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The Curious Science of Everyday Lives

Richard Wiseman

"What is the use of such a study? The criticism implied in this question has never bothered me, for nay activity seems to me of value if it satisfies curiosity, stimulates ideas, and gives a new slant to our understanding of the social world" (Stanley Milgram, The Individual in a Social World)

Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton was one of the first to devote his life to offbeat topics. Once tried to create a 'Beauty Map' of Britain, by walking the main streets of major cities and recording whether the people he passed were good, medium or bad looking. (London was rated the best, Aberdeen the worst)

Galton came up with a way to test the power of prayer. He figured that the clergy, who clearly prayed longer and harder than most, should have a longer life expectancy. But when he analysed the relevant figures, he found clergy died before doctors and lawyers, thus forcing the deeply religious Dalton to question the power of prayer.

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About 100 million Americans read their daily horoscope; Ronald and Nacy Reagan consulted an astrologer before scheduling international summits or flights Skeptics have used two main methods to show that the predictions are crap.

First is 'time twins' - people born within minutes of each other, who should theoretically share the same qualities because the planets would be in exactly the same position. A couple of databases from longitudinal studies are available. One was a study of 2000 people born in London March 1958, of whom 70% were born within 5 minutes of each other. They then had IQ and personality tests at 11, 16 and 23. Geoffrey Dean analysed the pairs of 'time twins' and found there was no correlation in personality. The only ones with clear similarities were actual genetic identical twins.

Second way was to send astrolgers the birth date of some notorious mass murderer or whatever, then sit back and admire (or snigger at) the flattering and totally inaccurate horoscopes that came back

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In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students, and then gave them a personality analysis supposedly based on the test's results. He invited each of them to rate the analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) as it applied to themselves: the average was 4.26. He then revealed that each student had been given the same analysis:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. Forer had assembled this text from an astrology book, cutting and pasting from 10 different readings This Forer Effect is also known as the Barnum Effect after the American showman who said his circus should have something for everyone.

Why are people taken in by this hokum? Part is due to the general nature of predictions. Who hasn't had doubts about a serious decision, or want people to like them. When a psychologist surveyed group of 6000 people found that one third had scar on left knee, another third own tape/CD of Handel's Water Music and 1 in 10 had had a dream last night about someone they hadn't seen in years. The other is the flattery effect - people endorse statements suggesting thay have a lot of unused mental capaacity that others haven't noticed, or that they are independant thinkers.

More books on Mind

Study on whether some people are born lucky. Recruited people who thought they were very lucky or very unlucky. (One participant had driven 50 miles to take part, and had had 8 vehicle accidents on way!) Got them to read newspaper and count how many photos appeared. But also a huge 1/2 page ad saying "Tell the experimenter you've seen this ad and claim $100 prize. Those who descibed themselves as lucky saw the ad and got the money; the 'unlucky' ones missed it. So people make their luck by the way they behave. Lucky people were flexible and aware and open to new experiences. Unlucky ones were withdrawn and anxious and unwilling to take chances. Most were simply not aware of anything outside the narrow task they anxiously focused on, but even the ones who noticed the ad discounted it as not applying to them.

Interesting experiments into childrens lies. Put kid in lab facing a wall.Expter sets up elaborate toy behind child, then says he has to leave lab but kid is not allowed to look at it. Kid secretly filmed until expter comes back and asks kid if he peeked. Almost all 3 year olds do, and half of them lie to expter. By time they've reached 5, all of them peek and all of them lie. So in other words, lying starts to emerge almost as soon as we learn to speak.. Surprisingly, when parents shown the films of their kids denying that they peeked, they were unable to tell whether kid lying.

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Exercise where you trace letter Q on your own forehead. You can iether do it so it looks right to you (ie the tail points to yr right eye) or so it looks ok to someone facing you (ie tail points to left side). This test measures 'self-monitoring'.High self-monitors draw Q so others can read it - they tend to be concerned with how others see them, are happy to change behaviour depending on circumstances they are in, and are skilled at manipulating way in which others see them. And, as a result, they tend to be good at lying. Low self-monitors draw Q the way they can read it - they tend to stay the same in all circumstances, are less aware of their impact on others. are guided more by their inner values - and they tend to lie less in life, and so are less skilled at it.

