How to Catch a Con Artist and Other Fascinating Facts About Human Behavior

In Dr. Richard Wiseman's new book "Quirkology," he explains dozens of bizarre psychological studies, covering everything from preschool-age financial investors to how to detect a liar. Here are a few of our favorites.

When you want to invest some money in the stock market, who are you going to call for help? An investment analyst, a financial astrologist, or a four-year-old girl?

If you’re into all that zodiac stuff, you might see what the financial astrologist can read in the stars about your fortune – but if you’re like most of us, we’re betting you’d go with the investment analyst to make the most of your money.

Well, if the results of a 2001 study are any indication, you’d be way off base: In the experiment, psychologist Richard Wiseman decided to put the crystal ball to the test, and find out if a fortune-teller really could tell his (literal) fortune.

For comparison, he asked a reputable investment analyst and a financial astrologist each to pick a few stocks to invest in for a week-long period. And, just for good measure, he let Tia, a four-year-old girl, join in the game, too. Since the preschooler couldn’t read yet, she came up with a creative way to choose her stocks: She wrote the names of a hundred stocks on pieces of paper, dropped them on the floor, and then grabbed a few.

At the end of the week, the results came in. It had been a bad week, and everyone lost money. But who did the worst?

The financial astrologist had dropped the ball, losing 10.1 percent of her investment. The investor lost 7.1 percent. And little Tia was the leader of the gang, losing only 4.6 percent of her initial investment.

It seemed like a fluke – so Dr. Wiseman decided to track the investments over the course of an entire year. Once again, young Tia came in as the clear winner, making 5.8 percent profit on her investment.

The moral of the story?

If you want to be rich, don’t use Merrill Lynch – let your kids choose your stock portfolio instead.

Strange as it may seem, this is just one of dozens of bizarre social and psychological experiments described in Dr. Wiseman’s book, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. If you never got past Psych 101, this book will open your eyes to the wonders of the human mind and the baffling things we think and do. Here are a few of our other favorite facts from his fascinating book.

Get Lucky

If you plan to procreate, aim for a summertime birth. In another experiment, Dr. Wiseman discovered that people who are the luckiest in life and love are most often born during the spring and summer months. It seems a bit random, but there could be a biological explanation: An infant born during the cold winter months probably won’t stray too far from his mother, whereas summertime babies have more freedom to roam, making them more open to new experiences throughout their lives.

What’s in a Name?

More parenting advice: If you want your kid to be popular, give him a popular name. Names like Michael, Susan, and John have been standards for centuries for good reason: No one has anything against them. Nor, apparently, against the kids who bear them – one study showed that people with traditionally “likable” names average higher essay scores than children cursed with names like Gomer or Helga.

According to another study, kids with more run-of-the-mill names are better-adjusted and less likely to end up in mental hospitals later in life. So if you’re having a baby, don’t get too creative: As the researchers state, “A child’s name… is generally a settled affair when his first breath is drawn, and his future personality must then grow within its shadow.” We just feel bad for the baby in New Zealand whose parents named him “4real.”

Detecting Deception

Want to catch a liar in the act? Don’t look at him. You might have heard that when someone is lying, he’ll avert his eyes, fidget, and act nervous. But this isn’t always the case – a liar can appear completely genuine. How else could Danny Ocean have pulled off that heist? (Though looking like George Clooney didn’t hurt.) The path to the truth is in his speech: If someone is lying, he will generally use fewer words, rarely refer to himself, and stress specific details.

In an experiment, researchers showed clips of three people talking about themselves to study participants. When the participants had to pick which person in the clip was lying, the people who saw the images did very poorly. However, when another group only listened to the soundtrack, they were very skilled at picking out the liar. So, next time you want to know what your partner’s really thinking, don’t have a heart-to-heart over dinner – use the phone instead.

The Smiling Solution

And finally, if you want to feel happier, there’s a simple way to do it: Just smile.

In a 1988 study, researchers at the University of Mannheim in Germany had participants look at Far Side cartoon strips under two conditions: One group of people was asked to hold pencils between their teeth, which forced their mouths into smiles. The others held the pencils with just their lips, which produced a frowning expression. According to the results, the people who’d been forced to smile found the comics far more hilarious than the frowners did.

So if you want to boost your mood, just grin and bear it. Soon enough, your smile will be for real. Science says so.

Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things is available from Amazon.

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