Hoax Museum Blog: Psychology

Bluffing on Exams — 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.
Posted: Thu Nov 29, 2007.   Comments (17)

Fake Photos Alter Memories of Real Events — 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:

Posted: Mon Nov 26, 2007.   Comments (7)

Hypnotist Robbers — 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.
Posted: Tue Oct 02, 2007.   Comments (11)

Man hits head - Suddenly knows English — Cranky Media Guy forwarded me this article on Ananova.com 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 metro.co.uk, 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.
Posted: Mon Sep 17, 2007.   Comments (9)

The Difficulty of Debunking — 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!)
Posted: Wed Sep 05, 2007.   Comments (8)

The Comforting Machine — 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.
Posted: Wed Aug 01, 2007.   Comments (5)

The Compliment Machine — image No form of deception is more ubiquitous in modern life than the cheery platitudes we constantly exchange: "How are you?" "Fine!" or "Have a nice day."

Washington DC based artist Tom Greaves has created a work of art designed to hold a mirror up to this culture of shallow, saccharine pleasantries. It's the compliment machine -- a red-and-white striped box that sits on a street corner and delivers compliments all day. As pedestrians pass by, it continuously shouts out words of encouragement:

"People are drawn to your positive energy."
"You are always there when needed."
"Your eyes are beautiful."

The Washington Post reports:
Initially, Greaves thought of making some of the compliments subversive, but had a change of heart. "Why not make it completely positive? Everyone deserves to have a compliment paid to them." And so the Compliment Machine has kind words for even the blackest of hearts.
I think there's only one proper response to Greaves' invention: Great idea! Very creative! It's going to spread a lot of positive energy!
Posted: Fri Jul 27, 2007.   Comments (13)

Phantom Vibration Syndrome — Many cellphone users are reporting that they often feel their cellphone vibrating, when it's not vibrating at all. The phenomenon is being called Phantom Vibration Syndrome (an allusion, I assume, to Phantom Limb Syndrome, in which amputees feel sensations in their missing limbs).

Psychologists attribute these phantom vibrations to cellphone users' brains becoming over-alert to the sensation of vibration, and therefore experiencing false alarms:
Alejandro Lleras, a sensation and perception professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adds that learning to detect rings and vibrations is part of a perceptual learning process. "When we learn to respond to a cellphone, we're setting perceptual filters so that we can pick out that (ring or vibration), even under noisy conditions," Lleras says. "As the filter is created, it is imperfect, and false alarms will occur. Random noise is interpreted as a real signal, when in fact, it isn't." Phantom cellphone vibrations also can be explained by neuroplasticity — the brain's ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment. When cellphone users regularly experience sensations, such as vibrating, their brains become wired to those sensations, Janata says. "Neurological connections that have been used or formed by the sensation of vibrating are easily activated," he says. "They're over-solidified, and similar sensations are incorporated into that template. They become a habit of the brain."
I'm one of the last remaining people on the Planet Earth not to have a cellphone, so thankfully I'm immune to this syndrome.
Posted: Thu Jun 14, 2007.   Comments (16)

Faces in Trees — I was inspired by the news story about the mayor's face in a tree to search out other examples of faces in trees. I knew that stories about faces in trees pop up regularly in the news, but to my knowledge no one had ever collected these stories together in one place. So it seemed like an appropriate thing to waste a couple of hours doing. I posted the results in the hoaxipedia. It's more faces in trees than you can shake a stick at.
Posted: Fri Jun 08, 2007.   Comments (0)

Intention Experiments — Writer Lynne McTaggart has been sponsoring a number of "experiments" to promote her book The Intention Experiment, in which she makes the argument (from what I can surmise without actually having read the book) that we can influence the world around us through our intentions. If we want something to happen, we merely intend for it to happen.

Here's a description of the first three experiments:
The first experiment was an enormous success when 400 people sat in a hall in London and intended for a leaf in the University of Arizona to 'glow and glow'. The results were highly significant - so much so that the results can be seen on photographs from special imaging systems.

The second experiment that took place was a web-based trial in which 7,000 people participated. The target this time was stringbean seeds, and again the intention was to make them glow. The results were highly significant in terms of 'glow effect', but too few beans were used to achieve a statistical significance.

