Richard Wiseman: Quirkology

I have long been fascinated by the quirky side of human behaviour.

As a psychology undergraduate I stood for hours in London’s King’s Cross railway station looking for people who had just met their partners off a train. The moment they were locked in a passionate embrace, I would walk up to them, trigger a hidden stopwatch in my pocket, and ask, ‘Excuse me, do you mind taking part in a psychology experiment? How many seconds have passed since I just said the words Excuse me…?’ My results revealed that people massively underestimate the passing of time when they are in love …


What the book promises

I feel a bit let down by this book. I think it’s because it led me to expect something that didn’t get delivered.

So: the title is ‘Quirkology’ – implying light, entertaining, scientific shenanigans. The subtitle to my edition of the book is ‘The curious science of everyday lives’. The implicit promise: Interesting science. Science you can relate to. Definitely science though. And the subtitle to the US edition is ‘How we discover the big truths in small things.’ Implicit promise: How we discover = the process of discovery. Big truths = extrapolation from mundane details to luminous big picture revelations.

In other words, perfect bath reading material to make me laugh then make me think.

What the book delivered (to me):

It delivered a loosely organised collection of stories describing times when Dr Wiseman showed

  1. that people don’t always behave rationally (eg believing a spoon is bending when it’s not, believing a table’s rising in the air when it’s not, etc);
  2. that sometimes weird shit does happen (like the way infrasound can make people feel strange);
  3. that when someone says A causes B (astrology causes your future, prayer causes healing, etc) it’s possible to test that claim;
  4. that he lives a wacky life full of professional hijinks where he hangs out with students in chicken suits and is friends with celebrities and stuff.

The problem is this: I only finished this book three days ago and I can’t really remember many of the findings. I remember there being stories about experiments he’s done with the public, via BBC TV shows and so on, but while they interested me, none really seemed to become memorable by making me go ‘Oh – so that’s why that happens!’ or ‘Now I get why people act like that!’ or ‘I had never thought of that before!’ or ‘Wow, with this insight I can understand this bigger phenomenon more clearly!’ or whatever.

I also remember him relating lots and lots of findings from other people (Milgram’s various experiments, Zimbardo’s prison experiment, etc). But most of those I’d already read about elsewhere.

Titillation, then frustration

What this book did leave me with is this: an immediate but vague feeling of something missing, followed by mild frustration whenever I revisit a lot of the stuff in the book.

An example: the study in his opening paragraph, quoted at the top of this post. He interrupts canoodling lovers on train stations so he can ask them to judge the passing of time. This annoys me, firstly because it’s an annoying thing to do to someone, but also because it raises bigger questions that he leaves hanging. Is the difference in judgement of time really because they are in love? Or because they have been interrupted in a private moment? Or is it because someone has transgressed taboo and interrupted them in a moment when they don’t expect to be interrupted? What follow-up studies do you do to settle these questions? Do you repeat the trial but with people similarly engrossed in something, but not in love (e.g. reading a very good book?) Do you repeat it for people on train stations who are similarly engrossed in intense and emotional private moments that don’t involve love (like a family spat)? Do you repeat the experiment for people who are in love but in a more comfortable and less amorous situation, like at a dinner party with friends? What else might this tell us about the human condition? Is there an evolutionary reason for this ‘time flies when you’re in love’ effect? Or is it just a byproduct of the way our brains process new information? Does it explain some of the other strange ways people behave when they’re in love?

In the book, though, Wiseman leaps straight to his (hardly startling) conclusion (‘My results revealed that people massively underestimate the passing of time when they are in love’) but for me this omits anything of actual interest. It’s a ‘meh’ moment. Yes, it’s just an opening anecdote in the introduction, but it set the tone for what was to come.

Quirkology: any reason to take it seriously?

Wiseman laments the fact that ‘quirkology’ has never been recognised as a formal branch of the social sciences. As examples of ‘quirkological’ studies he cites studies where scientists have tried to work out how many people it takes to start a Mexican wave, or have ‘charted the upper limits of visual memory by having people try to accurately remember 10,000 photographs’, or even ‘identified the perceived personality characteristics of fruit (lemons are seen as dislikeable, onions as stupid, and mushrooms as social climbers)’.

Yes, very quirky. But what was the point of these studies? Was it to just be quirky? Or was it because people were interested in deeper aspects of the problems, like (in the Mexican Wave case) the minimum stimulus it takes to manipulate a crowd? This could be interesting for studying the behaviour of mobs, or controlling that behaviour. If that were the case, then this ceases to be ‘quirkology’ and becomes part of mathematics, or social science, or something else – and there’s no need for a separate science of ‘quirkology’.

What about the visual memory test? For me nothing is interesting about the quirkological finding ‘did you know people can remember a maximum of 4389 images’ (or whatever the number is). What would be interesting would be a finding that people are 100 times better at remembering images than words (for example – I’m making this up) so we could use this info to change the way we communicate things.

Or, regarding the fruit, the quirkological finding that onions are seen to be stupid means nothing to me. It just raises questions like, ‘Is this a type of synesthesia?’, ‘How many people share these perceptions of fruit and vegetables?’, ‘Are they only aware of them when asked?’, ‘What is it about an onion that makes it ‘stupid’? Is it its roundness? The dullness of its colour? Some aspect of its ubiquity in cooking? Its taste?’, and ‘Does this impact on usage or sales of other onion-coloured objects?’ In other words, what does this tell us about the world and society?

It might be argued that this is actually the point that Wiseman is trying to make in this book: that ‘quirkology’ is important for exactly these reasons, namely, that it gives insight into bigger phenomena. But if so, I don’t think he did that great a job. His statement that quirkology could be considered a separate sub-branch of science seems to show a belief that it has value in its own right instead of being a natural part of the scientific process. And he keeps referring to ‘quirkologists’ as being a marginalised bunch of dogged pioneers who do their work despite being maligned by mainstream scientists.

But I think this is the opposite of what happens. Many ‘mainstream’ scientists I know (and work with) see the value in doing research Wiseman would call ‘quirky’ but they just call ‘valuable’. Like control system engineers who research the way people rate 26 degrees ‘too hot’ in an air conditioned building but rate the exact same 26 degrees ‘comfortable’ in a building with no air-con and open windows. Yes, it’s fascinating, but it’s also a serious part of building design, energy-efficiency considerations and so on. Or, the placebo effect. Quintessentially quirky; also massively mainstream and important.

In short: yes, quirkology needs to be taken seriously. But not as a new and radical thing called ‘quirkology’; rather, because it’s been a standard part of normal, mainstream science all along.

Report card: how the book delivered on its promises

Promise #1: light, interesting, scientific shenanigans. Verdict: promise met.

Promise #2: Interesting science. Verdict: not enough discussion of the actual science in many cases.

Promise #3: The process of discovery, and extrapolation from mundane details to luminous big picture revelations. Verdict: not enough of either for my liking.

Conclusion: read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational instead.

This book was mostly read in the bath.

This book was mostly read in the bath.


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