Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pavlov, Comfort Food and Family

You’ve had a bad day. Your boss was a jerk and you were yelled at by an irate customer. Back at home, you feel lonely and down in the dumps. You’re hungry, or maybe not so much, but all you can think about is one thing—(insert your favorite comfort food here) ... According to University of Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel, comfort foods “are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children,” and our attraction to these dishes is based on whether we had a good relationship with the person who first prepared them ... Gabriel says this behavior is “straight-up classical conditioning,” the type of unconscious learning discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell after repeated pairings with food. Similarly, we turn to certain foods in times of stress or insecurity because those dishes unconsciously remind us of the positive relationship we had to the person who introduced them to us, according to the study. more

Friday, March 27, 2015

P-Value Ban: Small Step for a Journal, Giant Leap for Science

Last month a scientific journal — Basic and Applied Social Psychology — announced that it won’t publish papers that mention the unmentionable P value. No longer will the journal permit published papers to report the P value’s use in the process of “null hypothesis testing,” which psychologists and scientists in many other fields routinely rely on. Anyone embarking on a research career soon gets infected with this method. When you want to test to see whether a food additive causes cancer, or a medicine cures a disease, you assume that it doesn’t — the null hypothesis — and then do an experiment comparing the drug or medicine with a placebo, or another drug, or whatever. If more people survive with the medicine than with the placebo, maybe the medicine works. Or maybe that result was a fluke — the luck of the draw. P values supposedly tell you whether the difference you saw was luck or reality. Except that they don’t. P value calculations tell you only the probability of seeing a result at least as big as what you saw if there is no real effect. more

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Behavioral Momentum: Modeling Chimp Behavior with Newton's Second Law of Motion

To simulate chimp behavior, scientists created a computer model based on equations normally used to describe the movement of atoms and molecules in a confined space. An interdisciplinary research team has turned to the physical laws that govern matter to explore one facet of the question of climate change: how the animals will cluster and travel through their territory as the terrain they share with other members of their species shrinks ... The key equation the simulation employed was Newton's Second Law of Motion, which states that Acceleration = Force/Mass. Chimps were the masses in the equation, while the forces consisted of attraction to food and repulsion from other chimps. By assigning values to each force and determining the distance at which the forces would begin to affect the chimps, the team was able to simulate the direction and speed at which animals would move in relationship to food and to each other. more

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Gaming Can Motivate You

Gamification works because our responses to games are deeply hard-wired into our psychology. Game design techniques can activate our innate desires to recognize patterns, solve puzzles, master challenges, collaborate with others, and be in the drivers’ seat when experiencing the world around us. They can also create a safe space for experimentation and learning. After all, why not try something new when you know that even if you fail, you’ll get another life? The surface dimension of gamification is motivation through rewards: Earn some points, top the leaderboard, get a badge, win a prize and repeat. Behaviorists such as the legendary B F Skinner called this operant conditioning, and it does work … to a point. If there’s really no point to the points, users lose interest. That’s apparently what happened to marketing-driven Samsung Nation, one of the most prominent early gamification examples. Today it’s nowhere to be found on the Samsung website. Shallow gamification can even be harmful, if it’s used to manipulate people toward results that aren’t truly in their interest, or if it suggests that rewards are the only reason to do otherwise intrinsically engaging activities. The systems that avoid these pitfalls take games seriously. In a good game, the points and the leaderboards aren’t what really matter; the true reward is the journey. Gamification systems that emphasize progression, provide well designed informational feedback, and look for ways to surprise and delight their players can remain engaging for the long haul. more

Thursday, March 19, 2015

This App Pays You in Bitcoin Based on the Intensity of Your Workout

If the 21st-century tabloid celebrity has taught us anything, it’s that having a hot body can pay off. Now, a tech studio has interpreted that modern-day lesson quite literally, in the form of an app that rewards you with Bitcoin, based on how hard you work on the treadmill. The technology, cleverly named Fitcoin, is the creation of Chaotic Moon Studios, an Austin-based design company that’s known for pulling stunts during the city’s annual South by Southwest festival ... When you sync your band to the Fitcoin app and start your workout, it’ll automatically begin recording the length of your activity and the level of your heart rate. The algorithm within the app then triangulates those stats to determine how much energy you’re expending, and ultimately, how much that’s worth in Bitcoin. more

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Behavioral Economics: Chimpanzees Will Travel Farther for Preferred Foods

