Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK, and author of a new book “Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives,” has a guest article in New Scientist on “quirkology,” which he defines as “the use of scientific methods to study quirky human behaviour, or quirky methods to probe weightier topics.” Wiseman’s article describes his eight favorite studies that relate to quirkology. One of those is by Stanley Milgram, whom we have regularly discussed on The Situationist, and another is by fellow Situationist John Bargh. We have excerpted those two portions of Wiseman’s article below.
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Take a letter US psychologist Stanley Milgram is probably best known for his 1960s experiment at Yale University showing people’s willingness to follow orders from someone in authority – even to the extent of giving seemingly lethal electric shocks to innocent victims [most recently discussed on The Situationist by Jon Hanson and Michael McCann in their post, "The Situation of a 'Volunteer' Army"]. Less celebrated is the ingenious method he devised in the mid-1960s for gauging public opinion without conducting a formal poll. Milgram and his research assistants “accidentally” dropped 300 stamped and addressed envelopes in phone boxes, shops and on pavements all over New Haven, Connecticut. The addresses were identical apart from the first line, which read either “Medical Research Associates”, “Friends of the Nazi Party” or “Friends of the Communist Party”. Milgram predicted that people’s likelihood of picking up and posting the envelopes would depend on how much they were in sympathy with the values implied by the recipient. The people of New Haven turned out to have little taste for extreme political views: they returned about 70 per cent of the envelopes for the Medical Research Associates, compared with 25 per cent for either of the Party Friends. The technique was not without problems – such as helpful passers-by frequently spotting an envelope being dropped and handing it back to the researcher – so Milgram experimented with different methods. Once he hired a light aircraft to drop envelopes over Worcester, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, many of the envelopes ended up on rooftops, and others put the plane in danger when they were swept into the ailerons of its wings. Despite such setbacks, the envelope-dropping method has stood the test of time and is still employed by social psychologists to ascertain public opinion. Recent drops have examined attitudes to abortion, President Clinton’s impeachment and Arab-Israeli relations. In 1999, school student Lucas Hanft dropped 1600 letters in Manhattan and Nassau County, addressed to fictitious organisations that supported or opposed gay marriage. Hanft discovered city inhabitants were more liberal than suburbanites but was also threatened with arrest for littering.
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The power of positive thinking Psychologists and neuroscientists are fascinated by the power of the subconscious over our conscious thoughts and behaviours, but it is unclear just how strong these effects are, and whether, as the self-help books claim, they can be harnessed in any useful way. Two studies suggest that the subconscious can indeed have some profound effects. In 1998 psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, asked half a group of volunteers to carry out a simple mental exercise that involved imagining the mindset of a typical university professor. The other half imagined a football hooligan. All then had to answer some general-knowledge questions. The professor group got 60 per cent of their questions right, while the hooligan group got only 46 per cent. Focusing on the body rather than the mind, John Bargh and his colleagues at New York University asked their volunteers to do a mental task involving words relating to old age, such as “wrinkled”, “grey” and “bingo” (see Pigeonholed). A second group were shown words unrelated to old age. The researchers then said the experiment was over and secretly recorded the time each participant took to walk down the long hallway to the exit. Those with old age on their mind took significantly longer to walk down the corridor. So it seems that a just a few moments’ thinking time can prime you to perform either better or worse than normal at both mental and physical tasks. Maybe some of those self-help gurus are onto something.
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To read all of Wiseman’s article, click here. To watch a demonstration of Quirkology, check out the Youtube video below: