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Uncommon Knowledge: Corn, NIMBY money, and poor health


Slaves to corn

Previous research has found that the introduction of the potato from the New World to the Old World accounts for a significant fraction of the latter’s population and city growth from 1700 to 1900 (i.e., during the Industrial Revolution). But such transfers are not always positive. Corn was introduced to Africa around the same time that potatoes were introduced to Europe, and it was quickly adopted, given its practical advantages over other crops. A new study finds that, while corn increased population density in areas where it could be grown, it also accelerated the slave trade.

Cherniwchan, J. & Moreno-Cruz, J., “Maize and Precolonial Africa,” Journal of Development Economics (January 2019).


Messed up

New research from a professor at Boston University’s business school suggests that correcting a mistake may be more profitable than never making it in the first place. After reading that a supplier to a food vendor was lowering the quality of a key ingredient, people were more positive about the vendor — and more willing to actually purchase its product — if the vendor failed to notice the supplier issue at first and only later switched suppliers, compared to noticing the issue and switching suppliers right away. This was also the case for a company that was developing an advanced microwave oven and initially missed a new innovation but later incorporated it. In other words, correcting a mistake generates a positive impression notwithstanding the mistake itself (but only if the mistake is not repeated).

Kupor, D. et al., “The (Bounded) Benefits of Correction: The Unanticipated Interpersonal Advantages of Making and Correcting Mistakes,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (November 2018).

Huddled masses yearning to collaborate

Researchers asked child siblings in California to collaborate in planning an efficient route through a model grocery store. Siblings from working-class, Mexican-immigrant families were much more likely to build on each other’s ideas and make decisions together than siblings from middle-class, European-American families, who tended to go solo and ignore or boss the other sibling.


This difference was mirrored in helping out at home, with immigrant mothers reporting that siblings helped out at home without being asked, while native mothers reported that siblings had to be directed. Indeed, many of the native mothers didn’t think it was important or realistic for their children to help without being asked, and none “mentioned any moral, social, or community-minded reasons for helping out.”

Alcalá, L. et al., “Sophisticated Collaboration Is Common Among Mexican-Heritage US Children,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

NIMBY money

An analysis of federal election campaign contributions revealed that residents contribute more in zip codes where the number of blacks and whites is similar, especially in the South for contributions to Republican candidates, even controlling for other zip-code socioeconomic characteristics, election competitiveness, and state and county partisanship. “In Atlanta, for example, zip codes 30342 and 30350 are home to some of the most prolific funders of Republican campaigns, but also contain a substantial black and Latino population. Residents in much less diverse Alpharetta zip code 30009 give less in spite of being well-situated economically.” The theory: whites who live in close proximity to blacks are motivated, by a perceived political threat, to donate.

Gimpel, J. & Glenn, J., “Racial Proximity and Campaign Contributing,” Electoral Studies (forthcoming).

Poor health


Psychologists at Vanderbilt University analyzed survey data on middle-aged Americans to better understand the correlation between socioeconomic status and health. Genetics accounted for most of this correlation in the case of physical health, but this was not the case for mental health, which was correlated with socioeconomic status almost entirely because of one’s early-life environment.

Garrison, M. & Rodgers, J., “Decomposing the Causes of the Socioeconomic Status-Health Gradient with Biometrical Modeling,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

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