Politics Trump Healthcare Information: News Coverage of the Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act, also known as the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”, “Obamacare” or the ACA, is a comprehensive healthcare reform law enacted in March 2010 which profoundly changed healthcare in the United States. This reform allowed millions of previously uninsured Americans to gain health insurance by establishing several new measures, including the expansion of the federal Medicaid health insurance coverage program, introducing the rule that patients with pre-existing illnesses could no longer be rejected or overcharged by health insurance companies, and by allowing dependents to remain on their parents’ health insurance plan until the age of 26. The widespread increase in health insurance coverage – especially for vulnerable Americans who were unemployed, underemployed or worked for employers that did not provide health insurance benefits – was also accompanied by new regulations targeting the healthcare system itself. Healthcare providers and hospitals were provided with financial incentives to introduce electronic medical records and healthcare quality metrics.


As someone who grew up in Germany where health insurance coverage is guaranteed for everyone, I assumed that over time, the vast majority of Americans would appreciate the benefits of universal coverage. One no longer has to fear financial bankruptcy as a consequence of a major illness and a government-back health insurance also provides for peace of mind when changing jobs. Instead of accepting employment primarily because it offers health benefits, one can instead choose a job based on the nature of the work. But I was surprised to see the profound antipathy towards this new law, especially among Americans who identified themselves as conservatives or Republicans, even if they were potential beneficiaries of the reform. Was the hatred of progressive-liberal views, the Democrats and President Obama who had passed the ACA so intense among Republicans that they were willing to relinquish the benefits of universal health coverage for the sake of their political ideology? Or were they simply not aware of the actual content of the law and opposed it simply for political reasons?

A recent study published by a team of researchers led by Sarah Gollust at the University of Minnesota may shed some light on this question. Gollust and her colleagues analyzed 1,569 local evening television news stories related to the ACA that were aired in the United States during the early months of when the health care reform was rolled out (between October 1, 2013, and April 19, 2014). They focused on analyzing local television news broadcasts because these continue to constitute the primary source of news for Americans, especially for those who are age 50 and higher. A Pew survey recently showed that 57% of all U.S. adults rely on television for their news, and among this group, local TV new (46%) is a more common source than cable news (31%) or network news (30%).

Gollust and colleagues found that 55% of the news stories either focused on the politics of the ACA such as political disagreements over its implementation (26.5%) or combined information regarding its politics with information on how it would affect healthcare insurance options (28.6%). Only 45% of the news stories focused exclusively on the healthcare insurance options provided by the law. The politics-focused news stories were also more likely to refer to the law as “Obamacare” whereas healthcare insurance focused news segments used the official name “Affordable Care Act” or “ACA”. Surprisingly, the expansion of Medicaid, which was one of the cornerstones of the ACA because it would increase the potential access to health insurance for millions of Americans, was often ignored. Only 7.4% of news stories mentioned Medicaid at all, and only 5% had a Medicaid focus.

What were the sources of information used for the news stories? President Obama was cited in nearly 40% of the stories, whereas other sources included White House staff or other federal executive agencies (28.7%), Republican (22.3%) or Democratic (15.9%) politicians and officials. Researchers, academics or members of think tanks and foundations were cited in only 3.9% of the news stories about the ACA even though they could have provided important scholarly insights about the ACA and its consequences for individual healthcare as well as the healthcare system in general.

The study by Gollust and colleagues has its limitations. It did not analyze TV network news, cable news, or online news outlets which have significantly gained in importance as news sources during the past decade. The researchers also did not analyze news stories aired after April 2014 which may have been a better reflection of initial experiences of previously uninsured individuals who signed up for health insurance through the mechanisms provided by the ACA. Despite these limitations, the study suggests that one major reason for the strong opposition among Republicans against the ACA may have been the fact that it was often framed in a political context and understated the profound effects that the ACA had on access to healthcare and the reform of the healthcare system itself.

During the 2016 election campaign, many Republican politicians used the idea of “repealing” the ACA to energize their voters, without necessarily clarifying what exactly they wanted to repeal. Should all the aspects of the ACA – from the Medicaid expansion to the new healthcare quality metrics in hospitals –be repealed? If voters relied on the local television news to learn about the ACA, and if this coverage – as is suggested by Gollust’s study – viewed the ACA predominantly as a political entity, then it is not surprising that voters failed to demand nuanced views from politicians who vowed to repeal the law. The research also highlights the important role that television reporting plays in framing the debate about healthcare reform. By emphasizing the actual content of the healthcare reform and its medical implications and by using more scholars instead of politicians as information sources, these media outlets could educate the public about the law.

