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Can Washing Machines Really Eat Socks?

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Do enough laundry and eventually you’ll find yourself standing over a pile of clothes looking perplexed. Two red socks entered the wash. Like a fabric softener-scented Thunderdome, only one has emerged. 

Are you imagining things? Does a sock monster reside in your laundry room? Where do missing socks go?

Mechanically speaking, it actually is possible for your washing machine to “eat” an errant sock. According to the Whirlpool Institute of Home Science, both top-loading and front-loading washers are capable of allowing a sock to exit the drum and get trapped in areas not normally visible or accessible to the user. For front loaders, it might get lodged just underneath the rubber water seal; for top loaders, the sock could sneak into the crevice between the inner and outer drums as a result of overloading the appliance, then get snagged in the water drain or pump. It’s also possible for socks to get stuck underneath a top-loader’s agitator.

Fix Appliances CA Bradford via YouTube

So, yes, your washer might be licking its metaphorical chops and eagerly devouring your freshly laundered socks before they're able to find safe harbor in the dryer. If they do make it to a dry cycle, socks can be victimized by static electricity, sticking to the inside of pant legs or other material and going unnoticed during the folding process.

But there’s actually another component to missing hosiery, and it has nothing to do with mechanical error or static. The problem is your perception.

Last spring, Samsung’s UK division commissioned psychologist Dr. Simon Moore and statistician Geoff Ellis to evaluate the epidemic of missing socks for an honest-to-goodness study [PDF] of the epidemic. According to Samsung, Brits lose an average 1.3 socks every month, or 15 a year. That’s 84 million abandoned socks each month, far too many for machines to masticate. So where do they go?

According to Dr. Moore, who interviewed 24 consumers in person and polled an additional 2000 online, the disappearance of socks is a result of cognitive bias. “These are things that give you the illusion of doing something when you’re not,” Moore tells mental_floss. “As an example, we found a correlation between sock vanishings and the size of a household. The more people in the household, the greater diffusion of responsibility.” Someone charged with loading the washer will expect someone else to unload it properly; if they notice a sock missing, they might assume another family member will find it.

The second predictor of sock misadventure is heuristics, the mental shortcuts for problem-solving. When a sock goes missing, Moore says, people tend to look only in the most obvious places before giving up. “The best way to find a sock would be to systematically turn things over, but we don’t. We’re lazy.” Instead of peering behind radiators or under beds, we accept the remaining sock as a singular entity, experience a brief grieving process, and go on with our lives.

But the people Moore polled who saw washing as less of a chore and more of a pleasurable activity were less likely to experience sock loss. “People who had a positive attitude about the whole process, who liked doing it, actually had fewer missing socks," he says. "They simply paid more attention to detail.”

In the end, Moore believes that relatively few people who embrace the pleasure of domestic duties will continue to lament the loss of their socks and fall back on blaming an external reason—like a sock monster.

“It’s better to blame washing machines than their own failures,” he says. “The alternative is to admit they’re rubbish at doing chores.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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