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IgNobel Prizes Celebrate Seeing the World in a Different Light

Kristie Nybo, PhD

By shaking up the way they view the world, researchers now know what it's like to live as an animal, the biological effects of seeing things upside down or in mirror image, and exactly how pants affect sexual activity. Learn more...



"This profound and beautiful story changed my life!" You see it every day on social media, and on occasion you click through, most often finding a meandering and jumbled blog post describing... well, it's not clear. Why then did it affect your friend so deeply?

Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang from the University of Waterloo explored this same question, publishing their answer, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit" in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. By presenting volunteers with "seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous," the team determined that those with intuitive cognitive styles and supernatural beliefs were more likely to consider these nonsense phrases to be profound, a finding that won them the 2016 IgNobel Peace Prize.

Speaking of BS, did you know that rocks have personalities? Discovering these personalities won Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson from Massey University the IgNobel Prize in Economics. Using the Aakers' brand personality scale, the team showed that rocks, which have no association with particular brands, actually had distinct brand personalities, casting a shadow on this widely used marketing research metric.

Faulty measurement tools aren't always to blame when experiments don't return the expected answers. This year's IgNobel prize in Chemistry went to the Volkswagen corporation, which recognized narrowing restrictions intended to reduce air pollution generated by cars. This ingenious company figured out how to make their cars emit significantly fewer pollutants—during testing, that is. On the road, their emissions did not improve; cars simply reduced emissions when they detected testing equipment.

Few scientific tests can detect outright lies such as this, but that fact didn't stop Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon Logan, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere from Ghent University who won this year's Psychology prize for asking 1005 liars how frequently they lied and testing their lying proficiency. It turns out that children and teens are the most adept liars. Adults seem to lose this ability and lie less frequently than children.

Attempting to deceive our fellow human beings is one thing, but Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas M√ľnte, Silke Anders, and Andreas Sprenger from the University of Luebeck won the IgNobel Prize in Medicine for proving that people can deceive themselves. The team recruited healthy volunteers to sit with their arms on the table with a mirror in between. They then tickled one arm and scratched the other so that in the mirror, it appeared that the itch had been scratched. To their surprise, volunteers reported that this satisfied their desire to scratch the itch. The team thinks that offering a mirror to people suffering skin diseases where itches lead to infection and should not be scratched may improve their quality of life.

Viewing situations from a variety of perspectives was quite popular among award winners this year. Naturalist Charles Foster, who lived in the wild as a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird, shared the Biology prize with Thomas Thwaites who commissioned custom prosthetics and lived as a goat. And Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi tested perceived differences in the size and distance of objects when viewed directly or when bending over and peering between their legs. For this, they won the IgNobel Prize in Perception.

While these two were peering beyond their legs, the winner of the Reproduction prize focused on the pants themselves. Ahmed Shafik from Cairo University first showed that polyester pants reduced sexual activity in rats by dressing 75 rats in polyester, cotton/poly blended, cotton, or wool pants and comparing them to their naked neighbors. Shafik attributed the reduction in sexual activity to electrostatic fields induced by the polyester pants. In a follow up study, he showed that wearing a polyester sling rendered men azoospermic, introducing a new reversible method for male birth control.