There are many legitimate debates about the pros and cons of the healthcare reform that are not rooted in politics. For example, electronic medical records allow healthcare providers to easily monitor the results of laboratory tests and avoid wasting patient’s time and money on unnecessary tests that may have been ordered by another provider. However, physicians who are continuously staring at their screens to scroll through test results may not be able to form the interpersonal bond that is critical for a patient-doctor relationship. One could consider modifying the requirements and developing better record-keeping measures to ensure a balance between adequate documentation and sufficient face-to-face doctor-patient time. The ACA’s desire to track quality of healthcare delivery and penalize hospitals or providers who deliver suboptimal care could significantly improve adherence to guidelines based on sound science. On the other hand, one cannot demand robot-like adherence to guidelines, especially when treating severely ill, complex patients who require highly individualized care. These content-driven discussions are more productive than wholesale political endorsements or rejections of the healthcare reform.

Healthcare will always be a political issue but all of us – engaged citizens, patients, healthcare providers or journalists – need to do our part to ensure that this debates about this issue which directly impacts millions of lives are primarily driven by objective information and not by political ideologies.


Gollust, S. E., Baum, L. M., Niederdeppe, J., Barry, C. L., & Fowler, E. F. (2017). Local Television News Coverage of the Affordable Care Act: Emphasizing Politics Over Consumer Information. American Journal of Public Health, (published online Feb 16, 2017).

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.



Gollust SE, Baum LM, Niederdeppe J, Barry CL, & Fowler EF (2017). Local Television News Coverage of the Affordable Care Act: Emphasizing Politics Over Consumer Information. American journal of public health PMID: 28207336

Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny

Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of “plastic words“. What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book “Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur” (literal translation into English: “Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship“) in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen’s use of “plastic” refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen’s key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.



Here are some examples of “plastic words”(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:

exchange (Austausch)

information (Information)

communication (Kommunikation)

process (Prozess)

resource (Ressource)

strategy (Strategie)

structure (Struktur)

relationship (Beziehung)

substance (Substanz)

progress (Fortschritt)

model (Modell)

development (Entwicklung)

value (Wert)

system (System)

function (Funktion)

growth (Wachstum)

supply (Versorgung)

quality (Qualität)

welfare (Wohlfahrt)

planning (Planung)

Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, “resource development“, “information society“, “strategic relationship” or “communication process“.

How about the word “love”? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as “What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?” On the other hand, when we hear “resource development’, we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!


Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the “internet economy” and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.

How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain’s decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain’s new global role:

I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.

It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn’t Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.

Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state’s security – as defined by the Stasi.

How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies – to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.


Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.

English translation:

Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Crowdfunding and Tribefunding in Science

Competition for government research grants to fund scientific research remains fierce in the United States. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which constitute the major source of funding for US biological and medical research, has been increased only modestly during the past decade but it is not even keeping up with inflation. This problem is compounded by the fact that more scientists are applying for grants now than one or two decades ago, forcing the NIH to enforce strict cut-offs and only fund the top 10-20% of all submitted research proposals. Such competition ought to be good for the field because it could theoretically improve the quality of science. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to discern differences between excellent research grants. For example, if an institute of the NIH has a cut-off at the 13 percentile range, then a grant proposal judged to be in the top 10% would receive funding but a proposal in top 15% would end up not being funded. In an era where universities are also scaling back their financial support for research, an unfunded proposal could ultimately lead to the closure of a research laboratory and the dismissal of several members of a research team. Since the prospective assessment of a research proposal’s scientific merits are somewhat subjective, it is quite possible that the budget constraints are creating cemeteries of brilliant ideas and concepts, a world of scientific what-ifs that are forever lost.

Red Panda
Red Panda

How do we scientists deal with these scenarios? Some of us keep soldiering on, writing one grant after the other. Others change and broaden the direction of their research, hoping that perhaps research proposals in other areas are more likely to receive the elusive scores that will qualify for funding. Yet another approach is to submit research proposals to philanthropic foundations or non-profit organizations, but most of these organizations tend to focus on research which directly impacts human health. Receiving a foundation grant to study the fundamental mechanisms by which the internal clocks of plants coordinate external timing cues such as sunlight, food and temperature, for example, would be quite challenging. One alternate source of research funding that is now emerging is “scientific crowdfunding” in which scientists use web platforms to present their proposed research project to the public and thus attract donations from a large number of supporters. The basic underlying idea is that instead of receiving a $50,000 research grant from one foundation or government agency, researchers may receive smaller donations from 10, 50 or even a 100 supporters and thus finance their project.

