Uncommon Knowledge: Wayward Soldiers, the God Excuse, and Joking While Female

/Michelle R. Smith/AP/file 2018/Associated Press

Bad company

A decade ago, before the Great Recession and at the height of the Iraq War, the United States Army was struggling to recruit enough soldiers, and as a result, it issued more waivers than usual to recruits with some sort of criminal history. Now, an Army researcher has found that non-waivered soldiers assigned to companies with more waivered soldiers were more likely to commit major misconduct. This was especially prevalent among younger non-waivered soldiers and in months when waivered soldiers in the company also committed misconduct.

Murphy, F., “Does Increased Exposure to Peers with Adverse Characteristics Reduce Workplace Performance? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in the US Army,” Journal of Labor Economics (forthcoming).


Is God your agent?

In a series of experiments, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that religious believers “can justify questionable behavior when they believe in a God who intervenes in specific circumstances to help people, and when there is no clear person responsible. . . because this encourages people to see God as responsible — and seeing God’s good will at work allows earthly injustice to be justified.” For example, believers thought that keeping a lost wallet (with lots of cash) was more morally permissible in this light (“You pray to God to help with money. God hears your prayers and leads you toward a wallet that is lying on the ground.”) compared to a less divine scenario (“You ask your friend from church for money. Your friend listens and some days later he leads you toward a wallet that he has found lying on the ground.”).

Jackson, J. & Gray, K., “When a Good God Makes Bad People: Testing a Theory of Religion and Immorality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Female comedians out of work

Researchers recorded a female and male actor playing the role of “a retail store manager reporting on store performance to a group of regional managers.” Each actor played the role twice, with and without humorous statements in an otherwise identical script. People were then randomly shown one of these four videos. Humor hurt evaluations of the female manager, but helped evaluations of the male manager.


Evans, J. et al., “Gender and the Evaluation of Humor at Work,” Journal of Applied Psychology (forthcoming).

Don’t ask, don’t tell

A new study from researchers at the United States Census Bureau is “the first to estimate the effect of a citizenship question.” It does so by comparing mail-back rates in the last Census (which did not have a citizenship question) to mail-back rates in the American Community Survey (a different Census Bureau survey that already has the citizenship question) for the same address. The study estimates that there is a statistically significant drop in mail-back rates for households with non-citizens, and that even for those who do return the survey, the rate of problematic responses (non-responses or responses inconsistent with records) to the citizenship question is exceptionally high.

Brown, D. et al., “Estimating the Potential Effects of Adding a Citizenship Question to the 2020 Census,” U.S. Census Bureau (January 2019).

It’s the interest rates, stupid!

Three MIT-trained economists are proposing that low interest rates, while traditionally viewed as expansionary, may have weakened industry instead. That’s because industry leading companies can use easier financing to further dominate their industries, and eventually stifling industry competition. The economists find evidence for this in stock market data: Stocks of industry-leading companies do better relative to non-leading companies when interest rates decline, especially when rates are already low. “The model provides a unified explanation for why the decline in long-term interest rates has been associated with rising market concentration, reduced dynamism, a widening productivity-gap between leaders and followers, and slower productivity growth.”


Liu, E. et al., “Low Interest Rates, Market Power, and Productivity Growth,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2019).

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