Primary Sources

Dental windfalls; management secrets of the KKK; the radical engineer

Pound Foolish

If you want to save money, don’t count the pennies: they may be just a ruse to distract you from the higher number on the other side of the decimal point. A recent paper suggests that because we tend to use precise numbers for small amounts and round numbers (lots of zeros) for large ones, sellers can make buyers perceive a price as smaller than it is by replacing zeros with other digits. The authors showed their subjects a listing for a house along with various prices, and asked whether those prices seemed high or low. Precise prices like $391,534 were seen as cheaper than round ones like $390,000, even though the round prices were actually lower. The authors then examined more than 27,000 real-estate transactions on Long Island and in South Florida and discovered the same effect at work in real-life deals. In South Florida, having at least one zero at the end of the list price lowered the final sale price by about 0.72 percent compared with houses listed at a similar price, three zeros lowered it by 0.73 percent, and each additional zero lowered it another 0.39 percent. (The effect was slightly less pronounced on Long Island.) While seemingly small, this effect can add up to thousands of dollars.

“Do Consumers Perceive Precise Prices to Be Lower Than Round Prices? Evidence From Laboratory and Market Data,” [PDF] Manoj Thomas, Daniel H. Simon, and Vrinda Kadiyali, Cornell University Johnson School Research Paper Series


Engineers for Osama

Now that the stereotype of the poverty-stricken terrorist has been dispelled by studies showing that militancy and high levels of education go hand in hand, a new Oxford study tries to explain why so many violent Islamic radicals are … engineers. The authors gathered data on 404 militants from 31 countries, and among the 178 whose principal academic focus could be determined, engineering was by far the most popular subject. Seventy-eight had pursued an engineering degree, compared with 34 in Islamic studies, 14 in medicine, and 12 in economics or business studies. The authors couldn’t find evidence to support the idea that radical groups seek out engineers for their skills. Instead, they speculate that something in the engineer’s mind-set—the emphasis on structure and rules, and on finding singular solutions to complicated problems—may fit neatly with Islamist notions of the ideal society. (In support of this hypothesis, the authors cite surveys from America, the Middle East, and Canada indicating that engineers are more likely than other professionals to be religious and right-wing.) They also note that engineers tend to be high-achievers who rise by merit, which may make them more likely to be frustrated by their interactions with corrupt bureaucracies in the Middle East and North Africa and thus receptive to radical messages.

“Engineers of Jihad,” Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Oxford University Department of Sociology Working Papers

Public Health

The Grin Dividend

Our gap-toothed English cousins may wonder why we Americans fret as much as we do about our teeth, but two public- health researchers have part of the answer: The way our smile looks affects our earnings. They analyzed the effect of childhood exposure to fluoride—which strengthens tooth enamel and can reduce tooth decay by up to 50 percent—on adult income, and found that adults who were raised in communities with fluoridated water make about 4 percent more than those who weren’t. This effect was concentrated among people of low socioeconomic background, and it was more pronounced for women, who, the authors suggest, may be more likely than men to choose careers that place a premium on physical appearance and are more likely to be discriminated against based on their looks.

“The Economic Value of Teeth,” [PDF] Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell, Columbia University and NBER


Innocent Bystanders

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks ... Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.” That’s how The New York Times described the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, which has become a standard parable in psychology textbooks. But according to three professors from Lancaster University and the University of West England, the famous story isn’t an accurate account of the incident. Citing court transcripts, legal documents, and recent historical research debunking the Times account, they report that many of the famous details don’t withstand scrutiny. Among other errors, there were only two attacks, not three; the configuration of the crime scene would have made it impossible for all but one of the known witnesses to have seen the crime in its entirety; the police may have been called much earlier than thought; and Genovese was alive when the cops finally arrived. The professors also examined accounts of the murder in 10 popular undergraduate psychology textbooks and found that a version largely derived from the Times story is routinely repeated as an example of the “bystander effect,” or the failure of people in groups to help others in distress. The authors believe much of the research on this effect is sound, but they suggest that the widespread use of the Genovese story in textbooks has predisposed a generation of researchers to concentrate on the negative ways that groups can affect behavior.

“The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Social Psychology of Helping: The Parable of the 38 Witnesses,” Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins, American Psychologist

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