Family Death Rates: The Grandmother Problem

Click to download the Shocking "Grandmother Problem" research.

While the study of Family Death Rates (FDR) is probably not Number 1 on most people’s list of “Favourite Sociology Topics”,* research by Mike Adams, a biologist at Eastern Connecticut State University, Connecticut, has injected a certain frisson of excitement – and, it must be said, controversy – into a rather dull and theoretically-moribund corner of the Family Specification through his identification of a peculiar and perplexing phenomenon amongst American college students. As he puts it:

It has long been theorized that the week prior to an exam is an extremely dangerous time for the relatives of college students. Ever since I began my teaching career, I heard vague comments, incomplete references and unfinished remarks, all alluding to the “Dead Grandmother Problem.” Few colleagues would ever be explicit in their description of what they knew, but I quickly discovered that anyone who was involved in teaching at the college level would react to any mention of the concept”.

Sensing he may have chanced upon a way of getting a hefty grant from his University authorities significant and hitherto-unstudied field of research – one with serious implications for the health, safety and, not-to-put-too-fine-a-point-on-things, longevity of vulnerable family members – Adams did what any self-respecting scientist would do: he reformulated the suspicion into a hypothesis he could test:

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.”

And test it he did.

In an equally scientific kind of way.

And what he found broke a lot of ground.

As he himself put it:

The results presented in this Report provide a chilling picture and should waken the profession and the general public to a serious health and sociological problem before it is too late”.

Although the actual testing of the hypothesis involved quite a lot of sciency-stuff, using what scientists like to call “statistics” (if you’re a non-scientist, don’t stop reading. Neither “simple linear regressions” nor “correlation coefficients” are catching. Or indeed, catchy), the results are easy to summarise:

  • If a student is not facing an imminent exam, their close (but not so close that anyone’s likely to know much about them) relatives – specifically Grandmothers – are in little danger of immediate and catastrophic death. As Adams puts it scientifically “the family death rate per 100 students (FDR) is low”.
  • If a student has an imminent exam, however, FDR jumps exponentially. Not only do Grandmothers start to pop-their-clogs quickly and unexpectedly, they also shuffle off this mortal coil in ways that, until Adams’s research were completely unexplained. As if this finding wasn’t shocking enough, here was one further completely shocking finding that in all likelihood completely shocked Adams, namely that: “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”.
  • Not content with just publishing his clear and unambiguous findings and then going on holiday, Adams speculated as to possible causes of the “Grandmother problem”.

    And here he was equally forthright and unambiguous:

    “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 (sic) 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.”**

    Satisfying as this explanation may be – although to American Grandmothers, maybe not so much – Adams didn’t stop there.

    Because he was a scientist.

    And also because, as he freely admits, he saw the opportunity to apply for a lot more high-value grants to study all kinds of related stuff.

    Such as the positive and persistent correlation between “the percentage of the population attending college and the mean divorce rate on a country by country basis”.

    As a quick internet research probably revealed:

    The United States has the highest percentage of its population attending college and also the world’s highest divorce rate, while South Yemen is last in both categories.” ***

    As you may expect, there’s a lot more of this stuff in the Report involving some surprising correlations between things no-one’s very interested in (Adams’ notes, for example, that the “Grandmother Problem” is not restricted to North America. It’s a real global phenomenon. Apparently) but if you’re the kind of person who is interested in these things, you’ll be interested enough to read it for yourself.

    For my part, I’d just like to conclude by saying to teachers that there are some real and very valuable lessons to be learnt from the Report that could usefully be passed on to your students.

    What these lessons my be, of course, I’ll leave up to you.


    Adams, Mike (1999) “The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome”: Annuls of Improbable Research


    * This may or may not be an Actual List. It’s possible I may have just invented it. If anyone does happen to have possession of such a List it’s probably best if you keep it to yourself. It will just be our little secret.

    ** I’ve highlighted this section to draw your attention to the fact that I’ve just learnt how to use the WordPress “background colour” function.

    *** I couldn’t actually be bothered to Google this. It was true in 1999 and it may or may not be true in 2019.

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