fb-pixel Skip to main content
uncommon Knowledge

Female criminals get lighter sentences — or heavier ones

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Globe Staff

Do women get punished less harshly than men for the same crime? Most of the time, yes, but one group actually gets tougher sentences. An analysis of federal sentences for narcotics violations found that women received sentences that were 17 percent shorter on average than sentences for men, even controlling for other demographic factors and the nature of the offense, criminal history, and other aspects of the case. However, there was a caveat: Women with extensive criminal histories received longer sentences than men with similar criminal histories. This was especially true for older black defendants.

Tillyer, R. et al., “Differential Treatment of Female Defendants: Does Criminal History Moderate the Effect of Gender on Sentence Length in Federal Narcotics Cases?” Criminal Justice and Behavior (forthcoming).

Sure, I lied—for my kid!

As a parent, you’d do almost anything for your child. Many of you would even cheat, steal—and lie. In an experiment, parents were asked to flip coins in private—with or without their child in the room with them—and, if they reported a certain coin-toss combination, they won a $10 bill or a gift basket for their child worth about $10. There was a significant amount of over-reporting of winning combinations, particularly when the child was not in the room and the prize was for the child. Over-reporting was lower when the child was in the room; in that case, people were more likely to lie in the case of sons who were present than daughters.

Houser, D. et al., “On the Origins of Dishonesty: From Parents to Children,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2015).

Underreporting sexual violence

Sexual assault on university campuses is a real problem, and there’s been a lot of controversy over whether universities are fully quantifying the assaults that occur. A new study by a professor of law at the University of Kansas isn’t likely to restore confidence in university administration on that front. He found that universities increased their reporting of sexual assaults—but not other crimes—by an average of 44 percent during Department of Education audits, compared to both before and after these audits, a pattern that is “consistent with the contention that schools are undercounting incidents of sexual assault and only accurately (at least relatively) tallying on-campus sexual violence when under heightened federal government scrutiny.” The study notes that “the investigation of Pennsylvania State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal provides an extreme example,” where “sexual assault reports at Penn State increased an unbelievable 1,389% from 2010 to 2012” as a result of heightened scrutiny.

Yung, C., “Concealing Campus Sexual Assault: An Empirical Examination,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (February 2015).

Why referrals are valuable

Organizations often encourage their employees to refer potential hires, and even offer bonuses for successful referrals. Is it really worth it? Researchers studied nine large companies from the call-center, trucking, and high-tech industries. Perhaps surprisingly, referred applicants and workers did not have better education, test scores, personalities, or productivity. But referrals were more profitable, because they were easier to hire and less likely to quit.

Burks, S. et al., “The Value of Hiring through Employee Referrals,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming).

Sickly voters pick the hot one

If you’re a particularly good-looking politician, it might be a good idea to spend more time campaigning in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. New research out of Brandeis University finds that people in worse health, with more functional limitations, were much more responsive to attractiveness in picking a candidate they would vote for, when presented with the campaign portraits of two candidates with whom participants were mostly unfamiliar (but who were real candidates from recent US Senate races). Healthy young adults were somewhat responsive to attractiveness, while healthy elderly adults were not responsive at all. The researchers theorize that the association between frailty and the response to attractiveness is motivated by the instinct to avoid disease.

Zebrowitz, L. et al., “Ailing Voters Advance Attractive Congressional Candidates,” Evolutionary Psychology (January 2015).


More Uncommon Knowledge


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