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I've previously posted about the issue of placebo walk buttons -- that is, the widespread suspicion that the walk buttons at intersections don't have any effect on traffic lights. (There's also a separate theory that you can control the traffic lights by pushing the button in a special way.)

An article on addresses the issue of placebo buttons at some length. They insist the idea of placebo buttons is a myth (at least for the city of Victoria), and they interview a traffic planner to discover what really happens when the button is pushed:

Brad Dellebuur, city transportation planner, says pushing the button sends a signal to the intersection's traffic controller that a pedestrian is present and enters the "walk" signal into the system's cycle.
"If you don't press it, some intersections won't give a walk signal," Dellebuur says. The traffic light timing is also determined by the amount of vehicular traffic, which is picked up by sensors imbedded in the road.
In other words, pushing the button won't make the light change right away, or within a certain time from when the button is activated. You'll still have to wait, but a shorter period as the traffic light interval is shortened.
If you don't push the light, the pedestrian walk signal still comes on, but, for instance, after 60 seconds instead of 40.

Of course, many people insist on pushing the button even if it's already been pushed, in which case it isn't having any effect. Why do they do this?

It's not just distrust that makes people push a crosswalk button that has probably been pushed already. It's also ritual, says Jim Gibson, social psychologist at UVic, and very much like pushing an elevator button that is already illuminated.
"It's part of crossing the intersection," Gibson says. "We want to cross, and pushing the button first is part of that ritual.
"We go on automatic pilot because ritual behaviour saves our brains from having to think about activities that are very routine."

(via Legends & Rumors)
Categories: Psychology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu May 08, 2008
Comments (11)
Local 6, an Orlando news station, recently conducted a "missing child experiment." They plastered posters all over a mall claiming that 8-year-old Britney Begonia was missing. Then they had Britney herself sit down alone a few feet from some of the signs. The question was: would anyone notice the poster and offer to help Britney?

The predictable result: Of the hundreds of people who walked past and saw the posters, only two stopped to ask Britney if she was OK. Many people, questioned later, said they noticed Britney's resemblance to the girl in the poster, but were "fearful of getting involved."

It's the unresponsive bystander effect, well known to social psychologists. People don't like sticking their neck out to get involved in a potentially uncomfortable situation, especially if no one else seems to be doing so.

I just realized that Local 6 is the same station that ran a similar experiment back in February that I posted about, in which they had an actor pretend to be a criminal breaking into a car, and filmed the non-response of bystanders on the streets. They evidently think unresponsive bystanders make for compelling news. And luckily for them, social psychologists have devised all kinds of situations in which to test the phenomenon, including the bystander response to arterial bleeding. So Local 6 shouldn't run out of material anytime soon.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue May 06, 2008
Comments (11)
The image shows the silhouette of a woman turning round and round. (She seems to be naked, but I'd say it's safe for work.) The text says:
Which way is the woman turning? Clockwise or anticlockwise? After a while, you will be amazed to find that not everyone will agree about which way she is turning! Even more amazingly, some people find that when they ask her, in their mind, to "change", the woman in the image responds by changing direction!

I stared at the spinning woman for a while, but I could only see her turning clockwise. I kept asking her in my mind to change direction, but she wouldn't. Can other people actually see her turn anti-clockwise? Apparently so. One guy analyzed the image frame by frame to find out how the illusion works. But I'm not seeing it.

In fact, I'm thinking it might be a joke designed to get people to stare at the image for hours, desperately trying to will the woman to change direction. But she never will. (Thanks, Nirmala)
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 09, 2008
Comments (42)
The BBC reports that police in Italy are searching for a thief who hypnotizes checkout staff and orders them to hand over money.

In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: "Look into my eyes", before finding the till empty... A female bank clerk reportedly handed over nearly 800 euros (£630)...
Italian police believe the suspect could be of Indian or North African extraction.

The BBC has a video of the thief in action. It's interesting, because he pulls off his heist in full view of other customers, who are apparently oblivious about what's going on.

This is not a new method of robbery. Back in Oct. 2007 I posted about a thief in New Hampshire who was said to be using hypnosis to rob convenience stores. In that case, the thief was also Indian, which is significant because the art of hypno-robbery seems to have originated in India.

