Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Addicted to Our Devices

If you drive to the store for a loaf of bread and forget your phone, do you feel adrift? Do you worry that if you don’t check your computer every 15 minutes, you’ll miss the news that Martians just landed in Petaluma? Welcome to my world. And let me introduce you to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Matt Richtel. Here’s what Richtel said last week on the public radio program, “Here and Now”: “It goes all the way back to B.F. Skinner’s studies with rats. There are rats in cages that would press a lever to get food, but they would never know which press of the lever would bring food, so they would press the lever all the time. … We (humans) never know which press on our devices is going to bring the good email, the good text, the good information. So we become conditioned to press it all the time.” more

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's a Parent to Do?

So what is a parent to do? If asking, scolding, yelling and punishing don’t work, you need to try another tactic. Try praising. Change how you interact with her. If most of your interactions with her are about things you are unhappy with, she will soon try to avoid you altogether. Anyone who is at all smart will avoid someone who is always unhappy with them ... Let her know when you are happy with what she has done. You can let her know you are pleased by giving her a high five, a smile or a hug. Let her see your enthusiasm with what she has done and be specific. It helps to say, “Great job putting your dishes into the dishwasher!” is better and works better than just saying, “Great job!” Don’t encourage her to be disobedient by giving it a lot of attention. If you focus on defiance, it actually may increase the very behavior you don’t like. Try actually walking away from her behavior when it is annoying. Even walking away sends her the message that her annoying behavior doesn’t work ... Another way to help change your child’s behavior is to try a reward system and make a game of doing what you ask her to do. Give a point each time she does what you ask her to do right away. If she doesn’t do it, you can say that you see she isn’t ready but you will try again later. If she then turns around after you have said that and does what you asked, praise her but don’t give her a point. You want to get her to do what you ask right away without complaining about it. more

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monkeys Learn to Steer Wheelchair Using Only Their Brains

Training a monkey to navigate a wheelchair is as easy as letting the animals go for a few rides—that is, assuming they have electrodes implanted into their brains that allow researchers to decode their neural activity and use it to steer the chair via a brain-computer interface (BCI). Researchers in the Duke University lab of Miguel Nicolelis, who helped design and build the exoskeleton that allowed a paralyzed man to kick off this summer's World Cup games, presented their work on two wheelchair-driving monkeys at this week's Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference being held in Washington, DC. The team first recorded activity in the motor and sensory cortices of monkeys riding around in the chair. A computer decoder then correlated this neural activity with the direction of movement of the chair, and after the training period was over, the BCI worked in reverse—using the neural inputs to actually steer the chair. Both monkeys eventually learned to steer the chair across the room to a grape dispenser, where they received their food reward. more

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Human Touch: New Research Suggests Some Animals Prefer Human Connections

What do animals really want? A new study from the University of Florida suggests it might be human contact, at least in the case of some Galapagos tortoises ... The findings are particularly important for those who work with animals in captivity every day -- zookeepers, trainers and students -- and strive to provide the best experience for them ... In the experiment, three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville named Larry, Moe and Curly, were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years ... “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing" ... Both Dorey and Mehrkam use behavior analysis as the foundation of their research. This methodology, used primarily in human study, focuses specifically on behaviors and what factors or situations influence them rather than looking at root causes. The team also is studying aggression in dogs around guarding behaviors in a paper to be submitted for publication soon. more

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rodent Traders Can Beat the Odds

Eighty-five years ago, a young psychologist called BF Skinner developed what is technically called an operant conditioning chamber but is more famously known as a Skinner box, designed to contain and train laboratory animals. The simplest version rewards a rat for pressing a lever. More complex devices can play sounds, display lights and even deliver electric shocks, though Skinner himself preferred to use rewards rather than punishments ... Skinner’s ideas of modifying behaviour with rewards in a controlled environment seemed somehow manipulative and threatening. These days we call behaviour modification "nudging" and it is perfectly respectable. I thought of all this when I discovered RatTraders.com, a website offering, in its own words, "a professional service to the financial industry; rats are being trained to become superior traders in the financial markets." more

