I have long been fascinated by the quirky side of human behaviour.

As a psychology undergraduate I stood for hours in London’s King’s Cross railway station looking for people who had just met their partners off a train. The moment they were locked in a passionate embrace, I would walk up to them, trigger a hidden stopwatch in my pocket, and ask, ‘Excuse me, do you mind taking part in a psychology experiment? How many seconds have passed since I just said the words Excuse me..?’. My results revealed that people massively underestimate the passing of time when they are in love, or, as Einstein once said, ‘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’.

An interest in the more unusual aspects of psychology has continued throughout my career. I am not the first academic to be fascinated by this approach to examining behaviour. Each generation of scientists has produced a small number of researchers who have investigated the strange and unusual.

Maverick Victorian scientist, Sir Francis Galton, might be considered the founding father of the approach, and devoted much of his life to the study of offbeat topics . He objectively determined whether his colleagues’ lectures were boring by surreptitiously measuring the level of fidgeting in their audiences, and created a ‘Beauty Map’ of Britain by walking along the high streets of major cities with a punch counter in his pocket, secretly recording whether the people he passed were good, medium, or bad looking (London was rated the best, Aberdeen the worst).

Galton’s work into the effectiveness of prayer was more controversial . He hypothesized that if prayer really worked, then members of the clergy – who clearly prayed longer and harder than most - should have a longer life expectancy than others. His extensive analyses of hundreds of entries in biographical dictionaries revealed that the clergy actually tended to die before lawyers and doctors, thus forcing the deeply religious Galton to question the power of prayer.

Even the making of tea caught Galton’s attention, when he spent months scientifically determining the best way to brew the perfect cup of tea. Having constructed a special thermometer that allowed him constantly to monitor the temperature of the water inside his teapot, after much rigorous testing, Galton concluded that:

…the tea was full bodied, full tasted, and in no way bitter or flat…when the water in the teapot had remained between 180° and 190° Fahrenheit, and had stood eight minutes on the leaves .

Satisfied with the thoroughness of his investigation, Galton proudly declared, ‘There is no other mystery in the teapot’.

On the surface, Galton’s investigations into boredom, beauty, prayer, and tea-making, may appear diverse. However, they are all excellent and early examples of an approach to investigating human behaviour that I have labelled ‘quirkology’.

Put simply, quirkology uses scientific methods to study the more curious aspects of everyday life. This approach to psychology has been pioneered by a small number of researchers over the past hundred years, but has never been formally recognized within the social sciences. These researchers have followed in Galton’s footsteps, and had the courage to explore the places where mainstream scientists fear to tread. Academics have:

• Examined how many people it takes to start a Mexican wave in a football stadium .

• Charted the upper limits of visual memory by having people try to accurately remember 10,000 photographs .

• Identified the perceived personality characteristics of fruit and vegetables (lemons are seen as dislikeable, onions as stupid, and mushrooms as social climbers) .

• Secretly counted the number of people wearing their baseball caps the right way round or back to front.

• Stood outside supermarkets with charity boxes quietly measuring how different types of requests for donations impacted upon the amount of money given (simply saying ‘even a penny helps’ almost doubled donations) .

• Discovered that children’s drawings of Santa Claus grow larger in the build-up to Christmas Day, and then shrink in size during January .

For the past twenty years, I have carried out similarly strange investigations into human behaviour. I have examined the tell-tale signs that give away a liar, explored how our personalities are shaped by our month of birth, uncovered the secret science behind speed-dating and personal ads, and investigated what a person’s sense of humour reveals about the inner-most workings of their mind. The work has involved secretly observing people as they go about their daily business, conducting unusual experiments in art exhibitions and music concerts, and even staging fake séances in allegedly haunted buildings. The studies have involved thousands of people all over the world.

This book details my adventures and experiments, and also pays homage to unusual research carried out by the small band of dedicated academics that has kept the quirky flag flying over the past century.

Each chapter reveals the secret psychology underlying a different aspect of our lives, from deception to decision-making, selfishness to superstition. Along the way, we will encounter some of my favourite pieces of strange but fascinating research. Experiments that have, for instance: involved stalling cars at traffic lights and measuring the amount of subsequent horn-honking; examined why there are a disproportionate number of marine biologists called Dr Fish; secretly analysed the type of people that take more than ten items through express lines in supermarkets; asked people to behead live rats with a kitchen knife; discovered whether suicide rates are related to the amount of country music played on national radio; and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Friday 13th is bad for your health.

The majority of the research that you are about to encounter has, until now, been hidden away in obscure academic journals. The work is serious science, and much of it has important implications for the way in which we live our lives, and structure our society. However, unlike the vast majority of psychological research, these studies have something quirky about them. Some use mainstream methods to investigate unusual topics. Others use unusual methods to investigate mainstream topics. All of them are the result of behavioural scientists misbehaving.

Let the quirkology begin.


Quirkology book cover
Online Experiments
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