Uncommon Knowledge: Voter turnout, attendance laws, and fortifications

CAMBRIDGE MA - 11/08/2016: Voting Ward 8 at the Graham and Parks School in Cambridge. The 2016 presidential election, voter turnout at polling places (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 09turnout
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff Photo
Voting Ward 8 at the Graham and Parks School in Cambridge.

Seeing race

As the authors of a new study note, “both the United States and Brazil have a history of Native American displacement, European settlement, and African slavery.” Yet people in the two countries see race very differently. In experiments, Americans — but not Brazilians — used information about parents’ race to categorize children whose race was ambiguous in photos. Americans were also more likely to categorize a child with mixed-race parents as black than white. In categorizing adult faces by race, Brazilians relied more on skin tone than Americans, who were more likely to rely on facial features.

Chen, J. et al., “To Be or Not to Be (Black or Multiracial or White): Cultural Variation in Racial Boundaries,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Teach them well

Over the last century, states have raised their school dropout ages and toughened their compulsory-attendance laws. Parents who were subject to an additional year of schooling due to compulsory-schooling laws in effect when they were teenagers subsequently had children who engaged in significantly less delinquent behavior. This appears to be the result of those children having fewer siblings, facing higher educational expectations, watching less television, and feeling a greater sense of control.

Chalfin, A. & Deza, M., “The Intergenerational Effects of Education on Delinquency,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (forthcoming).

The difference an hour makes


An Iowa State political scientist compared voter turnout in counties along the boundary between the Eastern and Central time zones in Kentucky, where polls open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Turnout among older voters was several percentage points higher in Eastern Time Zone counties, which open and close an hour earlier relative to the sun. Turnout among younger voters was several percentage points higher in Central Time Zone counties.

Urbatsch, R., “Youthful Hours: Shifting Poll-Opening Times Manipulates Voter Demographics,” Research & Politics (July 2017).

Walls matter

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The fortified border that the Romans built through what is now Germany didn’t just keep the barbarians out. According to a German researcher, it also kept prosperity in. Economic development has been significantly higher on the Roman side of the border up through today, even considering geographical characteristics and pre-Roman settlement patterns. Much of this can be explained by the lasting economic value of the Roman road network.

Wahl, F., “Does European Development Have Roman Roots? Evidence from the German Limes,” Journal of Economic Growth (September 2017).

Committed to being wrong

Researchers wanted to test how willing people are to change their minds based on new information. Subjects were shown a bowl of peas on a table and asked to write down an estimate of the number of peas in the bowl. Then they were given a hint — an average estimate made by other participants — and allowed to revise their own numbers. Members of a control group, meanwhile, were shown the peas, given the hint, and then asked for a final estimate. (All participants were paid based upon how accurate their guesses were.) Compared with the control group , participants who’d written down an initial estimate provided final estimates that were less accurate. There was no such effect when participants were asked to raise their hand when they had an estimate but not to write it down — suggesting that it was the act of recording an estimate, not simply thinking about one, that committed participants to it.

Falk, A. & Zimmermann, F., “Information Processing and Commitment,” Economic Journal (forthcoming).

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