Primary Sources

Our dynastic Congress; the chess gender gap; surgeons who love Nintendo

Law Enforcement

The Terrorist Next Door

If you think you can pick out the violent Islamist in a crowd of law-abiding European Muslims, you’re probably mistaken, a Dutch study suggests. The author profiled 242 European Muslim terrorists nabbed since September 2001: 40 percent of them had been born in Europe; many were poor and had criminal records; almost all were single (or divorced) men; and they ranged widely in age, from their teens to near retirement. But none of these factors distinguished them in any significant way from the broader population of European Muslims. (The European terrorists did differ from jihadists in other parts of the world: They tended to have less money and education, and they usually drifted toward violence alone or under the influence of friends, rather than through formal ties to global extremist movements.) All this is bad news for advocates of terrorist profiling by police and intelligence agencies: Any effort to identify Muslims who “fit the profile” will inevitably ensnare huge numbers of the innocent.

“Jihadi Terrorists in Europe,” Edwin Bakker, Netherlands Institute of International Relations


It Runs in the Family

With a Clinton running to succeed a Bush who succeeded a Clinton who succeeded a Bush, it seems like the American electoral system is being heavily influenced by a few powerful political families. But according to a recent study, political dynasties are actually in decline—at least in the U.S. Congress. Researchers examined biographical data on every member of Congress who served between 1789 and 1996, noting the number of “dynastic legislators”—those whose relatives had previously served in Congress. The authors found that increased competition has diminished the power of political dynasties over time; given a choice, voters prefer to elect candidates based on their public records and apparent level of skill. Still, family ties remain a potent force: Holding office for more than one term increases by 40 percent the likelihood that a politician’s relatives will later serve in Congress. Historically, dynastic politicians tended to be Democrats, southerners, and senators. The correlation with party and region has faded, but dynasties remain more likely to place their members directly into the Senate, even though many of these legacy senators lack experience in public office. The greatest dynasty, the authors note, was the Kentucky- concentrated Breckinridge family, which sent 17 of its members to serve in Congress between 1789 and 1978.

“Political Dynasties,” Ernesto Dal Bó (University of California, Berkeley), Pedro Dal Bó (Brown), and Jason Snyder (Northwestern)

The Military

The Ministry of Silly Names

How does the military give its operations nicknames? For instance, how did an anti-WMD exercise in the Caribbean come to be called “Giant Shadow,” or a joint operation with the Argentine fleet get dubbed “Solid Step”? A new directive from the U.S. Navy on the use of nicknames and code words (recently obtained by Secrecy News, an e-mail publication on security and intelligence developments) offers some insight. Nicknaming turns out to be a delicate art. The directive advises Navy personnel to avoid “exotic words, expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks,” as well as terms that “express a degree of aggression inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy.” It also warns against using words that “convey anything offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed.” The final pages of the directive list nicknames permanently assigned to various activities and divisions of the Navy: The C section alone offers a mouthwatering collection of possibilities, among them Cheese, Cherry, Chocolate, and Cinnamon.

“Code Word, Nicknames, and Exercise Terminology System,” Vice Admiral J. G. Morgan Jr., U.S. Department of the Navy


Death Shall Have No Dominion

Researchers have long suspected that grief advances in stages, and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five-step model of how people react to a terminal illness—denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance—is generally seen as the best way to understand the grieving process. Now a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association offers empirical data showing that a grieving person goes through a modified version of Kübler-Ross’s sequence: disbelief followed by yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance. The authors interviewed more than 200 adults in Connecticut who’d recently lost a loved one to natural causes, then followed them over two years. The participants were asked to report, at regular intervals, the frequency with which they felt each of the five emotions the researchers described. The results showed a surprisingly high, and steadily increasing, degree of acceptance throughout the grieving process; they also showed that yearning was the most commonly reported psychological response to bereavement. The five grief indicators tended to peak in the order predicted by the researchers, and to take an average of about six months all told to do so, suggesting that people who suffer a longer bereavement may want to seek help in recovering.