Just as humans will travel to their favorite restaurant, chimpanzees will travel a farther distance for preferred food sources in non-wild habitats, according to a new study from scientists at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo that publishes on March 17 in the journal PeerJ ... In order to receive a food reward, the chimpanzees had to collect tokens, or small lengths of PVC pipe, from a single location. The chimpanzees could then exchange the tokens with researchers at one of two locations - a close location with a carrot reward or a far location(s) with a grape reward. By the third phase (30 sessions per phase), as a group, the chimpanzees preferred to travel further in order to get the better food item (grapes). more

Monday, March 16, 2015

Scientists Crack Piece of Neural Code for Learning, Memory

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: researchers slice a brain into thin little sections and, just by measuring the properties of specific neurons, they can determine what an organism learned before it died. In fact, this sort of mind reading has become a reality. In work published in Nature, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) describe how postmortem brain slices can be "read" to determine how a rat was trained to behave in response to specific sounds. The work provides one of the first examples of how specific changes in the activity of individual neurons encode particular acts of learning and memory in the brain. more

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Older Adults See Better Following Behavioral Training

Significant improvements in vision in older adults are likely to result after a week of behavioral intervention, restoring age-related decline in contrast sensitivity, new research has found ... Participants were trained over a period of seven days using a forced-choice orientation-discrimination task with stimuli that modified its contrast with multiple levels of additive noise. The improvements in contrast sensitivity among older adults were so significant that their performance was not statistically different from that of younger adults before training, said Andersen. Equally impressive improvements occurred in visual acuity as well in both groups. more

Monday, March 09, 2015

Do Animals Have Consciousness?

There’s a rat in a cage with two sides: one bright and one dark. One of the rat’s survival mechanisms is to favor the dark side and avoid the bright side at all costs. But when the rat goes into the dark side of the cage, it gets shocked. After a few shocks coincide with its favorite habitat situation, it remains on the bright side despite its lifelong instincts. Is the rat now afraid of the dark, or is he simply trained to avoid it? If the rat were a human, he’d probably tell us he’s afraid of the shocks in the darkness, which shows the ability to feel emotions ... The animal consciousness debate has higher stakes than a simple desire to know whether Fido or Fluffy has feelings. It affects how scientists think about and conduct their research on non-human animals, and whether researchers should or should not make assumptions about their subjects’ consciousness while doing their experiments. One side believes scientists must separate the mechanisms that detect and respond to threats from those that create conscious feelings of fear, while the other believes these mechanisms are one and the same. more

Friday, March 06, 2015

APA to Publish "Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice"

The American Psychological Association has announced that it will publish the online journal Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice® beginning this month. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice is a multidisciplinary journal committed to increasing the communication between behavior analysis and psychology, as well as providing up-to-date reports on current developments within the field. The journal will publish original research, applied research, results of clinical work, theoretical and conceptual articles, reviews of the discipline, descriptions of programs and curricular developments, and research in organization and the community. Its areas of interest include clinical behavior analysis, behavior therapy, behavioral consultation, organizational behavior management and human performance technology. more

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

How to Be a Better Spouse

Before you get married, everyone tells you that marriage takes work. I never really believed it until my husband and I landed in therapy after four years, two kids and one seismically stressful cross-country move. Turns out you really can't just flip the switch to autopilot and trust love to take care of itself; you have to devote actual time and effort to understanding and appreciating your spouse. Anyone who is married knows that's not always a simple feat. Here's what relationship research (and a touch of game theory) tells us about how to become a better spouse. more

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Diet Research Built on a House of Cards

The next time a headline about diet and disease catches your eye, check the fine print of the study. If it is based on a food questionnaire — and there's a good chance it will be — then the conclusions should be handled with caution.That's because people don't tell the truth, not even to scientists. Scientists know this. Research has proven it. It's been an awkward problem in nutrition science for more than 40 years. And that's long enough, according to an international group of nutrition researchers. They've launched a campaign to end the use of one of the most common research tools in nutrition science. "All of these studies, if they are based on self-report estimates of energy intake, really don't contain scientifically meaningful information," said David Allison, a prominent obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author on a report signed by 45 scientists from around the world. This matters, the expert group warned, because the flawed data could result in public health policies that are not science-based, but built on a "house of cards," Allison said. "We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of papers published every year." more

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Debunked Autism Treatment Fads Persist