The third experiment once again involved a leaf, and so was a web version of the successful experiment in the hall with participants intending in the same space. Computer glitches stopped many from participating, and the results were inconclusive.
This makes me realize that I've been going about gardening all wrong. I've been weeding and watering and fertilizing. Instead, all this time I should have just been intending. Better yet, I should get all the readers of the Museum of Hoaxes to intend for me. If everyone intends for the bare patches in my lawn to disappear, I should have a beautiful lawn in no time. And if everyone would intend for my lawn to glow, that would be pretty cool too. Though it might make my neighbors slightly concerned.
Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2007.   Comments (22)

Best of the Forum – 25th May 07 — As some people receive Museum updates via RSS feed, or just don't frequent the forum, we have decided to round up some of the most interesting threads each week for all to see.

imageRabbit-Headed Cat (Smerk)
Two carcasses discovered in 1988 and 1993 are thought to be a new species – rabbit-headed wildcats. These Kellas cats seem to be rare, and investigators are urging landowners and gamekeepers to help them discover more. Sadly, the rabbit-like ears aren’t as impressive as I’d hoped.

Get your free virus now! (Accipiter)
“Is your PC virus-free? Get it infected here!”
409 people decided to click the text advertisement that Finnish IT security expert Didier Stevens had placed on Google’s Adword. Stevens’s experiment was aiming to show that such advertisements could be used with malicious intent. There was, of course, no virus.

June 6, Théopolis World Contact with Aliens (Antoll MA)
On June 6th, the annual gathering to officially ask the alien gods to visit will take place in Théopolis.

Boost Car Remote With Your Skull (Tah)
This video (not suitable for work, due to the type of adverts on the site) demonstrates how, by placing your car remote under your chin and opening your mouth, you can boost the range of the remote. Apparently it uses your oral cavity to amplify the signal. The video doesn’t actually show the remote being used at the same time as showing the car react, so it could be faked. There’s really no way of telling. A couple of forum members have tried it, with mixed results.

Tims Don’t Look Like Bobs (Tah)
A new study reveals that the more a person ‘resembles’ their name, the more likely it is that others will remember it.

Posted: Fri May 25, 2007.   Comments (13)

Colour-Changing Card Trick — This trick is quite an interesting little demonstration of misdirection. I shan't say more, so as to not give it away, but keep your eyes peeled - there is more to this than just one trick.
(Thanks, Nettie and David B.)

Posted: Thu May 10, 2007.   Comments (17)

Quick Links: Honesty, Graffiti, Hindu Goddess, and Mozart —
Brits flunk honesty test
A credit-card protection firm, Affinion International, conducted an experiment in which they left items such as mobile phones, key, and wallets in city centres (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, London, and Manchester). All the items were clearly marked with the owner's contact number, but most were never returned. Not surprising.

Obscene messages end graffiti experiment
Officials in Louisville tried to give graffiti artists a legal place to practice their craft, but abandoned the experiment after the concrete walls simply became filled with obscene messages. The walls will now be painted beige... and will doubtless soon be covered with illegal graffiti.

Man from Tooting becomes Hindu Goddess
Steve Cooper was just a run-of-the-mill unemployed guy in his hometown of Tooting, England. But when he moved to India he became known as the reincarnation of Bahucharaji, the patron of Indian eunuchs. I wonder how exactly he came into this new career. That's a story I'd like to know.

Mozart Effect debunked
A study commissioned by the German government has officially debunked the Mozart Effect -- which is the idea that listening to certain kinds of classical music will raise a person's intelligence.
Posted: Tue Apr 17, 2007.   Comments (5)

The Virtual Milgram Obedience Experiment — image Back in the early 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment at Yale University. Volunteers were told that it was designed to test the effect of punishment on learning. Would a person learn a list of word pairs better if they were punished every time they got an answer wrong? The volunteer was instructed to deliver an electric shock to the learner every time one of his answers was wrong. The shocks increased in intensity for every wrong answer. Of course, the experiment wasn't actually about the effect of punishment on learning at all. It was really designed to see how long the volunteers would obey the authority of the researcher. Would they continue to give electric shocks to the learner even when it appeared that doing so would kill the learner? Over sixty percent of them went ahead and gave the shock. They were led to believe that they had killed or seriously injured the learner (who was actually just an actor).

Milgram's experiment is one of the most famous experiments of all time. But it provoked a lot of controversy about whether it was ethical. Often the volunteers were reduced to nervous wrecks as they struggled over whether to continue obeying the researcher, or to refuse to do so. No review board would ever approve such an experiment today.