The website experiment.com is a scientific crowdfunding platform which presents an intriguing array of projects in search of backers, ranging from “Death of a Tyrant: Help us Solve a Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Mystery!” to “Eating tough stuff with floppy jaws – how do freshwater rays eat crabs, insects, and mollusks?” Many of the projects include a video in which the researchers outline the basic goals and significance of their project and then also provide more detailed information on the webpage regarding how the funds will be used. There is also a “Discussion” section for each proposed project in which researchers answer questions raised by potential backers and, importantly, a “Results” in which researchers can report emerging results once their project is funded.

How can scientists get involved in scientific crowdfunding? Julien Vachelard and colleagues recently published an excellent overview of scientific crowdfunding. They analyzed the projects funded on experiment.com and found that projects which successfully achieved the funding goal tend to have 30-40 backers. The total amount of funds raised for most projects ranged from about $3,000 to $5,000. While these amounts are impressive, they are still far lower than a standard foundation or government agency grant in biomedical research. These smaller amounts could support limited materials to expand ongoing projects, but they are not sufficient to carry out standard biomedical research projects which cover salaries and stipends of the researchers. The annual stipends for postdoctoral research fellows alone run in the $40,000 – $55,000 range.

Vachelard and colleagues also provide great advice for how scientists can increase the likelihood of funding. Attention span is limited on the internet so researchers need to convey the key message of their research proposal in a clear, succinct and engaging manner. It is best to use powerful images and videos, set realistic goals (such as $3,000 to $5,000), articulate what the funds will be used for, participate in discussions to answer questions and also update backers with results as they emerge. Presenting research in a crowdfunding platform is an opportunity to educate the public and thus advance science, forcing scientists to develop better communication skills. These collateral benefits to the scientific enterprise extend beyond the actual amount of funding that is solicited.

One of the concerns that is voiced about scientific crowdfunding is that it may only work for “panda bear science“, i.e. scientific research involving popular themes such as cute and cuddly animals or studying life on other planets. However, a study of what actually gets funded in a scientific crowdfunding campaign revealed that the subject matter was not as important as how well the researchers communicated with their audience. A bigger challenge for the long-term success of scientific crowdfunding may be the limited amounts that are raised and therefore only cover the cost of small sub-projects but are neither sufficient to embark on exploring exciting new ideas and independent ideas nor offset salary and personnel costs. Donating $20 or $50 to a project is very different from donating amounts such as $1,000 because the latter requires not only the necessary financial resources but also a represents a major personal investment in the success of the research project. To initiate an exciting new biomedical research project in the $50,000 or $100,000 range, one needs several backers who are willing to donate $1,000 or more.

Perhaps one solution could be to move from a crowdfunding towards a tribefunding model. Crowds consist of a mass of anonymous people, mostly strangers in a confined space who do not engage each other. Tribes, on the other hand, are characterized by individuals who experience a sense of belonging and fellowship, they share and take responsibility for each other. The “tribes” in scientific tribefunding would consist of science supporters or enthusiasts who recognize the importance of the scientific work and also actively participate in discussions not just with the scientists but also with each other. Members of a paleontology tribe could include specialists and non-specialists who are willing to put in the required time to study the scientific background of a proposed paleontology research project, understand how it would advance the field and how even negative results (which are quite common in science) could be meaningful.

Tribefunding in higher education and science may sound like a novel concept but certain aspects of tribefunding are already common practice in the United States, albeit under different names. When wealthy alumni establish endowments for student scholarships, fellowship programs or research centers at their alma mater, it is in part because they feel a tribe-like loyalty towards the institutions that laid the cornerstones of their future success. The students and scholars who will benefit from these endowments are members of the same academic institution or tribe. The difference between the currently practiced form of philanthropic funding and the proposed tribefunding model is that tribe identity would not be defined by where one graduated from but instead by scientific interests.

Tribefunding could also impact the review process of scientific proposals. Currently, peer reviewers who assess the quality of scientific proposals for government agencies spend a substantial amount of time assessing the strengths and limitations of each proposal, and then convene either in person or via conference calls to arrive at a consensus regarding the merits of a proposal. Researchers often invest months of effort when they prepare research proposals which is why peer reviewers take their work very seriously and devote the required time to review each proposal carefully. Although the peer review system for grant proposals is often criticized because reviewers can make errors when they assess the quality of proposals, there are no established alternatives for how to assess research proposals. Most peer reviewers also realize that they are part of a “tribe”, with the common interest of selecting the best science. However, the definition of a “peer” is usually limited to other scientists, most of whom are tenured professors at academic institutions and does not really solicit input from non-academic science supporters.  In a tribefunding model, the definition of a “peer” would be expanded to professional scientists as well as science supporters for any given area of science. All members of the tribe could participate during the review and selection of the best projects  as well as throughout the funding period of the research projects that receive the support.

