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uncommon knowledge

Maybe that big mouth is an asset after all


Big mouth

Psychologists at the University of Toronto have found that mouth width is associated with leadership. People expected white males with wider mouths — as presented in standardized images — to be more successful leaders, even controlling for age, attractiveness ratings, and facial width-to-height ratio. In fact, facial width-to-height ratio was not associated with leadership expectations when controlling for mouth width. Likewise, big companies were more profitable when run by CEOs with wider mouths, and US Senate candidates with wider mouths were more likely to win, controlling for age, attractiveness ratings, facial width-to-height ratio, and incumbency. (However, only incumbency — but not mouth width or the other characteristics — was associated with winning governors.)

Re, D. & Rule, N., “The Big Man Has a Big Mouth: Mouth Width Correlates with Perceived Leadership Ability and Actual Leadership Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (March 2016).

Diverse benefits

“What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked during a recent case on affirmative action. Ironically, all this talk of the benefits of diversity may itself be a problem. Researchers found that although white Americans were more willing to support diversity as a benefit to organizations, rather than as a matter of fairness, the benefit-oriented rationale actually caused white Americans to be less likely to favor an equally qualified black candidate. And even the fairness-oriented rationale failed to make a difference for white Americans of low socioeconomic status or when times were tight. On the other hand, simply telling people that “diversity is important” generated a more favorable effect, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Trawalter, S. et al., “What Is Good Isn’t Always Fair: On the Unintended Effects of Framing Diversity as Good,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (forthcoming).

Regional affluenza

Some of the unhealthiest states in the Union are in the South. A new study proposes that some of this is the result of post-WWII economic growth in the South, which, while obviously desirable in general, meant that the generations that grew up during this period eventually found themselves in a more comfortable and plentiful environment than the environment into which they were born. And “research suggests that individuals with organs (e.g., kidneys and liver) optimized in utero for survival in lean conditions are more likely to suffer from [heart disease] if they consume a rich diet later in life.” An analysis confirms that the heart disease mortality rate of whites is higher in states where there was a higher ratio of median household income of whites in 1980 to that in 1950, even controlling for a state’s level of education, obesity, and smoking.

Steckel, R. & Senney, G., “Historical Origins of a Major Killer: Cardiovascular Disease in the American South,” National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2015).

In the red

Why are unions having a tough time in this country? One reason is that companies are getting leverage. A recent study found that companies with a higher debt load were less likely to experience a strike during contract negotiations, particularly at companies with large unions, worse financial prospects, or underfunded pension plans. Some companies seem to anticipate this and load up on debt before contract negotiations, whereas companies that didn’t do this and experienced a strike subsequently add a ton of debt, particularly if the union won the strike. The debt gives the company a bargaining advantage by limiting how much earnings can be shared with workers vis-à-vis lenders, and often takes the form of stock buybacks, to avoid bringing money into the company.

Myers, B. & Saretto, A., “Does Capital Structure Affect the Behavior of Nonfinancial Stakeholders? An Empirical Investigation into Leverage and Union Strikes,” Management Science (forthcoming).


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