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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

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Investigations ::


How to channel free will

Rearrange the foods in a school cafeteria, and children are more inclined to choose a healthy lunch; change a 401(k) plan to a program workers can opt out of, rather than opt into, and more employees start saving for retirement. These are the kinds of alterations that GSB behavioral economist Richard Thaler and Law School political theorist Cass Sunstein describe in the recently released Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press). Advocating what they call “libertarian paternalism,” the two argue that although people should be free to do what they like, public and private institutions ought to use “choice architecture” to nudge their behavior toward decisions that help them live longer, stay healthier, and feel happier.

Try it, you’ll buy it

Research by Medical Center scientists suggests that there may be no such thing as a free drug sample. Analyzing the medical histories and drugs expenditures of 5,709 patients from the national Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, medical ethicist Caleb Alexander, SM’03, biostatistician Anirban Basu, PhD’04, and James Zhang, a former Chicago econometrician now at Virginia Commonwealth University, found that patients who received free pharmaceutical samples saw their prescription costs rise. Those who didn’t receive the freebies spent an average of $178 for six months of prescriptions. The 14 percent of patients who did receive samples spent $166 out of pocket on prescriptions in the six months beforehand; $244 during the period when they got the sample; and $212 in the following six months. The researchers published their findings, adjusted for demographic characteristics and prior health conditions, in the April Medical Care.

Bumpy path to college

Only 59 percent of Chicago high-schoolers who aspire to a four-year college actually apply, even fewer enroll, and two-thirds wind up at colleges or vocational schools that don’t match their academic credentials. So says School of Social Service Administration professor Melissa Roderick. As codirector of the University-based Consortium on Chicago School Research, Roderick led a three-year study, released in March, that tracked 105 Chicago Public Schools graduates using student and teacher surveys, transcripts, college-enrollment data, and student interviews. Many qualified students have trouble navigating their way to postsecondary education. The numbers are particularly bleak for Latinos; only 46 percent applied and 30 percent enrolled in four-year colleges the fall after graduation. For high-schoolers as a whole, those figures were 59 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Among the underlying factors Roderick identified: weak high-school guidance, the rising cost of higher education, and a lack of information about financial aid.

Slowing ovarian cancer’s spread

By blocking the enzyme that enables ovarian cancer to establish itself in a new site, a group of drugs called MPP-2 inhibitors can slow the disease’s spread and prolong patients’ lives, report Chicago gynecologists and obstetricians Ernst Lengyel, Hilary A. Kenny, and Swayamjot Kaur. Working with pathologist Lisa M. Coussens of the University of California, San Francisco, the researchers found the inhibitors reduced new-tumor growth in mice by 68 percent after four weeks of treatment—and doubled the average survival time. Publishing their results in the April Journal of Clinical Investigation, the researchers emphasized that the drugs must be administered early, before the cancer spreads beyond the ovary.