Richard Wiseman – Quirkology

November 23, 2007

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, started his working life as a professional magician and currently holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He frequently appears in the media, and has written over 60 academic articles and several books, including the best-selling The Luck Factor. His newest book is Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Richard Wiseman discusses “Quirkology,” areas of psychology where many scientists fear to tread. He explores some practical applications of social psychology, detailing how we can more effectively detect liars, the use of critical thinking in detecting patterns in our lives, and how to be more informed about the psychology behind supernatural or paranormal experiences. He mentions the youtube successes that he has had in bringing social psychology to a wider public. He also discusses the importance of magic and legerdemain in exploring social psychology, and the relationship of Quirkology to other fringe areas of study such as research into psychic phenomena and parapsychology.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November twenty third. 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guests, Professor Richard Weissman hears a word from this week’s sponsors, Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m happy to have this week’s guest back on Point of Inquiry. Richard Waisman. He hauls Britain’s only chair in the Public Understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He’s published dozens of papers and academic journals, and he’s gained an international reputation for research in two unusual areas of psychology quirky areas including deception, luck and the paranormal. A passionate advocate for science, the scientific outlook, Weissman’s frequently appeared in the media in the United Kingdom and in the United States, and he gives public talks and performances about his research. His previous book, Lucke Factor, is a bestselling book that explores the lives and minds of lucky and unlucky people. His new book is Quirke OLogy, and that’s what he’ll be talking with me about today. He’s also a former professional magician. So, you know, he has a special place in my heart. Richard Waisman, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Pleasure to be here. Thank you. 

Richard, let’s start off with what you’ve been up to lately. You’ve been really busy not just with this book cork ology, but all kinds of other stuff. 

Absolutely. There quickly, JI is out there now, has a very active website, and we’ve been making some videos for YouTube, some of which have gone viral. So they have had about two million hits in total. So we’re very excited about that. And also just finished filming a 20 part BBC series on the social psychology. So it really is all in that that’s kind of same general direction of getting social psychology out from the lab and into people’s lives. So it’s it’s an exciting but busy time. 

Jim Underdown this BBC series that you’ve just done, it’s not just on the quirky aspects of the way people think, but a more general social psychology as well. 

Absolutely. And the whole show is based around going out, doing hidden camera experiments. So in the 20 episodes, I think we got through 84 experiments. Some of them are quirky. Some of them are taken from the ecology book, but most of them are the kind of stand, the things that a social psychologist like to do. So pushing into queues, stopping people in the street, asking them directions, trying to collect for charity with attractive and unattractive charity collectors, all those sorts of things, how to give a really good job interview, how to succeed when you go on a date, the kind of fun stuff. 

And that’s sort of psychology that I’m very enthusiastic and passionate about, practical psychology, not just the stuff in the lab that doesn’t apply to everyday life. Some of your work, this seems a little off topic, but some of your work reminds me of some of the stunts and maybe you’d them experiments that Derren Brown does in the street. The UK Mentalist or the UK mystery performer. 

Yeah, I mean, I know Darren fairly well. And, you know, he’s a great performer. And of course, some of the time he’s he’s using magic in order to look like he has got these amazing psychological abilities and other times when he goes into hypnosis and persuasion. You are looking at the real thing. So I think it’s a really interesting performance style. It has been incredibly successful here in the UK and there is some overlap between some of the sorts of things that I do and Darren’s work. And people have pointed that out on YouTube. When you look down the comments, people can see the parallels, which is great because again, they’re making links between the academic work and that’s something they’re seeing on television and that kind of excites them. 

So let’s get to the book Calk OLogy, How we discover the big truths in small things. So tell me what Calk ology is quick. 

OAG is really the sort of psychology that I have been doing for the last decade or so. The word comes from the notion of quirky psychology, and it’s all the stuff which I’ve been putting out there, which is about everyday life. So we often have implications whether it’s detecting lying or how to go speed dating or whatever have implications for people’s lives. But there is something unusual about either unusual in terms of the methods or the topic or what it was that we found out. 

So there’s always something there as a hook which which is quirky and looking at the psychology of all these odd and and quirky, funny ways that people tick. Why should we be interested in these odd quirks other than just kind of for the same reason that we’re interested in sideshows or or the circus or something like that? I mean, you’re suggesting that it really hits us where we live and breathe? 

