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What crocodile-induced arousal does to gamblers

VENKY VEMBU | Updated on January 10, 2018

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You do know this is a family newspaper, right?

Not to worry. We’re on the safe subject of prize-winning economic and psychological theories.

Crocodile-induced arousal? Seriously?

It’s not what your dirty mind thinks. It’s the subject of a psychological study that won the Ig Nobel prize for economics last week. The study, conducted on tourists at a crocodile farm in Queensland, Australia, investigated the effect of sensory “arousal” — an adrenaline rush, induced by holding a metre-long crocodile — on the gambling behaviour of the subject.

You’re joking, right?

Not at all. The study by Central Queensland University academics Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer was published in the Journal of Gambling Studies. It concluded that gamblers who were in a state of arousal from holding the crocodile typically made bigger bets and faster bets on a laptop-simulated electronic gaming machine.

Sounds like a spoof prize.

Far from it. The annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony is a quirky celebration of science: it honours achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes, across 10-odd categories, are intended to spur popular interest in science. Of course, some of their prizes are laced with a sense of heavy irony.

Like which ones?

In 2004, the economics Ig Nobel went to the Vatican for “outsourcing prayers to India”. Given the shortage of Roman Catholic clergy in the US, Canada and Europe, churches were sending requests for service (like remembrance of deceased relatives) to clergy in India, most often to Kerala.

And in 1998, the year India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs, the Ig Nobel peace prize was conferred on prime ministers AB Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif “for their aggressively peaceful” explosions. Likewise, in 2013, the peace prize was conferred on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for “making it illegal to applaud in public”, and on the Belarus Police, “for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.”

Sounds goofy. Is all this taken seriously?

You bet. The prizes are given away by genuine Nobel laureates; the prize ceremony is organised by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, and has institutional backing from campuses of repute. But the actual ceremony every year is far from solemn; it is fun-filled, with quirky costumes and props. As the Ig Nobel committee notes, good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; so can bad achievements. “A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.”

Have Indians received anything other than an ironical peace prize?

Quite a few have won prizes, actually.

Tell me more.

In 2005, Gauri Nanda, a student at the MIT Media Lab, won the economics Ig Nobel for her invention of an alarm clock that ‘runs away’ and hides repeatedly, ensuring that people do get out of bed. Nanda later founded a company to commercialise Clocky, a brand of alarm clock that can’t be put on snooze, and other home products.

And in 2002, veterinary scientists KP Sreekumar and G Nirmalan of Kerala Agricultural University were named for the mathematics prize for their 1990 research to devise a formula to estimate the total surface area of Indian elephants.

Sounds like a weighty study.

You may well mock, but this is just the kind of obscure research that scientists grapple with most of the time, and most often in anonymity. Unless, of course, they win an Ig Nobel.

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Published on September 20, 2017
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