20 Obvious Things Confirmed by Science

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Brace yourself—these are shocking developments.

1. YOUR CAT IS IGNORING YOU.

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Your tabby recognizes the sound of your voice, but it’s ignoring you anyway. A recent study at the University of Tokyo showed that, although a cat can identify its owner’s voice, it really doesn’t care enough to listen. The reason for kitty’s cold shoulder? Evolution. Unlike dogs, which were bred and domesticated by humans, cats domesticated themselves. They just aren’t hardwired to listen for commands.

2. STUDENTS WHO DO HOMEWORK GET HIGHER GRADES.

Young Boy In Bedroom Sitting At Desk Doing Homework
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Economist Nick Rupp divided his class into two groups—those required to do homework, and those who were not. The results were (not) shocking. Kids who took home assignments had higher test scores and retention rates. To the delight of teachers everywhere, Rupp confirmed that “homework plays an important role in student learning.”

3. HIGH HEELS HURT.

A woman walking up stairs, in pain, holding her black high heels.
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High heels exaggerate your posture, tilt your hips, and shorten your stride. Some evolutionary psychologists argue they’re part of our primal urge to compete for mates. While that’s up for debate, science has confirmed that high heels are pretty much terrible for you. A study by the Institute for Aging Research found that 64 percent of older women who regularly wore unsupportive shoes—like high heels, pumps, or sandals—at some point in their life complained of foot pain.

4. PIGS LOVE MUD.

A pink piglet with black spots raising its mud-covered snout.
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Pigs don’t have much in the way of sweat glands, which makes controlling body temperature a problem. So, for the longest time, scientists believed pigs wallowed in mud to keep cool. Although that’s true, a study in Applied Animal Behavior Science discovered an evolutionary twist: Porkers don’t roll in mud because they have just a few sweat glands; rather, they have a few sweat glands because they like to roll in mud. (Put differently, swine never developed sweat glands because their ancestors were always playing in muck!) Now some scientists believe a mud bath simply makes pigs happy. It’s a tautology, but pigs like mud because, well, they like mud.

5. CEREAL TASTES BETTER WITH MILK.

Milk being poured into a bowl of cereal.
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Scientists at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile did the unthinkable—they added water to corn flakes. They found that the “intermolecular interactions in the flake’s matrix could be weakened by the plasticizer, leading to the solubilization of some components, and ... a decrease in mechanical integrity.” Translated into English? Water makes cereal soggy. Milk, it turns out, is special. The fat content protects cereal from sucking in too much liquid, keeping it crispy.

6. MEN STARE AT WOMEN'S BOOBS.

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In an article titled "My Eyes are Up Here," Sarah Gervais and her team used eye-tracking technology to confirm what we’ve long suspected—men like ogling at women’s chests. Men spent more time looking at a woman’s body than her face. Their eyes wandered the most if the woman had—surprise!—wide hips, a narrow waist, and large breasts. But women were just as guilty: They stared to scope out the competition.

7. OVEREATING CAN LEAD TO WEIGHT GAIN ...

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Between the 1970s and now, the average adult in the U.S. gained 19 pounds. Research presented at the European Congress of Obesity in 2009 found that “weight gain in the American population seems to be virtually all explained by eating more calories,” study leader Boyd Swinburn said. Laziness had little to do with America’s tightening belt.

8. ... AND EATING BAD FOOD IS BAD FOR YOU.

A plate of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes.
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If you were holding out hope that fried chicken was a staple of a well-balanced diet, science has some bad news for you. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Medicine tracked the effect of eating habits on participants' health from middle-age on. The research involved assessing the diet of 5350 adults (age 51.3 ± 5.3 years, 29.4 percent women) and then tracked their mortality, chronic diseases and overall health after 16 years. The results: "[P]articipants with a 'Western-type' diet (characterized by high intakes of fried and sweet food, processed food and red meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products) had lower odds of ideal aging."

