Trinkaus: An Informal Look For this business professor, the mysteries of human behavior are subjects to be quantified. And that is all.
By Marc Abrahams

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Does one man count for nothing?

The man we have in mind is John W. Trinkaus, a professor emeritus at the Zicklin School of Business in New York City. When something annoys or intrigues professor Trinkaus, he takes the time and trouble to carefully count that something--how numerous it is or how often it happens. And then he publishes a report.

What percentage of shoppers in a supermarket's express checkout lane have more than the number of items permitted? For the answer, see Trinkaus's 1993 paper "Compliance With the Item Limit of the Food Supermarket Express Checkout Lane: An Informal Look." How did this change during the irrational exuberance of the dot-com years? See his 2002 paper "Compliance With the Item Limit of the Food Supermarket Express Checkout Lane: Another Look."

After a snowstorm, what percentage of drivers don't bother to clear the snow off their car roofs? See last year's "Snow on Motor Vehicle Roofs: An Informal Look."

What percentage of commuters carry attache cases equipped with locks? What percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end? What percentage of automobile drivers come almost--but not completely--to a stop at one particular stop sign? Trinkaus has collected and published data on those phenomena and many more.

"Data" is the important word here, because what Trinkaus does with data is both simple and unusual. He reports the numbers. Period.

Read today's newspaper or turn on the TV news or look at a science journal. Typically an article with numbers in it also serves up, implicitly or explicitly, an interpretation of what those numbers signify. This percentage of pass completions means that team will make it to the Super Bowl. This amount of change in a tax rate means the economy will soar. Unstated assumptions lead from the numbers to the interpretations. Trinkaus makes no such assumptions; he pushes no such interpretations.

His research, he says, is purposely simple. "It suggests numbers for occurrences which many times folks talk about just in qualitative terms. I'm suggesting that people don't always have to settle for 'quite a bit,' 'a lot,' 'a bunch.' "

For example, his 1991 paper "Taste Preference for Brussels Sprouts: An Informal Look" delivers crisp confirmation: 54% of young students found the vegetable to be "very repulsive."

In 1983 we saw the publication of "Human Communications: An Informal Look," in which Trinkaus explains that he "studied whether 750 riders of low-speed self-service elevators were inclined to respond with short utterances when one of two questions was asked of them: Is this car going up? or Is this car going down?"

The very titles of his papers stimulate thought:

"Stop Sign Compliance: An Informal Look," 1982.

"Stop Sign Compliance: Another Look," 1983.

"Waiting Times in Physicians' Offices: An Informal Look," 1985.

"Stop Sign Compliance: A Follow-Up Look," 1993.

"Stop Sign Compliance: A Final Look," 1997.

"An Informal Look at Use of Bakery Department Tongs and Tissues," 1998.

"Stop Sign Dissenters: An Informal Look," 1999.

In his many traffic-related studies, Trinkaus presents, but does not attempt to explain, his most-often-observed fact: that women in vans are often the least law-abiding of drivers.

Trinkaus's eye scans in many directions. "I just look and something strikes me. I don't purposely go out and look for topics. I just say 'Ahhh--that looks good.' "

"Wearing Baseball-Type Caps: An Informal Look," 1994: "Observed 407 people wearing baseball-type caps with the peak in back in the downtown area and on two college campuses (one in an inner borough and one in an outer borough) of a large city. About 40% of subjects in the downtown area and at the inner-borough college wore the cap with the peak to the rear, while about 10% of the outer-borough college subjects had the peak to the rear."

"The Demise of 'Yes': An Informal Look," 1997: "For affirmative responses to simple interrogatories, the use of 'absolutely' and 'exactly' may be becoming more socially frequent than 'yes.' A counting of positive replies to 419 questions on several TV networks showed 249 answers of 'absolutely,' 117 'exactly,' and 53 of 'yes.' "

Trinkaus has published 87 papers so far, each a page or two long. When he is not conducting his studies, he teaches principles of management, business ethics, and strategic management. Asked to explain his brand of research, he lists three goals: "First, to make people smile. Especially folks in the ivory tower, who tend to be serious about everything, all the time, even if it's only an issue of whether to go to Ray's Pizza or Blimpie's for lunch. Second, to send a signal to newly minted Ph.D.s in business that all academic research doesn't have to appear to be formidable and overpowering. Simplicity works. And third, to provide information about people's behavior off the workplace that probably translates into what they do in the workplace. Managing people is the biggest unknown, and the more input you have on human behavior, the better off you are."

Finally, of course, he provides for all of us the lesson that, often, beauty and truth are in the details.

When professor John W. Trinkaus notices something that can be tallied, he tallies it. In a profession ruled by the dictum "publish or perish," Trinkaus counts for a lot.

MARC ABRAHAMS edits the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and administers the annual Ig Nobel Prizes. In 2003 the Ig Nobel Prize for literature went to professor Trinkaus.