The communication struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder can drive parents and educators to try anything to understand their thoughts, needs and wants. Unfortunately, specialists in psychology and communication disorders do not always communicate the latest science so well. These factors make the autism community especially vulnerable to interventions and "therapies" that have been thoroughly discredited, says Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.  "Hope is a great thing, I'm a strong believer in it," Lilienfeld says. "But the false hope buoyed by discredited therapies can be cruel, and it may prevent people from trying an intervention that actually could deliver benefits." Lilienfeld is lead author of a commentary, "The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example," recently published by the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Co-authors of the commentary are Julia Marshall (also from Emory) and psychologists James Todd (from Eastern Michigan University), and Howard Shane (director of the Autism Language Program at Boston Children's Hospital). more

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Google Builds An AI That Can Learn And Master Video Games via Operant Conditioning

Google has built an artificial intelligence system that can learn – and become amazing at – video games all on its own, given no commands but a simple instruction to play titles. The project, detailed by Bloomberg, is the result of research from the London-based DeepMind AI startup Google acquired in a deal last year, and involves 49 games from the Atari 2600 that likely provided the first video game experience for many of those reading this. While this is an amazing announcement for so many reasons, the most impressive part might be that the AI not only matched wits with human players in most cases, but actually went above and beyond the best scores of expert meat-based players in 29 of the 49 games it learned ... Next up for the arcade AI is mastering the Doom-era 3D virtual worlds, which should help the AI edge closer to mastering similar tasks in the real world, like driving a car. And there’s one more detail here that may keep you up at night: Google trained the AI to get better at the Atari games it mastered using a virtual take on operant conditioning – ‘rewarding’ the computer for successful behavior the way you might a dog. more

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Meet Rudy, The Dog Who Is Being Raised With Science

Rudy the staghound gets to enjoy a lot of the things that many pets do: trips to the beach, playtime at the dog park, napping on the couch. But Rudy's adventures and home life are examined a lot more closely than those of an ordinary pet, because he's being raised with science... [We] checked his preference for positive reinforcement. Research has shown that dogs tend to prefer food, then petting, then verbal praise and human company (see: Behavioural Processes and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior). [It also shows] that dogs can learn good or bad behaviors from observing each other (see: Applied Animal Behaviour Science and Developmental Psychobiology), so there is great value in having an older 'model' dog to demonstrate good behaviors to a new or young dog. Rudy loves play with a tug toy and food as first choice reinforcers, and we're fortunate to have a very experienced friend with an exemplary Doberman dog named Kade with whom we catch up with regularly. Kade acts in part almost like a guiding chaperone for Rudy on lovely off leash walk adventures, helping us set Rudy up for successful situations (like returning when called) that we can reinforce positively. more

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dogs Can Tell Happy or Angry Human Faces

If you ever get the impression that your dog can "tell" whether you look content or annoyed, you may be onto something. Dogs may indeed be able to discriminate between happy and angry human faces, according to a new study. Researchers trained a group of 11 dogs to distinguish between images of the same person making either a happy or an angry face. During the training stage, each dog was shown only the upper half or the lower half of the person's face. The investigators then tested the pups' ability to discriminate between human facial expressions by showing them different images from the ones used in training. The dogs were shown either the other half of the face used in the training stage, the other halves of people's faces not used in training, a face that was the same half as the training face but from a different person, or the left half of the face used in the training stage. more


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Psychiatry Has Earned Its Stigma

Has there ever been a medical specialty as beleaguered as psychiatry? Since the profession’s founding in 1844, the doctors of the soul have had to contend with suspicions that they do not know what mental illness is, what type their patients might have, or what they should do about it—in other words, that they are doctors who do not practice real medicine... It’s not just diagnostic uncertainty or therapeutic disasters that cast suspicion on the profession. It’s also the bred-in-the-bone American conviction that no one should tell us who we are. For that is what psychiatrists (and the rest of us in the mental-health professions) do, no matter whether we want to or not. To say you know what mental health and illness are is to say you know how life should go, and what we should do when it goes otherwise. You’d better know what to do when you’ve made a grievous error in those weighty matters, or at the very least, how to ask for forgiveness. And you’d better hope that, apologies offered, you can give the public a reason to believe that at long last you know what you are doing. his is the unenviable task that Jeffrey Lieberman, past president of the APA, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school, chief of psychiatry at its hospital, and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, has taken on in his book Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry. “Psychiatry has earned its stigma,” he writes at the outset, and its practitioners must “own up to our long history of mistakes.” Otherwise it will remain “the black sheep of the medical family, scorned by physicians and patients alike.” more

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why In-App Purchases Will Bankrupt You

