Uncommon Knowledge: Antifa, STEM studies, and smartphones

Antifa members and other counterprotesters marched in opposition to the white supremacist “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington on Aug. 12.
Antifa members and other counterprotesters marched in opposition to the white supremacist “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington on Aug. 12.ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images

Who benefits from antifa?

In response to far-right protests, counterprotesters (e.g., from antifa, the movement whose name is a contraction of “anti-fascist”) often show up ready to fight. But a new survey experiment suggests that this response backfires. People who read a news article about white nationalists protesting the removal of Confederate monuments had a significantly lower opinion of counterprotesters who were violent, even if both sides were violent, than when neither side was violent. This effect was seen among both liberals and conservatives. Worse, counterprotester violence somewhat improved opinions of white nationalists and made people “substantially more likely to agree that both sides are to blame for recent problems in the United States.”


Simpson, B. et al., “Does Violent Protest Backfire? Testing a Theory of Public Reactions to Activist Violence,” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (October 2018).

Jumping to conclusions

Comparing student photos to interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at a university revealed that Asian-Americans who looked more stereotypically Asian were more likely to graduate with a STEM major, while underrepresented minorities with more stereotypical looks were less likely to graduate with a STEM major, even though stereotypical looks were not related to interest in STEM majors at the start of college. This pattern was also seen in experiments: Both the lay public and academic advisers perceived Asian-Americans with a more stereotypical look, and African-Americans with a less stereotypical look, to be more suited to STEM.

Williams, M. et al., “The Face of STEM: Racial Phenotypic Stereotypicality Predicts STEM Persistence by — and Ability Attributions about — Students of Color,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Slaves of some defunct economist

Several scholars who study both economics and law have uncovered a potentially disturbing aspect of their own field’s history. From 1976 through the 1990s, many federal judges attended an intensive economics course for a couple weeks that was “founded and organized by Henry Manne, an influential conservative in the early law and economics movement,” and “was funded mainly by donations from conservative foundations and business interests.” Both conservative and liberal judges attended — including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who noted that “the instruction was far more intense than the Florida sun.”


The scholars’ analysis of thousands of appellate and criminal sentencing decisions revealed that, after attending the course, “judges use more economics language, render more conservative verdicts in economics cases, rule against regulatory agencies more often, and render longer criminal sentences.” These judges also influenced the thinking of judges they worked with who hadn’t attended the course. In short, the course “accounts for a substantial portion of the conservative shift in the federal judiciary since 1976.”

Ash, E. et al., “Ideas Have Consequences: The Impact of Law and Economics on American Justice,” Columbia University (July 2018).

Keep the food; pass the phone

College students were deprived of food for at least three hours and deprived of their smartphones for two hours and had to “work toward earning portions” of a preferred snack food and/or time to use their smartphone. The students were much more motivated to get brief smartphone time than food. They also reported being much more willing to spend money for smartphone time than food.

O’Donnell, S. & Epstein, L., “Smartphones Are More Reinforcing than Food for Students,” Addictive Behaviors (forthcoming).


Fulfilling stereotypes

A heavy person is assumed to want more candy than a thin person, and a stereotypically gendered person — a Jessica who likes babysitting and shopping or a Michael who plays lacrosse and video games — is assumed to want to read more stereotypically gendered articles. However, anyone who is offered more candy or stereotypically gendered articles tends to eat more candy or read more stereotypically gendered articles. So, when others offer what they assume a person wants, a stereotype of that person can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The resulting choices can confirm the initial stereotype even when it’s clear the offer was skewed.

Madon, S. et al., “The Accumulation of Stereotype-Based Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (November 2018).

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