Looking for negative signals

A Chinese investor watches the stock index and prices in Beijing.
A Chinese investor watches the stock index and prices in Beijing.(WU HONG/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Looking for trouble

“Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality,” observes a team of psychologists at Harvard and elsewhere, “the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse.” Why?

In experiments, subjects were shown faces hundreds of times and asked to judge whether each was threatening; similarly, subjects were shown research proposals and asked to judge whether each was unethical. As threatening faces and unethical proposals became less frequent over the course of the experiment, people became more likely to judge a given face as threatening or a given proposal as unethical. That held true even when they were told that the prevalence of negative signals would decrease, and when subjects were told — and paid — to be consistent.


In other words, when people who are looking for negative signals see them less frequently, they expand such concepts such as “threatening” or “unethical” to define more situations that way. If the prevalence of negative signals increased, the opposite happened — people narrowed their definitions. Notably, the same dynamics also applied in less morally fraught situations. Subjects were also asked to look out for blue dots. When the frequency of such dots decreased, subjects responded by defining more purple dots as blue.

Levari, D. et al., “Prevalence-Induced Concept Change in Human Judgment,” Science (June 29, 2018).

Friends without benefits

In an experiment, white people who had experience hiring in their organizations “evaluated two equally qualified job applicants — fictitious, but presented as real — for the position of assistant store manager in the Boston store of a leading national retail company.”

The two applicants were both white men or both black men (as indicated by racially distinctive names such as Greg and Jake, or Jermaine and Terrell), and one of the two had a referral from either a black or white employee. While white applicants generally benefitted from a referral from an employee of either race, black applicants generally only benefited from a referral from a white employee.


Silva, F., “The Strength of Whites’ Ties: How Employers Reward the Referrals of Black and White Jobseekers,” Social Forces (forthcoming).

Where are the voters?

Gerrymandering is criticized for skewing political representation to one party or the other. But a University of Connecticut political scientist has found another problem with it. Districts that were less geographically compact had lower voter turnout — measured both from election data and individual survey data — even controlling for district demographic and election characteristics.

Ladewig, J., “‘Appearances Do Matter’: Congressional District Compactness and Electoral Turnout,” Election Law Journal (June 2018).

Secretly for equality

In an experiment, young married men in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, overwhelmingly believed, when asked privately, that women should be allowed to work outside the home, but were less sure that their peers would concur. If they were then informed that other men actually agreed with them, the men became more willing to pay to sign their wives up for a job-finding service. This was especially true for men who had underestimated peer agreement. Months later, the wives of these men were indeed more likely to have applied for a job, and their husbands were more willing to sign their wives up for driving lessons.

Bursztyn, L. et al., “Misperceived Social Norms: Female Labor Force Participation in Saudi Arabia,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2018).


The Western Church

A new study traces Western values back to the Catholic Church’s medieval family policies. Specifically, the church was ahead of its time in curbing practices like cousin marriage that tended to organize society around kin. As a result, areas exposed to the church for longer developed more impersonal norms, like individualism and impartial treatment, as opposed to obedience and nepotism. These impersonal norms then facilitated Western institutions like individual rights, markets, and representative government.

Schulz, J. et al., “The Origins of WEIRD Psychology,” Harvard University (June 2018).

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