Friday, 27 February 2009

Richard Wiseman: Quirkology

When I was a kid I used to read a lot of stuff about weird facts, and in a way this book reminded me of one of my childhood books of the bizarre and irrelevant.

We expect science to be wearing a white coat and be lurking menacingly in a laboratory full of smoking test tubes. Richard Wiseman simply takes the scientific method out of the laboratory and onto the streets to analyse our everyday lives. So unlike my childhood book of facts, this is a book of experimental results on tests that mainstream science thought too silly.

Richard unearths the scientific truth behind a whole host of things like: astrology, how to tell when someone is lying, how to distinguish false smiles, subliminal messaging, haunted houses, strange coincidences, walking on red hot coals, the world's funniest joke and the best chat up lines.

Many of the experiments require examining the psychology of the test subjects, but in order to remain objective, the subjects are often either not told the true purpose of the experiment or initially led somewhat astray. One particular set of experiments involved testing the honesty of people by using overtly generous cash machines freely dispatching a nice crisp ten-pound note and over munificent shop assistants giving away far too much change.

As perhaps expected, most people are far happier to take from faceless banks or corporations than independent shops or individuals, as Richard says, perhaps we just see it as an opportunity to get even with a bank we feel has already overcharged us. However, shortly after reading this chapter I noticed that someone had abandoned a very nice bicycle just outside my house. My immediate thoughts were therefore to look around for a hidden camera subtly tying to test the psychology of passers by. Five days later it was still there and had even been neatly stowed against a lamppost awaiting it owners return, so I figure I must live in a pretty good neighbourhood.

Another area explored at the length in the book, is the search for the worlds funniest joke. Inspired by Monty Python’s Ernest Scribbler, writer of the world’s funniest joke. The Laugh-Lab experiment invited the public to submit and rate jokes on to a web site where the results were analysed. Dirty jokes were politely removed from the database, and I suspect that the real worlds funniest joke, if submitted, was probably jettisoned with the other unsuitable material. I’ll not steal Richard’s thunder by repeating any of the jokes here, but the most interesting part of the experiment was how different groups of people laugh at different things. For example older people tended to laugh at jokes dealing with the problems associated with old age and genders find jokes associated with stereotypes of the opposite gender more amusing.

The book is so easy to read and crammed full of witticisms that if anything, I feel a little cheated that I finished it so quickly. Also, if you every get the chance to see Richard, its certainly worthwhile as the contents of this book combined with his presentation and magic skills translate into a highly entertaining talk. And if you haven’t already visited, the web site contains some experiments to partake in and some great video clips.
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