Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 16th Dec 2007

Quirkology

Professor Richard Wiseman

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Chris - Professor Richard Wiseman joins us from the University of Hertfordshire. Do you know the answer to, ‘why are ghosts bad liars?’

Richard - Ghosts are bad liars because you can see right through them.

Chris - Boom boom. Now, look these are all rubbishy cracker jokes.

Richard - They’re terrible.

Chris - It’s something you’ve been looking at. You acknowledge yourself they’re terrible but you’ve been researching all about the subject of cracker jokes. Why do we have this obsession with them?

Christmas crackerRichard - I think they’re really interesting from a social psychological perspective. One of the key questions is, why aren’t they better? What is going on that we all want to tell each other these terrible jokes? I think that’s the real key to their longevity. If you open a cracker with a good joke and you tell it and it falls flat, clearly it’s your problem as a joke teller because you had good material and you failed. If you’ve got a bad joke and you get no laugh, in fact you get a groan, well you can just blame the joke. There’s nothing embarrassing going on socially. I think they’re actually rather clever. What they’re doing is about a group experience. We’re all going, ‘oh my goodness, that’s terrible,’ but it’s not putting any pressure on the person whose job it is to tell the joke.

Chris - You’ve done some actual physical research on types of jokes that get told and the types of people that like and don’t like telling them. What did you find?

Richard - Well we asked people, ‘do you enjoy telling cracker jokes?’ It was the people that were the self-confessed poor joke tellers that said, ‘yeah, that’s what I really enjoy.’ Part of it is that the joke’s written down for them and they’re pretty short jokes so you don’t have that terrible moment when your uncle at the dinner table has just gone on for twenty minutes and has forgotten the punchline of the story. They’re short jokes and, as I say, they’re not putting the joke teller under any pressure. It’s the poor joke tellers that tended to like them.

Chris - Was there any correlation with the cost of the cracker?

Richard - There wasn’t. We had some very expensive crackers. We had some very cheap ones and we asked people to come online to rate how funny they found the jokes without knowing whether they were looking at a expensive or cheap cracker. We found no correlation at all. If you’re after good jokes there’s no need to spend big bucks on the expensive crackers. That’s the scientific breakthrough we can say is official science.

Chris - Tell us about your work on Christmas cards because you’ve been looking now at how the kinds of cards people send can tell you something about their personality traits.

Richard - Absolutely. This was another online experiment. We carried out with the Daily Telegraph and some of the previous research had looked at the size of the card and how much you were spending on it. Again from a social psychological perspective you were saying a lot about yourself. If you were saying look, here’s a really expensive card you’re saying, ‘ I’m the sort of person who can afford a card like that.’ Second you’re saying, ‘you’re the sort of person, as a recipient, that I think is worth that sort of card’s money.’ There’s a lot of previous research in the area. What we did was ask people to fill out a basic personality questionnaire that told us whether they were an extrovert or an introvert, creative, not creative and so on; and then tell us what type of Christmas card they tended to give. Whether it was one with a traditional design on the front such as a religious scene or a more abstract one, perhaps some holly in a rather abstract pattern, we could match those two up. When you get a Christmas card you can get an insight into their personality.

Chris - What did you find?

Richard - Well, the most traditional cards – the typical religious scenes were associated with people who weren’t quite so emotionally stable as most. This is a level of what’s called neuroticism.

Chris - That’s not good for Christmas, is it? If the religious people are unstable!

Christmas cardsRichard - That’s what most of the research shows. Not so much that they’re unstable, rather that they’re anxious about the world. That’s why they come to believe in religion in part because it provides a big comfort blanket for them. Deep down, they’re quite anxious about the world. That fitted in with some previous research. We found with the very abstract designs that these people scored highly on a scale which is known as openness to experience. It’s those people that tend to be more creative, open to new experience in their lives, people who would really like to look at an abstract pattern and try and find meaning within it rather than being told rather obviously by the artist what that meaning is.

Chris - I like to send funny cards so what does that say about me?

Richard - That says a lot. We did have a lot of people in the ‘cute dog with santa hat on’ or funny card.

Chris - I had one with Father Christmas sitting on a chimney, using it as a toilet. It said underneath, ‘You know when you’ve been really bad this year.’

Richard - I think that’s just sick. I think that’s terrible you should send a card like that but you know, each to their own. People who tended to send those cards were the extroverts rather than the introverts, so people who were more socially orientated. Also, if you’ve got any glitter on the card that was heavily correlated with getting the card from an extrovert because we know that extroverts’ brains tend to be under-stimulated so they’re constantly looking for other people, noisy environments, bright environments: in this case with glitter on the card to stimulate them a bit more and get them into that comfort zone.

Helen - Richard, I make my own cards. What does that say about me?

Richard - That means you’re very mean and you should get out. Very, very mean. I can tell you as a psychologist, you need to get into the shops. Just throw all that card stuff away.

Helen - I put a lot of my own energy and my own thought process into it.

Richard - Yeah, but not your own money interestingly enough!

Chris - She has to buy all the materials, doesn’t she?

Richard - That’s true and these days it’s expensive. I think what’s interesting about that he says, backtracking, is you’re saying a lot about yourself. You’re saying, ‘I’m a person who’s investing my valuable time in making this thing. I’m a creative type of person.’ You’re telling us a great deal. You’re not just going to the high street and buying something from the shops. It’s about creating something individual for the people you know.

Chris - It’s quite interesting, what you can get out of cards but lets move it on a bit because the wise men allegedly followed a star to find where Jesus was. Lets look at astrology for a minute. What does astrology tell you? Is there any basis in that at all?

Richard - I don’t think so. One of the chapters in the Quirkology book is devoted to looking at some of the evidence for astrology. Certainly people believe it’s the case. Certainly when they read their horoscope they go, ‘oh my goodness! That describes me.’ But of course that’s not science, that’s not a controlled experiment. Lots of those horoscopes, even if you employ a professional astrologer, will give you a reading which lots of people think, ‘that’s true for me.’ There’s nothing special about that reading. There’s nothing idiosyncratic in there for you it’s just that you read meaning into these fairly general statements. Some of the statements will be double headers such as, ‘sometimes you enjoy going along to parties, other times you want to be alone.’ Well, of course that’s true of everyone. Nobody always wants to be at a party or always be alone. Other times they’re statements that we really like to believe about ourselves. So if someone says, ‘the stars suggest it’s going to be a great week for you and you’re the sort of person that’s got a lot of untapped creative potential,’ we all go, ‘yes! That’s incredibly insightful. How on Earth did you know?’ Astrology in that sense is built on psychology. I don’t think there’s any way of looking up to the heavens or looking at where the stars were when you were born and actually predicting the future.

Chris - That’s quite good. I wonder if Jesus knew that when he was born on the 25th of December and he knew it was going to be Christmas. What an amazing possibility.

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