Ivory Towers: Drowning by numbers, or how to spot a simulated suicide note

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The Independent Culture
ANYONE looking for trimmings from the odder fringes of academic research could hardly do better than browse through the pages of Perceptual and Motor Skills, a quarterly journal which seems to have a policy of printing, among heavier accounts of psychological research, a healthy smattering of short reports that enlighten some of the gloomier areas of human knowledge. All that follows can be found in the December 1993 issue.

The summary of 'Television Viewing and Exercise Habits of 8,885 adults', by Larry A Tucker, tells all: 'Analysis of TV viewing time and duration of weekly exercise for 8,885 adults showed that adults who reported watching relatively large amounts of TV spent significantly less time exercising than did those who viewed relatively little TV, and vice versa.'

Leaving aside the question of whether the ultimate 'vice versa' adds anything to the statement, we learn from the one-page paper that Americans watch a daily average of four hours' TV and the duration of watching correlates strongly and inversely with duration of weekly exercise. The author concludes: 'Adults who perceive they have too little time to exercise may be able to overcome this problem by watching less television.'

We move on to two interesting findings concerning suicide. 'Reliability of Judging Genuine and Simulated Suicide Notes' is a report by David Lester on an experiment involving two sets of supposed suicide notes, one genuine, one not. Two groups of subjects were invited to judge whether each not was genuine or not. Whereas 20 editors of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior did quite well on assigning notes to the right category, psychology students did not perform significantly better than chance. The conclusion is that experts do better than naive judges in detecting fake suicide notes.

The same David Lester also reports on genuine suicides in 'Suicide by Drowning and the Extent of the Nation's Coastline'. Comparing rates of suicide by drowning with coastline lengths in 27 different countries, he finds no association, even when the coastline length is divided by the area of the country, or by the size of the population. 'Similar negative results were obtained when the sample was restricted to the 15 European nations.' This result seems anomalous when compared with the same researcher's own paper in 1989 which showed higher suicide by drowing rates in American states bordering on the Great Lakes or the oceans. He points out that rivers, swimming pools and bath-tubs also offer drowning opportunities.

Finally 'Ice Cream Preference: Gender Differences in Taste and Quality' by Jenifer Kunz reports on some important research into the ice-cream preferences of 69 college women and 53 men. Each subject was given three scoops of different brands of chocolate-chip ice- cream, which had been 'selected and ranked by price as most expensive, least expensive and medium in price'. (The costs ranged from dollars 3.52 to dollars 18.50 a gallon.) Not knowing which were which, the subjects were asked to rank the ice-creams for 'overall taste and quality'.

The results clearly showed that women prefer expensive ice-cream, while men prefer cheap varieties. In fact, the least expensive ice-cream was the one most frequently rated by the men to be of high quality. Whereas women's ice-cream ratings correlated well with the price, men's showed a significant inverse correlation with price. This work entended the same researcher's earlier reports of 1983 and 1985: 'Cultural Influence on Taste: A Study of Ice Cream Taste Preference' and (in collaboration with D Lawrence) 'Ice Cream Preference: The Relationship of Cost and Quality', both of which also appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills. She concludes: 'Further study is needed of whether gender is linked to the cultural belief that high price means high quality.'

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