Uncommon Knowledge: Thanks, Obama

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, file photo, former U.S. President Barack Obama arrives on stage prior to delivering a speech in Paris. Carter Wilkerson, a guy with an insatiable appetite for chicken nuggets, and Obama are among the most retweeted tweets of the year. On Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, Twitter released its top trending people and subjects ranging from the arts, to politics, to Korean boy bands. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)
AP Photo/Thibault Camus
Barack Obama giving a speech in Paris on Dec. 2.

Thanks, Obama

Political scientists at Ohio State University found that people who got coverage through the federal Obamacare website were less supportive of Donald Trump in 2016 — but only where announced premium increases for 2017 were modest, controlling for local socio-economic factors and 2012 voting. Where there were large Obamacare premium increases, enrollees were more inclined to vote for Trump than those with employer coverage. The political scientists blame the federal website for not making Obamacare subsidies clearer to enrollees, most of whom ended up paying much less than full price. The political scientists also estimate that the strained “implementation of Obamacare may have indeed cost Hillary Clinton the presidency,” as Medicaid expansion in Florida and Wisconsin, and improved Obamacare performance in Michigan, could’ve won her those states.

Kogan, V. & Wood, T., “Did Obamacare Implementation Cost Clinton the 2016 Election?” Ohio State University (November 2017).

Citizens of war

Using the “natural experiment” supplied by the timing of World War I and the age-relevance of its draft, a political scientist at Harvard found that first- and second-generation immigrants who served in World War I were more likely to marry a native, more likely to adopt American-sounding names for themselves and their children, and more likely to naturalize. This was particularly the case for newer immigrants like Italians and Eastern Europeans, but not so much for the already-assimilated Irish.

Mazumder, S., “Becoming White: How Mass Warfare Turned Immigrants into Americans,” Harvard University (November 2017).

Who cares what they think?

In an experiment, female college students at the University of St Andrews (Scotland’s oldest university, and where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met) were given a purported test of cognitive style, which was really just an excuse to randomly assign participants to two “different” groups. Each participant was then paired with someone from either the same group or the other group, and the pairs were allowed to chat, after which they wrote a description of their partner. Even though same-group and different-group pairs spoke and wrote approximately the same number of words, different-group pairs spoke and wrote less about their partner’s mental state. In other words, just the fact that someone else is “different” is enough to make you think less about what they think.

McClung, J. & Reicher, S., “Representing Other Minds: Mental State Reference Is Moderated by Group Membership,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Unequal from the Amazon to


Researchers found that communities of species in nature — “from mushrooms, trees, intestinal bacteria, and algae to flies, rodents, and fish” — exhibit inequality in abundance “quite similar” to inequality in wealth among humans. Such disparities can be generated without inherent disparities in fitness/talent, through multiplicative random processes — chance building on chance — which “blows up to create extreme inequality.” The researchers note that human society has periodically reversed the trend towards extreme inequality but that increasing scale (e.g., globalization) reinforces the trend.

Scheffer, M. et al., “Inequality in Nature and Society,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

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Corporations are people (with indiscretions) too

An analysis of executive indiscretions (sexual misbehavior, dishonesty, substance abuse, or violence, excluding managerial misbehavior) over the past several decades reveals that the direct costs (e.g., lawyers, payoffs, severance) are much less than the reputational costs. The latter — including a lower likelihood of landing major customers and partnerships, and a higher likelihood of corporate malfeasance — are largely responsible for the stock-price losses that occur right after the indiscretion is disclosed, although this penalty is smaller in industries that have a reputation for regulatory non-compliance.

Cline, B. et al., “The Consequences of Managerial Indiscretions: Sex, Lies, and Firm Value,” Journal of Financial Economics (forthcoming).

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