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Everyone Gets Pavlov Wrong

As a college student, B. F. Skinner gave little thought to psychology. He had hoped to become a novelist, and majored in English. Then, in 1927, when he was twenty-three, he read an essay by H. G. Wells about the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. The piece, which appeared in the Times Magazine, was ostensibly a review of the English translation of Pavlov’s “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.” But, as Wells pointed out, it was “not an easy book to read,” and he didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, Wells described Pavlov, whose systematic approach to physiology had revolutionized the study of medicine, as “a star which lights the world, shining down a vista hitherto unexplored” ... Pavlov had formulated a basic psychological principle—one that also applied to human beings—and discovered an objective way to measure how it worked. Skinner was enthralled. Two years after reading the Times Magazine piece, he attended a lecture that Pavlov delivered at Harvard and obtained a signed picture, which adorned his office wall for the rest of his life. Skinner and other behaviorists often spoke of their debt to Pavlov, particularly to his view that free will was an illusion, and that the study of human behavior could be reduced to the analysis of observable, quantifiable events and actions. But Pavlov never held such views, according to “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science” (Oxford), an exhaustive new biography by Daniel P. Todes ... In fact, much of what we thought we knew about Pavlov has been based on bad translations and basic misconceptions. more

Monday, November 17, 2014

Neuroprosthetics: Linking the Human Nervous System to Computers

In its simplest form, a neuroprosthetic is a device that supplants or supplements the input and/or output of the nervous system. For decades, researchers have eyed neuroprosthetics as ways to bypass neural deficits caused by disease, or even to augment existing function for improved performance. Today, several different types of surgical brain implants are being tested for their ability to restore some level of function in patients with severe sensory or motor disabilities. In a very different vein, a company called Foc.us recently started selling simple, noninvasive brain stimulators to improve normal people’s attention while gaming. And perhaps the most visible recent demonstration of the power of neuroprosthetics was a spinal cord–injured patient using a brain-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In short, tinkering with the brain has begun in earnest. more

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Coffee Pot That Only Works When It's Windy

It's going to take more than just reducing, reusing, and recycling to stop wasting energy and precious fuel. It's going to take synchronizing what humans want with what the planet needs. And that might begin with morning coffee. At least, that's how four researchers at the U.K.-based Lancaster University see it. To demonstrate their idea of the future, the team developed a prototype kit called the "Windy Brew," which only allows a kettle to boil when a nearby wind turbine produces enough electricity. No renewable energy means no coffee or tea .... The project, Simm is quick to point out, isn't meant to "force" people into changing their behavior, or punish them by withholding coffee until renewable energy is produced. (After all, anyone can remove the device and make the kettle boil.) Rather, it's about examining how energy affects people's daily lives, and figuring out how to live according to energy cycles ... These kinds of time shifted activities, based on energy availability, are what Simm and Ferrario hope the rest of the world adopts. It would begin with social interactions—deciding when to meet up with others, for example. Ferrario proposes a coffee shop that has deals on days when energy is more available. The positive reinforcement—more renewable energy leads to cheaper coffee—would encourage people to pursue an energy-saving lifestyle. more

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Volunteers Smoked Less After a Night of Olfactory Conditioning

New Weizmann Institute research may bring the idea of sleep learning one step closer to reality. The research, which appeared today in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that certain kinds of conditioning applied during sleep could induce us to change our behavior. The researchers exposed smokers to pairs of smells - cigarettes together with that of rotten eggs or fish - as the subjects slept, and then asked them to record how many cigarettes they smoked in the following week. The study revealed a significant reduction in smoking following conditioning during sleep. more

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Behavioral Treatment for Weight Loss Works in Primary Care Setting

Intensive behavioral counseling can help patients lose a significant amount of weight, but it's rarely delivered by primary care doctors, researchers reported here. In a meta-analysis, patients who had counseling achieved a maximum weight loss of 6.6 kg (about 14 lbs), compared with a top loss of about 2 kg (about 4 lbs) for those who did not participate in such programs, reported Thomas Wadden, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and colleagues here at Obesity Week and simultaneously online in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But in none of the studies was that intervention delivered by primary care doctors alone, they reported. "The present findings suggest that a range of trained interventionists, who deliver counseling in person or by telephone, could be considered for treating overweight or obesity in patients encountered in primary care settings," they wrote. more

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Food Dudes: Combatting Childhood Obesity

