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Encounters of another kind
People massively underestimate the passing of time when they are in love

As a psychology undergraduate, I would stand for hours in a railway station watching for passionate reunions between lovers. As soon as they were locked in an embrace, I would walk up to them, trigger a stopwatch hidden in my pocket, and ask, “Excuse me, do you mind taking part in a psychology experiment' How many seconds have passed since I said the words ‘Excuse me’'”

The results revealed that people massively underestimate the passing of time when they are in love. As Einstein once joked, “Sit with a beautiful woman for an hour and it seems like a minute, sit on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour — that’s relativity.”

Since my first unusual experiment in human behaviour, I have carried out many more oddball investigations that I have dubbed “quirkology”. I have examined the tell-tale signs that reveal a liar, explored how our personalities are shaped by the birth month, uncovered the science behind speed-dating, and tried to find the world’s funniest joke (we found it, though I’m not sure such a thing really exists).

The pioneer of quirky psychology was maverick Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton, also widely regarded as the founder of eugenics. Galton devoted much of his life to the study of offbeat topics, including boredom, prayer and tea-making.

In perhaps his strangest study, Galton created a “beauty map” of Britain by walking around major cities with a punch counter in his pocket, recording whether the people he passed were good, average or bad looking (London was rated the best, Aberdeen the worst).

Each generation has produced a small band of researchers who have kept the quirky flag flying. Thanks to them we know such intriguing facts as how many people it takes to start a Mexican wave in a football stadium (between 25 and 35) and the perceived personality traits of fruit and vegetables (lemons are dislikeable, onions stupid and mushrooms social climbers).

A few months ago I embarked on my latest quirky study into the psychology behind charity collections. Was it possible, I wondered, to influence the amount donated to good causes by changing the appearance of the charity box'

I teamed up with Borders bookstores and conducted a weeklong secret study across Britain. Participating stores were sent four charity boxes, identical in shape and size, all advertising the same charity — the National Literacy Trust. Each carried one of four messages: “Please give generously”, “Every penny helps”, “Every pound helps” and “You can make a difference”.

The boxes were placed at randomly selected tills, and managers monitored the amount collected in each. Would the subtle changes in message make a significant impact on whether people donated their cash to charity'

The answer was an irrefutable yes. The boxes contained vastly different amounts of money; “Every penny helps” came top, containing an impressive 62 per cent of all contributions, while “Every pound helps” trailed in fourth place with just seven per cent of the total take.

Why should such a small change have such a big impact' According to psychologist Robert Cialdini from Arizona State University, many people are concerned that putting a small amount of money into a box will make them look mean, so they avoid making any donation. “Every penny helps” legitimises even the smallest of contributions. In contrast, “Every pound helps” confirms people’s fears that their donation will appear paltry so they give nothing at all.

We also varied the colour of the boxes, and discovered that red was by far the most effective, perhaps because it elicits a sense of urgency. Interestingly, large variations in giving also emerged between the regions. London customers were the most generous, donating over 20 times more than people in the store yielding the lowest return, in Birmingham.

Taken together, the results show that charity boxes can become up to 200 per cent more effective by being painted red, labelled “Every penny counts”, and placed outside Birmingham.

But this was not the first study of charitable behaviour, nor the strangest. Princeton psychologists John Darley and C Daniel Batson asked a group of ministers to prepare a sermon based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The ministers were then told that their sermons would be filmed in another building, and were sent on their way to the new location. Their journey was secretly observed.

On the way, each minister came across a man (actually an actor) slumped against a doorway. As they walked past, the actor gave a well-rehearsed groan and two coughs. Did the trainee ministers practise what they preached, and help the man' Actually, no. More than half of the ministers walked straight past him, with some of them stepping over him. In the eyes of God it might be better to give than receive, but the ministers clearly didn’t see it that way.

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