Mel Slater, a Computer Science researcher at University College London, has announced a possible way around these ethical concerns. He replicated Milgram's experiment using a virtual learner. LiveScience reports:
When the virtual woman gave an incorrect answer, the participants were told to give a virtual 'electric shock' that buzzed to her, increasing the voltage each time she gave an incorrect answer... Over time, she responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding the experiment stop. Near the end, her head would slump forward and she became unresponsive... 17 gave all 20 shocks and three gave 19 shocks, 18, 16 and 9 shocks were given by one person each. When volunteers were asked whether they had considered aborting the experiment, nearly half of those who could see and hear the virtual woman indicated they had because of their troubled feelings about what was happening. In addition, their heart rates indicated that participants reacted as though the situation was real.
I don't know. I'm having a hard time buying that a virtual learner could ever substitute for a real, living, breathing learner. However you parse it, thinking you've killed a virtual character is not the same as thinking you've killed a real person. It's like saying Milgram could have used mannequins instead of real people. It just wouldn't have been the same.
Posted: Thu Dec 21, 2006.   Comments (28)

Quick Links: Gnomes and Gropers —
Yet Another Traveling Gnome
Back in the Spring Allen Snyder's gnome disappeared from his garden. Now he's learned that it's been attending Pittsburgh Steelers' games. Next stop an airplane to somewhere far away. Submitted by Big Gary who notes: "Predicatable, but I thought you'd want to keep your gnome section up-to-date."

Pretends to be mentally ill to get a grope
This is pathetic. William Mucklow has been accused of pretending to be mentally ill so that he can hire nurses to take care of him. He then grabs their breasts as they try to do their job. A pretty elaborate strategy to get a grope.

Jigsaw Prodigy
3-year-old "Mikey" Lorhan can put together "300- to 500-piece puzzles in less than 30 minutes or less -- and sometimes with the pieces flipped over, working blind." If this is real, he evidently has some kind of savant abilities.

image Man Shows Back of Head For Obituary
Jim Schinneller's death notice in the Sunday paper included a photo of the back of his head. Why? Because "He liked to buck the system. He enjoyed showing people how absurd life was." This would be an even better idea for a high-school yearbook photo, if you could get away with it.

Posted: Wed Sep 20, 2006.   Comments (5)

Jesus in an Ultrasound — imageFollowing hot on the heels of the chocolate Virgin Mary (which, as many people pointed out, looked more like the Maltese Falcon) comes: Jesus as seen on an ultrasound picture.

Seven months through her pregnancy, Laura Turner went for a routine ultrasound. She already knew that her son had a cleft lip, and she and her partner had been told there was a possibility of the child having Down's Syndrome. She says that she didn't notice anything particularly odd about the scan until a friend pointed it out once they got home.

'The pregnancy has been fairly difficult so to see a likeness of Jesus in the picture gives me a lot of comfort.

'It's as if someone is watching over Joshua. It's helped make us feel more at ease and although I'm not very religious, seeing the picture does reassure me that things are going to turn out okay and that Joshua will be our little miracle.'

I suppose that, what with the difficult pregnancy, it's a very heartening sign for her.
Posted: Thu Aug 24, 2006.   Comments (12)

Is Fake-Nice A Good Thing? —
Status: Etiquette advice
Miss Manners recently tackled the question of whether it's better to be honest (and unpleasant) or to be fake-nice. A correspondent asked her: How can one deal (correct word?) with nice people, saying "all the right things," without meaning any of it? It's just been driving me crazy as it seems to be occurring more and more.

Miss Manners responded that it would be a disaster if people were always brutally honest:
This is not an affliction, Miss Manners assures you. It is a blessing. For the last several decades, people have been saying all the wrong things that they really mean, from "I can't use this" instead of "Thank you" for a present; "Only a moron would think that" instead of "I'm afraid we disagree" in a political discussion and "You've put on a lot of weight" instead of "How nice to see you" on seeing an acquaintance. If they are learning to say the right thing, good for them. In time, they will learn to say it more convincingly.
Along these same lines, in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Ralph Keyes points out the extent to which being fake-nice is the socially accepted thing to do:
How often do we lie and get lied to? All sorts of figures get bandied about. I've seen estimates that range from two hundred times a day to once. One study concluded that we tell thirteen lies a week on the average. Another found that some form of deception occurs in nearly two-thirds of all conversations. If this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that the most frequent lie of all is "Fine" (in response to the question "How are you?"). This fib is so ubiquitous that deception researcher Bella DePaulo excused subjects from recording it in records they kept of every lie they told in a week's time.
I definitely agree that most of the time it's better to be fake nice. If I ask someone how they're doing, I don't really want to hear about their bad back and ingrown toenail. But on the other hand, I think Miss Manners needs to provide some guidance for those cases in which fake happiness goes too far. For instance, my wife used to have a constantly upbeat co-worker whose favorite expression was "Yayyyyy!" She managed to use that word a couple times every hour: "That's Great! Yayyy!.... Awesome! Yayyyy!" My wife had to listen to this constant stream of peppiness all day. Not to be cynical, but surely there must come a point when it becomes socially acceptable to subject such people to various forms of medieval torture?

