Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

In December’s award-winning article, Joanna Small of KSPR News used sociology to understand why people are less likely to intervene to assist someone in need when there are plenty of other people around who could also help. Sociologists call this the Bystander Effect, and due to Joanna Small’s great use of this concept to explain current events, TSP is happy to award her article, written up as a citing by board member Erin Hoekstra, the media award for December.

As we’ve said before, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees.  And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.


How to have more sex?

Well, at least about dating, according to Dan Slater’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.  Charles Darwin, who is famous for his theories of evolution, argued that through competition for mates, natural selection encouraged man’s “more inventive genius” while nurturing women’s “greater tenderness.”  So, he suggested that the gender roles he saw in Victorian England—men making money and women staying home—dated back centuries.

Decades later, social scientists applied Darwin’s theories to ideas about mating and concluded that men are less selective about whom they’ll sleep with, men like casual sex more than women, and men have more sexual partners over a lifetime.  These assumptions persist today, and many evolutionary psychologists have studied them and argued in their favor.  For example,

  In 1972, Robert L. Trivers, a graduate student at Harvard…argued that women are more selective about whom they mate with because they’re biologically obliged to invest more in offspring. Given the relative paucity of ova and plenitude of sperm, as well as the unequal feeding duties that fall to women, men invest less in children. Therefore, men should be expected to be less discriminating and more aggressive in competing for females.

Critics of this theory (and many other evolution-based theories) argue that cultural norms, not evolution, impact human behavior.  This argument is quite sociological, though it has also found support in the work of psychologists.

Take the question of promiscuity. Everyone has always assumed — and early research had shown — that women desired fewer sexual partners over a lifetime than men. But in 2003, two behavioral psychologists, Michele G. Alexander and Terri D. Fisher, published the results of a study that used a “bogus pipeline” — a fake lie detector. When asked about actual sexual partners, rather than just theoretical desires, the participants who were not attached to the fake lie detector displayed typical gender differences. Men reported having had more sexual partners than women. But when participants believed that lies about their sexual history would be revealed by the fake lie detector, gender differences in reported sexual partners vanished. In fact, women reported slightly more sexual partners (a mean of 4.4) than did men (a mean of 4.0).

A more recent study challenged the idea that women are more selective.  In speed dating, the social norm instructs that women sit in one place while men rotate tables.  In 2009, Psychologists Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick conducted an experiment in which the men remained seated and the women rotated.  By switching the role of the “rotator,” they found that women became less selective while men appeared more selective.

Slater’s opinion piece, found here, cites several other studies that cast doubt on the notion that evolution dictates gendered behavior.  But, that doesn’t mean that Darwinians are backing down. The debate will likely continue, but Slater gives the last words to those who challenge Darwinian ideas:

“Some sexual features are deeply rooted in evolutionary heritage, such as the sex response and how quickly it takes men and women to become aroused,” said Paul Eastwick, a co-author of the speed-dating study. “However, if you’re looking at features such as how men and women regulate themselves in society to achieve specific goals, I believe those features are unlikely to have evolved sex differences. I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist. But many evolutionary psychologists don’t think this way. They think these features are getting shaped and honed by natural selection all the time.” How far does Darwin go in explaining human behavior?

Child Art, Apple Portrait
As an American who is well under 50, I wasn’t too pleased to read a New York Times’ article published this week.

Younger Americans die earlier and live in poorer health than their counterparts in other developed countries, with far higher rates of death from guns, car accidents and drug addiction, according to a new analysis of health and longevity in the United States.

Researchers have known for a while that the United States fares poorly when compared against other rich countries.  But, most of this research has focused on the health of people of older ages.  This new study, conducted by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, is the first to systematically compare death rates and health measures for people of all ages.

As the NYT article put it, the findings were stark.  American men ranked last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study, and American women ranked second to last.

Deaths before age 50 accounted for about two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between males in the United States and their counterparts in 16 other developed countries, and about one-third of the difference for females.

Car accidents, gun violence, and drug overdoses were major contributors to years of life lost by Americans under age 50.  According to the study, 69% of all American homicide deaths in 2007 involved firearms, compared to an average of 26% in other countries.  Americans also had the highest infant mortality rate, and its young people had the highest rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and deaths from car crashes.  In addition, Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries in the study.

“The bottom line is that we are not preventing damaging health behaviors,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was on the panel. “You can blame that on public health officials, or on the health care system. No one understands where responsibility lies.”

To read more of the lengthy coverage of the article, click here.

Photo by BlakFate via flickr.com
Photo by Brenden F via flickr.com

No matter who you are today, you’ll likely be a pretty different person in ten years.

