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New IPR Research: May 2019

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Below is this month's new research from IPR faculty.

Social Disparities and Health (Cells to Society)

College Graduation Helps and Hurts Disadvantaged Minorities’ Health

College graduates live longer, healthier lives than people who do not graduate from college, but the effects are not the same across races. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller outline the differential returns to educational attainment for American minorities. They find that college completion predicts lower rates of depression for all racial groups, as well as lower rates of metabolic syndrome—a group of risk factors that predict diabetes, stroke, and heart disease—among whites. However, African Americans and Hispanics from disadvantaged backgrounds who graduated college had higher rates of metabolic syndrome. The results suggest that upward mobility has negative effects on physical health for young minorities in the United States.

The Effects of Crime on Sleep and Stress

The United States registered nearly 1.25 million violent crimes in 2016. Strong evidence indicates that children exposed to violence in and around their neighborhoods suffer academically, but the mechanisms that explain how such crimes get “under the skin” are poorly understood. Jennifer Heissel of the Naval Postgraduate School, who is a former IPR graduate research assistant, IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam, and their colleagues studied sleep and the stress hormone cortisol in adolescents exposed to violent crimes in their communities. They find that adolescents’ sleep and cortisol patterns were disrupted the night and day following nearby violence, and that more violent crimes led to more serious disruptions. The closer teens were to the crime scene, the larger the effect on their sleep, possibly due to increased tension in the household, more communication about the crimes, or even directly overhearing them. Disruption of both sleep and cortisol have been linked to poorer academic performance.

Read the related IPR Policy Research Brief.

Education Policy

Early-Grade Retention for English Language Learners Improves Academic Success

With a large and growing population of students whose second language is not English, educators have stressed the importance of early language learning for academic success. In Florida, the 2002 “Just Read, Florida!” initiative requires that students pass a minimum benchmark on a statewide reading test for promotion to the fourth grade. IPR education economist David Figlio examined data from 12 Florida counties in a new working paper and finds that holding students back in the third grade significantly improves short-term and long-term success. Figlio and his co-author find that students who were held back took less time to become fully proficient in English, improved their English skills, and were much more likely to take advanced courses in middle and high school. The effects were more significant for recent immigrants and students in lower-income schools. While the costs, including funding additional years of education and the emotional burden of retention, may be very substantial, the researchers argue that the benefits of higher wages later in life and less remedial education could offset the costs.

Near Peer Mentorship Supports Student Persistence

What their peers believe and do are important influences on children as they enter adolescence. IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, IPR graduate research assistant Lynn Meissner, and former IPR graduate research assistant Claudia Castillo designed an experiment to learn whether and how other young people can positively influence adolescents’ school motivation and outcomes. When trained high school students mentored eighth graders, the younger students showed greater motivation to do well in school and persist in difficult tasks. The mentored students were more likely to see difficulty as important to overcome rather than impossible for them to conquer. They also showed greater persistence. In contrast, as a control, when high school students only tutored the eighth graders, the younger students’ sense of identity and motivation to succeed did not change nearly as much. Although the mentored adolescents’ grades did not go up, the researchers suggest that the improvements in motivation may result indirectly in improving academic achievement.

Do Parents Know Best?

Parents prefer certain schools for their children to attend, but it is often unclear whether their preferences lead to better outcomes. In a working paper, IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson examines the effect of attending such schools that parents prefer. Jackson and his co-author, Diether Beuermann, look at whether parents are able to choose schools that are best for their child. They find through survey data from Barbados that attending sought-after schools does not improve student test scores and may even lead to worse test scores for boys. Girls who attend preferred schools enjoy more years of education, higher lifetime earnings, and better health. Boys, on the other hand, do not see as many long-term benefits. The pattern for girls suggests that parents value outcomes other than test scores, while the pattern for boys suggests parents may be unable to identify the true impact of a specific school. The researchers conclude that test scores are an inadequate way to measure school quality, and they urge caution in using test scores in school accountability systems and teacher pay incentives.

Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy

‘Private Politics’ and Democratic Responsiveness

"Private politics" occurs when citizens and activists seek policy change outside the democratic process. This often looks like boycotting companies’ products to influence market practices, such as increasing wages or paying more attention to environmental impact. The rise of private politics presents a challenge for democratic responsiveness, as legislators may lose their incentive to respond to citizens’ preferences. This happens because legislators become less relevant and receive less credit for policy change. In their article, IPR political scientist James Druckman and Julia Valdes of Lake Forest College present a survey experiment with state legislators to test this possibility. They find that a constituent email communication that references private politics decreases legislative responsiveness. This is particularly true for Republicans, who become less likely to take policy action. Moreover, reference to private politics decreases constituent engagement among both Republican and Democratic legislators. The results underline the importance of considering private politics in conversations about how democracies work.

Re-evaluating How We Measure Political Polarization

Affective polarization—the tendency of differing parties to dislike one another—is a widespread and growing phenomenon in American politics. However, it is difficult to reliably measure such polarization. In his new working paper, Druckman and co-author Matthew Levendusky examine two important gaps in current systems of measurement. First, scholars use a wide range of survey questions to measure polarization, but there remains contention regarding which survey questions should be used. Druckman and his colleague argue that the feeling thermometer, trait ratings, and trust measures are the most accurate survey items, whereas the social distance measure is not a good means of evaluating affective polarization. The second issue is that when respondents are asked to evaluate other parties, it is unclear if their answers refer to the party voters or the politicians. Druckman and his colleague find that respondents generally think of elites more than ordinary voters. Furthermore, respondents are considerably more negative toward the elites of the other party than they are toward its voting base. These findings bring to light new information not only on how researchers ought to measure polarization, but also how we can address such partisanship within the political system.

Understanding the Practices of Incidental News Consumption on Social Media

It is by now well-known that the rise of social media has changed our habits of news consumption. Much of the focus has been on what the elements of these habits are, but new research by communication studies researcher and IPR associate Pablo Boczkowski unpacks how news consumption on social media happens. Through in-depth interviews with 50 young consumers in Argentina, Boczkowski and his co-authors find that incidental news consumption, or consumption as a byproduct of social media use, is more about passing time or fulfilling the desire to get a sense of “what’s going on” than intentional news-seeking. People are motivated to interact with the world, though attention to a news article is brief and fragmented. Users of social media trust their acquaintances to be a filter of news, the researchers find, rather than relying on traditional editorial filtering by journalists and news organizations. Consequently, Boczkowski continues, news loses the privilege and hierarchical place it once enjoyed as it becomes just another piece of the information users consume on social media.

Children Adopt the News Consumption Habits of Their Parents

How do children learn how to consume the news in an age of constant access to media and increasingly diverse ways to consume news? In a recent study, media scholar and IPR associate Stephanie Edgerly and her colleagues investigated the effects of parent behavior on the news consumption habits of children ages 12–17. Through surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,505 parent-child groups, the researchers determined that parent behavior modeling continues to be an important factor in children’s development of news consumption practices. They examined four devices: computers, television, mobile phones, and tablets. The research finds that the inheritance of parent news habits is specific to the device: For example, if a parent reported mostly consuming news on a tablet, the child was likely to do the same. The effects of parent behavior were strongest in homes rich in political communication, a trait correlated with higher income brackets, where children had more opportunities to learn through observation and to develop political habits and opinions. The results of this study suggest that parents will be integral to any attempt to increase or affect young Americans’ relationship with the news. 

The Counter-Productive Effects of COIN

The United States military has employed counter-insurgency operations since the Vietnam War; however, these “search and destroy” tactics reached an unprecedented level in the U.S. invasion of Iraq under a new counterinsurgency doctrine known as COIN. Despite the military’s reliance on its use, sociologist, legal scholar, and IPR associate John Hagan and his colleague Joshua Kaiser find that COIN’s extensive incapacitation-oriented tactics are actually counterproductive in defeating insurgents and establishing order in Iraq. The researchers reveal that the use of these strategies combined with a surge in troops increased unnecessary U.S.-led violence against civilian non-combatants. They discover that the felt perceptions of that violence led to an increase in frustration and cycles of violence, rather than an intended peaceful resolution. They also show that COIN tactics led to an increase in civilians who view state laws as illegitimate and nonbinding due to the presence of U.S. forces in place of state authority, which the authors call legal cynicism. This heightening of legal cynicism in Arab Sunni communities bolstered insurgent groups in these areas, which explains why such cycles of terrorism and counterterrorism persist. This research questions how COIN can be fixed and how we can ultimately bring an end to the cyclical violence plaguing the Middle East.

Published: May 3, 2019.