Most People Are Really Bad At Matching A Face To An ID Picture (Psychology)

It’s routine whether you’re going through airport security or hitting up your favorite bar: You have to show your ID. But how effective is that, really? Who’s to say you’re not carrying the ID of someone who just looks like you? It turns out that that’s a very good question. Over and over, studies show that most people are lousy at matching pictures of unfamiliar faces, regardless of training. Yet we keep checking IDs just the same.

Here’s just one of many examples. In 2014, a research team out of Australia published a study looking into how passport officers compared to regular people when it came to matching pictures of unfamiliar faces. They had 30 passport officers perform three experiments. In the first, real people showed the officer an ID, some of which had the person’s real image, some of which had an image of a person who looked a bit like them. Even though the circumstances were actually easier than the real world (the ID photos were taken just days before the experiment, and the fake IDs just had a roughly identical photo that probably wouldn’t be good enough for someone who really wanted to fool an officer), the officers were lousy. They accepted 14 percent of the fakes and rejected six percent of the real IDs, for an overall error rate of 10 percent. That may sound small, but it adds up. When 100,000 people pass through an airport’s security line on a given day, that’s 10,000 ID-matching mistakes.

You might think that in the second experiment, where they just had to tell if two photos taken two years apart were of the same person, officers would do better. They didn’t: Their error rate was nearly 20 percent. They also weren’t any better than the general public: Their scores on a basic face-matching test were the same as population norms, and years on the job had no effect on performance in either of the experiments.

In a 2017 study, volunteers had to decide whether each of these pairs were of the same or different people. They accepted 24% of incorrect matches..

more recent study in an August 2017 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that novices did perform slightly worse than trained police officers on a photo-matching test — but everyone still botched the job. Police officers in that study accepted 25 percent of fake IDs, compared to 26 percent by novices. That’s nothing to brag about.

Want to see how you’d perform in a face-matching challenge? Take this test to find out if you’re a “super-recognizer.” (A score of 10/14 or more suggests you may have special skills. The test starts easy, but gets significantly harder by the end.)

This is one of many areas where artificial intelligence can come in handy. You may notice that Facebook and certain photo apps can identify your friends’ faces in a snapshot with unsettling accuracy. Facebook, Google, and other researchers have all boasted artificial intelligence systems that perform better than humans at matching faces. What’s more, many of those systems can go a step further by identifying who the person is from a photo. Artificial intelligence checking our IDs may smack of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it’s certainly more accurate than what we’ve got now. We, for one, welcome our new robot bar bouncers.

A Penguins Waddle Is More Efficient Than Your Walk (Physics / Biology)

Penguins are often considered a warning about the trade-offs of evolution: If you want to move around on land and in the water, you’re going to have to choose which one you’re good at. Penguins swim with speed and grace, but on land, they’re an adorable mess, heaving their portly bodies to and fro to shuffle one stubby little leg in front of the other. Well, don’t be so quick to judge; that cartoonish walk is actually among the most efficient in the animal kingdom. It’s even more efficient than yours.

Back in 2000, Timothy M. Griffin of the University of California at Berkeley and Rodger Kram of the University of Colorado set out to study the biomechanics of the penguin’s classic waddle. They headed to Sea World — where else? — and persuaded five emperor penguins to waddle across a special platform designed to measure the force of each step, along with the direction of that force and the speed at which each bird was moving.

Penguins rock from side to side with every step and the researchers thought this had to waste a whole lot of energy. But they were mistaken: Penguins’ short legs and big feet might not be the best tools for getting around on land, but waddling is the best way to use the tools they’ve got.

Walking efficiency doesn’t just come down to bones and muscles — it’s also about the way you use them. The human gait is impressively efficient, mostly because we fall forward slightly with every step, using the help of gravity to propel us along. That extra help saves us 65 percent of the energy our muscles would need to exert if we relied on their force alone. That 65 percent figure is known as our energy recovery rate.

In their project, Griffin and Kram measured emperor penguins’ energy recovery rate. It was 80 percent. That’s among the highest of any land animal. When it comes to using gravity to your advantage, that side-to-side swing blows falling forward out of the water.