Well, first of all, I just think that if things make us curious, if they do entertain us and then make us think. Well, that’s that’s, you know, enough reason to study and look at these things. I mean, a lot of psychology actually isn’t very relevant for people’s lives. If you’re looking at how they remember very long lists of words and they never do that in real life. And it might tell you something about human memory. But in a very kind of abstract way. Well, you know, you’ve got to remember that you’re being funded by the public and they really should to have some kind of say on where their public tax, dollar or pound is going. So I think that research should have relevance for people’s lives. It’s much easier to do science communication when it does. And so, yes, this stuff is quirky, but also it’s about the sorts of things which when you go to a party, kind of come up in conversation or in your everyday life, you know, if you’re going dating, if you’re trying to decide if your partner is lying to you or you’re watching a politician on television and thinking, hold on a second, is this person being straight with us or how do I decide which party to vote for? These are all the sorts of issues I cover in the book. 

Let’s get into some of the specifics of the book. Your research in psychology, in deception, how people lie, how people can lie better, how how we can find out if they’re lying. You spend a good deal of the book exploring that topic. 

Yeah. I mean, and that really comes from my background as a magician. So I’ve been fascinated by deception. Some of my work. And again, this gets back to some of the YouTube videos is about how we fool ourselves, how we’re not so good that observing our surroundings and because that’s why my magic works fundamentally. Some of the material in the book talks about how psychics use that notion to fool people into thinking they have psychic ability. Magicians in that sense are kind of the honest deceivers to use that that phrase that they are telling you. Look, this is all trickery. Indeed it is. But then the book goes further than that. It talks about how it is we decide whether or not someone is lying to us. And most of the time, we base those decisions on visual signals where they’re maintaining eye contact with their rubbing their hands together, where they’re shifting around in their seat and so on. And in fact, none of those visual signals are very reliable indicators of lying. 

So what you have up and down the country as people fighting with their partners and friends and maybe people at work or lying to them. And in fact, they’re just not making very good decisions at all. And because these are important decisions. 

So what are the best indicators if someone’s lying to you? 

Well, the research that we conducted involve taking away the visual aspect of things and saying, look, let’s just focus your attention on the words that people are using and how they’re using those words. And under those circumstances, people become much better lie detectors, because our thoughts about what people do when they lie actually are accurate. When it comes to the words they’re using, they are more hesitant. There are more arms in there. They don’t talk about themselves so much. So the words me and mine and my kind of dropped away. And also there’s a kind of general lack of detail. So the book talks about those verbal signals and also describes some of the experiments, which were the first mass participation experiments, which I conducted about 10 years ago when we took over the BBC for an evening and had the entire country taking part in these experiments, phoning in, trying to spot the lie and so on. 

But again, there’s a real strong core science communication here, Jim Underdown. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Richard Weisman’s book Calk OLogy through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. If you like the popular science writings of Oliver Sacks and others, this book will be up your alley. Richard, a lot of your research seems to uncover reasons why people buy into superstitious, magical thinking. Is the solution to this kind of stuff. You mentioned your background in magic, in your kind of exposes of the paranormal and psychics. Well, is the way to get around this magical thinking that we all buy into? Just everybody learning critical thinking? Or are we kind of hardwired to have these kind of mental hiccups? 

I think we probably are hardwired because we have to detect patterns in the world that that’s how we move around and that’s how we’ve been so effective over the years. Now, the price we pay for that is that sometimes we would take patterns that aren’t actually there. So if you have a dream and then the following day, some events happen that kind of resemble what you saw in the dream. Well, you see a patterning there. Now, there’s no causal link, but you might end up thinking, well, maybe my dream predicted the future. And fundamentally, that’s behind superstitious thinking back to the need to try and control our world. We don’t like the idea of being out of control, of luck and chance, really driving our lives. And so we carry out these superstitious rituals to try and get control of this uncontrollable force. So the book talks about some of that at work, I think, in terms of solutions. It’s about people just really being a little bit more informed about some of the. Bolaji, that might be behind when they make an attribution that, yes, indeed, an event is a supernatural or paranormal, because if they understand that, they might be a less likely to make those kind of attributions and B, they’ll be open to other interpretations. And I think this is key to psychological well-being. If you can look at any event in your life from several different perspectives that you don’t get caught on just one particular way and say, this is it, I’ve got it all sorted out. You know, there are psychic people in the world and I’m going to spend my life following their advice, the ability not perhaps to buy into other ways, looking at the world, but at least accept that they are there and understand why people hold those perspectives. I think it’s key to what’s going on here. 