9. MEETINGS SUCK.

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A 2005 study in Group Dynamics found that meetings are annoying time-sapping killjoys. By analyzing the diary entries of 37 university workers, researchers concluded that meetings make employees stressed and grumpy, hindering even the most motivated workers from getting things done.

10. READING IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN.

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Your second grade teacher was right. Experts put Ph.D. candidates inside an MRI and had them read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. At one point, they were told to read for pleasure. Then they were told to read analytically (as if they were studying for a test). In both cases, their brains' blood flow increased. Under each condition, blood flowed to different parts of the noggin. Each style of reading prompted different—and beneficial—brain patterns. “Literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains,” said project leader Natalie Phillips. Rejoice, English majors! (Here are a few other reasons you should be reading more.)

11. PARTY SCHOOLS LOVE TO PARTY.

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It took a decade of research, but a team at Harvard School of Public Health finally did it—they confirmed Playboy’s sneaking suspicion. Students binge drank more if their school had a reputation for drinking and partying. The survey of 50,000 students at 120 colleges showed that, although the student body changes year by year, the ratio of heavy to casual drinkers stays the same.

12. THE INTERNET IS WHERE PRODUCTIVITY COMES TO DIE.

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The Internet is an amazing tool with the power to do the world infinite good. But, wait. Look! It’s a bear riding a bicycle! According to Pew Research, 53 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 go online once a day just to waste time.

13. MEN AND WOMEN DESIRE A SEXUALLY ATTRACTIVE PARTNER.

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A team of researchers subjected willing undergrads to a word-association assignment to test how much they associate physical attractiveness with an ideal partner. Regardless of how the same participants responded when asked directly about the importance of appearance in a mate, they were quick to report positive feelings when shown words related to sexiness. "If a person tells me, for example, that she doesn't care about how attractive a guy is, our research suggests that her claim isn't worth all that much," study researcher Paul Eastwick, of Texas A&M University, said in a statement.

14. PEOPLE WILL BUY MORE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES IF THEY'RE CHEAPER.

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Just because we've told you that all that fried food is bad for you doesn't mean you're going to change your ways—but there is one thing that is proven to encourage the purchase of more produce: discounts. A 2013 paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a trial done in Dutch supermarkets in which participants were given 50 percent off produce coupons, nutrition education, both, or neither. The researchers found that people bought and consumed more fruits and vegetables if they were given the coupons. They consumed even more if they got the discount and the education, but if they got just the education there was no effect. Of course, this is important information for crafting public health initiatives, but did they really need the study to know people prefer to spend less money?

15. MUSICIANS GET THE GIRLS.

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Tales of rock stars and groupies provide more than enough anecdotal evidence to know this is true, but does the musician vibe really make a man more attractive if he's not in a world-famous band? Spoiler alert: yes. A French research team enlisted a young man (who was “previously evaluated as having a high level of physical attractiveness”) to stand on a street and request phone numbers from 300 different young ladies—all in the name of science, of course. For 100 such solicitations he was holding a guitar case; for another 100 he had a sports bag; and for the final 100, he was empty handed. According to the researchers, "Results showed that holding a guitar case was associated with greater compliance to the request, thus suggesting that musical practice is associated with sexual selection." No word on whether or not he followed up with any of the 31 percent of women who offered the apparent guitarist their digits.

16. STEREOTYPICALLY "SEXY" WAITRESSES GET BETTER TIPS.

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One caveat: This whole study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, is based on self-reporting some rather personal details. But there's little cause to question findings that support such an obvious trend (not to mention Hooters' whole business model). Waitresses completed an online survey that included subjective assessments of their own attractiveness and sexiness as well as objective attributes like bust size, hair color, and tip amounts. You can probably predict what happened: "The waitresses’ tips varied with age in a negative, quadratic relationship, increased with breast size, increased with having blond hair, and decreased with body size."

17. "PRE-GAMING" BEFORE YOU HIT THE BAR MEANS MORE ALCOHOL OVERALL.