And finally, there is a small group who, on hearing what the test is all about, quickly convince themselves that they traced Q the opposite way - twist the facts so as to be the person they want to be. So test actually measures how good you are at deceiving both yourself and others.

Author ran expt for BBC Tomorrow's World to see how good people were at spotting liars. Two interview with famous person who told 2 different stories about his favorite film - in one he said it was Gone With The Wind; in the other he said it was Some Like It Hot. Viewrs were asked to phone in with their opinion of which story was a lie. The results: a narrow 52% identified the lie - ie barely better than tossing a coin. But show simultaeously broadcast on radio and printed in newspaper. The radio listeners got it right 73% time, and readers 64%. So the visual cues no help, despite fact that many people are convinced they can spot liars by behaviour (do they look you in the eye, move their hands too much or fidget in their chair?)

Turns out that the tell-tale signs are non-visual - they are in voice and vocabulary: descriptions are vague and lack details, pauses and hesitations increase, they avoid 'I' pronoun and don't describe their feelings, and they remember details truth tellers would forget.

The enigma of Mona Lisa smile - for some reason much more evident if you look at her eyes, vanishes when you concentrate on her mouth. Turns out Leonardo da V painted shadows from ML's cheekbones so that the mouth is much darker than rest of face. When you look at her eyes you are seeing the mouth with your peripheral vision, which is much better at discerning details in low light. But if you look directly at the mouth you use your retina, which is good in bright light but misses details in darker conditions.

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Distinction between a genuine Duchenne smile and a PanAm smile,after fake smiles air hostesses put on) The fake smile just uses muscles beside mouth to pull corners of lips upwards. A real smile does same, but also tightens muscles around corner of eye. These muscles can't be controlled voluntarily so you can't fake a real smile.

Study of college yearbook photos of 150 women taken in late 1950's. They were all smiling, but close exam showed half were fake PanAm smiles; half were real Duchenne versions. Those with the real smile were significantly more likely to be married, stay married, be happier and be healthier throughout their lives.

In other words, lifelong success and happiness can be predicted just by a crinkling around the eyes!

More books on Happiness

Initial study showed group of people a red car going through a Give Way sign and hitting a blue car. By using misleading phrases experimenters were able to persuade 'witnesses' that it was a green car a Stop sign and a white car. Similar studies have persuaded people that a hammer was a screwdriver, a guy had a moustache and Mickey Mouse became Donald Duck

Another study planted a completely false memory. They recuited subjects, then secretly got parents to supply some childhood photos. They Photoshopped one of the photos into a pic of a hot air balloon trip. This was then shown to the subjects along with 3 other photos of real events. Subjects were then asked to describe events in as much detail as possible, over the course of 3 interviews over 2 weeks. By the third interview, more than half the participants described false balloon flight in great detail, even the ones who had denied the event in their first interview. Many other studies have created fake memories. One of most famous was one about getting people to remember meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland (an impossibility, since BB not a Disney character) Others include persuading people that they once caused evacuation of supermarket by setting off sprinkler, causing car to roll into another by releasing brake, spilling punch bowl over bride at a wedding.

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Studies of magicians have shown that very little of success due to speed of sleight of hand. Instead almost all power of suggestion.

Similar effects account for seance 'mysteries'

Superstition and Magical Thinkling pervade our lives. Much of our society believes the impossible, strange coincidences are surprisingly likely, and people think they are having ghostly experiences in 'haunted houses'

At least 80% of us are at least a little bit superstitious - touch wood, avoid walking under ladders etc

Some are harmless, others impact - eg houses numbered 13 sell for 20% less than comparable ones. In Japan one day of their 6 day week is good fortune day and hospital patients routinely extend their stay so can leave on that day - at a cost of about $40m a year

Many doctors and nurses convinced that a full moon increases AE admissions and mortality rates, but several studies show no influence

So why do superstitions persist when wrong. Several studies showed people get more superstitious when in stressful times (PI's fishing in dangerous waters, 1920's Germans in hyperinflation, Israelis under missile attacks)

Law of Contagion: people don't like to wear things (even after washed) that have been worn by murderers or AIDs victims - they'd rather wear a jersey that had been dropped in dog poo and not washed.

