Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Observation + Imagination = Eureka!

Picture credit.

I recently re-discovered a cool website: Improbable Research. The authors are responsible for the Ig Nobel Awards, given to people in various fields for research that first makes you laugh and then think. One fella, J. Trinkaus has made hundreds of observations and written them up for various journals. Two of his "studies" stood out for me.

The first:
' “Compliance with Parking for Handicapped: An Informal Look,” J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 58, no. 1, February 1984, p. 114.

Observed the compliance with handicapped parking regulations at a suburban neighborhood shopping center.... 30 citings of convenience were taken... Findings show that in the absence of police enforcement, general observance of parking restrictions... was normally practiced only when convenient.'

That didn't surprise me, really. I don't think things have changed much in 25 years. But it reminds me of the card someone once showed me that they leave on cars parked in those spots without the proper permit displayed:

Your handicap must be stupidity.

The second study:
' “An Informal Look at Use of Bakery Department Tongs and Tissues,” J. Trinkaus, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 87, no. 3, part 1, December 1998, pp. 801-2.

Of 108 people observed extracting for purchase rolls or pastries from displayed bulk stock in food supermarket bakery departments, about 90% used their hands for item selection and withdrawal rather than the store provided tongs. In stores where tissues were provided instead of tongs, approximately 60% of the 133 people who were observed used their hands.'

That one doesn't really surprise me, either. I don't dare tell that bit of info to any of the germaphobes I know, though I suspect germaphobes generally stay away from those types of food bins because of that. Even though that study was done 12 years ago, I suspect it still holds true.

My personal observations indicate that common courtesy and common sense are not so common, especially when no one is looking.

Somewhere on that website (and my apologies to the author or authors, I couldn't find exactly where) was the equation "imagination = discovery". I would amend that to "observation + imagination = discovery".

We have all come across reports of studies that we deem ridiculous. "The Marshmallow Effect" was one of them. From Wikipedia: "In the 1960s, a group of four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not."

At first glance, and if you have no knowledge of psychology, this study may seem a little silly, but it demonstrated that even at age 4 the kids could be divided into two distinct groups: those who could delay gratification, and those who couldn't. And then, "The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test years later." Now we can all understand the benefits of this study for child psychology (including perhaps teaching your child coping skills to deal with frustration). This experiment is also used to help explain some people's inability to save money for a rainy day. It may also help identify those children with behavioural disorders arising from biological causes (like fetal alcohol syndrome) and enable treatment. So it's not as silly as it first seemed.

Another study a while ago (forgive my inability to find it) that seemed to tick off a bunch of MSers concerned the effect of stress on a person's MS. The study showed that stress can cause a flare up of symptoms. Everyone with MS collectively shouted "duh". But even though MSers already "knew" this, there had been no quantifying information about it. By studying stress quantitatively, we now can do something about it. By observing and measuring the effect of stress on the human body, we better understand the body and its coping mechanisms: the hormones and other chemicals released, how they interact, what systems are stimulated, which ones are suppressed. In other words, the researchers can definitively show a physical reaction to a mental process. And that means we may be able to control (or affect) the physical reactions to a degree. I'm not saying we can control our MS. I'm suggesting that by knowing what may happen in a stressful situation may aid us in dealing with it, perhaps reducing the physical reaction.

To sum it all up, by making observations and using our imagination we will make discoveries and understand.



MS Day Dreamer said...

Great Post. Very enlightening. I'll have to check out the website you referenced.

steve said...

Excellent post. Imagination is the key to everything, regardless if it was brought on by natural or assisted means!