Primary Sources

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

Matchmaker, Matchmaker …

Arthur Schlesinger with John F. Kennedy
DON'T TELL MOM she has a college degree

In-laws are a much-maligned bunch. But a new paper by a University of Chicago economist suggests that in India, where families still arrange most marriages, parents who set out to dominate their daughters-in-law exact an economic as well as a personal toll. The study finds that when upper-middle-class Indian parents help select a wife for their son, he is 11 percent less likely to marry a college-educated woman and nearly 20 percent less likely to marry a working woman than is a comparable man who enters into a “love marriage,” independent of his parents’ wishes. The author, Divya Mathur, used information from an online matchmaking site and a survey conducted by a market-research agency in Mumbai that quizzed more than 6,000 parents and adult children about their attitudes toward marriage. Mathur believes that the bias against educated and working women stems in part from the way Indian extended families are structured. Studies show that the more education and earning power a woman enjoys, the more control she exercises in the family. But in India, where 82 percent of parents over the age of 60 live with their kids, maintaining influence over household affairs can be crucial for those navigating old age. This reality, Mathur writes, leads parents to “prefer a daughter-in-law with inferior human capital attributes because this allows them to extract a larger share of household resources.” The paper suggests that love marriages—which are on the rise, particularly in urban India—may spur economic growth, both by redistributing resources among generations and by providing a greater incentive for women to invest in their own education (because doing so would be less likely to work against their marriage prospects).

“What’s Love Got to Do With It? Parental Involvement and Spouse Choice in Urban India,” [PDF] Divya Mathur, University of Chicago

Public Health

Size Matters

As Americans get fatter, fat women are experiencing progressively worse treatment on the job, according to a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Previous studies had shown that overweight workers face wage discrimination, and that the effect is most pronounced for white women and is smaller (or nonexistent) among males and among other racial or ethnic groups. Those earlier findings were mainly historical snapshots, however, and the BLS wanted to determine how Americans’ increasing obesity would affect the wage penalty. One might expect that anti-fat bias would diminish, the fatter we all become, but the study reports that increasing obesity is having the opposite effect. Using a national survey of 12,686 women, the BLS found that between 1981 and 2000, as the percentage of American white women who are overweight and obese expanded from 12.6 percent to 50.4 percent, the wage penalty for obesity nearly doubled. In 1981, a woman in the 75th percentile on the Body Mass Index (roughly 165 pounds for a 5-foot-4-inch woman) could expect wages 4.29 percent lower than those of her svelter colleague in the 25th percentile (roughly 120 pounds). In 2000, the same hypothetical woman’s wage penalty for her avoirdupois had risen to 7.47 percent. The fatter we get, it seems, the bigger the premium on thinness.

“Women’s Increasing Wage Penalties From Being Overweight and Obese,” David Lempert, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Up From Slavery

How great a difference would the famous “40 acres and a mule”— the plot of land promised to freed slaves after the Civil War but never distributed—have made to the long-term prospects of African Americans? In a new paper, a University of Michigan economist examines the fortunes of slaves freed after the Civil War by the Cherokee Nation. As Cherokee citizens, these freedmen were granted the right to “claim and improve any unused land in the Nation’s public domain.” Analyzing farm data from 1880, 15 years after emancipation, the paper finds that a black freedman in a Cherokee community was five times as likely to be a landowner as the typical African American in the former Confederacy. The average black Cherokee man owned livestock worth 80 to 90 percent as much as the livestock of a nonblack Cherokee citizen, whereas the typical Southern black’s livestock was worth only 45 to 60 percent as much as the livestock of the average white man. And the data suggest that Cherokee blacks were more likely to make savvy long-term investments: in 1880, 60 percent of Cherokee freedmen farmers had planted peach and apple trees (which take three to seven years to bear fruit), compared with only 5 percent of black landowners in the South. This evidence, the author concludes, vindicates General O. O. Howard, the superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, who claimed that “more might have been done to develop the industry and energy of the colored race if I had been able to furnish each family with a small tract of land to till for themselves.”

“The Righteous and Reasonable Ambition to Become a Landholder: What Would Have Happened If Former Slaves Had Received Land After the Civil War?,” Melinda Miller, University of Michigan


Mortal Thoughts

Nothing concentrates the mind on happy thoughts, two psychologists report, like the prospect of being hanged. The authors seeded the minds of dozens of undergraduates with thoughts of their own mortality by asking them to contemplate their own death. Meanwhile, undergraduate subjects in a second group were asked to contemplate pain, rather than death, by imagining excruciating but nonfatal dental procedures. When the researchers asked both groups to play simple word games, they found that the mortality-haunted students tended to select cheerier words than the students who had been asked to meditate on having their teeth drilled. (For instance, a death-haunted student would be more likely to turn the prompt “jo_” into the word joy than the word job.) To the authors, the results suggest that the unconscious mind automatically copes with the prospect of death through a kind of “psychological immune system”—a built-in mechanism to isolate and neutralize the clinically induced memento mori. They note that the results defy the students’ own intuitions: the subjects didn’t think that imagining their own untimely demise would remind them to always look on the bright side of life.

“From Terror to Joy: Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience,” C. Nathan DeWall and Roy F. Baumeister, Psychological Science

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