Merging the grassroots character and public outreach of crowdfunding with the sense of fellowship and active dialogue in a “scientific tribe” could take scientific crowdfunding to the next level. A comment section on a webpage is not sufficient to develop such a “tribe” affiliation but regular face-to-face meetings or conventional telephone/Skype conference calls involving several backers (independent of whether they can donate $50 or $5,000) may be more suitable. Developing a sense of ownership through this kind of communication would mean that every member of the science “tribe” realizes that they are a stakeholder. This sense of project ownership may not only increase donations, but could also create a grassroots synergy between laboratory and tribe, allowing for meaningful education and intellectual exchange.


Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, Maracaja-Coutinho V (2016) A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biol 14(2): e1002373. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002373

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.



Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, & Maracaja-Coutinho V (2016). A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biology, 14 (2) PMID: 26886064

Are American Professors More Responsive to Requests Made by White Male Students?

Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.


The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.

Milkman and her colleagues conducted a field experiment in which 6,548 professors at the leading US academic institutions (covering 89 disciplines) were contacted via email to meet with a prospective graduate student. Here is the text of the email that was sent to each professor.

Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Next


Dear Professor [surname of professor inserted here],

I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming Fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus next Monday, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

 Thank you in advance for your consideration.


[Student’s full name inserted here]

As a professor who frequently receives emails from people who want to work in my laboratory, I feel that the email used in the research study was extremely well-crafted. The student only wants a brief meeting to explore potential opportunities without trying to extract any specific commitment from the professor. The email clearly states the long-term goal – applying to doctoral programs. The tone is also very polite and the student expresses willingness of the prospective student to a to the professor’s schedule. Each email was also personally addressed with the name of the contacted faculty member.

Milkman’s research team then assessed whether the willingness of the professors to respond depended on the gender or ethnicity of the prospective student.  Since this was an experiment, the emails and student names were all fictional but the researchers generated names which most readers would clearly associate with a specific gender and ethnicity.

Here is a list of the names they used:

White male names:  Brad Anderson, Steven Smith

White female names:  Meredith Roberts, Claire Smith

Black male names: Lamar Washington, Terell Jones

Black female names: Keisha Thomas, Latoya Brown

Hispanic male names: Carlos Lopez, Juan Gonzalez

Hispanic female names: Gabriella Rodriguez, Juanita Martinez

Indian male names: Raj Singh, Deepak Patel

Indian female names: Sonali Desai, Indira Shah

Chinese Male names; Chang Huang, Dong Lin

Chinese female names: Mei Chen, Ling Wong

The researchers assessed whether the professors responded (either by agreeing to meet or providing a reason for why they could not meet) at all or whether they simply ignored the email and whether the rate of response depended on the ethnicity/gender of the student.

The overall response rate of the professors ranged from about 60% to 80%, depending on the research discipline as well as the perceived ethnicity and gender of the prospective student. When the emails were signed with names suggesting a white male background of the student, professors were far less likely to ignore the email when compared to those signed with female names or names indicating an ethnic minority background. Professors in the business sciences showed the strongest discrimination in their response rates. They ignored only 18% of emails when it appeared that they had been written by a white male and ignored 38% of the emails if they were signed with names indicating a female gender or ethnic minority background. Professors in the education disciplines ignored 21% of emails with white male names versus 35% with female or minority names. The discrimination gaps in the health sciences (33% vs 43%) and life sciences (32% vs 39%) were smaller but still significant, whereas there was no statistical difference in the humanities professor response rates. Doctoral programs in the fine arts were an interesting exception where emails from apparent white male students were more likely to be ignored (26%) than those of female or minority candidates (only 10%).

The discrimination primarily occurred at the initial response stage. When professors did respond, there was no difference in terms of whether they were able to make time for the student. The researchers also noted that responsiveness discrimination in any discipline was not restricted to one gender or ethnicity. In business doctoral programs, for example, professors were most likely to ignore emails with black female names and Indian male names. Significant discrimination against white female names (when compared to white males names) predicted an increase in discrimination against other ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher representation of female and minority faculty at an institution did not necessarily improve the responsiveness towards requests from potential female or minority students.