Don’t agree?  According to a recent study conducted by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, you’d be in the majority.  Most people generally fail to appreciate how much their personality and values will change in the upcoming years, even if they recognize how much they’ve changed in the past.

“I have this deep sense that although I will physically age—I’ll have even less hair than I do and probably a few more pounds—that by and large the core of me, my identity, my values, my personality, my deepest preferences, are not going to change from here on out,” says Gilbert, who is 55.

As NPR reported, Gilbert wanted to see if others felt the same.  So, he and his colleagues Jordi Quoidbach and Timothy Wilson analyzed data from over 19,000 surveys and found that people, whether they are teenagers or middle-aged, underestimate how much they will change in the future.  Life is a process of growing and changing that never really stops, but people of a variety of ages seem to think it does.

Personality changes do take place faster when people are younger,  says Gilbert, so “a person who says I’ve changed more in the past decade than I expect to change in the future is not wrong.”  But that doesn’t mean they fully understand what’s still to come. “Their estimates of how much they’ll change in the future are underestimates,” says Gilbert. “They are going to change more than they realize. Change does slow; it just doesn’t slow as much as we think it will.”

Gilbert and his colleagues don’t yet know why many of us seem to have an “end of history illusion.”  It might be really difficult to imagine a different future, or it might be difficult to think of unknown change.


吸煙引致肺癌 Smoking causes lung cancer / SML.20120928.IP3

China consumes one-third of the world’s cigarettes.  It also has more smokers than any other country on earth.  And, according to the World Health Organization, tobacco has become the biggest killer in China; more than 3,000 people die each day from smoking-related illnesses.

In an effort to change these statistics, China mandated regulation of smoking in public places in May 2011, banning smoking in areas like bars, restaurants, and subways.  The Global Times took a look at how efforts to implement a smoke-free environment have been fairing and, alarmingly, found that these efforts have been largely unsuccessful.  Turning to social scientists and health professionals to understand why progress has been slow, the Times learned that the lack of success is largely due to a “cigarette culture” and poor law enforcement.

 “People are so ingrained with the habit of smoking. It has long been regarded as a very important part of social and business networking,” said Liang Liwen, a sociologist from Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

Some restaurants have taken specific steps to try to ban smoking, such as putting up non-smoking signs and training waiters and waitresses on how to politely ask people to put out their cigarettes.  Yet, their establishments are not smoke-free.  According to a survey released by the Green Beagle Environment Institute, most Beijing restaurants have failed to create a smoke-free environment.

Beyond old habits dying hard, lack of law enforcement also contributes to the issue.  Law enforcement officials often don’t implement bans.  And, this lack of enforcement matters at different levels.

“The success or failure in China depends largely on the government’s attitude toward tobacco control. Implementing a specialized law that bans smoking and intensifying enforcement are the strongest measures of support available,” Yang Gonghuan, a tobacco control expert with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), told the Global Times, adding that the landscape of tobacco control is not good.

This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some efforts to enforce the ban and reduce smoking, some of which the article explains here.  But, there’s still a long way to go.

Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

“Hoping to get an avalanche of Christmas cards and holiday letters this year? There’s just one rule: send out a pile of your own,”  TSP’s Letta Page explained in her write-up of November’s Media Award winner.

In the award-winning article, “Give And Take: How The Rule Of Reciprocation Binds Us,” KERA News’ Alix Spiegel explains how sociologist Phillip Kunz went about sending 600 Christmas letters to strangers…and received many back in return, illustrating the rule of reciprocation.

 As we’ve said before, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees.  And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

A memorial to the “Little Rock 9,” students who integrated the Little Rock schools in Arkansas on Sept. 23, 1957, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Photo by Steve Snodgrass via flickr.com

After more than half a century, the U.S.’s efforts to end segregation are winding down. In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, 755 school districts were under desegregation orders. But, according to a new study conducted by Stanford’s Sean Reardon and his colleagues, that number had dropped to 268 by 2009.

So, did Brown v. Board succeed? According to The Atlantic’s Sarah Garland, yes and no.

One of the hopes behind desegregation was that disparities, including decrepit buildings, lower-paid teachers, hand-me-down textbooks, and lagging achievement, would end. And, indeed, after Brown V. Board, court-ordered student reassignment plans were put into place, and the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at the most rapid rate ever recorded. While many War on Poverty programs were also being implemented, it was clear that desegregation improved outcomes for black students.