Amazing coincidences - eg parallels between John F Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln killed in Ford Theatre, JFK while riding in a Ford Lincoln. Lincoln was elected to Congress 1846, Kennedy in 1946. Lincoln elected Pres 1860, JFK in 1960. After their deaths, they were succeeded by their VP's, both named Johnson. Andrew Johnson born 1809, Lyndon Johnson born 1909.

What it all boils down to is that there are billions of people on this planet, all living complex lives, so sooner or later events appear to overlap - basically the Law of Large Numbers

Authority Obedience - Milgram's experiment where volunteers 'gave' others electric shocks (actors, but convincing screams) even up to lethal doses. repeated expt with puppies in case people realizrd original people were just acting and went along with the game. Over 50% men and 100% women did what they were told and delivered maximum shocks to pups.

Another of Milgram's expts was one which gave rise to 6 degrees of separation idea. He gave people a parcel which had to get to someone on other side America. You had to give it to someone you knew on first-name terms to move it in right direction. On average it took only 6 links to get there.

Wiseman took expt step further. Lucky people report more contacts/friends to account for good fortune (more opportunities), so should need fewer links to pass the parcel. In the English expt took only 4 links to reach a (well-connected) events organiser. So perhaps Britain better connectes because smaller country, less people, or perhaps modern world has incr number people we are connected to. But what role of luck? Of 100 people sent the starter parcel, 37 didn't send it to anyone at all (even though they were keen to take part, they said they didn't know anyone who could help move parcel towards destination) and each of these had classed themselves as 'unlucky'

Psychology of haunting - examine type of people who report such experiences, and the places where they report them. Some people seem tuned in - they can walk through a place that others have walked through unaffected, and report feeling uneasy - correlates with strong imagination, people who are easily hypnotised - genuinely scared by experience. Suggestion impt - if you're told that others have experienced it, you're primed.

Probably we respond to infrasound (very high or very low frequency sounds) without consciously hearing it.

Magic 'brown note' which can allegedly vibrate peoples' bowels, causing them to defecate. Popularised in Southpark episode when a character broadcast sound on American radion, causing whole country to shit itself simultaneously. (Mythbusters was unable to duplicate the effect)

More books on Hoaxes

You go to buy a calculator. It's price is $20, but tomorrow it will be on sale for $5. Do you buy it now or come back tomorrow? You go to buy a new laptop. It's price is $1015, but tomorrow it will be on sale for $999. Do you buy it now or come back tomorrow? We see savings in reletive rather than absolute terms.

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1957 James Vicary claimed to have put subliminal message into a film that caused big increase coca cola and popcorn sales at interval. But when other researchers couldn't duplicate effect and Vicary later admitted he'd exaggerated effect of a very small sample. Despite this, a panicked govt passed laws banning this advertising. Hasn't stopped companies selling tapes and videos designed to change behaviour, but they are useless as well.

But we are affected by other unconscious things such as people's names.

Study of initials found that those with positive combinations such as HUG, JOY,ACE lived longer than those with negative combos like PIG BUM and DIE.

But suggestion that unusual names help people become more successful because more memorable.

More books on Names

Tendency for people to drift towards 'their' cities - statistically 'too many' Florences living in Florida, Kens in Kentucky and Georges in Georgia and drift into jobs that sound like their names - more dentists have names starting 'Den' than 'Law" and vv for lawyers. Owners of hardware stores had names starting with H, roofing starting with R. If your name started with B you were much more likely to give money to George Bush's political campaign; if it began with G you gave to Gore.