You mentioned earlier the phenomenal success some of your experiments have had on YouTube, and that’s really one of the ways that you foster this awareness among your readers and the viewers on YouTube that were really susceptible to these hiccups and thinking. Well, one of the things that you get into is this phenomenal card trick, the color changing card trick. We’ll have a link to it on the website. How do you come up with this stuff? 

The color changing card trick was in my head for about six months before we filmed it. And I wouldn’t give too much away. Right. But it basically appeared to be one thing. And in fact, there’s a there’s something else going on. And I knew I wanted to create this piece for YouTube and to try and get science and psychology to be as popular as some of the other videos that were on there. And I kept changing the plot in my head, trying to make it work. And then one day I thought, no, I think I’ve got this whole thing kind of done. I think this will work. And we spent a day filming it with no idea whether it would work or not. I mean, we just just did not know. And that’s part of the fun of these sorts of things. And of course, what’s great about YouTube is that you get some feedback away. So if you’re working in academia and you write up a paper, well, it takes maybe six months to get into a journal. And then only, you know, whatever the average is, two point four of academics. And you don’t get much in the way of feedback, even if you put something on television that can take a long time. And again, you don’t get very much feedback. You only get it from one or two viewers with YouTube. You really do reach out to people. And it’s a very easy mechanism for them to say, wow, I love this or no, I hate it. So we put it on. It did go viral. So I think now it’s on one point seven million hits and several thousand comments from people saying, yes, you know, we love this. And what else? And criticism of and it’s great to read that as well. So I think the science communicators are playing with this new media. You know, it is out there. It’s clearly going to be the future. And, you know, skeptics have always been great in engaging with the public. And I think YouTube is just another way in which they can do that. 

Is this new media? Does it make it easier for you as the only professor of the public understanding of psychology, to get the public to understand psychology more? 

I think so. I mean, I what what those videos are really doing, the hope is capturing people’s attention. I mean, a little bit like magic. If you see a magic trick is really difficult to think, OK. There’s not something here for me to learn or not least feel curious because you’ve had such a counterintuitive experience. And I hope that happens with the ecology videos that people watch them and go, oh, wow. You know, I don’t quite understand what’s going on here. Here’s my best guess or why did that happen? And of course, what’s great about the Web is they can dig as deep as they want very quickly. So if they take one of those topics and then go to the quick ology site, there are links. There would then get them into the literature and sometimes up to an academic level if they want to go that far with that literature. So it is an amazing opportunity. And I just think we have an exploit that we hadn’t even started to exploit. The wonders that are there really for kind of democratic learning for everyone to be able to find out what’s going on in the world. 

I love that someone reads this book. A take home message of it is that one, we’re not really as observant or as smart as we think we are, but two, we can do something about it. And your book doesn’t really come down hard on kind of an action plan for people. But there are some suggestions on how we can overcome some of these these lapses that that our brains kind of get us into. 

There’s some of that in there. I think it was really designed to be a celebration of the sort of psychology that I love and the fact that, as with all science, you know, I didn’t come out of nowhere doing this stuff. It’s based on other people’s work, on people who’ve gone before me. And each generation of psychologists has come up with one or two. People that it just kind of interested in the quirky, more unusual things other psychologists tend to leave alone. And hopefully it’s a sort of celebration of their work as well. There really hasn’t been very much of it. So the quick allergy was to bring it together. And what’s lovely is I get emails now from all around the world from psychology students who say, I’ve read the book and I’m going to do this experiment. And if I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t have known that you were allowed to do that type of work. So hopefully the message will spread. And it’s about just the fact that in everyday life, there is an enormous amount of psychology going on. Whenever we meet someone unconsciously, we’re making all sorts of assumptions about that person. Our behavior towards them may then mean that those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. So even in those few moments when you go for an interview, when you go out on a date or you just say hello to someone in the office, there’s an enormous amount of psychology to be unpacked. And that’s why everyone’s life has the potential to be so fascinating. 

