Motu research analysts on social networks for students' mental health, the songs that bind, self-interest vs. altruistic behaviour, what's in a name and more

Motu research analysts on social networks for students' mental health, the songs that bind, self-interest vs. altruistic behaviour, what's in a name and more

This guest Top 5 + 1 comes from Motu research analysts Sophie Hale, Dom White, Ben Davies, Livvy Mitchel, and intern Shine Wu. Motu is an economics and public policy researcher.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 5 yourself, contact

See all previous Top 5s here.

1) The importance of students’ social networks for mental health in lockdown.

Researchers in Switzerland assess changes in students’ social networks and mental health measures using survey data from before and during COVID-19 lockdown. They make within-person and between-cohort comparisons, and find that students’ levels of mental health worsened compared with measures before the crisis.

Controlling for the level of social integration and COVID-19 related stressors, female students fared worse. As universities across the world move to online courses, there is a need to support at-risk students through targeted interventions that can create and maintain social networks.

2) The songs that bind.

Using Spotify data, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz finds that songs tend to be most popular among people who were teenagers when the song was released. For example, Radiohead’s “Creep” is most popular among men who were 14 in 1993 when the song was released. This finding matches the view among some psychologists that our teenage years are when we establish the cultural and political beliefs that form our identity.

My younger brother, Noah, and I were recently arguing, again, about music. The subject of our current impasse was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” — the song, not the album. (I love it. He hates it.)

I was beginning to get frustrated by how much of our lives are spent arguing about music. So I decided to do something about it the only way I know how: I analyzed data.

I couldn’t think of a way to use data to prove how great “Born to Run” is. But I thought data might give me clarity on why my brother and I never seem to agree on music.

In particular, I wanted to see to what extent the year we were born influences the music we listen to, the extent to which different generations are bound to disagree on music.

3) If you found a wallet on the ground, would you keep it or try find its owner?

To test the trade-off between material self-interest and altruistic behaviours, this group of authors distributed more than 17,000 wallets containing various sums of money in 355 cities across 40 countries. Results showed people were more likely to return the wallet if it contained more money. While this may seem oxymoronic, one possible explanation is that people do not want to view themselves as a thief.

Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. In these experiments, we turned in more than 17,000 lost wallets containing varying amounts of money at public and private institutions and measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets. In virtually all countries, citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result. Additional data suggest that our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, both of which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

 4) What’s in a name? Measuring access to social activities with a field experiment.

Social activities, especially sport, form an important part of society and contribute positively to wellbeing and physical health. The authors of this study use a field experiment to try and measure the difference in access to social activities in Switzerland between people with local sounding names and people with foreign sounding names.

They did this by identifying 1188 amateur football clubs around the country and emailing the coach of each team pretending to be an individual interested in playing. Each coach received one email total and the only difference between emails sent was the name of the pretend player. The results indicate that those with foreign names and those with Swiss names from particular native groups received significantly fewer responses.

5) The coddling of the American mind.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff break down the rise of the movement on American university campuses to censor speech. They explain that this desire to make universities into spaces void of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense rapidly rose in prominence in 2014 and has since swept across American universities.

In this Atlantic article, Haidt and Lukianoff analyze the causes of this phenomenon, the dangers it poses, and solutions we can implement.

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

6) How civic technology can help stop a pandemic.

In this Foreign Affairs article, Glen Weyl and Jaron Lanier attempt to explain why Taiwan has been so successful in fighting Covid-19. They argue that the remarkable effectiveness of the Taiwanese response is driven by Taiwan’s combination of tech-friendliness with a strong culture of democratic civic participation. Weyl and Lanier describe how Taiwanese communities, in cooperation with the Taiwanese government, created a range of apps designed to effectively allocate face masks and track exposure, all while protecting the privacy and rights of Taiwan’s inhabitants.

By contrast, Weyl and Lanier argue, countries that are technologically advanced but undemocratic (China) and countries that are strongly democratic but somewhat technophobic (Germany) have been much less successful in containing the spread of the virus.

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Bit slow on the culture war update, only by about 8 years.

keep your micro-aggression's to yourself Utah.

Access to social activities absolutely depends upon _your_ ability to fit the needs of the activity provider.
Clubs are usually run by volunteers with a lot to do, and their own internal politics to take care of. There's no guarantee a club can bend to fit someone new in there.

In Switzerland, football clubs would maintain their social cohesion best by having members who speak the same languages and dialects. They have 4 official languages + english to worry about.

However in the expat dominated touch rugby club of Zurich, English was prevalent but real swiss born or outside of the anglosphere players were warmly welcomed. We always had the time for someone new or different. "Great, another Kiwi to help me stand up to those darn Aussies!"

If you wanted to get a prompt response from a NZ football (soccer) club, I'd suggest a foreign name would be an advantage - especially if it sounded European or South American.

Universities and Educational institutions going silent on issues and trends is the worst thing that could happen. Stifling thought and speech by these groups is very harmful to the society and its cohesion.
This divide is very insidious and will corrode civic sense faster than any virus. It is going to be a silent killer, pun intended.

The honesty one is covered by remembering that more people will be a little bit dishonest, and less likely to be big time dishonest.