This carefully designed study with a large sample size of over 6,500 professors reveals the prevalence of bias against women and ethnic minorities at the top US institutions. This bias may be so entrenched and subconscious that it cannot be remedied by simply increasing the percentage of female or ethnic minority professors in academia. Instead, it is important that professors understand that they may be victims of these biases even if they do not know it. Something as simple as deleting an email from a prospective student because we think that we are too busy to respond may be indicative of an insidious gender or racial bias that we need to understand and confront. Increased awareness and introspection as well targeted measures by institutions are the important first steps to ensure that students receive the guidance and mentorship they need, independent of their gender or ethnic background.


Milkman KL, Akinola M, Chugh D. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily Blog.


Milkman KL, Akinola M, & Chugh D (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. The Journal of applied psychology, 100 (6), 1678-712 PMID: 25867167

Imagine: Listening to Songs Which Make Us More Generous

It does not come as a surprise that background music in a café helps create the ambience and affects how much customers enjoy sipping their cappuccinos. But recent research suggests that the choice of lyrics can even impact the social behavior of customers. The researcher Nicolas Ruth and his colleagues from the University of Würzburg (Bavaria, Germany) assembled a playlist of 18 songs with pro-social lyrics which they had curated by surveying 74 participants in an online questionnaire as to which songs conveyed a pro-social message. Examples of pro-social songs most frequently nominated by the participants included “Imagine” by John Lennon or “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson. The researchers then created a parallel playlist of 18 neutral songs by the same artists in order to truly discern the impact of the pro-social lyrics.


Here is an excerpt of both playlists

Artist                                    Pro-social playlist               Neutral playlist

P!nk                                         Dear Mr. President                    Raise Your Glass

John Lennon                           Imagine                                     Stand By Me

Michael Jackson                    Heal the World                         Dirty Diana

Nicole                                      Ein bisschen Frieden               Alles nur für dich

Pink Floyd                               Another Brick in the Wall      Wish You Were Here

Scorpions                                Wind of Change                        Still Loving You

Wiz Khalifa                              See You Again                          Black and Yellow

The researchers then arranged for either the neutral or the pro-social playlist to be played in the background in a Würzburg café during their peak business hours and to observe the behavior of customers. The primary goal of the experiment was to quantify the customers’ willingness to pay a surcharge of 0.30 Euros for fair trade coffee instead of regular coffee. Fair trade coffee is more expensive because it is obtained through organizations which offer better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers, prohibit child labor and support sustainable farming practices. Information about fair trade coffee was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café so that all customers would walk past it and the server was trained by the researchers to offer the fair trade surcharge in a standardized manner. The server also waited for a minimum of six minutes before taking the orders of guests so that they would be able to hear at least two songs in the background. During the observation period, 123 customers heard the prosocial playlist whereas 133 heard the neutral playlist.

The effect of this brief exposure to prosocial songs was quite remarkable. The percentage of customers who opted for the more expensive fair trade coffee option doubled when they head prosocial songs! Only 18% of customers hearing the neutral playlist were willing to pay the extra 0.30 Euros – even though they had also seen the information board about the benefits of fair trade coffee – but 38% of the customers hearing prosocial songs opted for the fair trade option.

Interestingly, hearing prosocial songs did not affect the tipping behavior of the customers. Independent of what music was playing in the background, customers tipped the server roughly 12% of the bill. This is in contrast to a prior study conducted in a French restaurant in which hearing prosocial songs increased the tipping behavior. One factor explaining the difference could be the manner by which the songs were selected. The French study specifically created a playlist of prosocial songs with French lyrics whereas the Würzburg playlist contained mostly English-language songs, often with global themes such as world peace, brotherhood and abolishing boundaries. Supporting fair trade may be more consistent with the images evoked by these global-themed songs than increased tipping of a server in Germany. It is also important to note that servers or waiters in Germany are comparatively well-compensated by restaurants and cafés, therefore they do not really depend on their income from tips.

The Würzburg experiment raises some intriguing questions about how music – either consciously or subconsciously – affects our immediate decision-making. The researchers went to great lengths to minimize confounding factors by matching up songs from the same artists in both playlists. Their work is also one of the first examples of a field study in a real-world setting because prior studies linking music and pro-social behavior have been mostly conducted in laboratory settings where pro-social behavior is experimentally simulated. But one also needs to consider some caveats before generalizing the results of the study.

