Science that makes you laugh and then makes you think


Every September, a special event takes place at Harvard University. Scientists gather in the Sanders Theatre for the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. If you haven’t come across this before then check it out. The Ig Nobels are like real Nobel prizes except that they are given to science that makes you laugh and then makes you think. At the ceremony the prizes are handed out by real Nobel Laureates which makes it even funnier.

Let me give you a flavour of the awards and hopefully show you why you should introduce them to your students. I’ll start with neuroscience (a very good place to start). This is a multi-billion pound research field that produces an avalanche of eye-catching studies (like this one) and findings. Popular in psychology teaching is Adrian Raine’s work on attempts to identify differences in brain activity and chemistry between people convicted of crimes and the general population. There are many other examples of studies that scan the brains of a specific group of people, who for example have been given a psychiatric diagnosis, and to see if there are any distinctive differences between them and the brains of the general population.

The pictures of the brains are very engaging and the studies often make headlines but what can they really tell us? Do murderers for example share enough similarities for us to group them together? Surely someone who kills another person violently in anger is very different from someone who slowly poisons their partner by putting arsenic on their cornflakes every day for a year. The first is probably angry and impulsive and the second is cold and calculating. And if we find one part of the brain that is a bit different then what does that tell us? And more to the point what can we do with this information?

I refer you then, to the following Ig Nobel prize awarded to a team of neuroscientists from the USA for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon. Yes, a dead salmon. They put the ex-fish into a scanner and found hot spots in its brain. There are only two possibilities here; either the scanner has magical properties and can bring the dead back to life or there is something fishy in the results of fMRI scans.

This study can be used by any bluffing student as an evaluative point when they refer to evidence from neuroscience. Something along the lines of ‘we have found blah blah blah from fMRI studies on the brain changes evident in people with severe constipation but as we know from the study by Bennett et al (2010) even a dead fish blah blah’. Instant evaluation – what’s not to like?

The study can be taught to almost any group and it is excellent general education because the general public, and scientists as well to be fair, are very impressed by fMRI studies. Maybe it’s because the equipment costs so much or maybe it’s because it creates an exotic image of something going on inside our heads, but whatever it is, we tend to be uncritical about these studies and there is lot to be critical of.

Elsewhere in the back catalogue of Ig Nobel prizes you can find some other great bits of psychology. The famous gorilla study first became prominent when Christopher Chabris and Dan Simons won the 2004 Psychology Prize for demonstrating that when people pay close attention to something, it’s all too easy to overlook anything else — even a man in a gorilla suit. This is been followed by loads of demonstrations of this effect including Richard Wiseman’s colour changing card trick.

Don’t stop there, because there is an interesting study about the Dark Triad which won the 2014 Psychology Prize. There is a focus at the moment on three personality traits that look at the darker side of human behaviour (narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism) which when combined are often referred to as the Dark Triad. This study found that people of the night – those that stay up late and get up late – are more likely to have these traits.

But don’t let me spoil it for you. Click along to the Ig Nobel site and browse through the winners from the last 26 years. The psychology prizes are a good place to start, but many of the other fields also have awards for studies that deal with human behaviour. Enjoy.

Phil Banyard is Management Lead for Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, which has the largest psychology department in the UK. In a previous life, he was Chief Examiner for OCR A Level Psychology and claims that he marked more scripts than he currently has brain cells left.

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