Primary Sources

Why we love celebrities; sleepless soldiers; Pakistan's policing problems

The Lesser Evil

Tobacco already kills 5.4 million people a year, and the number of smokers is likely to skyrocket as the vice catches on in developing countries. So how to prevent a plague of cancer deaths? You could spend $500 million on an anti­smoking campaign, as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg propose, or you could sign up everyone for cell-phone service. Two World Bank economists studied 2,400 households in the Philippines between 2003 and 2006, just as cell phones caught on (the percentage of households owning a mobile more than quadrupled). They found that in houses with at least one smoker, a mobile-phone purchase led to a 32.6 percent drop in tobacco consumption for each adult—the equivalent of an entire pack each month. They conclude that tobacco and mobile phones have a special relationship: cash-constrained households have to make a trade-off between the two luxuries, and the social status once signaled by burning up your money on smokes can now be conferred by yapping away on a flashy new phone.

Star Attraction

When Michael Jackson was cleared of child-molestation charges in 2005, hundreds of loyal fans cheered him on outside the courthouse, confetti littered the pavement, and one woman even released doves to celebrate. Such behavior might seem strange, but a study by three psychologists finds that celebrity devotion could be an ego boost—for celebrity and fan alike. Previous studies have shown that personal relationships with others can reinforce one’s well-being and self-image. The authors investigated whether the same could be said of “parasocial” relationships—the one-sided bonds fans establish with celebrities in glossy magazines or on TV. They were especially interested in the effect on people with low self-esteem, who tend to be less comfortable in real relationships. The authors asked participants to write an essay about their favorite celebrity, and to fill out a questionnaire about how they perceived their “actual self” and “ideal self.” They found that subjects with low self-esteem felt more like their ideal selves after writing about their favorite stars, and that they felt closest to celebrities who resembled their idealized self-image. The authors conclude that for people with poor self-esteem, quasi-relationships with celebrities can provide benefits similar to those of real relationships. But before you cancel your subscription in favor of Us Weekly, the authors warn that while parasocial relationships are better than no relationships at all, they’re “best considered as complementary” to the real thing.

“Parasocial Relationships and Self-Discrepancies: Faux Relationships Have Benefits for Low-Self-Esteem Individuals,” Jaye L. Derrick, Shira Gabriel, and Brooke Tippin, Personal Relationships


Mixed Up

When Barack Obama admitted that he had tried liquor, pot, and “a little blow” in his younger days, he was describing the experience of many mixed-race youths: a new study finds that children of black-white interracial unions are far more likely to engage in risky behavior than their peers of a single race. The authors analyzed a national survey that gathered data on children in grades 7–12 and asked them about risky behavior like drinking, fighting, stealing, and doing drugs. While mixed-race children scored between whites and blacks on levels of school achievement, the authors say they found “high rates of risky/anti-social behavior on the part of mixed race adolescents on virtually every dimension we are able to measure.” Mixed-race kids scored worse than both blacks and whites in more than 70 percent of the measured behaviors, and they showed worse results whether the bad behavior was more common among whites (like drinking and smoking) or among blacks (like violence and riskier sexual practices). The authors suspect that such kids, burdened by dual loyalties to often-conflicting groups, go to extremes to demonstrate solidarity with their peers through “group-sanctioned misbehavior.”

Ballers, Shot-Callers

Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, has the highest winning percentage in NBA history. Jackson’s players credit his success to a Zen-like calm under pressure, but a new study on leadership abilities suggests another factor: his years as an NBA player, even though much of his career was spent bench-warming. The authors calculated NBA coaches’ winning percentages between 1996 and 2004 over 15,000 regular-season games. They found that coaches who had spent some time as a player got far better results out of their teams than those who hadn’t. And, Jackson aside, the authors found that former all-stars tended to be better coaches than non-all-stars. On average, teams with former all-stars as coaches placed six spots higher in league rankings than teams with coaches who had never played in the NBA, a huge bump-up in a league with only 29 total teams during the years studied. The authors say these findings apply more broadly: leadership skills tend to derive from expert knowledge of a given trade, not from some mysterious alchemy of natural intelligence and interpersonal skills. They suspect that their findings will apply to other “high-performance workplaces where the employees are experts”—even if the “experts” aren’t averaging $5 million a year.

Power Premium

Suppose you have crushing credit-card debt, a demanding tyrant for a boss, and disobedient children. According to a new study, you’re probably also a sucker who’d be willing to pay more for luxury goods than someone who’s on top of the world. The authors asked a group of college students to dwell on a situation in which someone had power over them. They found that this group was willing to pay much more for high-status items like a briefcase and a silk tie than another group that had just gleefully meditated on a situation in which they were in control. Both groups, however, were equally willing to pay for low-status items like a ballpoint pen, a clothes dryer, and a minivan. The researchers say that people who lack power tend to compensate by improving their status, and because one way to do so is by flaunting expensive goods, they suggest the powerless will shell out more cash than the empowered for the same gaudy products.

