Uncommon Knowledge

Debate tip: Follow your opponent’s lead

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

George W. Bush (left) and Al Gore, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in 2000, participated in the third and final debate of their campaigns at Washington University in St. Louis.
Ed Reinke/Associated Press/file 2000
George W. Bush (left) and Al Gore, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in 2000, participated in the third and final debate of their campaigns at Washington University in St. Louis.

Debate tip: Follow your opponent’s lead

Here’s some free debate-prep advice for the presidential candidates: Don’t talk down to your opponent, talk like him. An analysis of presidential debates from the elections of 1976 to 2012 reveals that candidates who changed their linguistic style — that is, their use of quantifiers, conjunctions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, personal pronouns, and impersonal pronouns — to match their opponents earned a polling boost of about a point, compared to nonmatchers, who lost about a point, even controlling for characteristics of the particular candidate and election year. A similar reaction was also observed when people judged transcripts of a job candidate matching the linguistic style of a recruiter, or vice versa; matching boosted evaluations of the matcher’s negotiating skill.

Romero, D. et al., “Mimicry Is Presidential: Linguistic Style Matching in Presidential Debates and Improved Polling Numbers,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Kissing isn’t for everyone

You may think you speak the international language, but in many places it won’t translate. Based on an assessment of anthropological reports from 168 cultures around the world, researchers found that the romantic-sexual kiss was present in only about half of the cultures. For example, “No ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic-sexual kiss. However, kissing appears to be nearly ubiquitous among 9 of the 11 foragers living in Circum-Arctic region (i.e., northern Asia and North America).” Romantic-sexual kissing was also more prevalent in complex, stratified cultures, perhaps because of “oral hygiene or the rise of elite social classes that value self-control of affect and emotional displays.”

Jankowiak, W. et al., “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” American Anthropologist (forthcoming).

Fewer burglars, more stuff

Want to boost the economy? Fight property theft. In a new study, economists found that states that experienced a bigger drop in property crime in the 1990s also experienced an increase in conspicuous consumption (e.g., clothing, jewelry, furnishings, personal care, leisure, restaurants), even controlling for various household and state demographic and economic characteristics. This relationship was specific to property crime, not violent crime, and affected consumption of both stealable and nonstealable conspicuous consumption, suggesting that people felt more comfortable signaling their wealth as the risk of theft fell.

Mejía, D. & Restrepo, P., “Crime and Conspicuous Consumption,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

Pork chopped


Vote for me, and I’ll keep bringing home the bacon. That’s the implicit — and often explicit — promise offered up by many incumbent politicians hoping to get reelected. But do incumbents really bring more projects and funds back to their districts? Political scientists at Stanford University and the University of Chicago say no: “In the US House of Representatives (1984-2007), we estimate that the effect of electing a senior representative as opposed to a freshman is substantively negligible and statistically indistinguishable from zero.” This was true for incumbents at all levels of seniority, and there was also no pork-barrel benefit from electing a representative from the majority party.

Fowler, A. & Hall, A., “Congressional Seniority and Pork: A Pig Fat Myth?” European Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at


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