Brothers in Arms: Civil War Laboratory

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Economists find loyalty and sacrifice prevailed among Union soldiers with similar backgrounds.

No experiment can ethically test how humans behave in life-or-death situations. But two UCLA economists dug up the records of 41,000 Union soldiers from the American Civil War to see how men of shared or different backgrounds fared in the worst conditions.

They found that sharing common characteristics with fellow soldiers made all the difference in lowering desertion rates, not to mention surviving the horrors of prison camps. The least diverse companies still had one-third fewer desertions than even more diverse companies with higher morale or stronger commitment to the cause.

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