Food Dudes Health, a Social Enterprise working in partnership with Bangor University, have developed the Food Dudes Healthy Eating Programme, an evidence-based behaviour change intervention, that produces large and lasting increases in the amount of fruit and vegetables children eat. The core psychological principles of the Programme are Role-Modelling, Rewards, and Repeated Tastings. All primary school children in Ireland have taken part in the Food Dudes programme, and it is also being rolled out regionally across primary schools in the UK. However, child obesity begins well before children start primary school. To try to make a difference even earlier, a KESS-funded project has now helped develop a Food Dudes programme for nursery-aged children. Led by KESS scholar Catherine Sharp, and supervised by Prof. Pauline Horne and Dr. Mihela Erjavec, the project measured the impact of the nursery programme in a six-school controlled evaluation. To encourage the toddlers to eat a range of provided fruit and vegetables, they first watched a role-modelling video showing young versions of the Food Dudes characters, Rocco, Razz, Tom, and Charlie, who love eating fruit and vegetables because they provide "special energy" for fun and play. When the toddlers then ate the fruit and vegetables provided each day, they were given small, Food Dudes customised rewards. The children who took part in the Programme began to eat a lot more fruit and vegetable. more

Friday, November 07, 2014

Human Animals

Nonhuman animal behavior has provided many insights into our own species’ psychology. Just take the experiments of Pavlov with dogs around conditioning. When dogs associate certain cues with food, they respond to the cue as they would do to the food itself. The best example is your dog rushing to the refrigerator whenever you open it. The dogs “know” there’s food inside that huge metal box. The smart ones also “know” that if they look cute enough, or hungry enough (or, best of all, cute and hungry enough), they stand a good chance of their human getting something from the metal box to give to them. Pavlov’s experiments, and legions of other psychologists who followed his footsteps to look into conditioning, were important in the development of psychology. Reward people to reinforce “good” behavior, and punish them to reduce “bad” behavior. Our understanding of conditioning in human psychology later went back to nonhuman animals with “clicker training,” where you use a simple little gadget that gives a clicking sound for training. The success of clicker training of dogs and dolphins later went back to human applications. Amy Sutherland, who trained dolphins using clickers, later wrote a book titled “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage.” ... This “clicker wife” suggests that you should not reinforce the bad behavior but that rather than nag, you can offer “rewards” to make the husband want to be good. more

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Automatic Launches License+, A Coaching Program For Teen Drivers And Their Parents

Connected car technology platform Automatic hopes to help ... young drivers develop better habits, and is launching a new program today called License+ that offers parents a toolset for encouraging and coaching their teens as they improve their driving skills. ... The company, like competitors Dash, Zubie, Drive Pulse and many others, involves an OBD device that is plugged into a port on your car that communicates with your smartphone to log your trips, monitor engine health, detect crashes, and track your driving in real-time by offering audio alerts for things like speeding, rough braking and more. The idea with this latter feature is that this sort of real-time feedback can make people drive better — similar to the way that the signs displaying your speed as you approach (flashing when you’re going too fast), can get drivers to become aware of their speed and slow down. more

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Problem Gamblers or Addicts?

How did I become addicted to pokies? How could this have happened to me, an intelligent woman, a psychologist and a former Member of Parliament? When I taught learning theory to psychology students I would use poker machines as an example of classical conditioning, just as Pavlov had taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by pairing it with food, until they salivated when they heard the bell, without waiting for the food. The pokies are a good example of operant conditioning too, with a reward appearing intermittently when a lever or button is pressed, mirroring psychologist B.F. Skinner's demonstration in the 1950s and '60s that rewarding a behaviour increases it. Skinner's rats learnt that if they pressed a lever they would be rewarded with food – not every time though. The greatest increase in lever pressing took place when the rats couldn't predict when the reward would come, because anticipation is just as effective in stimulating the release of dopamine and opioids in the brain as is the actual reward. That's how poker machines work. more

Monday, November 03, 2014

Are Wearables the Cure for Rising Health Costs?