You’re not only the only professor out there of the public understanding of psychology. You’re also a renowned skeptic, kind of a public spokesperson for the skeptical approach to looking at supernatural paranormal fringe science claims. But a lot of the fields within quirk ology involve stuff that most scientists, let’s say, some psychologists say wouldn’t take seriously subjects where the mainstream psychologists wouldn’t dare to tread. You called this area of the backwaters of the human brain. It’s kind of on the fringe. So the question. What’s the difference between what you’re looking at as kind of on the fringe and what some other psychologists might do as the legitimate science of parapsychology or something? 

I don’t think there’s very much difference at all. I think the word fringe is key to all of this. And what matters when it comes to psychology and science is the methods that are being used. You need good methods in order to come out with results that are reliable. Now, when you strain to these fringe areas, it’s a challenge and it’s very easy to get it wrong, in part because, you know, there’s not so many people working in the field to point out each other’s mistakes. So when it comes to parapsychology, you have a history of people running, sometimes not very good experiments, thinking with psychic abilities. And then when other people look more closely at that work, they realize there’s an error. So I think there’s a lot to be learned in terms of methodology from parapsychology. But I think it is just another quirky area of psychology. So I would include it within quick ology as I would include many different areas of psychology. 

So you wouldn’t dismiss parapsychology out of hand as not being scientific enough? 

No, I mean, I have carried out parapsychological experiments Jim Underdown as a skeptic, as a skeptic. 

I think it’s important that skeptics don’t just sit there in their armchairs and dismiss this stuff. It’s been going on for a long time. There’s clearly some serious scientists involved and some of that data is interesting. I don’t think you can just dismiss it and it doesn’t help to dismiss it, because if the public come across that work and read about in depth and go, wow, you know what’s going on here? And all they get from the skeptics is, oh, well, that stuff’s all rubbish. Well, that’s not doing anyone any service at all. So I think that skeptic should be involved. I’ve run some collaborative experiments with various proponents of psychic ability to see if we can run some joint studies and find out what’s going on. And I think that sort of work is constructive skepticism. We need it. I’m a long way from being convinced that psychic ability exists. I think it probably doesn’t. And that’s what the kind of end result of this endeavor will be, in my opinion. But still, we need to apply science to the problem and try and find out what’s going on here. 

Richard, last question first met you a decade ago when you talked for one of our summer institutes. And it’s then when I first learn your background in magic, you mentioned it earlier in this discussion. You’ve you’ve had a career as a magician. You’ve performed at one of my favorite places on the planet, the Magic Castle. Do you think that your background in magic without it, would you be the quick colleges that you are? He has your background and magic equipped you to explore these these areas or to be a better skeptic. How much of what you do is fueled by your education and the magical arts? 

I think that’s a very good question. And I think, you know, maybe 80 percent of what they do. 

But the fact that magic involves many, many skills, not only if you’ve got to understand the trick, can be able to perform it, but you need to be able to perform it in a way that engages an audience. And it’s a very weird social contract because, you know, a secret you’re not going to tell the audience under those circumstances. They would normally hate you and you need to get them to like you. 

So there’s a cognitive component. 

There’s a social component. And I think. Very similar to coming up with experiments that engage people. You have to think from their perspective as a magician, always thinking a wall will form an audience and be, you know. Will they like me if I present in this way? When you come up with an experiment, they wonder and try to get thousands of people to get involved. I’m not about folding them at all, but I am about thinking what topics will they find interesting and how can I present this to them in a way in which they will engage with it? Because without that, I’m standing on the stage with no audience, and that’s not a great evening. So it is very much thought through from a magic perspective has been absolutely central to pretty much everything I’ve done. 

You raise a paradox, though, that if maybe 80 percent of what you do is fueled by your background and magic while magicians are very secretive. Should there someday be kind of a professor of public understanding of magic? 

I could easily see a professorship in magic. 

As you say, there is this inherent problem because magic is about secrecy to some extent and science in many ways isn’t. It’s about being completely open. But there are some very strong parallels, particularly when it comes to psychology. It’s about understanding how other people think. That is key to both disciplines. And I can easily imagine a professorship that would look at magic from all sorts of different perspectives. I think there is an enormous potential there. And also it would be a really quirky thing to do. 

I would be very supportive of that. Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry again, Richard Weisman. A pleasure. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kirk’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.