It sounds like a method of robbery that's too good to be true, but I think it is real (i.e. the store clerks aren't secretly in collusion with the criminal. They really do unwittingly hand money over to him). But I don't think the criminal is actually hypnotizing the clerks. They don't go into a trance. Instead, the method takes advantage of a psychological trick -- that if you catch people off guard, they'll often do whatever you tell them to. The British magician Derren Brown demonstrates the principle in a number of his videos. I think you need a combination of a very self-assured thief who projects an air of authority and a highly suggestible victim to get this to work.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Sun Mar 23, 2008
Comments (9)
Local 6 News in Orlando recently conducted a test to see how quickly people would respond to a crime. They arranged for an undercover police officer to pretend to be a burglar trying to break into cars and homes in plain view of bystanders. The results:

most bystanders ignored or just watched the crime -- and some even helped the thieves...
people were ready to help the mystery man break into a car.
A third test had the fake burglar enter a home through a window and then go out the front door. During the staged crime, some golfers gave a friendly wave and a technician ignored the incident.

These results aren't surprising. Psychologists have long been aware of the "unresponsive bystander" effect. Witnesses to medical emergencies or crimes often do nothing, either because they assume someone else will do something, or because they fail to correctly interpret the situation.

In Elephants on Acid I describe an experiment that was conducted at Columbia University in 1968. Subjects were led to believe they were participating in a group discussion over an intercom system, with each participant sitting in a separate cubicle. Suddenly they heard one of the other participants having an epileptic seizure. The seizure was fake, but the subjects couldn't know that, and most of them did nothing to help, because they assumed someone else would help.

Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 26, 2008
Comments (13)
Tom Bell, in the Agoraphilia blog, asks an interesting question. Why does children's fiction promote credulity as a virtue?

Children's fiction employs this trope so often that it fits a formula. A wise character tries to convince the protagonist that something wonderful will happen if only he or she will earnestly believe an improbability. Consider, for instance, how Yoda tells Luke to cast aside all doubt if he wants to levitate his x-wing from the swamps of Dagobah. "Do, or do not. There is no try," Yoda explains. Following the usual script, Luke resists, courting disaster, before he finally embraces faith and wins its rewards.

Bell notes an obvious explanation -- that religious and political leaders would like to see young people raised to believe without question. But Bell then suggests an alternative explanation. Maybe it's because children's literature depends upon the suspension of disbelief, and therefore children's authors need to promote gullibility as a virtue.

Looking at the question historically (which, after seven years of grad school is how I tend to approach questions like this), I would say it might have something to do with the sentimentalization of childhood which, in western culture, began to occur during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, this just raises the question of why our culture began to sentimentalize childhood. I honestly don't know, but it sure has helped Disney make a lot of money.
Categories: Literature/Language, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Feb 20, 2008
Comments (27)
I came across an interesting article, published in the New York Times on June 11, 1950, that discusses a series of experiments examining how likely it is that college students will bluff their way through exams. For instance, when Professor Samuel Fernberger, of the University of Pennsylvania, gave his students their final exam, in one of the questions he asked them to define "psychoterminality." It was a meaningless term, but the students didn't know that. According to the NY Times:

Only two students honestly stated they did not know what the term meant. Six left the question blank. But the other twenty-one handed in expositions, ranging from one-half to three pages long, in which they solemnly described it as, among other things, "automatism," "vitalism," "hypnosis" and the "behavior of the lower animals." It was astonishing because, of course, Dr. Fernberger had just coined this mythical word for the occasion.

Professors Ernst F. Thelin and Paul C. Scott of the University of Cincinnati conducted the most thorough investigation of bluffing. They gave 147 college students a test that included numerous trick questions. For instance, they asked the students to indicate the authors of nonexistent books or to define made-up words:

Bluffing was defined by the investigators as "pretending to have greater knowledge than is actually possessed." Some bluffing was done by all students, varying from 5 to 81 per cent. Freshmen bluffed most; seniors least. The average bluffing score of the men (45.8 per cent) was slightly higher than that of the women (43.4 per cent).

Finally the article refers to a study that examined other members of society. An investigator visited bakery shops and asked for "scroofles":

Instead of saying they'd never heard of this mythical product... a surprising number of bakers bluffed they were just out of 'scroofles,' or were not baking 'scroofles' currently because of the lack of demand.

My hunch is that all the figures for the prevalence of bluffing would be even higher today than they were in 1950. But today we'd be more likely to call it bullshitting than bluffing.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 29, 2007
Comments (17)
Researchers from UC Irvine and the University of Padua in Italy have found that doctored photos can alter our perceptions and memories of public events. The researchers showed subjects either an actual or an altered photo of one of two historical events, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing and the 2003 anti-war protest in Rome. The Tiananmen Square photo was altered to include a crowd, and the Rome photo was altered to show riot police and a masked protester. LiveScience reports:

When answering questions about the events, the participants had differing recollections of what happened. Those who viewed the altered images of the Rome protest recalled the demonstration as violent and negative and recollected more physical confrontation and property damage than actually occurred. Participants who viewed the doctored photos also said they were less inclined to take part in future protests, according to the study.

