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Judging politicians by their covers; the irrational goalie; looking death in the eye

Head for the Hills

THE BEST DEFENSE is a good escarpment

Good fences make good neighbors, but the best fences make predatory neighbors stay away. In the case of Africa, two economists argue in a recent paper, the fences are natural, and historically their presence may have done the continent more good than harm. Rugged terrain—cliffs, gullies, caves—generally tends to hinder the development of trade and agriculture, and Africa’s uneven geography has often been cited to explain the continent’s economic struggles. But the paper argues that Africa’s terrain limited the economic damage done by five centuries of slave-trading, because the landscape made many areas relatively easy to defend against European and Arab slave-traders who prowled the west coast. In less defensible regions, the economic impact of the slave trade’s relentless raids remains measurable even today. The defensive advantage of hills and crags appears to have been great enough to offset the economic disadvantages of living on uneven land. But though retreating to higher, rougher ground probably improved African fortunes in the past, it may be creating a less prosperous present—because Africans tend to be concentrated in rugged areas even now, the authors note, rather than in economically more-promising territory.

“Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa,” [PDF] Nathan Nunn (University of British Columbia) and Diego Puga (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)


Economists 1, Goalies 0

DON'T DO SOMETHING —just stand there

Want to know how to stop a penalty kick? Don’t ask the goalkeepers; ask the academics. A group of Israeli economists studied 286 penalty kicks and found that most goalkeepers decide to jump right or left before they can really see where the ball is going. Based on the distribution of kicks, the researchers concluded that the smartest choice would be to remain in the middle of the goal. Why do goalies persistently foul up when they’re under enormous pressure to succeed? The economists explain their finding by citing “norm theory,” which holds that people’s actions are more likely to be guided by convention—and the fear of looking foolish—than by pure reason. Adherence to norms typically favors inaction: when facing a choice with potentially negative outcomes, people often prefer to do nothing, on the theory that a harmful outcome looks worse when it’s the product of action rather than inaction. In soccer, the authors argue, this pattern is reversed. Goalies would look awfully bad just standing and watching the ball zip by, so they resolve to do something, however irrational the action turns out to be.

“Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks,” Michael Bar-Eli et al., Journal of Economic Psychology


The Eyes Have It

Forget polls and position papers—a glance may be all you need to correctly predict the winner of an election, according to a study by two Princeton University psychologists. In two experiments, undergraduate students were shown the faces of the winners and runners-up in past gubernatorial elections and asked to choose the more “competent” person, based on a gut feeling. (The authors cite earlier research showing that people consider competence one of the most important traits in a politician.) The subjects picked the winner more than 60 percent of the time. In a third experiment—conducted two weeks before the 2006 elections—students picked the winner in 68.6 percent of the upcoming gubernatorial races and 72.4 percent of the Senate races. (Results were discarded when a student recognized a candidate.) Looking longer didn’t improve accuracy: students who were instructed to “deliberate” did worse than those who made a decision in two seconds or less.

“Predicting Political Elections From Rapid and Unreflective Face Judgments,” [PDF] Charles C. Ballew II and Alexander Todorov, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Safe Seats, Crazy Partisans?

When Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a particularly distorted legislative district in 1812, bequeathing the “gerrymander” to American politics, did he lay the groundwork for today’s partisan rancor? That’s the question three political-science professors set out to answer. Ever-more-sophisticated gerry­mandering techniques protect the jobs of incumbent politicians, the usual theory goes, allowing them to ignore moderates and indulge the whims of their most bloodthirsty constituents. Clearly, a seat on Capitol Hill is one of the safest jobs around: in 2002 and 2004, for instance, 99 percent of competing incumbents in the House held on to their jobs; even the Democratic surge in the last election didn’t prevent 89 percent of House Republicans from keeping their seats. Yet the professors argue that gerry­mandering bears little responsibility for the collapse of bipartisanship. Their analysis of recent congressional voting records shows that polarization has increased nearly as much in the gerrymander-proof Senate as in the House. One of the best explanations for a Congress where most politicians vote a straight party line is simply that political parties are now better aligned with the views of their constituents than they were 50 years ago. Republicans, for instance, have won the loyalty of conservative southerners who used to vote Democratic, and Democrats increasingly represent northeastern moderates who used to support the GOP. The effect of gerrymandering on this kind of “sorting” was approximately zero, the authors found; overall, they conclude that gerrymandering accounts for, at most, 10 to 15 percent of the upswing in polarization since the 1970s.

“Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” [PDF] Nolan McCarty (Princeton), Keith T. Poole (University of California at San Diego), Howard Rosenthal (New York University)

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