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UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE

Little ode to joy in letters from composers’ productive years

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

The signature of German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven on a letter dated September 1820.
The signature of German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven on a letter dated September 1820.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No ode to joy

Analyzing hundreds of letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt throughout their lives, a European economist found that years in which the letters expressed more negative emotion were also years when the composers were more likely to create important works. This was also found when isolating the effect by considering years when a family member had unexpectedly died.

Borowiecki, K., “How Are You, My Dearest Mozart? Well-being and Creativity of Three Famous Composers Based on their Letters,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

Feeling the Bern makes you burn

Perceiving yourself to be disadvantaged is not a recipe for calm. In a new study, researchers found that Americans who perceived themselves to be more disadvantaged also had more aggressive personalities, even controlling for age, sex, education, and other aspects of personality, like psychopathy and sadism. This was also found in experiments, where people were randomly induced to feel high or low status — by contemplating life as such or being given bogus feedback about their status. Those induced to feel low status subsequently reported a greater feeling of hostility and put more pins in a voodoo doll that represented one of the researchers.

Greitemeyer, T.; Sagioglou, C., “Subjective Socioeconomic Status Causes Aggression: A Test of the Theory of Social Deprivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Trump, great mediator?

Donald Trump often touts his ability to negotiate, but maybe he should be touting his ability to mediate. Researchers from Harvard Business School randomly assigned people to negotiate in the presence of a hostile mediator, who, for example, would say, “It seems like the two of you are incapable of making any smart decisions. I just want to say that this better be good. I DON’T like to waste my time.” Compared to those with a nice mediator, negotiators with a hostile mediator felt closer to their counterpart, felt like they had a common enemy, were more willing to reach agreement, and actually reached more and better agreements. (To get this benefit, the mediator had to be hostile to both sides.) Nevertheless, people didn’t expect this benefit and, in fact, assumed the opposite.

Zhang, T. et al., “The Surprising Effectiveness of Hostile Mediators,” Management Science (forthcoming).

Intolerance for progressive taxes

Liberals may have to choose between soaking the rich and protecting nontraditional groups. Swedish economists found that reductions in top marginal income tax rates — but not regulation or the size of government — in US states during 1982 to 2008 were associated with subsequent increases in tolerance for the freedom of speech of atheists, communists, and homosexuals, controlling for a state’s level of education, demographics, real gross domestic product per capita, income inequality, religiosity, political orientation, and region. The economists speculate that the debate over who pays taxes spills over into social resentment.

Berggren, N. & Nilsson, T., “Tolerance in the United States: Does Economic Freedom Transform Racial, Religious, Political and Sexual Attitudes?” European Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Pro-choice single motherhood

Two decades ago, Janet Yellen (current chair of the Federal Reserve) and her husband published a study arguing that the availability of abortion and contraception could explain much of the increase in single motherhood since the 1960s because the availability of abortion and contraception eroded the norm of shotgun marriage. A new study provides a further test of this theory with respect to abortion: “The results showed that women in states that removed public funding saw decreased single motherhood and increased cohabitation among women giving birth. Estimates showed a 13 percent lower chance of being single following a birth in a state where funding was removed. This policy impact is substantial. If the entire sample were to experience a removal of abortion funding, these estimates would imply that the probability of cohabiting or marrying among low-income mothers would increase by between 12 and 18 percentage points conditional on giving birth. These estimates mean that among the children of low-income mothers, the fraction of children living with both biological parents at the time of birth would rise by 10 percentage points.”

Beauchamp, A., “Abortion Costs, Separation, and Non-marital Childbearing,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues (June 2016).

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