Archive for the ‘social science’ Tag

Guys with uncommon names more likely to commit crimes

MSNBC has a story discussing a new study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly which indicates that guys with less common names are more likely to commit crimes than guys with more common names.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

Correcting for race is obviously needed; Hispanics, blacks, and whites often follow different naming conventions for their children.  However, the study would also need to be correct for income; wealthy people and poor people may well follow different conventions when naming kids and poverty often correlates with criminal activity.  The presence of a father also correlates with tendency towards criminality and it seems possible to me that whether a child is named only by his mother or by both his mother and father may influence the sort of name he is given.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”

“Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I am dubious about using a kid’s name to tell how likely he is to commit crimes.  Why not just look at socio-economic status and family situation itself to decide where to focus resources and aid?  Parents should definitely not worry about what name they give their son; just be good parents and he’ll probably turn out fine.

For my part, I would simply point out that according to the Social Security Administration Jacob has been the #1 name for baby boys in the United States for every year between 1999 and 2007 (the latest year for which data are presently available).  You could therefore say that I should be at low risk for committing crimes.

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

Washing your hands may make you evil

Cleanliness may not be next to Godliness after all. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who had been primed with concepts related to cleanliness (e.g. pure, immaculate, pristine, et cetera) or who had just washed their hands were less likely to be troubled by questionable behavior, which they rated on a scale of 0 (perfectly okay) to 9 (very wrong).  The Economist has the story.

The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did. Among the volunteers who unscrambled the sentences, those exposed to ideas of cleanliness rated eating the family dog at 5.7, on average, on the wrongness scale whereas the control group rated it as 6.6. Their score for using a kitten in sexual play was 6.7; the control group individuals gave it 8.3. Similar results arose from the handwashing experiment.

Dr. Simone Schnall conducted the research, which is published in Psychological Science.  The Economist reports that her hypothesis is that “feeling morally unclean (i.e. disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong.”  The article concludes by saying:

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Anyway, if you want to manipulate someone into doing something wrong, get them to wash up before making your proposal.

Political views may have innate tendencies

Social scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have noted a correlation between the positions a person adopts on certain political issues and how he or she responds to frightening stimuli. They determined the later by measuring the subjects’ galvanic skin response (sweating) when viewing distressing images and also be observing their response to a sudden, loud noise. People who were more prone to being startled were more likely to adopt conservative positions on “hot button” social issues, like same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, and the Iraq war.

The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

[R]esearchers stressed that physiology is only one factor in how people form their political views — and far from the most important factor. Startle responses, moreover, cannot be used to predict the political views of any one individual — there are many liberals who startle easily and many conservatives who do not. What the study did find is that, across groups of people, there seems to be an association between sensitivity to physical threats and sensitivity to threats affecting social groups and social order.

Researchers also stress that this cannot be used to judge any individual’s political beliefs. “We are not saying if you sneak up on someone and say ‘Boo!’ and see how hard they blink, that tells you what their political beliefs are,” said John Hibbing, one of the involved political scientists.

We all like to think we’re completely objective and not influenced by external factors, only by the merits of the issues. However, it’s likely that we are all manipulated by outside forces and innate tendencies far more than we’d like to admit. Well, other people, at any rate—surely not the author or readers of this blog! The study was published in the journal Science.