The Lighter Side of Science: My Own Research Questions

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Research at Penn State covers just about every field imaginable.

For the university’s researchers, their intellectual pursuit starts with a question–something that stirs their curiosities.

During the past few years, I’ve talked to researchers who are exploring everything from how highway equipment can influence the spread of invasive plant species to possible treatments for deadly diseases.

This is nothing new. The rich legacy of Penn State research is almost as old as the university itself.

One of my favorite Penn State studies: in 1997, Penn State researchers revealed that people slow down when they see that someone is waiting for their parking space, even though most people think they leave faster.

It’s called territorial behavior. People guard their territory, whether it’s their home or a chunk of macadam in front of their favorite store.

But, for me, studies like this might just be the beginning. More questions — and totally new research areas — remain.

I’ve added a few suggestions for possible research questions.

Research Question Number 1:

Do people intentionally drive faster when you try to pass them?

Ever notice that when you’re driving at 60 miles per hour and you’re slowly catching up to another motorist, they suddenly hit the gas as soon as you start to pass them?

Once you enter the passing lane, you’re suddenly going 70… then 75…

Eventually, you back down and pull back behind the driver, who immediately restores his/her speed of 59.9 miles per hour.

But maybe that’s just me.

Research Question Number 2:

Are human beings incapable of merging their vehicles onto a highway?

It seems pretty straightforward to me. Drivers should let one merging motorist in front of them and one behind them. Theoretically, it’s a smooth operation.

But that’s rarely what I experience. Usually when I try to merge, the other motorists guard the lane change like they’re NASCAR points leaders. Likewise, when I slow down to allow a driver in, four cars try to jam in front of me.

Maybe this is more territorial behavior. I have other less scientific, yet more colorful, terms for this phenomenon, though.

Research Question 3

How do we know people are talking on their cell phones and not to themselves?

I am often shocked as I walk on campus by people who seem to be having conversations with disembodied entities. At least, I don’t see anyone around them.

It occurs to me that, maybe, they’re talking on a cell phone. But how do we know? Initially, I thought I could determine whether someone was using a cell phone or had mental health issues by the content of a conversation.

But, if you ever overheard a college student discuss an upcoming party, or a problem with a romantic partner, you realize that this is not an effective strategy.

Back to the drawing board.

Research Question 4

Why do people always seem to be shopping right in front of the item you want?

It doesn’t matter whether I’m looking for soft taco shells in the grocery store, or a book on the knife fighting tactics of the Celts at Barnes and Noble, someone is always standing in the exact aisle, in the exact section and, usually, near the exact shelf where the item I’m looking for is stocked.

Standing isn’t really the right word for it. Camping out is better.

Is this coincidence? Is it a matter of marketing? Is it a matter of retail design? Or, is it, as I suspect, that the world is out to get me?

What about you? Do you have any quirky questions that might serve as springboards to new research?

4 thoughts on “The Lighter Side of Science: My Own Research Questions”

  1. Hi Jill! Thanks for your comment. I am really interested in this. I’d love to do a follow-up story or post about this, so keep me in mind!

  2. Great post, Matt! I’m hoping that the national driving study that the Larson Transportation Institute is helping to conduct will answer some of your burning questions, which I have wondered about too! (A video about the study is at — and I’ll admit that while getting paid to drive was mildly of interest to me, I prefer to not have researchers find out evidence of my colorful reactions to the driver habits you mentioned!)

  3. Hi Ann!
    Thanks for the comment. You’re right. I didn’t think about the pre-I-99 days. I’d love to get in on that intervention…
    “Your inability to merge has affected my life negatively in the following ways….”

  4. Matt, No one taught our locals to merge. They never had a reason TO merge, until the bypass went in with actual ramps. They’re just winging it by panicing, but not merging. They either force you over, no matter what is in the passing lane beside you or they slow down until the car behind them wildly careens around them. All of Centre County needs a merging intervention. What ever happened to “Yield” signs? Now THAT was more instructive.

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