Primary Sources

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


Easy Go

Four psychologists have issued a rebuttal to Neil Sedaka: breaking up isn’t all that hard to do. The researchers tracked 69 first-year students at Northwestern University who’d been in a romantic relationship for at least two months at the onset of the study, regularly asking them how they would feel if they and their partners broke up. Within six months, 38 percent of the subjects had parted ways, but overall, the students tended to experience much less heartache and distress about the split than they’d predicted two weeks before it happened. The students who most overestimated how anguished they would feel tended to be those who’d reported being the most in love, those who’d been dumped, and those who’d anticipated having trouble finding a new love. Those who predicted their feelings most accurately, the authors hypothesize, were the students who were already looking forward to the single life and the pleasures of being back on the prowl.

“Mispredicting Distress Following Romantic Break Up: Revealing the Time Course of the Affective Forecasting Error,” [PDF] Paul W. Eastwick, Eli J. Finkel et al., Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Criminal Justice

Courting Madness

Since the insanity defense was first copped in a British court in 1843, canny malefactors have used it to tip the scales of justice in their favor—or so the popular imagination would have it. But studies show that the public vastly overestimates both how frequently insanity pleas are used and how successful they are, misconceptions that can have major legal consequences. A recent paper by two researchers at the University of California at Irvine surveyed 113 people who’d been excused from jury duty at a courthouse in Nevada, asking their opinions about mental illness and its relevance in legal cases. The subjects were then given four vignettes describing cases in which an insanity plea could conceivably be used and were asked to render a judgment. The authors found that “jurors with negative attitudes towards the insanity defense are less likely than jurors with more positive attitudes to find any defendant insane.” An obvious point, perhaps, but as the authors note, a negative attitude can create a serious impediment to a fair trial. Jurors who oppose the death penalty are excused from serving in capital-punishment cases; the authors recommend a similar system for rooting out jurors who are biased against the insanity defense.

“Constructing Insanity: Jurors’ Prototypes, Attitudes, and Legal Decision-Making,” Jennifer Eno Louden and Jennifer L. Skeem, Behavioral Science and the Law

The Military

A Few Good Ad Men

"The country that owns Madison Avenue ought to win this one easily,” a Marine colonel remarked during the first year of the war in Iraq. He was wrong, but he was thinking along the right lines, according to a recent Rand study, whose authors argue that the United States military could learn a lot from the advertising world. They suggest that the military could create more support for its operations, and thereby achieve greater success in conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, if it updated its “brand” identity using models such as Apple, Lexus, and Starbucks. For instance, just as the marketing world uses “segmentation” to identify different groups of customers and focus on the most profitable ones, the military could use “enemy prisoner-of-war interrogations, focus groups, and surveys” to identify potential partners within local populations. The study also suggests that the military do more to meet and manage “customer” expectations, taking a page from Continental Airlines, which tells passengers as much as possible about flight delays instead of keeping them in the dark or repeatedly promising that the flight will depart “in 15 minutes.” When the U.S. military invaded, Iraqis had outsize expectations of the American brand, expecting more electricity and better infrastructure immediately. “Like the desk representative at Continental Airlines,” the study counsels, the military “should explain the situation and emphasize that all necessary efforts are being undertaken to address the problem,” but it should never promise something it can’t deliver or set a specific date for achieving a goal unless that deadline can be met. The report also makes a case for re-branding the military, advertising it more as an organization that’s doing good” in the world, through relief efforts like those in post-tsunami Southeast Asia or in post-earthquake Pakistan.

“Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation,” Todd C. Helmus, Christopher Paul, Russell W. Glenn, Rand Corporation


Birth of a Corporation

During its heyday, in the mid-1920s, was the Ku Klux Klan more like a marketing firm than a terrorist organization? A new paper co-authored by Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who scrutinized the Klan in the best-selling Freakonomics, argues that the group was far more successful at raising money than at achieving its professed goals of passing racist legislation and intimidating black or foreign-born Americans. The authors, who compiled data on more than 60,000 Klansmen from several states, found that even at the height of its power—in the mid-1920s, membership may have been as high as 4 million—the Klan was politically ineffective. There’s “little evidence” that its activity prompted African Americans to leave their communities, and though significant numbers of Klan-backed politicians were elected to local and national office, they don’t seem to have pushed through very much legislation. But the Klan did have an “uncanny ability to raise revenue.” New-member initiation cost $10 and annual dues $5, and members were required to buy an official Klan robe and encouraged to purchase other Klan paraphernalia, such as swords or helmets. Klan members typically spent about $275 (in today’s dollars) in their first year and about $80 in subsequent years. Recruiters received a 40 percent commission for bringing in new members. Using similar incentives up the chain of command, the Klan operated on a “multi-level marketing principle, much like modern companies such as Amway and Avon” do. The higher-ups reaped huge profits: the authors calculate that D. C. Stephenson, the “grand dragon” of Indiana, took in more than $2 million annually from state operations.

“Hatred and Profits: Getting Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan,” Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Steven D. Levitt, NBER


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