“An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief,” Paul K. Maciejewski et al., Journal of the American Medical Association


Searching for Bobbie Ann Fischer

Memo to Larry Summers: It’s not just math and science; women are also hugely underrepresented in elite chess. No woman has ever won an official world championship; no major country can boast a female champion; and as of 2004, only 1 percent of grand masters were women. A recent paper on sex discrepancies in competitive chess found scant evidence that either cognitive differences or “old boys’ networks” are to blame for the dearth of women at the top. The authors note that males and females who play chess with the same frequency and have the same rating also improve—and drop out of the game—at the same pace, and that when groups of children start playing, if at least half are girls, the boys’ and girls’ ratings aren’t markedly different. The most consistent explanation for the game’s gender gap is that girls take up chess and enter competitions in much smaller numbers than boys. Why? The authors suggest that girls (or their parents) may be discouraged by the absence of female role models and by the prospect of playing with so many boys.

“Sex Differences in Intellectual Performance: Analysis of a Large Cohort of Competitive Chess Players,” Christopher F. Chabris (Harvard University) and Mark E. Glickman (Boston University)


Kissing Your Sister

The occasional Egyptian royal dynasty aside, we all know we’re not supposed to have sex with our siblings. Now, three evolutionary psychologists studying the cues humans use to determine relatedness have concluded that cultural and religious taboos against incest are superfluous: We’ve evolved to recognize siblings and avoid having sex with them. Their paper, published in a recent issue of Nature, asked more than 600 people about their family histories and interactions with siblings. The results suggest that two main cues help children identify blood relatives: the amount of time another young person spends with a child’s mother as an infant, and the amount of time another young person spends living under the same roof as that child. The “kinship index” created by these cues, the authors argue, regulates two evolutionarily useful attitudes—altruism toward siblings and aversion to incest. Both cues predict the level of disgust a person feels for incest far better than any conscious beliefs about the nature of the relationship in question: You’re more likely to be revolted by the idea of sleeping with a stepsibling you’ve grown up with than with someone you believe to be a blood relation who hasn’t been nursed by the same mother or lived under the same roof. The authors also point out that aversion to sibling incest is strongest among siblings of the opposite sex; and it’s more intense among women, which might be explained by the innate interest women have in giving birth to healthy children.

“The Architecture of Human Kin Detection,” Debra Lieberman, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides, Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB; Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu


Nurse, Joystick!

There’s not much difference between zapping zombies and blasting blood clots, according to a study on doctors at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Following up on previous research suggesting that young doctors are quicker than older ones to pick up “laparoscopic” skills (which allow them to control tiny instruments inside a patient’s body while watching the action on a big TV screen), the study set out to test whether this edge was explained by all the time that younger doctors had spent playing Nintendo as kids. The authors polled 33 surgeons on their video-gaming histories before putting them through a set of laparoscopic challenges—timed and scored surgical drills with nicknames like the “Cobra Rope,” the “Cup Drop,” and the “Terrible Triangle”; they also asked the surgeons to play a video game, such as Super Monkey Ball 2 or Star Wars Racer Revenge. They then sorted the data to see if joystick twiddling makes you a better surgeon. Indeed it does, by a wide margin. Doctors who’d once played for more than three hours a week did the lap-skills course in an average of 64 minutes with 197 errors; doctors who’d never played took 87 minutes and made 314 errors. Overall, the study found that a surgeon’s video-game skills, or lack thereof, explained 31 percent of the variance in laparoscopy performance. Less than 2 percent of the variance was attributed to the number of laparoscopies surgeons had performed. Video games can lower grades and promote obesity, the authors allow, but they can also make for damn fine doctors.

“The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century,” James C. Rosser et al., Archives of Surgery


Listening to Prozac

Since 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that taking antidepressants may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and adolescents. So should Prozac and Zoloft be pulled from the shelves? Not necessarily, suggests a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors examined the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most commonly taken class of antidepressant, on “completed suicide” rates (as opposed to suicidal tendencies and attempted suicides) over 25 years in 26 countries. They found that an increase in antidepressant sales of one pill per capita (about a 12 percent increase over the sales levels for 2000 in the countries surveyed) correlated with a suicide-mortality decline of about 5 percent. The authors argue that randomized clinical trials—the basis for the FDA’s findings—are a poor way to examine the relationship between SSRIs and suicide-completion rates, because the samples are too small to yield meaningful results and because such trials “exclude those at highest risk for suicide.” (Most clinical trials, for instance, avoid enrolling patients with a history of suicide attempts.) SSRIs, the study contends, are a cost-effective measure against suicide: An additional $20,000 spent on them will avert one suicide death, a cost per life saved far lower than the cost of most other forms of public-health intervention.

“Anti-Depressants and Suicide,” Jens Ludwig, Dave E. Marcotte, and Karen Norberg, NBER