Elizabeth Loftus, who designed the study (and whom I write about in Elephants on Acid), warns that doctoring photos in this way is "potentially a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes, and we ought to be vigilant about it."

Big Gary says, "The Ministry of Truth already knew this."

Incidentally, I'm sure that everyone who came on the 2006 Museum of Hoaxes Trip to Loch Ness remembers when Nessie suddenly appeared right behind our boat. If you don't, here's a picture to jog your memory:

Categories: Photos/Videos, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 27, 2007
Comments (7)
A New Hampshire convenience store clerk claims that he was robbed. However, the thieves didn't use any weapons or threats. Instead, they used hypnosis and mind control to make the clerk not notice that they were taking more than $1000. First coast news reports:
It started with a simple mind game. Think of a wild animal, they say, and we'll write down what's in your mind. but it escalates quickly to very personal information about a former girlfriend, and finally, says Patel, mind control. Even investigators are persuaded.
Patel says that the actual moment of hypnosis occurred when the thieves gave him a piece of paper and asked him to cut it into eleven smaller pieces. The clerk has also said that he'll pay back what was robbed.

Apparently this method of robbery has been used before in India (the thieves were Indian, as was the clerk), but I've never heard of it being used before this in America.
Categories: Con Artists, Law/Police/Crime, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue Oct 02, 2007
Comments (11)
Cranky Media Guy forwarded me this article on about a Czech speedway rider who suffered a concussion during a race, was knocked out, and woke up speaking perfect English, with a posh British accent... even though he barely spoke a word of English before. His command of English only lasted for 48 hours, at which point his memory returned, as did his native Czech, and his English disappeared.

CMG is skeptical. He says, "The Foreign Accent Syndrome mentioned in the last paragraph is a real phenomenon but that's very different from a guy who doesn't speak a language suddenly acquiring the ability to speak it, which I can't see could be possible."

But I'm not so sure. The story has been reported in a number of newspapers, and in the version on, one of the rider's friends is quoted as saying, "Before his crash, his use of the English language was broken, to put it mildly."

Which means that he did know some English. It's very possible he knew more than he realized. Perhaps he woke up dazed, heard people around him speaking English (because the race was in England), and his brain went into English mode. It could happen. However, I'd be interested in knowing just how well he could carry on a conversation in English.
Categories: Literature/Language, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 17, 2007
Comments (9)
The Washington Post has a depressing article about the difficulty of myth-busting. Experiments by Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan reveal that a few days after telling people a rumor is false, many of those people will have misremembered what they were told and think the rumor is true. The crux of the problem is that:
Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Other psychologists have found that hearing the same thing again and again from the same source can actually trick the brain into thinking information is more credible, as if the information came from many sources:
People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true.

So what can myth-busters do? Unfortunately, not much. The only recommended tactic is to debunk rumors by not referring to the original rumor at all, and instead offering a completely different new assertion. For instance:
Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that "Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did," Mayo said it would be better to say something like, "Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks" -- and not mention Hussein at all.

It's going to make it pretty hard to operate a myth-busting website if one of the rules is that I can't mention the myth I'm debunking. (Thanks, Joe!)
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 05, 2007
Comments (8)
image This has nothing to do with hoaxes, but I thought it was interesting, so I'm posting about it anyway. Also, it reminded me of the Compliment Machine, which I posted about just a few days ago.

I received an email from Jennifer Baumeister, who tells me that she's an artist from Berlin working on a project called Comfort XxL, the comforting machine. Here's a description of it:
The comforting machine is an art project by the German artist Jennifer Baumeister. She asks people from different origins, age and gender to say comforting words into her camera. Selected clips are accessible through the machine, which looks like an 80s gambling machine. The audience is able to press a button, selecting a woman, man or child and a randomly chosen clip is shown. The user can repeat this procedure indefinitely. Comfort XxL is not only a machine that comforts people, it is also supposed to show how different people comfort in individual ways, the range of 'comforting styles' people have. The experiences and character of the comforter are revealed in every comforting word they say.
Jennifer's website has some examples of clips viewable on the comforting machine. Jennifer is currently in England collecting comforting clips. She's next going to be in Belfast, from the 9th till the 18th of August 2007. So if you live in Belfast and want to say a few comforting words, check out where she's going to be.

I think I'm, in general, a pretty bad comforter. My usual tactic is to express puzzlement at why the person is so upset, and then I try to analyze the situation logically. However, I don't think logical analysis is what people seeking comfort are typically looking for.
Categories: Art, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 02, 2007
Comments (5)
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