That’s not to say penguins don’t use a lot of energy to get around on land. When they’re on terra firma, they expend twice as much energy as any other land animal their size. Having short legs and big feet (and knees tucked way up inside their bodies) that are difficult to move along the ground is the steep price they pay for being good swimmers. Still, with their regular 50-mile treks to nesting grounds and the ease with which they hop over obstacles and scramble over inclines, they’re not doing too badly for themselves.

In fact, they may help humans out in the long run. “Our knowledge gained from penguins provides novel insight into the gait mechanics of humans with increased lateral movements, such as in pregnant women or obese individuals,” Griffin told Scientific American. “This information may lead to improved understanding, evaluation and treatment of individuals with gait disabilities.”

Why Is It Hard To Pour Coffee From A Mug? (Physics)

It’s a lazy Saturday morning and you’ve just finished pouring the last of the coffee into your mug when your significant other informs you they were hoping to have a little more coffee, too. Being the generous person you are, you pour half of your fresh coffee into their mug … only to dribble coffee all over the counter and the floor. Why is it so hard to pour liquid from a mug? A physics principle known as the Coanda effect is to blame for the mess in your kitchen, but it’s not all bad — it’s also the reason airplanes can fly.

You’ve probably never heard of Henri Coanda, which is a shame. After all, he was the first person to build a jet-powered aircraft (and according to some accounts, fly one) way back in 1910. His invention was less than successful, but in subsequent years, he did make a big contribution to our knowledge of how airplane wings produce lift.

In 1934, he filed a patent for a device that works on what’s now known as the Coanda effect: On a curved surface, a moving stream of fluid will create internal pressure that keeps it moving along that surface. Because air is considered a fluid just like water, an airplane wing can use this effect to generate lift. How? Faster moving molecules have lower pressure than lower moving molecules (according to a rule called Bernoulli’s principle), so a jet of air is basically a low-pressure stream surrounded on all sides by high-pressure areas. Place a surface on one side of that jet, and you remove the high-pressure area pushing up on it, leaving the pressure on the other side to push the entire jet down onto that surface. Voila, the stream of fluid stays “stuck” to the surface, even if that surface curves.

An airplane wing is curved on top and straight on the bottom. Because air’s natural tendency is to go in a straight line, the air molecules curving around the top of a wing are in conflict. Those closest to the wing stay “stuck” to the wing, but those furthest escape its pull and move straight. The bottom of the wing, meanwhile, is straight, so the air molecules stay packed together as they slide along its surface.

The result is that you have the same number of air molecules on the top of the wing as on the bottom, but on top, they’re stretched out into a larger area, which creates lower pressure. The air pushes up, and ladies and gentlemen, we have liftoff.

What does this have to do with coffee? The molecules in your coffee also experience pressure from the ambient air, and when it flows along the surface of your mug, that pressure keeps it “stuck.” And as the Coanda effect assures us, that coffee will stay stuck even as it curves around the lip of the mug. But the Coanda effect isn’t infinite. If the curve is sharp enough, as on a wine glass or the spout of a pitcher, the fluid becomes “unstuck” and flows freely. That’s why the coffee pitcher doesn’t dribble everywhere, but your mug does.

Why Adding Cold Cream To Your Coffee Keeps It Hotter? (Physics)

Even if you’re a fan of cold brew, there’s nothing tempting about a cup of hot coffee gone cold. But hectic mornings, unreliable travel mugs, and chilly temperatures can mix to leave your morning cuppa joe tepid and unappetizing. If you drink coffee with cream, you might be tempted to put off adding that cream until the last minute to keep it hot for as long as possible. According to physics, though, that’s the opposite of what you want to do. Coffee with cream stays hotter longer.

It seems counterintuitive: if you want coffee to stay hot, why would you add cold liquid? It comes down to several principles in physics.

Anyone who’s felt the temperature difference between the road and the sidewalk on a hot summer day knows the first principle: dark colors absorb more heat than light colors. That means they emit more heat, too. The velvety darkness of black coffee, then, is better at emitting heat — and thereby loses heat faster — than the chestnut brown of café au lait. One point for cream in your coffee.

