Monday, April 4, 2016

The Exam Time/Dead Grandmother Syndrome

Here's an oldie-but-a-goodie that I'm sure some readers have already seen over the years, a satirical piece about the extremely high death rates of the grandmothers of college students during exam period. Mike Adams write about "The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome" in the November/December 1999 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research.

In true social-science fashion, Adams first provides background, then establishes the facts, discusses lines of causality, then proposes a solution.

"In my travels I found that a similar phenomenon is known in other countries. In England it is called the “Graveyard Grannies” problem, in France the “Chere Grand’mere,” while in Bulgaria it is inexplicably known as “The Toadstool Waxing Plan” (I may have had some problems here with the translation. Since the revolution this may have changed anyway.) Although the problem may be international in scope it is here in the USA that it reaches its culmination, so it is only fitting that the first warnings originate here also. The basic problem can be stated very simply: A student’s grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year."
"For over twenty years I have collected data on this supposed relationship ... [W]hen no exam is imminent the family death rate per 100 students (FDR) is low and is not related to the student’s grade in the class. The effect of an upcoming exam is unambiguous. The mean FDR jumps from 0.054 with no exam, to 0.574 with a mid-term, and to 1.042 with a final, representing increases of 10-fold and 19-fold, respectively. ... [T]he changes are strongly grade dependent ... Overall, a student who is failing a class and has a final coming up is more than 50 times more likely to lose a family member than is an A student not facing any exams." 
Of course, the averages cannot capture the extreme cases, like one member of the baseball team "who tragically lost at least one grandmother every semester for four years."

"Only one conclusion can be drawn from these data. Family members literally worry themselves to death over the outcome of their relatives’ performance on each exam. Naturally, the worse the student’s record is, and the more important the exam, the more the family worries; and it is the ensuing tension that presumably causes premature death. Since such behavior is most likely to result in high blood pressure, leading to stroke and heart attacks, this would also explain why these deaths seem to occur so suddenly, with no warning and usually immediately prior to the exam. It might also explain the disproportionate number of grandmothers in the victim pool, since they are more likely to be susceptible to strokes. This explanation, however, does not explain why grandfathers are seldom affected, and clearly there are other factors involved that have not been identified. Nonetheless, there is considerable comfort to be had in realizing that these results indicate that the American family is obviously still close-knit and deeply concerned about the welfare of individual members, perhaps too much so."

Adams evaluates the merits of three different solutions to saving the grandmothers:
1) Stop giving exams.
2) Allow only orphans to enroll at universities.
3) Have students lie to their families.

Those who want more detail on this health scourge are encouraged to check Adams's paper. It has actual tables and figures, so it must be true.