Psychological Scientists Honored for Improbable Research

For the second year in a row, research published in Psychological Science is being recognized with the, erm, prestigious Ig Nobel Psychology Prize for scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

The jocular prizes, awarded annually for studies in a number of scientific fields, honors research that is unusual, imaginative, and spurs people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

This year’s Ig Nobel–winning research was published in the December 2011 issue of Psychological Science. Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan, and Tulio Guadalupe of Erasmus University, the Netherlands, reported that “Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller.” Guadalupe accepted the prize at the prize ceremony held at Harvard University.

The researchers investigated whether body posture influences people’s estimation of quantities. The study — which involved asking participants to stand on a Wii Balance Board tilted to the left, tilted to the right, or positioned upright while making various quantitative estimates — to test the mental-number-line theory. The theory, confirmed in the study, holds that people mentally represent numbers along a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right.

APS Members Abigail Baird of Vassar College and George Wolford of Dartmouth College were also honored with the Ig Nobel Neuroscience Prize. Baird, Wolford, and their coauthors demonstrated that a “brain researcher, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon.” Performing a brain scan on a dead fish may seem unworthy of an award (even an Ig Nobel), but this study demonstrated that neuroimaging researchers must use strong controls to make sure the brain activity they’re observing is actually brain activity.

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