The bottom line is that we’ve become lazy. We’re all looking for a quick fix. Your doctor recommends that you change your diet and exercise, and you ask if there’s a pill you can take instead; it’s less work, and your employer is going to pick up all or most of the prescription cost anyway. Improved prescription drugs have, in some instances, become enablers for continued poor lifestyle behaviours. So what’s the solution? The first step is simply to get your employees moving again. Think of Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. Statistics Canada data show that about half of the population spends less than 30 minutes per day engaging in moderate physical activity during leisure time. How you get your employees moving is where wearable fitness tracking devices come into play. If you’re not familiar with wearables, they’re electronic devices that you put on your wrist or clip to an article of clothing. There are dozens of these devices on the market, but the most popular are made by Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone. These gadgets are more than just a pedometer—they track sleep patterns, heart rates and calories burned while exercising. Some devices can even remind you to get out of your chair at programmed intervals of inactivity. And all of this data can be uploaded to a website and monitored on your mobile phone. It was the electronic age and the advent of television and the remote control that created the couch potato and arguably contributed to more sedentary lifestyles, so maybe electronic devices will get us out of this mess. more

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making Quitting More Than a Game

Dr. Bethany Raiff is on a mission: to help people stop smoking and cut the death rate attributable to the habit. She’s not an M.D. or D.O., however, and she is not unpacking a medical bag to make a difference. Raiff is an assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University, and she is using the ever-popular electronic game format to help save people from a recognized killer. She is a collaborator on research funded in part by a July 1, 2014, National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research Grant of close to $295,000 — a portion of which comes to Rowan — that is designed to help small businesses develop a product and bring it to market. As a subcontractor on the grant with two collaborators, Entertainment Science, Durham, North Carolina, and Playmatics, New York City, Raiff is working to develop a mobile smartphone game tentatively called “Breathe Free.” ... Raiff’s work is similar to an earlier project, a smoking cessation video game for Facebook called “Up from the Ashes” that the NIH funded in 2013. Breathe Free is like Up From the Ashes in that is a contingency management intervention — a game that strives to promote abstinence by using nonmonetary incentives to encourage people to quit smoking, basing those incentives on verification that they abstained from smoking. In both games, players provide carbon monoxide samples, either via a monitor attached to their telephones or a web camera attached to their computers. CO is an indication of whether a player has been smoking and to what extent. “It’s like a breathalyzer for alcohol, but it tests CO levels,” Raiff said. It indicates if players haven’t smoked. If they haven’t, they receive game-based rewards.” more

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quality of Words, Not Just Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children. Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears. more

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dangers of Texting Behind the Wheel

“It’s an addiction,” Shaw says. “How else can you explain it? I see people who can’t sit in class for 45 minutes without using their cell phone. That’s just the way we are now. We have to be connected all the time, and it’s scary.” Richtel makes a compelling case for seeing our desire for digital interactivity “as an analogy to what smokers experience, craving another cigarette when their nicotine levels fall. When you check your phone, you get a little dopamine peak, it regulates and then you start to feel a little yearning, and so you check it again.” We’ve all seen people compulsively refreshing their e-mail as if awaiting the message of a lifetime. “You would think that if you knew that most of what you get is spam or irrelevant, and in fact 67 percent of it is, that it would make your device less magnetic,” Richtel says. “Perversely, it makes it more magnetic because you never know when the good thing will come.” Richtel refers to smartphones as “veritable slot machines in our pockets.” He uses B.F. Skinner’s theory of intermittent reinforcement to make the case that, like Skinner’s rats, we “keep pushing the buttons, waiting for the good thing.” more

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Testing Parents' Patience, While Treating Kids' Problem Behavior

Humans have a focus on the short term. We are more interested in a potential benefit if we can get it now... Psychologists and economists have shown that similar trends can be observed and measured in many spheres of life. They call the tendency for the perceived value of a delayed benefit to diminish “delay discounting.” Now researchers at Marcus Autism Center are studying delay discounting as it applies to parents’ decision-making, when it comes to engaging in treatment for their children’s problem behavior. Their initial report is published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Lead author Nathan Call, PhD... says his team’s work is aimed at designing treatment programs that families can stick to, and helping them do so... Effective behavioral treatments for children displaying problem behaviors exist, but immediate success is not guaranteed. On the part of parents, they require commitment, active adherence and work... “Here’s the frustrating moment for me as a clinician,” Call says. “It’s my job to meet with parents, and develop strategies and programs that we think will work. At the start, parents are committed. If you ask them to say how important is it to you to address these problems, on a scale from 1 to 10, they will say ‘11’, but within a couple months, some parents decide, ‘We’re not going to do this.’ “ Call says that in response to signs of delay discounting, clinicians may be able to modify treatment programs to emphasize smaller, but more immediate treatment successes, or assign additional support resources if necessary. more

