Primary Sources

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)


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