uncommon knowledge

French fries with your home?

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Are you doomed to obesity if fast-food restaurants are located near your home? A study from the University of South Carolina found that there was no association in that state between fast-food consumption and fast-food proximity, whether perceived or actual, even controlling for age, sex, race, education, employment, and urban residence. Instead, the odds of fast-food consumption were higher for younger, white, employed individuals, independent of proximity.

Oexle, N. et al., “Neighborhood Fast Food Availability and Fast Food Consumption,” Appetite (forthcoming).

Dividing lines

You don’t have to watch Fox News or MSNBC to know that Americans are increasingly polarized, not just in their political views but also in personal identities and lifestyles. A recent study from sociologists at Cornell University confirms this, even in areas like belief in astrology, aesthetic taste, and leisure. And this polarization can’t be reduced to demographic or socioeconomic differences; a significant portion of it emerges from sorting and influence, as the sociologists confirm in a social-network simulation, such that “it takes only a very small ‘nudge,’ whether from ‘within’ or ‘above,’ to tip a large population into a self-reinforcing dynamic that can carve deep cultural fissures into the demographic landscape.”

DellaPosta, D. et al., “Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?” American Journal of Sociology (March 2015).

Charity and Islam

Research in Western countries has found that people tend to be more charitable when that charity is observed by others than when it’s anonymous or undisclosed. In Islam, however, there’s a stronger norm against publicizing one’s own charity, so researchers conducted an experiment in Morocco where participants could donate a portion of their compensation for taking a survey to a local orphanage. Donations were lower when they were to be publicized, especially when the initial survey was in Arabic rather than French (another widely spoken language in Morocco). Moreover, when given a choice, nearly all participants chose not to publicize their donations.

Lambarraa, F. & Riener, G., “On the Norms of Charitable Giving in Islam: Two Field Experiments in Morocco,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (forthcoming).

Better luck next year

What if I told you that the Red Sox had a 30 percent chance of making the playoffs? What if I told you that the Red Sox had a 70 percent chance of not making the playoffs? Of course, these predictions are equivalent. Yet, new research finds that the difference in framing can make all the difference. Whether evaluating predictions about a sports game, a stock, or a book, people assumed that a prediction was more accurate and were more willing to bet on it — and that the forecaster was more confident, trustworthy, reliable, and knowledgeable — when the prediction was stated as a 70 percent chance rather than a 30 percent chance (of the opposite outcome). This was true not just for numerical statements, but also for pie charts and purely verbal characterizations.

Bagchi, R. & Ince, E., “Is a 70% Forecast More Accurate than a 30% Forecast? How Level of a Forecast Affects Inferences about Forecasts and Forecasters,” Journal of Marketing Research (forthcoming).

Admission standards

In recent years, many selective liberal arts colleges have made standardized tests optional in the admissions process, out of a concern that the tests are biased against certain groups. But researchers from the University of Georgia aren’t buying it. Their analysis indicates that these test-optional colleges did not subsequently enroll a greater proportion of poor (i.e., those receiving a Pell grant) or minority students, controlling for various other factors relevant to admissions. On the other hand, these colleges were subsequently able to report higher SAT scores. As the researchers note, this ironic outcome may be made even worse by the possibility that test-optional admissions increase the weight of credentials that are more easily acquired by advantaged groups.

Belasco, A. et al., “The Test-Optional Movement at America’s Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boon for Equity or Something Else?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (June 2015).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at


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