The next principles aren’t quite as intuitive. Hotter things lose heat faster, according to something called the Stefan-Boltzmann law. Also, the bigger the difference in temperature between two objects in contact with each other, like the coffee and the air, the faster the hotter one will lose its heat to the cooler one, according to Newton’s Law of Cooling. At first, this might seem like coffee with cream is just getting off on a technicality: it cools down more slowly because it starts off colder, sure, but wouldn’t the head start extra-hot black coffee has help keep it hotter than its creamy counterpart?

No, especially if your plan is to add cream eventually. Say Jessie and AC are both holding cups of coffee. Jessie’s impatient, so she adds cream to her coffee immediately, reducing the temperature right then and there. AC, on the other hand, wants his coffee to stay as hot as possible until he’s ready to drink it, so he waits five minutes to add the cream. But because AC’s coffee starts off hotter, it loses heat so quickly that once five minutes has passed, it’s about the same temperature as Jessie’s — and he still needs to add the cream, which will lower the temperature even more.

Finally, there’s the fact that adding cream to coffee increases its volume and its viscosity. More volume means it takes more time to cool off — just like a bathtub cools more slowly than a pot of warm water, you have to remove more heat from a bigger cup of coffee than a smaller one in order to lower their temperatures by the same amount. Substances with more viscosity evaporate more slowly, and evaporation takes heat with it. That’s the same reason that the melted butter at your dinner table cools off faster than the gravy does.

The choice is clear: if you want your coffee to stay hot, add cream as soon as possible.

Bonus fact: Have you ever noticed that droplets of cold cream will sometimes sit on the coffee’s surface for a few seconds before dissolving? MIT scientists just determined why that happens. The temperature difference between the cold cream and the hot coffee creates circulating currents in the air that cradle the droplet as it sits on the coffee’s surface, preventing it from sinking in. The greater the temperature difference, the longer the cream will sit there.

Should You Listen To Music While You Work? (Psychology)

“Whistle while you work” is classic advice, straight from Snow White. Science backs it to a certain extent, too — listening to music on the treadmill, for instance, helps people persevere through their runs. But does music create a productive backdrop for more mental work? What about for any kind of work?

This question is a bit simplistic, so it’s no wonder that no one has satisfactorily answered it yet. The researchers who discovered the “Mozart effect,” found that listening to Mozart sonatas before a mental activity sparked stronger spatial reasoning (it didn’t actually make people smarter). Cool, but specific. What about Mozart sonatas during a task? What about death metal?

Hard to say. There have been various studies on music and work, but the results have been mixed. Perhaps, a recent study proposed, this is because music’s effect on work performance is complicated. It’s not just “good” or “bad” — it depends on the type of work, the type of music, and the worker’s personality.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 142 undergraduate students and asked them to complete two tasks, one simple and one complex. The simple one was searching a list of words and crossing out the ones including the letter “a”; the complex one was studying pairs of words and then recalling them in a test setting.

Subjects did their tasks either in silence or with a soundtrack of instrumental music; the music was either simple or complex. (Both tracks had identical piano, strings, and synth elements, but the complex one had drums and bass layered in.)

Researchers assessed participants’ personalities beforehand, too. Each study subject took an evaluation that gauged how much they enjoyed external stimulation. The 28-item questionnaire asked them to respond to statements like “It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people” and “I am seldom excited about my work.”

So … what made people perform best?

The results were counterintuitive. Basically, researchers found that people with a preference for external stimulation — think people who check their phones while watching TV or actually play on the office swingset — were less able to handle working to music. They were the ones who most wanted to, ironically, but they performed best on the complex task when they worked in silence. Their peers who didn’t prefer external stimuli performed best when music played.

This held true for the study’s simple task, too. The external simulation seekers performed best to no music or simple music, whereas their peers who bored less easily performed best to complex music.

These results suggest that people who seek external stimulation have a huge, almost unwieldy amount of attention that they can give the world. Their attention splits easily when multiple activities — say, doing work and listening to music — compete for their attention. But isolated with a task, they can get very deeply absorbed. People on the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, benefitted from the distraction, since it was just enough to keep their minds from wandering.

