Albert Einstein always appears to be such a kind and gentle character in photographs, with that whispy white hair, puppy eyes and too-big knitwear -- the Kurt Cobain of theoretical physics. But psychologists have discovered that students find photos of Einstein subconciously intimidating, and will do significantly worse in exams when Einstein's seemingly innocent portrait stares down on them in silent mockery.
The phenomenon doesn't stop there. This week, researchers published findings in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrating how our physical performance is impaired when viewing footage of famous sportsmen plying their trade.
Forty people were shown photographs of sportsmen like tennis star Tim Henman. In some photographs the sportsmen were shown in a neutral context -- perhaps licking an ice cream, or sunbathing. In others, the sportsmen were shown in sporting poses -- returning a serve, or kicking a football. Volunteers were asked to name the sportsman in each case by pressing a footpad or key.
It was found that when the sportsman was in a sporting pose, the volunteer's brains took significantly longer to react to the photograph and name the individual. Most intriguingly, when the volunteers were shown a photograph of England international footballer Wayne Rooney in action, their hand response was unaffected, but their foot response was slowed by 20 milliseconds.
It seems that the type of physical impairment suffered by the volunteers related directly to the assumed skills of the sportsmen they were observing. Just as a photograph of Einstein causes lapses in the mind, a photograph of an expert footballer causes lapses in the legs.
The researchers concluded that Rooney was intimidating rival players, just as Einstein's photograph intimidates students. Researchers Patric Bach and Steven Tipper told one paper: "The mere sight of him inhibits the control you have over your feet."
So, the message here is clear, if you want to do well in exams, ditch your photographs of Einstein. In fact, don't even imagine the man. And if you want to stand a chance against Rooney on the football pitch, then blindfold yourself. -CS