The five-second rule won't save your life, babies conceived in the summer struggle academically, and high ceilings promote abstract thinking.

Floor Sample
Every schoolchild knows that when you drop something on the floor, you have five seconds to pick it up before it’s contaminated. But schoolyard wisdom isn’t enough for scientists, who rigorously explore our baseless assumptions, including the five-second rule. The field of five-second rule research was pioneered in 2003 by researcher Jillian Clarke (now a college junior), who found that significant numbers of bacteria transferred from a contaminated surface to food in less than five seconds. Now, in a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, researchers have found that the bacterial transfer rate from surface to food decreases over time, and in some cases over 99% of bacterial cells were transferred within the first five seconds. The researchers examined how quickly Salmonella would transfer from wood, tile, and carpet to bologna and bread. Transfer from carpet to bologna was very low, but wood and tile contaminated the sausage instantly. While not all of the bacteria was transferred, in some salmonellas, only 10 bacteria are needed to cause illness, and fewer than 100 E. coli bacteria can be lethal. So the five-second rule may work for very clean surfaces, but you probably shouldn’t stake your life on it.

Living the Life of O’Reilly
Speaking of conventional wisdom relating to short spans of time (and it’s not often I get to use that segue), you’ve probably heard that the average man thinks about sex once every seven seconds. If this is true—there’s little reason to believe it is—Bill O’Reilly engages in name calling more frequently than a typical dude thinks about getting it on. According to a study by researchers at the Indiana University School of Journalism, during Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points Memo” editorials, the pundit calls someone a name 8.88 times per minute, or once every 6.8 seconds. The researchers analyzed 115 episodes of the editorials using propaganda analysis techniques and compared O’Reilly to 1930s radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, who notoriously praised Hitler and Mussolini on his show. They found that O’Reilly was more of a name caller and used at least as many “glittering generalities” as Coughlin…although I’m pretty sure O’Reilly has never praised any Nazis. They also found that O’Reilly presents specific groups as either good or evil and sets up a battle between the two sides. The researchers conclude that O’Reilly is a “heavier and less nuanced” user of propaganda techniques than Coughlin. “No Spin Zone,” eh?

Getting Away With Murder
Television shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI” may already be messing with the criminal justice system, encouraging juries to expect lots of damning forensic evidence at every trial. And now the BBC has gone and aided potential criminals further by airing the program How to commit the perfect Murder, a guide to forensic techniques that help expose guilty parties. Immediately after death, the program says, blood pools in areas closest to the ground, so if a body is moved to a different position, scientists will know. The writers add that poison is one of the hardest weapons to detect, and rare poisons such as polonium-210—the substance used to kill former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko—are especially elusive. Perhaps most interestingly, the program notes that some people naturally shed much more DNA than others, making a person’s criminal ability partially a product of luck. 

Vice Precedent
When Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything but temptation,” merely broaching the topic may have made him more likely to misbehave. A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research concludes that when people are asked intention questions about “vice behaviors,” how often they plan to do something they know they shouldn’t, they become more likely to engage in those behaviors. Researchers asked a group of college students how often they planned to skip class in the next week. On average, these students missed one more class than those in a control group who were asked how often they intended to floss. The researchers suggest that when people are asked about behaviors that they have conflicting attitudes about—here, a negative explicit attitude and a positive implicit attitude—they feel a “license to sin.” The authors note that when people consider strategies for avoiding tempting behaviors or create a self-reward system for sticking with their plans, they can mitigate their vicious behaviors.

Conceive and Achieve
As we enter the summer months, it is important that potential parents in the northern hemisphere stay far away from each other and avoid all physical intimacy. Please. It’s for the children. The results of a study recently presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting indicate that children who are conceived in June through August may be less academically successful than children conceived in other months of the year. The researchers studied 1,667,391 Indiana students, linking the score of their Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress exam with the month when the student was conceived. They found that scores for math and language were seasonal, and those conceived in the summer months had the lowest scores. The authors suggest that the pesticides used to control pests during those months may affect fetal brain development. “Exposure to pesticides and nitrates can alter the hormonal milieu of the pregnant mother and the developing fetal brain,” said lead author Paul Winchester, of the Indiana University School of Medicine. Winchester acknowledges that his study does not conclusively show the effect of environmental pesticides on brain development but says it supports that hypothesis.

Raise the Roof
The Catholic Church might never have been so successful were it not for those gorgeous, vaulted cathedrals encouraging abstract thinking among congregants. A new study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that ceiling height can affect the way we process information. “When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly,” said coauthor Joan Meyers-Levy, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. “They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.” Subjects in rooms with either an eight-foot ceiling or a ten-foot ceiling first reported on their body state and then solved anagrams that, when unscrambled, related to freedom, confinement, or neither. Those in rooms with a higher ceiling reported feeling freer, and they solved freedom-related anagrams faster but confinement-related anagrams slower than those in a room with a low ceiling. The researchers suggest that ceiling hight can prime feelings of either freedom or confinement and thereby lead to specific ways of thinking.

Originally published May 14, 2007

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