Not that people who seek external stimulation are unique. Across the board, people can enjoy only so much distraction. As the study authors put it: “While distractions may facilitate simple task performance to a degree, there is also a point at which distractions will overload task performers even during simple tasks.” For external stimulation seekers, overload happens earlier, because they’re actively seeking the sensation. Overload may be bad for performance, but it’s definitely not boring.

To Feel Happier At Work, Stop Hiding The Real You (Psychology)

At work, it’s healthier and more productive just to be yourself, according to a new study. The study examines 65 studies focusing on what happens after people in a workplace disclose a stigmatized identity, such as sexual orientation, mental illness, physical disability, or pregnancy.

Eden King, a coauthor of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Rice University, calls the decision to express a stigmatized identity highly complicated. “It has the potential for both positive and negative consequences,” she says.

The research overwhelmingly indicates, however, that people with non-visible stigmas (such as sexual orientation or health problems) who live openly at work are happier with their overall lives and more productive in the workplace. Self-disclosure is typically a positive experience because it allows people to improve connections, form relationships with others, and free their minds of unwanted thoughts, King says.

Workers who expressed their non-visible stigmas experienced decreased job anxiety, decreased role ambiguity, improved job satisfaction, and increased commitment to their position. Outside of work, these people reported decreased psychological stress and increased satisfaction with their lives.

But the study found that the same results did not apply to people with visible traits, such as race, gender, and physical disability.

“Identities that are immediately observable operate differently than those that are concealable,” King says. “The same kinds of difficult decisions about whether or not to disclose the identity — not to mention the questions of to whom, how, when, and where to disclose those identities — are probably less central to their psychological experiences.”

Because most people appreciate gaining new information about others, the expression of visible stigmas is likely to have less of an impact, King says.

“Also, people react negatively to those who express or call attention to stigmas that are clearly visible to others, such as race or gender, as this may be seen as a form of advocacy or heightened pride in one’s identity,” she says.

The researchers say more work will help understand the motivations for expressing different stigmas. They say they hope the meta-analysis will help workplaces and policymakers protect individuals with stigmas from discrimination.

The study appears in the Journal of Business and Psychology. Additional coauthors are from Rice University; Texas A&M University; the University of Memphis; Xavier University; Portland State University; and the University of California, Berkeley.

The High Place Phenomenon Is A Strange Urge To Jump Off A Bridge (Psychology)

If you’ve ever sat atop a steep cliff, or on the observation deck of a skyscraper, and looked straight down, you probably remember thinking about how easy it would be to jump. If you’re reading this now, we can safely assume you didn’t — but where does this irrational, obviously suicidal urge come from? Psychologists call it the “high place phenomenon,” and they say it may even be a sign of a healthy mind.

Psychology researchers have found that the urge to jump off a bridge or veer off a cliff is actually surprisingly common. A 2012 study found that it occurs both to people who report having suicidal thoughts and to people who have never shown suicidal tendencies whatsoever. Roughly 50 percent of the non-suicidal study respondents reported having an inexplicable urge to jump from a dangerously high place.

The study’s authors think that the high place phenomenon is a matter of your brain playing a trick on you. Although you weren’t actually going to jump off of the cliff, simply seeing the edge triggers a subconscious fear response that the conscious mind attempts to rationalize. Conscious thought works more slowly than emotional response and the rest of the human brain’s auto-pilot circuitry, which is why you pull your hand away from a hot stove before even thinking about it. In this case, there is no stove, so the conscious mind looks for a rationalization of its fear and says to itself, “Oh no, I must have wanted to jump!”

Another theory suggests that the phenomenon comes from the human tendency to gamble when faced with great risk. It may be that a fear of heights and a fear of death aren’t completely connected in our minds, so while looking down off of a precipice sets off alarm bells, your mind may hold onto an irrational belief that if you could only get to the ground somehow, you’d be safe. So you might as well take the risk and jump.

Scientists and philosophers are just beginning to scratch the surface of the way experiences like the high place phenomenon work. Both fear response and gambit theories rely on the idea that human beings are largely unaware of their own thoughts, motives, and judgments. In 2017, Peter Carruthers published a compelling argument for the idea that we’re all fundamentally unaware of our own thoughts and that the idea that we know them is a convenient illusion — our brains playing another trick on us. This theory explains how the high place phenomenon (and many other irrational behaviors) can take place in our minds, even though everyone likes to think they act in a more-or-less rational way.