And we tend to marry people with names similar to our own.

All comes down to the fact that we prefer people who remind us of the person we like most

Expt where people had to unjumble sentences. When sentences had words referring to old age, subjects walked slower.

More books on Old Age

Restaurant tips get bigger if waiter gives patrons card with joke on it; if they put a Happy Face or Thank You on bottom of bill, or give a big smile to customers. People tip more when the sun is shining, and even when waiters tell them the sun is shining. The Power of Touch - touch palm of hand or shoulder for 1.5 secs as give them the bill also increases tip.

In a wine shop classical music inflenced customers to buy more expensive wines (possibly because made customers feel more sophisticated which people would prefer better wine).

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Thousands of years ago there were evolutionary advantages to hanging around tall people - their size made them good allies for fighting or finding food. Although height no longer conveys physical advantage, our primate brains still hold on to their evolutionary past, and so we still associate tall people with success (and, as well, success with tall people).

More books on Success

Men under 5'5" rated less positive terms - less masculine less successful less capable. They have fewer mates and fewer children. This association with mating success also applies to most primitive tribes.Also applies to success in business and politics - last time US elected President who was shorter than average was 1896. We are surprised to find Hollywood stars often short (suggestion that they compensate for stature by developing strong personalities) The website ("In the land of Hollywood Pygmies, the elevator shoed dwarf is King") is dedicated to finding out true height of stars: they send people of known height to be photographed beside them.

More books on Fame and Beauty

Status alters (perceived) height. U of Queensland study introduced man to different groups of students and asked them afterwards to estimate his height. When he was introduced as fellow student, he was 5'8" tall. When he was a lecturer he gained an inch. Being a senior lecturer gave him another inch and by the time he'd become a professor he was a full 6' tall.

Wiseman ran an expt for BBC Tomorrow's World. Found that BBC brodcast from 13 different transmitters, always sending out identical signal. But he realised gave a chance to 'split' Britain in half. Staged a mock trial which was broadcast across country. But half population saw a defendant with broken nose and close-set eyes; other half saw baby-faced, blue eyed man. Everything else identical - clothes, posture, expressions plus all actual trial the same. Then viewers asked to phone in with verdict as to whether guilty or not. Result: 60,000 people phoned in - 40% said 'criminal' guilty, but only 29% said blue eyes was.

More books on Law

Confirmed in studies of real court cases - better looking you are, more likely you are to get better result.

Study in British Columbia - two groups of people crossing a bridge met a girl interviewer halfway. One bridge was a swaying suspension footbridge 200' above a river, the other was a much lower, more solid bridge.The men on the high bridge far more attracted to interviewer. What's happening is that we connect attraction to opposite sex with our hearts beating faster (evolution priming our bodies for action). So when our hearts start beating faster with adrenaline rush of scary bridge, our minds confuse that arousal with the arousal of romantic attraction.

So moral is, don't take date to a movie, take her somewhere where adrenaline will start to pump - a roller coaster or a scary film.

More books on Dating

What makes a good chat up line? All the corny ones overwhelmingly put women off - suggestion that guys use them to sort out the tarts.

Questionaire revealed that people prefer openings that suggest spontaneous wit, pleasant personality, wealth and an appreciation of culture. But what exactly does that translate into?

Ran speed dating expt where couples allowed to talk about film, hobbies travel and books. Film not good because such different tastes - most people argued. Travel was best because tended to be about great holidays or places you wanted to go to, so positive and happy. Women made more snap judgements than men; 45% made up thir minds in first 30 secs as to whether wanted to see guy again. The best lines encouraged dates to talk about themselves in a fun, quirky way. If you were on Stars In Their Eyes, who would you be?

New York study, random pairs of strangers. Blindfolded one, then other had to hold drinking straw between teeth (which makes voice sound funny) then perform series of tasks designed to make them laugh. eg blindfolded one had to learn dance steps from set instructions read out by partner. Control pairs did same tasks but without blindfolds or straws. Then asked how much fun they'd had - obviously blindfolded pairs much more. But also significantly higher ratings of attractiveness to partner.

