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Uncommon Knowledge

Influencing law firm bonuses

Natalia Merzlyakova - Fotolia

The politics of bonus pay

Before you agree to work somewhere, check the boss’s political donations. Business school professors at Penn State analyzed confidential data from a large law firm and found that bonus pay for male associates, relative to other associates of the same seniority, grew significantly faster than bonus pay for female associates the more conservative their supervising partners were (as measured by political donations). This was true even controlling for the associate’s gender, race, parental status, billable hours, and law-school ranking; the age, gender, and race of supervising partners; and the political orientation of other partners and the department head.

Briscoe, F. & Joshi, A., “Bringing the Boss’s Politics In: Supervisor Political Ideology and the Gender Gap in Earnings,” Academy of Management Journal (forthcoming).

Textbook racism

Biology teachers may have won the battle over teaching evolution, but social Darwinism may have the last word. In an experiment at an affluent public high school and private middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area, a researcher randomly assigned students to be given biology lessons that “briefly discussed racial differences in skeletal structure and the prevalence of genetic diseases.” The lessons were derived from “photocopies of passages from an actual California state-approved textbook. The textbook shall remain anonymous for legal reasons.” The lessons “amounted to a total of 110 minutes of independent work time spread over two and a half months in four text-based lessons at roughly two-week intervals.” Students who were exposed to these lessons increasingly perceived biological differences, including in behaviors and abilities, between races and became less interested in socializing with people of other races and less supportive of affirmative action.

Donovan, B., “Learned Inequality: Racial Labels in the Biology Curriculum Can Affect the Development of Racial Prejudice,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching (forthcoming).

Who’s with her?

Notwithstanding the fallout from Anthony Weiner’s laptop, polls suggest Hillary Clinton has a good chance to win. One concern among her supporters, however, is that some people who might otherwise vote for a Democrat may not be willing to vote for her because she’s a woman. A study done before the 2008 campaign did find a hidden bias against the idea of a woman running for president. This year, researchers did a new study, with a survey in January in the midst of the primaries and a survey in late April toward the end of the primaries. The goal was to assess whether voters felt social pressure to say they supported the female candidate. Aside from young voters, there was no difference in January in the perception of whether supporting Clinton or Bernie Sanders would make a better impression on others. And in April, asking respondents about either their own support or their neighbors’ support revealed small overall differences in support for a generic woman or for Clinton over Donald Trump. The small overall difference masked a strong pro-woman/Clinton bias canceling out a strong anti-woman/Clinton bias.

Claassen, R. & Ryan, J., “Social Desirability, Hidden Biases, and Support for Hillary Clinton,” PS: Political Science & Politics (October 2016).

I can’t vouch for you

Previous research has found that eyewitness testimony, even with the best of intentions, is not always reliable. Now there’s a study showing that alibi corroborators may not be so corroborating. Students were sent to ask university employees for directions to a location on campus. Each student interacted with one employee; they were unacquainted beforehand, and the employees didn’t know they were part of an experiment. One day later, the employee was shown a picture of the same student. Most of the employees didn’t recognize the student, even after being reminded of when the interaction occurred. And even among those who recognized the student, fewer than a fifth could also correctly recall both the nature and time of the interaction.

Charman, S. et al., “The (Un)reliability of Alibi Corroborators: Failure to Recognize Faces of Briefly Encountered Strangers Puts Innocent Suspects at Risk,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law (forthcoming).

A challenge for female experts

Many court cases require expert testimony, and since there are two sides to every case, there will often be dueling experts and challenges to their admissibility. An analysis of judicial opinions from civil rights, medical malpractice, and patent infringement cases in federal district courts reveals that women constitute a small fraction of the experts, even in civil rights cases. Moreover, they were almost twice as likely to have their qualifications challenged, even controlling for profession, having a doctorate, and years since highest degree, and for the type of case and gender of the judge. Women without doctorates were also less likely than men without doctorates to be admitted by the judge. The good news for women is that they were about half as likely to be challenged on the basis of relevance.

O’Brien, T., “Judging Expertise: Gender and the Negotiation of Expert Authority in Courts,” Social Currents (December 2016).


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