Würzburg is a university town where students represent a significant proportion of the population. The researchers estimated that more than 40% of the customers were in their 20s, consistent with a principal student clientele which may be more mindful of the importance of fair trade. The history of Würzburg is also noteworthy because more than 80% of the city was destroyed in a matter of minutes during the Second World War when the British Royal Air force firebombed this predominantly civilian city and killed an estimated 5,000 residents. Residents of the city may be therefore especially sensitive to songs and imagery that evoke the importance of peace and the perils of war.

Some of the next steps in exploring this fascinating link between background music and behavior is to replicate the findings in other cities and also with participants from varying age groups and cultural backgrounds. Another avenue of research could be to assess whether the content of the lyrics affects distinct forms of behavior. Are there some prosocial songs which would increase local prosocial behavior such as tipping or supporting local charities whereas others may increase global social awareness? How long do the effects of the music last? Are customers consciously aware of the lyrics they are hearing in the background or are they just reacting subconsciously? The number of questions raised by this study shows us how exciting the topic is and that we will likely see more field studies in the years to come that will enlighten us.


1.              Ruth, N. (2016). Heal the World”: A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior. Psychology of Music, (in press).

2.              Jacob, C., Guéguen, N., & Boulbry, G. (2010). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on tipping behavior in a restaurant. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 29(4), 761-763.


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.



Ruth, N. (2016). “Heal the World”: A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735616652226

The Mesh of Civilizations in Cyberspace

“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

—Samuel P. Huntington (1972-2008) “The Clash of Civilizations

In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his now infamous paper The Clash of Civilizations in the journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington hypothesized that conflicts in the post-Cold War era would occur between civilizations or cultures and not between ideologies. He divided the world into eight key civilizations which reflected common cultural and religious heritages: Western, Confucian (also referred to as “Sinic”), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African. In his subsequent book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order“, which presented a more detailed account of his ideas and how these divisions would fuel future conflicts, Huntington also included the Buddhist civilization as an additional entity. Huntington’s idea of grouping the world in civilizational blocs has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the diversity that exists within each “civilization”. For example, the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia were all grouped together under “Western Civilization” whereas Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf states were all grouped as “Islamic Civilization” despite the fact that the member countries within these civilizations exhibited profound differences in terms of their cultures, languages, social structures and political systems. On the other hand, China’s emergence as a world power that will likely challenge the economic dominance of Western Europe and the United States, lends credence to a looming economic and political clash between the “Western” and “Confucian” civilizations. The Afghanistan war and the Iraq war between military coalitions from the “Western Civilization” and nations ascribed to the “Islamic Civilization” both occurred long after Huntington’s predictions were made and are used by some as examples of the hypothesized clash of civilizations.


It is difficult to assess the validity of Huntington’s ideas because they refer to abstract notions of cultural and civilizational identities of nations and societies without providing any clear evidence on the individual level. Do political and economic treaties between the governments of countries – such as the European Union – mean that individuals in these countries share a common cultural identity?

Also, the concept of civilizational blocs was developed before the dramatic increase in the usage of the internet and social media which now facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals belonging to distinct “civilizations” to interact with each other. One could therefore surmise that civilizational blocs might have become relics of the past in a new culture of global connectivity. A team of researchers from Stanford University, Cornell University and Yahoo recently decided to evaluate the “connectedness” of the hypothesized Huntington civilizations in cyberspace and published their results in the article “The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication“.

The researchers examined Twitter users and the exchange of emails between Yahoo-Mail users in 90 countries with a minimum population of five million. In total, they analyzed “hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map global patterns of transnational interpersonal communication”. Twitter data is public and freely available for researchers to analyze whereas emails had to be de-identified for the analysis. The researchers did not have any access to the content of the emails, they only analyzed whether users any given country were emailing users in other countries. The researchers focused on bi-directional ties. This means that ties between Twitter user A and B were only counted as a “bi-directional” tie or link if A followed B and B followed A on Twitter. Similarly, for the analysis of emails analysis, the researchers only considered email ties in which user X emailed user Y, and there was at least one email showing that user Y had also emailed user X. This requirement for bi-directionality was necessary to exclude spam tweets or emails in which one user may send out large numbers of messages to thousands of users without there being any true “tie” or “link” between the users that would suggest an active dialogue or communication.

Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.
Credit: State et al, PloS ONE 2015Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.

The researchers then created a cluster graph which is shown in the accompanying figure. Each circle represents a country and the 1000 strongest ties between countries are shown. The closer a circle is to another circle, the more email and Twitter links exist between individuals residing in the two countries. For the mathematical analysis to be unbiased, the researchers did not assign any countries to “civilizations” but they did observe key clusters of countries emerge which were very close to each other in the graph. They then colored in the circles with colors to reflect the civilization category as defined by Huntington and also colored ties within a civilization as the same color whereas ties between countries of two distinct civilization categories were kept in gray.