How B.F. Skinner Will Save Online Education

Riddle me this: was there ever a worse technology for teaching than the college lecture? Some overeducated knucklehead stands in front of bored adolescents and gasses on for an hour like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. What is the rate of the transmission of knowledge via this method? Anyone? Anyone? ... Fortunately, everything we need to know about how to turn this wagon train around was figured out by behavioral psychologists back in the 1950s. Psychologists studied and optimized how people learn, and Harvard’s Professor B.F. Skinner proceeded to outline the basic principles of programmed learning. more

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Cigna Health Matters: A Comprehensive System to Improve and Sustain Your Health

“Cigna Health Matters integrates the latest insights and practices of the sociology of engagement, motivation and rewarding behavior change with the latest in health tools and technology,” says Eric Herbek, Cigna Vice President, Product Development, Consumer Health Engagement. “By combining clinical insights, health coaches, digital tools, measurement and reward engines, we have our customers’ backs to help them get on the right path, and stay on it, for better health for themselves and their families.” Cigna Health Matters starts with a gamified health assessment – or health survey -- that customers engage with as they enroll in their health plan. By gamifying this process, completion rates have soared: for a typical health assessment completion rates are in the 30 percent range**, Cigna's gamified version delivers completion rates of 90 percent ... To begin, customers take a survey to discover what apps and devices may best support them on their unique health journey. Recommended goals and challenges are available to complete by using the apps and devices. Customers can track their progress across all apps used, through a convenient dashboard. And they can even earn rewards for certain activities and achievements. “This link is crucial as during the past several years, we’ve learned the importance of connecting health improvement to tangible, immediate, recognition and incentives,” notes Herbek. more

Monday, October 13, 2014

From Lean Back to Lean Forward: The Gamification of Television

Watching television in a traditional lean-back manner is no longer applicable in today's digital world, where consumers crave constant interaction with their favorite games, content and TV shows. The internet has turned consumers into lean-forward viewers, who require interactivity and fun to remain invested in a program. Consumers are no longer interested in simply watching television, but interacting at the highest level. This type of character-shift requires an innovative new approach to TV entertainment. But for that approach to be successful, it needs to be rooted in mirroring consumer behavior. B.F. Skinner's 'Reinforcement Theory of Motivation' states that an individual's behavior is a function of its consequences. In the case of traditional television, the "individuals" are the viewers, and their behavior is contingent on the benefits that appointment television can offer them. If a traditional television experience offers viewers a new and tangible value, their behavior will positively follow suit. But the key is to offer something new, while still maintaining the qualities that make it an exceptional and compelling story. Gamification does just that -- it supports the core values of television and story-telling, while weaving in interactivity and positive reinforcement by allowing two-way participation TV. more

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Hush-Puppy' Device Rewards Dogs for Quiet Time

For many dog owners, incessant barking is the bane of their existence. Some resort to using “shock collars” that deliver a jolt when their animal barks. The brainchild of a School of Veterinary Medicine student, however, may one day help pet lovers quiet their pets using positive reinforcement in the form of food rewards. The device, called the “Hush-Puppy,” is the creation of Lindsay Gallagher, who is in her third year at Penn Vet. Her idea has been ushered into development by the Veterinary Innovation Challenge, a business plan competition that was designed by another Penn Vet student, fourth-year Nikhil Joshi ... Designed in collaboration with her brother Jason Gallagher, a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying electrical and computer engineering, the Hush-Puppy uses a standard automatic feeder linked to a bark-detecting collar. Animals are rewarded with food after they are quiet for a set period of time, which automatically adjusts as the dogs become better trained. more

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Baseball is a Giant, Beautiful Skinner Box

The combination of frequent failure and semi-randomized success turns the baseball field into a giant Skinner box. In one of the more famous conditioning experiments, B.F. Skinner put pigeons in a cage that would produce food at regular time intervals, regardless of the pigeons’ behavior. The pigeons, however, noticed that after executing some chance behavior the food arrived. Thinking that their behavior elicited the food, a number of the pigeons then started repeating those same behaviors in the hopes of getting more food. In essence, the birds “learned” that certain movements produced food, even though it simply wasn’t true. In essence, the birds became superstitious. The exact same phenomenon occurs on the ball field, where there is a massive time interval between successes. Batters get hits at a relatively fixed rate, but there’s enough time in between those hits to ascribe irrelevant behaviors to them. more

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Why Academics Stink at Writing

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: "Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development." In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment "The Dynamics of Inter­being and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes," and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, "Academia, here I come!" No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype ... But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand? more