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9 Scientific Experiments That Used '90s TV Shows to Manipulate Subjects

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If you want to know something about what makes people tick, investigate it with something people love—TV!

1. Watching food-related television increases caloric intake in restrained eaters

The Scientists: Mitsuru Shimizu and Brian Wansink in Appetite 57.3, 2011

The Show: SpongeBob SquarePants

The Conditions: One group watched SpongeBob episodes that were food related (e.g., "Chocolate with Nuts"). Other group watched non-food related episodes (e.g., "Snowball Effect"). Both groups had access to a bowl of candy.

The Result: “Restrained” eaters (those who were dieting) ate more while watching the food-related episodes, but type of show had no effect on “unrestrained” eaters.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: When SpongeBob gets hungry, there goes your diet. 

2. Men, Muscles, and Machismo: The Relationship Between Television Violence Exposure and Aggression and Hostility in the Presence of Hypermasculinity

The Scientist: Erica Lee Scharrer in her dissertation; Syracuse University, 1998

The Shows: Home Improvement and Miami Vice

The Conditions: Groups watched a hypermasculine show with violence (Miami Vice) or without violence (Home Improvement).

The Result: Those who watched the violent show reported more hostile/aggressive tendencies after watching. If they already scored high measures of “hypermasculinity,” the effect was greater.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: Crockett and Tubbs can make Tim Taylor go Terminator.

3. Situation models and memory: The effects of temporal and causal information on recall sequence

The Scientists: Aaron L. Brownstein and Stephen J. Read in Memory 15.7, 2007

The Show: Cheers

The Conditions: Subjects watched episode of Cheers and then had to recall it from memory.

The Result: People remembered things according cause and effect chains rather than temporal sequence.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: Which scene did they show first? Who knows. But Diane did this because Sam did that.

4. Online cognitive engagement of boys with ADHD

The Scientists: Kristin S. Whirley, et al. in Journal of Attention Disorders 7.2, 2003

The Show: Growing Pains

The Conditions: Two groups, one with ADHD and one without, watched Growing Pains while having to press a computer key in response to a sound cue.

The Result: Reaction times showed the ADHD group got absorbed in important plot moments of the show later than the non-ADHD group.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: Growing Pains might take a little longer to suck you in if you’ve got ADHD. 

5. Subliminal Motivation: A Story Revisited

The Scientists: Joel Cooper and Grant Cooper, Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32.11, 2002

The Show: The Simpsons

The Conditions: People watched an episode of The Simpsons with subliminal messages related to thirst embedded in it. The messages were verbal or pictorial.

The Result: They got thirstier.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: Got a subliminal message to send? The Simpsons can deliver it.

6. Effects of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on children's aggression with peers

The Scientists: Chris J. Boyatzis, Gina M. Matillo, and Kristen M. Nesbitt in Child Study Journal 25.1, 1995

The Show: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

The Conditions: The experimental group of kids watched an episode, the control group did not.

The Results: The kids who watched Power Rangers committed more aggressive acts during observation period.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: If you want to keep things calm, you probably don’t want to “go, go Power Rangers.” 

7. Effects of repeated exposures to a single episode of the television program Blue's Clues on the viewing behaviors and comprehension of preschool children

The Scientists: Alisha M. Crawley, et al. in Journal of Educational Psychology 91.4, 1999

The Show: Blue’s Clues

The Conditions: Groups of kids watched an episode or Blue’s Clues one time, or five times over five days.

The Result: The more the kids watched the episode, the more they interacted with it and understood it.

The Oversimplified Takeway: Go ahead, watch that Blue’s Clues over and over. 

8. The Television Situation Comedy and Children's Prosocial Behavior

The Scientists: Lawrence Rosenkoetter in Journal of Applied Social Psychology 29.5, 1999

The Shows: The Cosby Show and Full House

The Conditions: Kids watched an episode of The Cosby Show with a bunch of moral lessons. In another experiment, kids watched an episode of Full House with one overarching moral lesson.

The Result: Even 1st graders “get” the moral lessons of an adult sitcom like The Cosby Show. It was a little harder for them to get the one big lesson in the Full House episode. In general, kids who watch prosocial sitcoms have more prosocial behavior, especially if they understand them.

The Oversimplified Takeaway: If they can work it out on a half hour TV show, maybe your kids can too.

9. An assessment of obese and non obese girls' metabolic rate during television viewing, reading, and resting

The Scientists: Theodore Cooper, et al. in Eating Behaviors 7.2, 2006 

The Shows: Full House and Wonder Years

The Conditions: One group watched an “active” show (an episode of Full House). One group watched a “passive” show (Wonder Years). Other conditions were resting without TV and reading a story.

The Result: No significant difference in metabolic rate between conditions. “Metabolic rate alone cannot account for the consistently observed relationship between television viewing and obesity.”

The Oversimplified Takeaway: Sorry, watching Full House won’t help you burn calories.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]