Research shows that even “good people,” those who make an earnest effort to make unbiased judgments and act only on their best intentions, still bear unconscious prejudices against certain social groups. In their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald examine how membership in social groups can influence our deepest feelings about others based on such factors as age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.
Five Harvard researchers have been awarded fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Sloan Research Fellowships recognize distinguished performance by early-career scientists and the researchers’ unique potential to make substantial contributions to their fields.
Three of the Harvard recipients have made works publicly available in DASH: Krzysztof Gajos, Assistant Professor of Computer Science; David T. Johnston, Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences; and Xi Yin, Assoicate Professor of Physics.
In 1848, railroad foreman Phineas Gage was packing explosive powder into a hole with an iron tamping rod. The powder ignited and the blast drove the rod–over three and a half feet in length–into the man’s cheek. It rammed through his brain and skull and then landed yards away. Miraculously, Gage survived.
However, according to the account of his physician, John Martyn Harlow, the man was no longer himself. Contrary to his previous character and demeanor, Gage appeared to Harlow to be “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity.” He became “capricious and vacillating,” impertinent, and unwilling to take advice.
In their article, “Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage,” Harvard Medical School Professor of Radiology Ron Kilkinis and his colleagues use modern neuroimaging techniques to take a fresh look at Gage’s case. Gage’s skull, along with the tamping iron responsible for his injury, can be found on display in the Warren Anatomical Museum of Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine.
In their paper, “How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence From Project STAR,” Professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman report that students’ experiences in kindergarten and the first few grades significantly affect their financial future.
By matching up data from current federal tax returns with the results of a late 1980s study of over eleven thousand K-3 students, the researchers demonstrated that the quality of a student’s kindergarten classroom environment is “highly correlated” not only to earnings, but also to “college attendance rates, quality of college attended, home ownership, and 401(k) savings.” Further, they found that both poor and rich students enjoy a financial boost; the effects aren’t limited to those privileged to attend the best schools.
Profs. Chetty and Friedman looked at the aggregate effect of factors like class size, peer performance, and teacher quality on the students’ adult lives. While the available data did not allow them to examine each factor separately, the evidence strongly suggests that great teachers have the biggest impact of all.
Read more in a Gazette interview with the professors here. Raj Chetty is a Professor of Economics and recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. You can find a list of Prof. Chetty’s works in DASH here. John Friedman is an Assistant Professor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Find his works in DASH here.
David Simon’s HBO series The Wire dramatizes the lives of impoverished residents of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. As Ammol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson observe in their article, “Way Down in the Hole: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire,” the series critiques the widely-held notion that individuals are primarily responsible for their economic situations.
Over five seasons, The Wire examines crime and incarceration, gangs and street culture, joblessness and work, politics and urban policy, and education and youth. The series offers an alternative explanation of urban poverty, one supported by scholarship on inequality: “political, social, and economic factors reinforce each other to produce profound disadvantage for the urban poor,” disparities that “are reproduced across generations.” By presenting the lives and choices of individual characters, the show also demonstrates the ways in which “individuals’ decisions and behavior are often shaped by–and indeed limited by–social, political, and economic forces beyond their control.”
Anmol Chaddha is a doctoral student of sociology and social policy in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. William Julius Wilson is Lewis F. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. You can find a complete list of Prof. Wilson’s works in DASH here.
In her article The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying, Harvard President and Lincoln Professor of History, Drew Gilpin Faust, examines the way in which the Civil War changed how Americans thought about death.
Faust points out that the impact of death in the Civil War extended beyond the quantity of casualties, the unprecedented scale of the slaughter.
“Death’s significance for the Civil War generation,” Faust argues, “derived as well from the way it violated prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.”
On September 18, the American Experience series on PBS will air Death and the Civil War, a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns based on President Faust’s prize-winning book This Republic of Suffering.
You can find a full list of President Faust’s articles in DASH here.
Overconfidence might not be such a bad trait, at least from an evolutionary standpoint. In their article, “Evolution: Selection for Positive Illusions,” Profs. Matthijs van Veelen and Martin Nowak observe that most of us overestimate our abilities and underestimate our exposure to risk.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but thinking you’re the greatest (even if you’re really just “pretty good”) may actually offer an evolutionary advantage.
Martin Nowak is a Professor of Mathematics and Biology, as well as the Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard. You can find a complete list of Prof. Nowak’s articles in DASH here.
The humor in shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm usually arises out of their protagonists’ penchant for saying or doing the most inappropriate thing possible in a given situation. But how does this work in real life?
In his article, “How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing For Any Occasion,” Daniel M. Wegner, the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James, suggests that our blunders have to do with something called “the ironic process of mental control.”
When we actively strive to avoid some thought or action, the mental processes that watch for mistakes can sometimes backfire on us, actually increasing our chances of making just such mortifying mistakes. This is especially true when we’re distracted or under pressure.
You can find a complete list of Prof. Wegner’s work in DASH here.
Seung-Hui Cho, Nidal Hasan, and Jared Lee Loughner: three men guilty of mass shootings (at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and a constituents meeting held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, respectively). In hindsight, it seems that it should have been possible to identify them as potential murderers before their horrible acts—whether by their odd or ominous behavior, or perhaps by matching them up with the psychological profiles of past mass killers.
In his piece for the online magazine Salon ”Why Psychiatrists Can’t Predict Mass Murderers,” Professor of Psychology Richard J. McNally considers the difficult task of “distinguishing the truly dangerous from the merely odd.” You can find a complete list of Prof. McNally’s works in DASH here.
If you want to understand obesity in America, and how it’s changed in the last few decades, just take a look at the potato.
Americans have always eaten a lot of potatoes, but before the 1950s, people mostly baked, boiled, or mashed their spuds at home. Today the most common way Americans consume their favorite vegetable is the french fry—cut and peeled by a machine, frozen for transport, and then deep fried at a fast food chain.
In their essay, “Why Have Americans Become More Obese,” three economists argue that the nature of obesity in the United States has shifted as a result of changes in how food is prepared: “The switch from individual to mass preparation lowered the time price of food consumption and led to increased quantity and variety of foods consumed.” Faster preparation meant taking in more calories, leading predictably to an ever-expanding waistline.
David Cutler, Otto Eckstein Professor of Applied Economics, and Edward L. Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics, co-authored the study in 2003 with Harvard alumnus Jesse M. Shapiro, now a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.