But, in many communities, desegregation came with serious sacrifices. Parents (of all races) complained about the hassles that accompanied forced busing, and often children from black families were forced to spend more time commuting. During the 1990s, several Supreme Court decisions made it easier for schools to get out of court supervision, and groups of parents and school districts went to court to fight desegregation orders. As Garland writes:

In the last decade, the speed of re-segregation has accelerated. The Bush administration took a proactive role in pushing for the end of desegregation in more than 200 districts, the Stanford study found. The districts were picked seemingly at random—on average, they still had levels of segregation in their schools that were about the same as the districts that remained under orders. “It wasn’t like in some places desegregation had done a great job and that’s why they were released and in other places there was still work to be done,” Reardon said.

In 2007, the Supreme Court restricted the use of race in school assignments in districts not under court order. Even with new ideas about how to close the achievement gap, since schools began re-segregating during the 1990s, the gap has begun to look entrenched:

The next question Reardon plans to look at is whether re-segregation led to a widening of the achievement gap. Whatever he finds, it’s unlikely that desegregation—at least in its forced-busing form—will ever experience a resurgence. A new generation of reformers has begun looking for ways to create voluntarily integrated schools in order to harness the benefits of racial and other kinds of diversity. “For the people who care about integration, we need a new set of strategies,” [Michael] Petrilli [author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma] said.

Saturday Morning Market accepts Food Stamps EBT
Photo by Robert Neff via flickr.com

Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently announced that he will spend the week of December 4th living on food stamps.  He will join the ranks of many others, such as celebrities and college students, who are undertaking a food stamp challenge.  As Professor Noliwe M. Rooks explained in an opinion piece in Time, however, there is a problem with such challenges.

These experiments are designed to make politicians and the general public more sensitive to the difficulties of living on $4.00 per day, the amount that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides to the almost 46 million people who currently receive benefits…Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class or famous can live on $4.00 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most.

In the meantime, there is little public conversation about actually raising the dollar amount that the SNAP provides.  To explain this, Rooks cites survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center.  In the poll, 59% of respondents said the government should provide food and housing to all citizens.  Yet, 71% thought the poor were too dependent on this type of assistance, and 52% said support should not be increased if it will increase the deficit.  Americans are, in general, deeply ambivalent about the role of government assistance.

But, Rooks argues that this assistance is much needed.  One in five people surveyed in a recent Gallop poll said they could not always afford to feed their entire family, and more Americans struggled to afford food in 2011 than in any other year since the financial crisis. Between 1996 and 2011, SNAP reduced the number of extremely poor children in the United States by 50%.  To Rooks, an increase in the amount of support offered by the SNAP program would have an even larger impact.

Those who have taken up the SNAP challenge and chronicled their experiences all say that they were tired, couldn’t focus, and were distracted by hunger. Once their week was over, their lives got right back to normal. We can only hope that Cory Booker and others who take up such experiments will become advocates to help raise others out of poverty and not just spend a week walking in their shoes.


Believe in miracles
Photo via flickr.com, click for original.

With the holiday season upon us here in the United States, we often hear a bit more than usual about miracles. This seasonal trend isn’t the only trend of note, though. A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post’s David Briggs told us the number of Americans who believe in miracles at any time of year has increased over the last few decades.

Drawing on General Social Survey data, sociologist Robert Martin found that about 4 out of 5 Americans believe that miracles probably or definitely occur. The percent of people who “definitely” believe in miracles rose from 45 percent in 1991 to 55 percent in 2008.

Beliefs in heaven and hell have remained steady in recent decades, and the increased belief in miracles crosses all religious traditions, even to those with no religious affiliation. What might explain this change?

One potential explanation, according to Martin, is the cultural preoccupation with miracles promoted in non-dogmatic ways by a series of popular television programs such as “Touched by an Angel” and best-selling books such as the “Left Behind” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Martin and other researchers even point out that no one has likely done more for miracles than Oprah. (For a sociological study of Oprah, see here). Her television show made accounts of proclaimed miracles a regular part of the lives of millions of viewers.

Sociologist Kevin Dougherty also weighs in, noting that, in the United States, “There’s still this profound interest in spiritual things,” even as fewer Americans identify with a religious group.

Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com


We’re happy to announce the media award winners for September and October!

September: “Why Surveys Should Pay Attention to Prisoners,” Carl Bialik, Wall Street Journal.

In her write-up of the article, TSP’s Sarah Shannon reminds us that much of the young, African-American male population in the United States is incarcerated and thus unaccounted for in national surveys.  

October:Tracing the Link Between Single Moms and Gun Violence,” Belinda Luscombe, Time Health & Family.

As the Citing explains, Luscombe uses social scientific research to weigh in on a current issue and show that the link between single moms and gun violence is tenuous, to say the least.

 As we’ve said before, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees.  And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.