Punch Drunks

How do you like your booze: to stay or to go? Whether residents of a given neighborhood prefer patronizing bars or liquor stores to get smashed has a significant impact on patterns of violent crime and disorderly conduct, a study by the Urban Institute finds. The researchers mapped 1,473 alcohol-selling establishments in the District of Columbia, and then tracked the relationship between the type of outlet and “violence and disorder,” using measures like arrests and 911 calls. Not surprisingly, the more establishments selling spirits in a neighborhood, the more general mayhem occurs. But neighborhoods with a lot of outlets offering liquor to go (like corner stores) tend to experience more domestic violence, while neighborhoods with a high number of sites that let customers drink on the premises (like bars and restaurants) tend to have many more reports of aggravated assault. Although pubs are “attractors of violence” generally, the study shows that bar districts see considerably fewer reports of domestic violence, suggesting that drinkers may be taking their anger out on the loudmouth on the next bar stool—rather than in the home.

“Alcohol Outlets as Attractors of Violence and Disorder: A Closer Look at the Neighborhood Environment,” Caterina Gouvis Roman, Shannon E. Reid, Avinash S. Bhati, Bogdan Tereshchenko, Urban Institute

Foreign Affairs

Islamabad’s Finest

As Pakistan confronts a growing threat of homegrown terrorism, it will need to completely overhaul its “brutal and corrupt” police force, a new study argues. Pakistan’s police are completely inept at enforcing the law and protecting the citizenry, and they’re so underpaid that officers are routinely seen hitchhiking to their stations. The force is also crippled by corruption and often used by the country’s rulers to quell dissent and harass political opposition. Pakistan’s military regime even used police agencies to rig the polls in elections earlier this year. As one police officer told the authors, “So long as the ruler of the day treats the police as his personal militia, the police can never be reformed.” More ominously, the report warns that jihadists have infiltrated the police ranks, and that the government has done little to root them out. Hundreds of Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past year, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but while the U.S. has doled out more than $10 billion in counter­terrorism aid to Pakistan, nearly all of it has gone to the military—largely for expensive weapons at the Indian front—and not to the police. “When the state itself has consciously promoted extremism and sectarianism for almost three decades,” one official told the authors, “it’s not surprising that these tendencies have managed to establish roots inside the police force.”

“Reforming Pakistan’s Police,” International Crisis Group


The Bourne Insomnia

Will the wars of the future be won by hyperaggressive super-soldiers with electrodes grafted onto their brains? Not likely, a report commissioned by the Pentagon concludes—but sleepless armies might have a huge advantage on tomorrow’s battlefields. The authors studied the outer reaches of the field of “human performance modification”—including brain-computer interfaces, neuro-pharmaceuticals, and “brain plasticity”—in search of advances that may have military applications. And they found that high-tech ways to ameliorate the effects of sleep deprivation may prove most useful in future conflicts. Old-fashioned fatigue is still a major liability for the military: soldiers commonly use supplements to shake off exhaustion, and the report estimates that an army of men who could sleep less than two hours a night without side effects would cut casualties in half and would be as effective as 40 percent more troops. The authors recommend enhanced research into “neuromodulators” like ampakines that might help improve cognition in the sleep-deprived. But beyond that, the truly exotic human modifications they considered yielded few practical possibilities. Although brain-computer interfaces are helpful in treating injuries and strokes, for instance, they can’t bring function back to normal levels and aren’t promising for supercharging healthy soldiers. Alarmingly, though, the authors note that research on remote-controlling future soldiers, or stoking their aggression by implanting electrodes in their brains, looks promising in rats.

The Catholic Edge

“The first duty of every Catholic father to the public school is to keep his children out of it,” an old Church dictum held. Catholic parents who heeded that advice may have been doing the state a favor: a new study finds that international Catholic resistance to government-mandated schooling in the 19th century has resulted in higher student performance today—for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The Catholic hierarchy historically encouraged the development of parochial schools to ensure the moral and religious training of Catholic children. As a result, scholars recently found, countries that had a higher percentage of Catholics in 1900 now have a greater overall number of private schools. Using an international student-assessment survey, and controlling for demographic factors, the authors calculated that countries with more private schools due to a “larger historical Catholic share” in the population did substantially better on achievement tests in all three subjects measured— math, science, and reading—while spending significantly less money per student. The authors argue that Catholic “opposition to state education in many contexts engendered private school competition that ultimately spurred student achievement.”

“‘Every Catholic Child in a Catholic School’: Historical Resistance to State Schooling, Contemporary Private Competition, and Student Achievement Across Countries,” Martin R. West and Ludger Wössmann, CESifo