Friday, August 15, 2008

Uncommon Knowledge - Surprising Insights from the Social Sciences

An interesting article from the Boston Globe over the weekend. The article looks at some recent research articles and what they might tell us about who we are.

One of the obvious, but annoying, studies shows that Olympic events that involve women in bathing suits (swimming, diving), bikinis (beach volleyball), and leotards (gymnastics) get more air time than other events. I guess this is why I never get to see weight lifting.

(Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe)

Uncommon Knowledge

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis August 10, 2008

Why innovation is getting harder

OUR NATION DEPENDS on innovation. It's so important that the Constitution specifically encourages Congress "to promote the progress of science and useful arts." According to one economist, however, there may be a crisis looming: The frontier of knowledge is becoming very hard to reach, making innovation more difficult and costly, and narrowing the window of opportunity in a prospective innovator's (limited) life span. His analysis finds that the average age for a first invention, the degree of specialization, and the teamwork required for innovation have all been climbing rapidly.

Jones, B., "The Burden of Knowledge and the 'Death of the Renaissance Man': Is Innovation Getting Harder?" Review of Economic Studies (forthcoming).

It's expensive to be poor

BEING POOR IS bad enough. Now a study reports that even basic groceries are more expensive in poor neighborhoods. The study thoroughly cataloged prices - and surveyed customers - at stores selling grocery items in various neighborhoods around Buffalo. Prices for the same items were about 10 to 15 percent higher in poor neighborhoods relative to affluent neighborhoods. The cause? Competition. In wealthier neighborhoods, there are more chain stores, and customers are more likely to have cars, making it easier to price shop. This drives down prices. Moving the nearest chain store closer by 1 mile to a particular neighborhood store brings the neighborhood store's prices down by 1-3 percent, the author found.

Talukdar, D., "Cost of Being Poor: Retail Price and Consumer Price Search Differences across Inner-City and Suburban Neighborhoods," Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

When a meritocracy isn't

IN A MERITOCRACY, performance is supposed to determine success. To achieve this goal, many organizations have instituted formal processes to review employee performance. But a process is only as good as the people who run it, and some people may not be entirely objective. A sociologist at MIT was given access to internal records on 8,898 support staff at a large high-tech service-sector company (management didn't allow access to their own records). He found that, while women and minorities could expect the same starting salaries and performance ratings for doing the same job, they could not expect to get the same raises. The effect was quite small, but real: For a given performance rating, raises were 0.4 percent smaller for women, 0.5 percent smaller for African-Americans, 0.5 percent smaller for Hispanics, and 0.6 percent smaller for foreign-born employees. Moreover, for African-Americans, performance ratings were less predictive of a raise. The source of the bias appeared to be the fact that the managers who gave the performance rating were not the managers who determined the size of the raise. The latter were subject to less accountability and transparency, such that no one at the company seemed to be aware of the bias.

Castilla, E., "Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers," American Journal of Sociology (May 2008).

The personalities of nations

COUNTRIES DON'T JUST differ in their traditions and values. One of the more intriguing patterns in psychology is that different cultures are characterized by different personality types. A team of psychologists has proposed a new explanation: the legacy of disease. They matched the personality scores of people to historical data on the prevalence of major diseases in each country. They found that a history of disease in a country corresponded to a personality characterized by a less promiscuous orientation - especially for women - and by less extraversion and openness to experience. The idea is that more inhibited personalities evolved to prevent the spread of disease by minimizing risky social contact.

Schaller, M. and Murray, D., "Pathogens, Personality, and Culture: Disease Prevalence Predicts Worldwide Variability in Sociosexuality, Extraversion, and Openness to Experience," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (July 2008).

Fewer clothes = more coverage

AS YOU WATCH the Olympics this week, try to put yourself inside the minds of the network executives who get to decide what to broadcast. Given that you've spent billions on licensing and production costs - meaning that you need the most people from the best advertising demographics to watch - which events and athletes do you highlight? A study out of Clemson University analyzed videotapes of all prime-time Summer and Winter Olympic programming since 1996. Although the Summer Olympics covered men's and women's events about the same, the Winter Olympics was significantly biased toward men's events. The author notes that prominent coverage of women in gymnastics, swimming, diving and, lately, beach volleyball is consistent with the notion "that the Summer Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in swimsuits and leotards) will yield higher clock-time totals than the Winter Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in parkas and other less sexually charged apparel)."

Billings, A., "Clocking Gender Differences: Televised Olympic Clock-Time in the 1996-2006 Summer and Winter Olympics," Television & New Media (September 2008).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at

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