You Should Never Work In A Dim Light (Neuroscience)

Want a romantic vibe? Light a few candles and turn the lights down low. Want a vibe that promotes any sort of productivity? Definitely crank the lights all the way up.

Ditch the moody coffeehouse if you’re looking for a spot to get some work done. According to a study by Michigan State University researchers, spending too much time in dimly lit rooms may hurt your ability to remember and learn. The research, published in February 2018 and funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first to show that changes in environmental light, in a range regularly experienced by people, leads to structural changes in the brain. Seeing as Americans spend about 90 percent of time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, this is applicable news.

For the study, researchers looked at Nile grass rats, which, like humans, sleep at night and are active during the day. The rats were exposed to bright or dim light for four weeks. After the four weeks, the dim-light group lost about 30 percent capacity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and memory, and performed badly on a spatial task they were previously trained on. The bright-light group, however, showed significant improvement on this task. Luckily for our dim light group, their brain capacity and task performance completely bounced back after being exposed to bright light for four weeks (after a month-long break).

“When we exposed the rats to dim light, mimicking the cloudy days of Midwestern winters or typical indoor lighting, the animals showed impairments in spatial learning,” Antonio Nunez, psychology professor and co-investigator on the study, said in a press release. “This is similar to when people can’t find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater.” Been there.

So are dark rooms making us dumb? That conclusion isn’t too far off. The researchers found that a lot of exposure to dim light led to huge reductions in something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a peptide that helps keep neurons in the memory-centric hippocampus healthy, and in dendritic spines, the connections that help neurons “talk” to each other.

“Since there are fewer connections being made, this results in diminished learning and memory performance that is dependent upon the hippocampus,” Joel Soler, a doctoral graduate student in psychology and lead study author, said in a press release. “In other words, dim lights are producing dimwits.”

This Bizzare Underground Flower Just Popped Out For The First Time In 151 Years (Botany)

In “Little Shop of Horrors,” Seymour Krelborn makes a once-in-a-lifetime discovery: a strange plant from outer space that grows unlike any other and feeds off of an unusual source. But after 150 years of hiding, a plant here on Earth is proving that such things are already among us. It’s just that they’re underground, not out in space.

In 1866, Odoardo Beccari became the first person to spot the Thisma neptunis. And for 150 years, he was also the last. But in 2017, a team of researchers from the Czech Republic re-made history when they discovered the weird little bloom poking out of the mud near a river in Borneo. The flower had just been living there, minding its own business. When you only show your face for a couple of weeks per year, and you live in the undergrowth of the Sarawak rainforest, it might be a while between human visitors.

Also called a fairy lantern (not to be confused with the much more common lily with the same nickname), the bizarre-looking bloom can be hard to spot at just 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) tall. But if it does catch your attention, it’s not likely to lose it. The strangely fleshy flower features three vertical spindles arranged almost like antennae — it truly looks like something out of “Aliens.” That certainly caught Beccari’s attention in 1866, and it’s a good thing. Thanks to his spur-of-the-moment illustration of the flower, we can say with absolute certainty that this new blossom is of the same type.

That weird little flower is only a part of T. neptunis, though. It only pops up once a year, in order to tempt passing pollinators and propagate the species. But that might make you question exactly how this plant works. The blossom doesn’t have any green chlorophyll, and it sure isn’t gathering sunlight underground. So how does it sustain itself? Simple — it gets by with the help of its friends. This flower likes to party with some real fungi.

T. neptunis is what’s called a mycoheterotroph, which survive by leeching off of underground mushrooms, which in turn rely on photosynthesizing plants above ground. Although the aboveground portion of the fairy lantern is strange to behold, at least it looks somewhat like a flower. Below the surface, the plant takes the form of a winding network of roots extending from a central bulb, searching for a fungus to attach to. You know, every time you think you’ve got a handle on how the ecosystem works, Mother Nature throws another curve ball at you.