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Imagine that: Drinks at home plus drinks at the bar equals more overall drinks. A study from Switzerland shows that the intent to defray the cost of alcohol out at the bar with a "pre-gaming" event doesn't really work. Instead, people still imbibe just as much while they're out on the town, which just gets added to their drinks from at home. According to LiveScience, "The study also found that those who pre-drank were more likely to suffer risky or unfavorable consequences of drinking, such as blackouts, hangovers, unplanned substance abuse or unprotected sex." That's probably a result of the more overall drinks.

18. PEOPLE CHANGE CLOTHES BASED ON THE WEATHER.

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In 2007, researchers from Italy and Denmark published an article looking into people’s clothing choices depending on the weather and indoor environment. While it might seem obvious, the researchers were curious because many employees will drive to work inside a heated/cooled vehicle and then work for the day in a heated/cooled building. Ultimately, the researchers wrote “The outdoor temperature at 6 a.m. seems to affect people's choice of clothes the most.”

19. PEOPLE ARE HAPPIER WHEN THEIR SPOUSES ARE GENEROUS ... OR IF THEY'RE HAVING LOTS OF SEX.

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The results of a survey of more than 1400 heterosexual couples between the ages of 18 and 46—all of whom had children—published in 2011 as part of the National Marriage Project showed that higher levels of reported generosity correspond to a happier marriage. That's right: People like getting backrubs, flowers and unsolicited acts of niceness, so much so it actually makes them happy. Of course, not as happy as regular sex might. While generosity is good, it was sexual satisfaction that proved to be the most consistent indicator of a happy marriage.

20. EXPERTS HAVE GOOD INTUITION

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If you have an expensive handbag you’re worried might be counterfeit, would you rather trust the gut feeling of an expert or the carefully reasoned logic of an amateur? That’s the question a group of researchers from three universities answered in a 2012 study. They took a bunch of students and told them to identify real Coach/Louis Vuitton handbags from counterfeits. Some were told to base their judgement entirely on intuition, while others were told to be analytical. Among both groups were “experts,” or people with “more than three Coach and/or Louis Vuitton handbags.” According to a press release, “the researchers found that intuition was more effective for those with high expertise. In the intuition condition, participants with high expertise demonstrated higher task performance. In the analysis condition, those with high expertise performed no better than those with low expertise.”

Written by Lucas Reilly, Hannah Keyser, and Austin Thompson. Versions of this story ran in 2014 and 2015.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

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Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Terminology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

This Live Stream Lets You Eavesdrop on Endangered Killer Whales' Conversations

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Southern resident killer whales, which are usually found off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, are an endangered species. If you're lucky, though, you might be able to hear a pod of the killer whales chattering away from the comfort of your own home. A website spotted by The Kansas City Star lets you live stream the calls of killer whales from your phone or laptop. Dubbed Orcasound, it uses hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up oceanic sounds from two areas off the coast of Washington.

On the website, listeners can choose between the two locations. One is the Orcasound Lab in Haro Strait, which is situated off the coast of Washington's San Juan Islands—the "summertime habitat" of this specific ecotype of whale, according to the website. The other location is Bush Point at the entrance to Puget Sound, where the whales pass through about once a month in search of salmon. However, that hydrophone is currently being repaired.

So what do orcas sound like? They're loud, and they do a whole lot of whistling, whining, and clicking. You can hear a snippet of what that sounds like in a four-minute podcast uploaded to the Orcasound site.

There’s no guarantee you’ll hear an orca, though. "Mostly you'll hear ships," the website notes, but there's also a chance you'll hear humpbacks in the fall and male harbor seals in the summer.

The live stream isn't just for educational purposes. It also serves as a citizen science project to help researchers continue their studies of southern resident killer whales, which are in danger of starvation as Chinook salmon, their main food source, die off.

The makers of Orcasound are urging listeners to email ihearsomething@orcasound.net anytime they hear killer whales or "other interesting sounds." They can also log their observations in a shared Google spreadsheet. Eventually, developers of the site hope to roll out a button that listeners can click when they hear a whale, to make the process easier for people to get involved.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

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