Ran a big expt to try to find the world's funniest jokes. Set up web site and invited people to submit their favourites. Predictable results - deluge of jokes, overwhelmingly filthy ones, so had to hire someone to vet. She got very bored with seeing repeats (Record set by "What is brown and sticky? A stick" 300 times )but did wind up with the world's biggest collection of dirty jokes.

More books on Happiness

Inadvertently let through one - Guy goes to priest and says he's a dr and has slept with some of his patients, Well you're not the first and you won't be the last says the priest. You don't understand, says man, I'm a vet. Men rated this funnier than women did, and more people from Denmark rated it funny than from anywhere else.

Top jokes had one thing in common - they made reader feel superior. Funniest are ones which put down people in power, who, surprisingly, don't see them as funny and go to great lengths to suppress them. Hitler actually set up a "joke court" to punish inappropriate humour, such as calling your dog Adolph.

Suggestion that basic incompatibility between religious fundamentalism and humour. Humour requires a sense of playfulness, an enjoyment of incongruety, and a tolerance of uncertainty. Fundamentalists take evrything very seriously and want rules to be obeyed at all times. Humour involves mixing elements that don't go together and questions authirty and often contains sexual references, a loss of self control and self-discipline. Fundamentalists prefer mental rigidity to uncertainty, sense over nonsense.

So where does it come from? Does lack of GSOH lead you to fundamentalism or does being fundamentalist stop you seeing the funny side of life. So ran expt which showed that people exposed to religious material holds back humour.

(In end top joke was one about hunter who accidentally shot friend. First make sure he's dead. Ok Bang! Right he's dead, now what?)

Most people don't change combinations - 75% attache cases have factory default 0000 setting.

Watch political candidates - one who blinks most will lose.

More books on Politics

If you find someone has same birthday as you, you're more likely to help them. Expters doctored a biography of Rasputin so that in half expts he had same birthday as subject. Those people saw him as much nicer than control group.

Envelopes distributed around Catholic, liberal and fundamentalist churches.The envelopes were addressed but not stamped. The Catholic and liberal churchgoers stamped and mailed 87%. The fundamentalists only put stamps on 42% letters.

Another test of altruism - trainee ministers had to prepare a sermon about the Good Samaritan, then told to go to another building where they would be filmed delivering the sermon. But en route they encountered an actor pretending to need help. But more than half ministers ignored him. Some of them actually stepped over him. Modified expt to tell ministers that had to get to other building as quick as possible. Now the help rate dropped to 10%. Which also shows that fast pace of life makes us less caring.

Who do you expect to be more honest - clergy or car salesmen? Sent out a $10 cheque, supposedly a refund from a furniture company called Honesty, to memebers of both occupations. About 50% of each cashed the cheque, even though they must have known they hadn't bought anything from such a store.

Tests with 'blind' or 'crippled' person needing help to cross a street. Population density predicted how much help offered. Perhaps because in big cities people get sensory overload - and we know that in such circumstances people prioritise and ignore as much as possible that doesn't directly affect them.

Expt where put a car, with bonnet up, outside Stanford University in Palo Alto California. Left alone for a week, except that when it started to rain one passer-by put bonnet down to protect motor. When experimenters eventually went to remove it, 3 people called police to say an abandoned car being stolen.

More books on Crime

Tried same thing outside NY University. After 10 minutes, a car stopped, a family got out. Mum skimmed everything valuable out of interior, dad took radiator out with a hacksaw and kids got spare wheel out of boot. 15 minutes later 2 guys jacked up car and took wheels. In just 2 days, in 20 separate acts, the car was stripped of everything of value, mostly by adults, in daylight.

Huge DRIVE CAREFULLY sign - would you let them put it on your front lawn? You will if you've previously agreed to put a bumper sticker with same message on your car. You redefine yourself as a caring person and so change your behaviour to live up to that standard.

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