At first glance, these data may appear as a strong validation of the Huntington hypothesis because the circles of any given color (i.e. a Huntington civilization category) are overall far closer to each other on average that circles of a different color. For example, countries belonging to the “Latin American Civilization” (pink) countries strongly cluster together and some countries such as Chile (CL) and Peru (PE) have nearly exclusive intra-civilizational ties (pink). Some of the “Slavic-Orthodox Civilization” (brown) show strong intra-civilizational ties but Greece (GR), Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) are much closer to Western European countries than other Slavic-Orthodox countries, likely because these three countries are part of the European Union and have shared a significant cultural heritage with what Huntington considers the “Western Civilization”. “Islamic Civilization” (green) countries also cluster together but they are far more spread out. Pakistan (PK) and Bangladesh (BD) are far closer to each other and to India (IN), which belongs to the “Hindu Civilization” (purple) than to Tunisia (TN) and Yemen (YE) which Huntington also assigned to an ‘Islamic Civilization”.

One obvious explanation for there being increased email and Twitter exchanges between individuals belonging to the same civilization is the presence of a shared language. The researchers therefore analyzed the data by correcting for language and found that even though language did contribute to Twitter and email ties, the clustering according to civilization was present even when taking language into account. Interestingly, of the various factors that could account for the connectedness between users, it appeared that religion (as defined by the World Religion Database) was one of the major factors, consistent with Huntington’s focus on religion as a defining characteristic of a civilization. The researchers conclude that “contrary to the borderless portrayal of cyberspace, online social interactions do not appear to have erased the fault lines Huntington proposed over a decade before the emergence of social media.”  But they disagree with Huntington in that closeness of countries belonging to a civilization does not necessarily imply that it will lead to conflicts or clashes with other civilizations.

It is important to not over-interpret one study on Twitter and Email links and make inferences about broader cultural or civilizational identities just because individuals in two countries follow each other on Twitter or write each other emails. The study did not investigate cultural identities of individuals and some of the emails could have been exchanged as part of online purchases without indicating any other personal ties. However, the data presented by the researchers does reveal some fascinating new insights about digital connectivity that are not discussed in much depth by the researchers. China (CN) and Great Britain (GB) emerge as some of the most highly connected countries at the center of the connectivity map with strong global ties, including India and countries in Africa. Whether this connectivity reflects the economic growth and increasing global relevance of China or a digital footprint of the British Empire even decades after its demise would be a worthy topic of investigation. The public availability of Twitter data makes it a perfect tool to analyze the content of Twitter communications and thus define how social media is used to engage in dialogue between individuals across cultural, religious and political boundaries by analyzing culturally relevant keywords used in tweets. Analyses of Twitter data over time could test the intriguing hypothesis whether connectivity and the content of communications between users living in different countries change over time. Such a study would be even more informative in terms of linking cyberspace connectivity to cultural identities and could provide insights into the evolution of digital ties over time.



Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3) 22-49.

State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The mesh of civilizations in the global network of digital communication. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0122543.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication PLOS ONE, 10 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122543

Should Biologists be Guided by Beauty?

Lingulodinium polyedrum is a unicellular marine organism which belongs to the dinoflagellate group of algae. Its genome is among the largest found in any species on this planet, estimated to contain around 165 billion DNA base pairs – roughly fifty times larger than the size of the human genome. Encased in magnificent polyhedral shells, these bioluminescent algae became important organisms to study biological rhythms. Each Lingulodinium polyedrum cell contains not one but at least two internal clocks which keep track of time by oscillating at a frequency of approximately 24 hours. Algae maintained in continuous light for weeks continue to emit a bluish-green glow at what they perceive as night-time and swim up to the water surface during day-time hours – despite the absence of any external time cues. When I began studying how nutrients affect the circadian rhythms of these algae as a student at the University of Munich, I marveled at the intricacy and beauty of these complex time-keeping mechanisms that had evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

Lingulodinium polyedrum (scanning electron micrograph)
Lingulodinium polyedrum (scanning electron micrograph) – Credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (via Flickr)


