The Best of the Week


This week’s best is a smörgâsbord of economics, psychology and anthropology. When did humans leave Africa? How has global trade evolved? What is secondhand stress? Herein lies the answers.

Hello, Stranger – The New York Times – By

In this piece, behavioral scientists asked train passengers to start conversations with others. Most said they would be uncomfortable and would feel better if they just kept to themselves. To their surprise, those who were asked to start conversations rated their experiences as much more positive than those who weren’t asked to.

Why are these commuters’ predictions and their experiences so at odds? Most people imagined it would be difficult to start a conversation. They estimated that fewer than half of their fellow commuters would want to talk to them. But in fact, not a single person reported having been snubbed. And the conversations were consistently pleasant.

When did humans leave Africa? New model suggests earlier dispersal – Christian Science Monitor – By Charles Choi, LiveScience

Human beings were thought to migrate out of their ancestral African home around 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. But new findings in the Arabian Desert may overturn that theory.

The first wave of migrations probably followed the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula as early as 130,000 years ago to Australia and the west Pacific region, while the second wave traveled along the northern route about 50,000 years ago.

Growth in Global Trade Is in Ideas, Not Stuff – The New York Times – By Neil Irwin

A new study from the McKinsey Global Institute tries to capture the global flow of goods, services and money that represents “the world’s interconnections.” And a pattern emerges:

Global trade in knowledge-intensive goods — airplanes, pharmaceuticals, advanced electronics — rose at a nearly 8 percent annual rate from 2002 to 2012, compared with 6 percent for both capital-intensive but lower-tech goods (like petroleum and agricultural products) and labor-intensive goods (like textiles and toys).

The Mind Does Not Belong in a Cubicle – The Atlantic – By Laura Smith

Gathering a bunch of research from anthropology, psychology and history, this Atlantic author writes that we may have evolved to seek out (and work best in) natural, green environments.

Kellert told me that he finds zoos ironic. We consider it “inhumane” to keep a gorilla in an indoor, concrete environment with no exposure to greenery or anything resembling its natural habitat, and yet we put ourselves in these environments all the time.

Better to Give Than Receive: Altruistic Teens Less Likely to Suffer from Depression – Science World Report – By Catherine Griffin

Psychological scientists used brain scans to help understand how teens respond to keeping vs. giving money away.

The findings suggest that if researchers can somehow redirect teens away from risk-taking or self-centered rewards, then there may be a more positive impact on their well-being over time…The social context in which a teen feels rewarded may matter more than the feeling itself.

The Mismeasure of Technology – Project Syndicate – By Ricardo Hausmann

The former chief economist at the Inter-American Development Bank philosophizes about the definition of technology. How does it shape our approach to developing countries?

One idea about which economists agree almost unanimously is that, beyond mineral wealth, the bulk of the huge income difference between rich and poor countries is attributable to neither capital nor education, but rather to “technology.” So what is technology?

Neanderthals ‘as clever as modern humans’ – Al Jazeera – Sourced to Reuters

Neanderthals weren’t no Neanderthals. There’s no support for the idea that they disappeared because more intelligent and “cultured” humans gave them the boot.

Genetic evidence shows there was inter-breeding between Neanderthals and the early modern humans, he said, and the remnants of the Neanderthal population may have been assimilated over a period of a few thousands of years, she said.

Why We’re in a New Gilded Age – The New York Review of Books – By Paul Krugman

It’s a rare feat. An economics book that’s captured the public’s attention and taken the media world by storm with the inequality debate. The book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty, uses data spanning over a hundred years across various countries to claim that normal free market conditions will eventually put more money into fewer hands.

The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.

And The Economist offers a critique of the book with Capitalism and its Critics:

Mr. Piketty asserts rather than explains why tempering wealth concentration should be the priority (as opposed to, say, boosting growth)…Most economists, common sense and a lot of French businesspeople would argue that higher taxes on income and wealth put off entrepreneurs and risk taking.

Can Secondhand Stress Be Contagious? – ABC News – By Mara Schiavocampo and Nikki Battiste

A team at Saint Louis University recently created “secondhand stress” to study whether it could be as contagious as a cold. They had strangers observe a man nearby who was defending himself against a false accusation. The question: Would the stranger catch the accused man’s stress? After measuring strangers’ heart rates and cortisol levels, the researchers found that a person could catch another person’s stress, even if they had never met.