How the curious science of the oddities
of everyday life yields new insights
Using an index finger, trace the capital letter Q on your forehead. Which way did the tail of the Q slant?
What an odd thing to ask someone to do. Exploring weird things and why people believe them, however, is what I do for a living. Coming at science from the margins allows us to make an illuminating contrast between the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural, and the anomalous and the usual. The master at putting uncanny things to the experimental test — the man I call the Mythbuster of Magical Thinking — is University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman. His new book, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things (Basic, 2007), presents the results of his numerous (and often hilarious) experiments on all matters peculiar.
For instance, Wiseman explains that the Q test is a quick measure of “self-monitoring.” High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q with the tail slanting to their left, so that someone facing them can read it. By temperament, they tend to focus outwardly: they are concerned with how other people see them, enjoy being the center of attention and adapt their actions to suit the situation. They are also skilled at manipulating others, Wiseman says, which makes them good at deception. And self-deception, apparently, which he discovered when he told these subjects what the experiment is supposed to measure — given that high self-monitors tended to claim (and apparently believe) that they traced the Q the opposite direction to how they actually drew it.
If that is not quirky enough, Wiseman once spent a day in Londons King’s Cross railway station asking the following question of individuals and of couples reuniting in a passionate embrace: “Excuse me, do you mind taking part in a psychology experiment? How many seconds have passed since I just said the words ‘Excuse me?’ ” Wiseman discovered that people in love significantly underestimated the passing of time. In other words, as the poets already know, times passes quickly when you’re in love.
Paranormal anomalies have long been a target of Wiseman’s experimental bow. To test the psychology of ghostly experiences, for example, Wiseman spent 10 days at Hampton Court Palace, having individuals walk through specific locations and describe any unusual experiences. He discovered that people who have a vivid imagination and are easily hypnotized reported a sensed presence and an uneasy feeling in the exact same locations where those with dry imaginations reported nothing. In a related study, Wiseman’s psychologist colleague James Houran of Southern Illinois University had subjects walk though an abandoned cinema and describe how it made them feel. One group of subjects was told that the building was haunted, and the other group was told that it was being renovated. The “haunted” group reported significantly more unusual experiences than the other group.
In search of a normal explanation for such apparently paranormal enigmas, Wiseman conducted an experiment in a London concert hall in which he had participants listen to and rate the emotional experience of a performance by acclaimed Russian pianist GéNIA. At two different times during the performance, Wiseman piped in extremely low frequency infrasound waves that are inaudible to the human ear but are known to cause an internal vibratory feeling in the head and chest that can be experienced in a deeply emotional way. (NASA once tested infrasound waves on astronauts to measure the effect of rocket engines during launch.) He found that 22 percent of the 400 subjects noted unusual experiences during the infrasound conditions, reporting such feelings as “shivering on my wrist, odd feeling in stomach”; “increased heart rate, ears fluttering, anxious”; “felt like being in a jet before it takes off”; and “preorgasmic tension in body and arms, but not in legs.”
Other quirkiness reported by Wiseman includes why there are a disproportionate number of marine biologists called Dr. Fish (names do matter, it turns out); the best wording of a donation solicitation (adding “even a penny helps” doubles the giving rate); superior pickup lines (not boring, such as “Do you come here often?” but silly, such as “If you were a pizza topping, what would you be?”); the most effective personal ads (a 70 to 30 ratio between “this is me” and “this is what I’m looking for”); and the world’s funniest joke: “Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses… ,” which I’ll finish next month, when I explain what weirdonomics and quirkology reveal about how science actually works.