I was prompted to revisit the role of Beauty in biology while reading a masterpiece of scientific writing, “Dreams of a Final Theory” by the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in which he describes how the search for Beauty has guided him and many fellow theoretical physicists to search for an ultimate theory of the fundamental forces of nature. Weinberg explains that it is quite difficult to precisely define what constitutes Beauty in physics but a physicist would nevertheless recognize it when she sees it.Over the course of a quarter of a century, I have worked in a variety of biological fields, from these initial experiments in marine algae to how stem cells help build human blood vessels and how mitochondria in a cell fragment and reconnect as cells divide. Each project required its own set of research methods and techniques, each project came with its own failures and successes. But with each project, my sense of awe for the beauty of nature has grown. Evolution has bestowed this planet with such an amazing diversity of life-forms and biological mechanisms, allowing organisms to cope with the unique challenges that they face in their respective habitats. But it is only recently that I have become aware of the fact that my sense of biological beauty was a post hoc phenomenon: Beauty was what I perceived after reviewing the experimental findings; I was not guided by a quest for beauty while designing experiments. In fact, I would have been worried that such an approach might bias the design and interpretation of experiments. Might a desire for seeing Beauty in cell biology lead one to consciously or subconsciously discard results that might seem too messy?

One such key characteristic of a beautiful scientific theory is the simplicity of the underlying concepts. According to Weinberg, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is described in fourteen equations whereas Newton’s theory can be expressed in three. Despite the appearance of greater complexity in Einstein’s theory, Weinberg finds it more beautiful than Newton’s theory because the Einsteinian approach rests on one elegant central principle – the equivalence of gravitation and inertia. Weinberg’s second characteristic for beautiful scientific theories is their inevitability. Every major aspect of the theory seems so perfect that it cannot be tweaked or improved on. Any attempt to significantly modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity would lead to undermining its fundamental concepts, just like any attempts to move around parts of Raphael’s Holy Family would weaken the whole painting.

Can similar principles be applied to biology? I realized that when I give examples of beauty in biology, I focus on the complexity and diversity of life, not its simplicity or inevitability. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Weinberg was describing the search of fundamental laws of physics, laws which would explain the basis of all matter and energy – our universe. As cell biologists, we work several orders of magnitude removed from these fundamental laws. Our building blocks are organic molecules such as proteins and sugars. We find little evidence of inevitability in the molecular pathways we study – cells have an extraordinary ability to adapt. Mutations in genes or derangement in molecular signaling can often be compensated by alternate cellular pathways.

This also points to a fundamental difference in our approaches to the world. Physicists searching for the fundamental laws of nature balance the development of fundamental theories whereas biology in its current form has primarily become an experimental discipline. The latest technological developments in DNA and RNA sequencing, genome editing, optogenetics and high resolution imaging are allowing us to amass unimaginable quantities of experimental data. In fact, the development of technologies often drives the design of experiments. The availability of a genetically engineered mouse model that allows us to track the fate of individual cells that express fluorescent proteins, for example, will give rise to numerous experiments to study cell fate in various disease models and organs. Much of the current biomedical research funding focuses on studying organisms that provide technical convenience such as genetically engineered mice or fulfill a societal goal such as curing human disease.

Uncovering fundamental concepts in biology requires comparative studies across biology and substantial investments in research involving a plethora of other species. In 1990, the National Institutes of Health (NIH – the primary government funding source for biomedical research in the United States) designated a handful of species as model organisms to study human disease, including mice, rats, zebrafish and fruit flies. A recent analysis of the species studied in scientific publications showed that in 1960, roughly half the papers studied what would subsequently be classified as model organisms whereas the other half of papers studied additional species. By 2010, over 80% of the scientific papers were now being published on model organisms and only 20% were devoted to other species, thus marking a significant dwindling of broader research goals in biology. More importantly, even among the model organisms, there has been a clear culling of research priorities with a disproportionately large growth in funding and publications for studies using mice. Thousands of scientific papers are published every month on the cell signaling pathways and molecular biology in mouse and human cells whereas only a minuscule fraction of research resources are devoted to studying signaling pathways in algae.

The question of whether or not biologists should be guided by conceptual Beauty leads us to the even more pressing question of whether we need to broaden biological research. If we want to mirror the dizzying success of fundamental physics during the past century and similarly advance fundamental biology, then we need substantially step-up investments in fundamental biological research that is not constrained by medical goals.



Dietrich, M. R., Ankeny, R. A., & Chen, P. M. (2014). Publication trends in model organism research. Genetics, 198(3), 787-794.

Weinberg, S. (1992). Dreams of a final theory. Vintage.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog. 




Dietrich, M., Ankeny, R., & Chen, P. (2014). Publication Trends in Model Organism Research Genetics, 198 (3), 787-794 DOI: 10.1534/genetics.114.169714


Weinberg, Steven (1992). Dreams of a Final Theory Vintage Books