big pro-life families shift the debate

Although prochoice views became more common from the 1960s through the 1980s, the trend seems to have reached a plateau and maybe even reversed in the last two decades, especially among the younger generation, despite liberalizing attitudes towards other social issues. Sociologists at Northwestern University are proposing that this is at least partly the result of prochoice individuals having fewer offspring, which, given that offspring tend to adopt their parents’ attitudes, leaves fewer prochoice individuals in the next generation. The sociologists find that “if family size were uncorrelated with abortion attitudes, the resulting population would be about five percentage points more prochoice than is presently observed,” and that “this pattern does not simply reflect a broader trend toward higher fertility among those who are more politically conservative.”

 Kevern, A. & Freese, J., “Differential Fertility as a Determinant of Trends in Public Opinion about Abortion in the United States,” Northwestern University (July 2014).

Does inequality dampen ambition?

Economic inequality is on the rise in the United States. While people have advanced all sorts of arguments about why that’s a problem, an unexpected one is this: The inequality itself may be discouraging to those on the bottom rungs. Economists at Wellesley College and the University of Maryland found that areas with greater lower-level income inequality (the ratio of incomes at the 50th and 10th percentiles) and less intergenerational mobility (the difference between the incomes of parents and their offspring) had more high-school dropouts, particularly among disadvantaged boys. This pattern could not be explained away by other factors, like poverty rates, incarceration rates, welfare policies, abortion policies, test scores, residential segregation, or public school funding.

 Kearney, M. & Levine, P., “Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop Out of High School,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2014).

Study hard—for the world!

Students are constantly told to see education as the ticket to a successful life. But maybe they need to hear more about the bigger picture, too. A team of psychologists from around the country found that students who valued education as a means to help society—not just themselves—were more persistent in tedious academic tasks and in school in general. Students even reaped these benefits if they were randomly assigned to briefly read and write about valuing education as a means to help to society.

 Yeager, D. et al., “Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Society, the hierarchy

We like to think that America is a land of equal opportunity and respect. But if you ask people about de facto social hierarchies, it turns out they all have the same answers. Psychologists at the University of Virginia found that Americans of various racial groups more readily associated good words with whites, Asians, blacks, and Hispanics, in that order, after their own group. There was a similar pattern for religion, such that Americans of various religious groups more readily associated good words with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism, and Islam, in that order, after their own group. There was a somewhat different pattern for age, such that Americans of various age groups more readily associated good words with children, young adults, middle-age adults, and older adults, in that order, without priority for one’s own age group.

 Axt, J. et al., “The Rules of Implicit Evaluation by Race, Religion, and Age,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Wider-hipped women sleep with more people

In women, waist-to-hip ratio has been associated with fertility and attractiveness. But researchers in Britain hypothesized that because wider hips made it easier to give birth, that metric might actually be more important to sexual behavior. The researchers measured the hip widths and waist-to-hip ratios of young women and asked them about their sexual histories. “Data revealed that hip width per se was correlated with total number of sexual partners, total number of one night stands, percentage of sexual partners that were one night stands, number of sexual partners within the context of a relationship per year sexually active and number of one night stands per year sexually active,” such that “women who predominantly engaged in one night stand behavior had wider hips than those who did not.” Such behavior was not correlated with waist-to-hip ratio.

Simpson, V. et al., “Evidence to Suggest that Women’s Sexual Behavior is Influenced by Hip Width Rather than Waist-to-Hip Ratio,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (forthcoming).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
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