October 14, 2006

Every * seconds

OK, everyone can stop emailing me about how common "every 53 seconds" is on the web.

The main point of my post about Louann Brizendine's claim that "85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds" was that I could find no support for those numbers in any of the works referenced in her end-note on the passage in question. A secondary point was that an independent literature search also turned up no support for the claim, but instead found quite a different number: an average of 7 sexual thoughts per day for a sample of "49 male heterosexual undergraduates" from an intro psych course in an American university in 1990. Finally, I looked on the web for any other possible sources of the "every 52 seconds" idea, and didn't turn up anything relevant.

But I did turn up a few hundred references to other things that allegedly happen every 52 seconds, and I made a little joke that maybe sometimes people just like the way that number sounds. This obviously made me curious about whether 52 is an especially common choice in the frame "every * seconds" -- so I checked, producing the following table:

"every __ seconds" 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
Google count 79,500 421 290 758 209 20,200 141 344 24,300 319 541

(Actually, I went on up to 65, but I got tired of adding stuff to the table, so I'll leave it where it was at breakfast on Friday.)

Now, it's not completely clear what's going on here. It's sensible that 45 and 50 would be frequent, since they're multiples of 5 -- but it's not clear why 55 is way lower. And what about 53? Scanning the first ten pages of hits makes it seem that we're dealing mostly with a statistic about the frequency of strokes, and secondarily one about how often laptops are stolen -- and these could be true, who knows? There's also one Brizendine review that mis-transcribes her statistic as 53...

Anyhow, my post on the "think about sex every fifty-two seconds" claim was already way too long, and the interpretation of the table presented above is neither very clear nor (as far as I can tell) very interesting (OK, I admit that my standards for interest and clarity are sometimes pretty low, but there are limits to everything), so I left it out.

Big mistake.

I've gotten more email about this than almost anything else I've ever posted. In particular, if I'm counting correctly, 22 of you have now written to clue me in that 53 is more popular than 52 in this frame, and many of you have sent whole vectors of Google counts.

So thanks, but you can stop now. I do enjoy hearing from readers, and all kudos, corrections and complaints are welcome -- but this one's been done.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 14, 2006 05:54 PM