Two researchers were awarded a less-then-noble prize for discovering — and reporting — that objects look different if you turn around, bend over and look at them through your legs.
It’s all a matter of how one perceives the world — and perception seemed to be the accidental theme during last week’s 26th annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony.
While one study asked research subjects to make observations while mooning the world, a market-research project called for people to ascribe human personalities to a variety of rocks, as an exercise in branding. And then there was the man who went to great lengths to become a goat — or at least replicate the experience of a ruminant four-legged animal with a stinky beard.
Two weeks before some of the best researchers in the world are honored with Nobel Prizes, an organization called Improbable Research tries to bring a smile to people’s faces by handing out prizes meant to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The ceremonies were Thursday at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Two Japanese researchers, Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, received the Ig Nobel Prize in Perception for collecting data about between-legs viewing. In accepting the prize, Higashiyama demonstrated the head-down posture for the audience, then explained, “When the viewer is inverted, the objects appear smaller than in a normal upright position.”
Before he was done with his acceptance speech, three human “alarm clocks” began singing their alarm song and escorted the researcher away for exceeding his allotted one-minute time limit.
The concept of viewing things in unusual positions has been around for a century. The best explanation is that people are so accustomed to seeing things with their heads upright that the brain cannot provide a realistic picture when the head and eyes are upside down and backwards.
Here is a description of the findings from the actual research report, titled “Perceived size and perceived distance of targets viewed from between the legs: Evidence for proprioceptive theory”:
“In between-leg observation, since the retinal image is formed on a site that differs from the usual site of stimulation and the trunk is in a position that differs from its usual upright position, it is difficult for some observers to maintain the habit of seeing the world stably.”
The two researchers and their Ig Nobel Award were featured in The Japan Times.
The Ig Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks. Here is the script the researchers read to their test subjects:
“We would like you to think of each rock as if it were a person. This may sound unusual, but think of the set of human characteristics associated with each rock. If you see a descriptor and you have no sense of how it applies to the rock, look at the rock picture again and think of it as if it were a person.”
The researchers were testing the theory that people perceive objects as having personalities and that these personalities can be categorized in five different ways — the “brand personality five-factor model,” or BPFFM. I should mention that these researchers seemed skeptical at the outset, and they eventually arrived at this conclusion:
“The fact that participants were able to assign distinct personalities to each rock can therefore only be reasonably explained as an artifact of the research methodology… Rocks were found to have a personality simply because participants were asked to perceive one, and the only explanation of this finding is that the BPFFM therefore ‘creates’ personality.” See “The brand personality of rocks: A critical evaluation of a brand personality scale” (subscription).
The goat man, Thomas Thwaites, has received the majority of media attention, most coming before the recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I guess you can call it scientific research, but it appears to be mainly a stunt for his latest book, “Goat Man: How I took a holiday from being human.” Still, his endeavor, which involved prosthetic goat legs and other strange elements, was so impressive that he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology.
“Human life can just be so difficult,” Thwaites told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon. “And you look at a goat and it’s just, you know, it’s free. It doesn’t have any concerns.”
He discussed his thoughts about eating grass:
“I made this kind of bag that I had strapped to my body, and I could take a mouthful of grass and then chew it up and then spit it into this bag. And this bag … was intended to be my artificial rumen with the goat bacteria in it. But I just really didn’t fancy getting diarrhea for the rest of my life so I ended up having to pressure (cook) what I spat into this bag and made a weird delicious, disgusting grass stew.”
Thwaites shared the prize in biology with another researcher, Charles Foster, who lived in the wild at various times as a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird.
The full Ig Nobel Prize ceremony can be viewed in this video. Here are the other prizes awarded this year:
Medicine Prize: In another study of perceptions, German researchers discovered that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa). See “Itch Relief by Mirror Scratching: A psychophysical study” by Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders and Andreas Sprenger
Psychology Prize: An international group of researchers was honored for their study about lying. As described by the Ig Nobel Committee, the researchers asked a thousand liars how often they lie and then tried to decide whether to believe those answers. The research report, “From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception,” found that “lying proficiency improved during childhood, excelled in young adulthood and worsened through adulthood. Likewise, lying frequency increased in childhood, peaked in adolescence, and decreased during adulthood.”
Peace Prize: The Ig Nobel Committee cited only the title of the scholarly study by Canadian researchers: “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bulls–t.” In the study, human subjects were presented with statements consisting of randomly organized buzzwords that had syntactical structure but no discernible meaning. They found that “some people are more receptive to this type of bulls–t and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims.” Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes a commentary on the subject for NPR, “What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound ‘Baloney’?”
Reproduction Prize: The late Ahmed Shafik was recognized for his research involving rats wearing pants. The professor at Cairo University in Egypt, who died in 2007, crafted little trousers out of polyester, cotton and wool and studied the rats’ sex lives. He found that rats that wore polyester were less likely to be successful in their quest for sexual companions. He suggested that the effect, which could apply to humans, was caused by an electrostatic charge that developed on polyester fabric.
Chemistry Prize: Volkswagen, the German car manufacturer, was acknowledged for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution. (Did this company really need more attention?) The invention, which was actually deployed on real cars, was innovative software that caused vehicle emissions to automatically produce fewer emissions when cars were put through testing procedures.
Literature Prize: Fredrik Sjöberg of Sweden was honored for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead. NPR interviewed this man with a most impressive collection of hoverflies in an article titled “The Uppermost Aristocracy of the Hoverfly Society.”
Physics Prize: Separate research teams investigated why white-haired horses are more horsefly-proof and why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones. Both studies demonstrated the effects of polarized and nonpolarized light. Check out “An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-Proof Horse Has a Depolarizing White Coat” along with “Ecological Traps for Dragonflies in a Cemetery…”