Learning From the Things That Annoy Us

A professor spends his off-time tracking the little things in life that bother us. Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, tells us what poor parking, long waits in the doctor's office, and the controversial brussel sprout tell us about science.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

So there you are standing in the checkout line, that one with a big sign above it that says express, 10 items or less. You notice the basket of the woman in front of you. You silently start tallying. OK, eight or nine items, fine. But wait, she has a six pack under her hand, and under her other arm is a bag of pretzels. And then she's going for that pack of gum. And you're fighting the urge to scream: You had no business in the express line.

If that's you, then John Trinkaus feels your pain. He decided that instead of complaining about it, though, he'd study it. Trinkaus researches not only the express line, but how many people stop at stop signs and the average wait at the doctor's office. My next guest is Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, and the founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize. He'll explain the data details and why it's the simple things that count. He joins us from WBUR in Boston. Hi, Marc.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Hello, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Tell me - give me some other names of his studies, because they're all really funny.

ABRAHAMS: Well, I'll tell you about him first a little. Professor John Trinkaus, he is in his 80s. He's a professor emeritus from Zicklin Business School in New York City. He's a former engineer. And things annoy him. During the course of a normal day, he'll look around and something annoys him. And his response to that is to sit there for several hours and just count. He'll count how many people do this annoying thing and how many people do not do this annoying thing.

Most of the reports he publishes are very short, a page or two long. They're clear. And they're just how many. Most of them have a title that begins something or other, an informal look: "Stop Sign Compliance: An Informal Look"; "Opening Doors: An Informal Look"; "Checkout Lines: An Informal Look." The checkout line thing that you mentioned, he noticed, because he was standing in line, that some people take too many items through the line. You're only supposed to have 10.

LICHTMAN: We've all noticed this. I mean...

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. But probably you didn't do a whole lot other than grumble about it.

LICHTMAN: That is correct.

ABRAHAMS: What Trinkaus did was stand there for several hours and count every person who went through, how many items they have. He counted how many have fewer than that magic number and how many have too many. And then he published a little two-page report about it.

LICHTMAN: Where does he publish his stuff?

ABRAHAMS: Also in supermarkets - well, there are couple of journals that he published almost everything. The Journal of - wait, I've got to look these up now. Psychological Reports is one of them.

LICHTMAN: I just want to know because I feel like I might want to read them. I mean...

ABRAHAMS: Oh, you should. You should, I think. I try not to tell people what they should do, but Trinkaus' reports are so interesting. Psychological Reports is the name of one journal and Perceptual and Motor Skills is the other journal. They are sister journals. He also gets annoyed in the street when he watches people driving. He got annoyed that somebody near his house - there were lots of somebodies - don't always stop, come to a compete stop at an intersection. So he sat at the intersection for several hours. There's a stop sign there, and he counted. Of the cars that come to this intersection, how many come to a complete stop and how many do not?

And then he went back a couple of years later and he spent the same amount of time counting how many cars this year come to a complete stop and how many do not. And then he went back two or three years later and did it again, and he kept doing this. He's got a series of five reports. And what he found whenever he'd do these series of reports, he'd come back several years later and look again, almost every time he did that on any kind of behavior, the world got worse. So by the numbers, according to the counts that Professor Trinkaus has made personally, the world is going to hell.

LICHTMAN: That's depressing, Marc. I'm Flora Lichtman and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Marc Abrahams. So the world is getting worse based on Professor Trinkaus' studies. Is there any upside to this news?

ABRAHAMS: The upside is he's still there counting. He hasn't given up on us. And...

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: The other thing is that these are really interesting reports. They're so short and they're written in clear language, and they've got numbers. And he's got all this data. He's got about 100 of these reports on different subjects. They're sitting there waiting for anybody to come along and try to make sense of the data. And some of them are really tiny things. He noticed that in the building where he worked in New York City, sometimes there would be some doors that were open and other doors that were shut. And he counted how many people, when confronted with a door that's open and a door that's shut, will go through the open door and how many people choose to go through the door that's shut so they have to open it themselves.

LICHTMAN: I liked this one, "Taste Preferences for Brussels Sprouts: An Informal Look." And as you might have suspected, 54 percent of young students found the vegetable to be very repulsive. That's one of his findings. Does anyone cite his work?

ABRAHAMS: Yes. Not a lot of people, but if you go into the databases where all these academic reports are kept and where they reference each other, you find that a lot of these reports, other people did cite him. And sometimes I've gone in and looked at those later reports by other people that mention Trinkaus' reports. And it seems to me that many times they didn't really read his report. They just - they saw he did a report that's about something related to what they're doing and they mentioned him. There are a surprising number of studies in academia that are like that, that mentioned earlier reports by other people and it's not clear whether they actually read those reports.

LICHTMAN: In hearing about him, I feel like there are shades of the 19th century naturalists who just went around tallying the things they saw around - around them. Do you think he was inspired by that at all or thinks of himself that way?

ABRAHAMS: I don't know whether he was inspired by them, but that has always struck me as being the type of person he is. He looks around. He gets annoyed at what somebody's doing or lots of people, and it makes him curious. He doesn't just sit there and fume and have steam come out his ears or nose or whatever. He sits there and he counts and he documents it, and then he publishes that someplace where other people can read about it.

LICHTMAN: But he doesn't, at the same time, make any arguments about it. He just sticks to the facts, huh?

ABRAHAMS: To me that's good thing. It's very easy when you're looking at how people behave to try to explain it. And how people behave is always pretty complicated. So the explanation for almost anything is likely to be a lot less simple and a lot less clear than you might like. Trinkaus doesn't get involve in that, so he doesn't wade into this iffy area of explaining it. He simply documents it.

LICHTMAN: Which I think there are some pleasure in his details, even, you know, just - they stand alone.

ABRAHAMS: Yes. And so does he, as he's standing there counting. There have been many things too. He got curious a few years ago about...

LICHTMAN: Give us one because we're just about to wrap up.

ABRAHAMS: He was in a church and he noticed that in this church you could go and buy a candle. And there was a sign saying if you take a candle, leave some money. And he counted for a few hours how many people who take these candles pay for it and how many don't. And then he came back a few years later and he counted again. He watched. And he came back a few years later and he counted again. And he discovered that every time he came back, fewer and fewer people were paying. People were stealing these candles, and the world was getting worse and worse.

LICHTMAN: And that's where we'll leave it. Thanks, Marc Abrahams.

ABRAHAMS: Thanks, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Marc Abrahams is the editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and the founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize.

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