Related Posts:
March 17, 2006: Fake Smiles May Cause Depression
Posted: Sun Jul 23, 2006.   Comments (23)

Pickle Phobia —
Status: Undetermined
image Some of the things I post about aren't the most intelligence-enhancing things in the world. I know that. But what follows is really scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. It's a woman who appeared on the Maury Povich Show who claims to be Pickle-Phobic. The mere sight of pickles sends her into a state of screaming panic. Her fear of pickles is ruining her life. Here's what she has to say:
"My name is Mariah, and I hate pickles. I hate everything about... Pickles are destroying my life. People make fun of me. I feel ashamed. I'm actually afraid of them. I think about pickles I just want to throw up and run away. What I hate most about pickles is the shape, the texture of it, the color. Ewww!"
I realize that people can have irrational phobias about things, but a phobia of pickles? She must be joking. No way can this be real. My vote is that she's either making this up completely, or exaggerating it a lot in order to get on TV. And even if she were terrified of pickles, surely it would be easier for her to simply avoid pickles, rather than to try to cure her of the problem.
Posted: Sun Jul 09, 2006.   Comments (47)

Watching Eyes Make Us Honest —
Status: Strange experiment
image An experiment described in a recent issue of the journal Biology Letters reveals a simple way to make people behave more honestly: display a picture of watching eyes. Melissa Bateson, a biologist at Newcastle University, conducted the experiment on her colleagues, without their knowledge, using the communal coffee pot in the departmental lounge as the set-up. She found that when she placed a picture of a pair of beady eyes above the coffee pot, contributions to the 'honesty box' (the box in which people are supposed to deposit money to pay for the coffee they've drunk) were three times higher than when she displayed a picture of flowers. Bateson explains that:
The effect may arise from behavioural traits that developed as early humans formed social groups that bolstered their chances of survival. For social groups to work individuals had to co-operate for the good of the group, rather than act selfishly. "There's an argument that if nobody is watching us it is in our interests to behave selfishly. But when we think we're being watched we should behave better, so people see us as co-operative and behave the same way towards us," Dr Bateson said.
In other words, we behave better if we think we're being watched, even if we're only being watched by fake eyes. It could be named the 'Big Brother Is Watching You' effect.
Posted: Wed Jun 28, 2006.   Comments (6)

Stock Performance Tied To Ease Of Pronouncing Company’s Name —
Status: Unusual Research
There's nothing hoaxy about this story. It's just another example of how non-rational people can be... especially investors in the stock market. Two Princeton researchers, Adam Alter and Danny Oppenheimer, have discovered that the ease with which a company's name and its ticker symbol can be pronounced has a strong short-term effect on the performance of its stock. In other words, "a stock with the symbol BAL should outperform one with the symbol BDL in the first few days of trading."
"We looked at intervals of a day, a week, six months and a year after IPO," Alter said. "The effect was strongest shortly after IPO. For example, if you started with $1,000 and invested it in companies with the 10 most fluent names, you would earn $333 more than you would have had you invested in the 10 with the least fluent." Alter said the pair of scientists had been careful to address the possibility that other factors were at play in the study. "We thought it was possible that larger companies might both adopt more fluent names and attract greater investment than smaller companies," he said. "But the effect held regardless of company size. We also showed that the effect held when we controlled for the influence of industry, country of origin and other factors."
In Hippo Eats Dwarf I noted a similar effect: that when investors think they've found the next big thing (be it railways, airlines, biotech, dot.coms, or nanotechnology) all stocks whose names seem to have something to do with those fields benefit, whether or not they actually do have something to do with those fields. Thus, in the recent nanotechnology crazy, Nanometrics (ticker symbol: NANO) shot up, even though it makes semiconductor tools and has nothing to do with nanotechnology.

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006.   Comments (4)

Page 2 of 4 pages  < 1 2 3 4 >