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How to make partisan politics a little more positive

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Meet market

Dating websites present a seemingly limitless number of potential mates. But as with power, absolute choice can corrupt absolutely. Under the guise of testing a new dating website for students, researchers at the University of Wisconsin presented single, heterosexual students with either six or 24 profiles of other students interested in dating. Participants had to pick one profile and were told that they either could or could not change their pick the following week. During the intervening week, participants could log back into the dating website to review the profiles. Participants who picked from 24 profiles were less satisfied with their pick a week later, especially if they knew they could change their pick.

D’Angelo, J. & Toma, C., “There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction with Selected Partners,” Media Psychology (forthcoming).

How to choose a positive campaign

Are you sick of potty-mouth partisan politics? Ask for a preferential ballot, where the voter ranks multiple candidates in each race, instead of having to pick only one, as in standard plurality voting. Political scientists surveyed “approximately 1,200 likely voters from three jurisdictions where local elections were conducted under preferential voting (Cambridge, Minneapolis, and St. Paul) and about 1,200 likely voters from seven similar jurisdictions that had just experienced plurality elections (Boston, Seattle, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Tulsa, Lowell, and Worcester).” Voters in the preferential-voting cities were significantly more satisfied — and perceived less negativity — with the campaign, even controlling for race, age, gender, education, employment, marital status, partisanship, interest in politics, being contacted by a campaign, satisfaction with city government, and supporting a winning candidate.

Donovan, T. et al., “Campaign Civility under Preferential and Plurality Voting,” Electoral Studies (forthcoming).

Give me life expectancy, or give me death

If you don’t have very long to live, why not just take up arms against your oppressors? A political scientist at New York University finds that civil war is more likely to break out — and ends up killing more of the population — in countries where life expectancy is lower, even controlling for gross domestic product per capita, growth of gross domestic product per capita, population, percent Muslim, ethnic diversity, and prior years of peace. This was also confirmed in an analysis of sub-Saharan African countries during the past couple decades, using variation in indigenous male circumcision rates as a proxy for life expectancy, given the HIV epidemic.

Kustra, T., “HIV/AIDS, Life Expectancy, and the Opportunity Cost Model of Civil War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (forthcoming).

Bad apples spoil the bunch

Schools may take it for granted that some students will be disruptive, but a new study suggests that these students impose large long-term costs on their classmates. Economists linked records from elementary schools in a county in Florida to local domestic violence cases and found that students with more disruptive classmates — using as a proxy the fraction of classmates from families experiencing domestic violence, especially boys from families whose cases had yet to be reported — subsequently got lower test scores and were less likely to enroll in college and get a college degree. Exposure to one additional disruptive elementary-school classmate also reduced adult earnings by several percent, such that an entire classroom could expect to lose $100,000 or more in lifetime earnings from just one year of exposure to one disruptive classmate.

Carrell, S. et al., “The Long-Run Effects of Disruptive Peers,” National Bureau of Economic Research (February 2016).

Obama is so sophisticated

Psychologists from the University of Montana found that, compared to independent judges, people judged political rhetoric to express a more complex view of a topic if they knew that the rhetoric came from a candidate of the same party. This was mainly true for liberals — especially if they agreed with the rhetoric — but not so much for conservatives.

Conway, L. et al., “Ideologically Motivated Perceptions of Complexity: Believing Those Who Agree with You Are More Complex than They Are,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology (forthcoming).


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