App purchases, on the other hand, are designed to be incredibly seamless. Your credit card is stored with Apple, Google or Amazon, and all it takes is a quick click of a button to instant gratification, no uncomfortable reminders that you just spent real money on that virtual life or game boost. What’s more, games use subtle-but-effective psychological tricks to keep you playing and spending. The Guardian’s Dana Smith writes that “Candy Crush” is exceedingly popular because it uses a series of ingenious mind-games to make it addictive. First, it’s simple. Games start off easy to play with frequent mini rewards that cause a release of “neurochemical dopamine.” This pleasure response in your brain is similar to the “neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions.” The next step is to increase the challenge, making the dopamine bursts more intermittent. If it stayed easy forever, you would get bored. And, as it turns out, an unpredictable reward schedule (a “variable ratio schedule of reinforcement”) is more addictive to our brain’s pleasure sensors than one where you keep consistently winning. more

Monday, February 09, 2015

Speak & Spell: A History

The Speak & Spell is a teaching machine specifically in the tradition of B. F. Skinner, reflecting some of both Skinner’s design principles and his theories of learning, decades older than the popular Texas Instruments device. Rather than selecting the correctly-spelled word in a multiple choice quiz, for the example, the Speak & Spell prompts the user to construct the response. It praises; it corrects... The shared features in most definitions of teaching machines include automation, immediate feedback, and self-pacing. The Speak & Spell has all three, using “contingencies of reinforcement” to establish appropriate spelling behavior. (Some of its engineers thought it would be funny if the user received a raspberry or a funny comment when they spelled a word wrong. But this idea was rejected as it would “reward” incorrect spelling.) more

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Cocktail Party Effect: Birds Hear Like We Do

I worked in Dr. Micheal L. Dent’s laboratory for a few years as I was earning my undergraduate degree in animal behavior. I was interested in studying birds, and Dr. Dent was interested in studying acoustic communication in animals. Dr. Dent is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. “In the past, I’ve worked with budgerigars, starlings, canaries (multiple strains), Japanese quail, zebra finches, and barn owls,” she recently told me. “I currently work with budgerigars and zebra finches.” Acoustic communication refers to hearing. Other ways that animals can communicate include visual, olfaction, touch, thermal, and some can communicate even through electromagnetic fields. In Dr. Dent’s lab we used operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to measure birds’ abilities to detect, discriminate, identify, and localize sounds by training them to peck keys. One interesting occurrence she discovered was that parakeets and zebra finches exhibit the cocktail party effect. more

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Using Smartphones and Apps to Enhance Loyalty Programs

Capriotti’s, a 106-store chain of sandwich shops in 16 states, expects to introduce an app-based loyalty program early this year that its chief marketing officer, Jason Smylie, says will enable shop owners to enrich and fine-tune a prior punch card rewards program...The software, developed by the company Punchh, will enable Capriotti’s to award a free drink or a dessert — as an unexpected reward at the cash register — to highly valued customers on perhaps 20 percent of their visits. “You’re not only rewarding the customers who are coming more frequently, you’re also giving people an incentive to show up,” he said. “I can come in and potentially get something for free. That’s awesome.” And effective. Psychologists have a name for this kind of reward — random intermittent reinforcement — and know it as a powerful way to encourage repeat behavior. Think no further than slot machines. Casinos have zeroed in on the gambling habits of their patrons through the use of smart cards rather than coins. Retailers can also now better know their customers through loyalty apps, which may also use data from Facebook profiles. “With apps you now can target specific customers and influence specific behaviors and keep track of all the results and understand the results,” Mr. Smylie said. more

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intracranial Stimulation Recovers Learning and Memory in Rats

The research, published in Behavioural Brain Research, was conducted by Pilar Segura and Ignacio Morgado (coordinators), Laura Aldavert and Marc Ramoneda, psychobiologists of the Institute of Neurosciences and the Department of Psychobiology and Health Sciences Methodology of the UAB and by Elisabet Kadar and Gemma Huguet, molecular biologists of the University of Girona, to explore the power of Deep Brain Stimulation treatments in the hypothalamus to recover the ability to learn and remember after a severe lesion of the amygdala...The hypothalamus is a region of the brain in which the most basic impulses are found, helping us to survive and providing us with pleasure. It is part of the brain's reward system, which makes us feel good after carrying out an activity and helps us change our behaviour through positive reinforcement. more

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Standardized Testing and Schools Could Learn from Target

The dream of automated learning is even older than computers themselves. In 1924 an educational psychology professor named Sidney Pressey built a mechanical teaching machine that supplied questions, along with the correct answers, when a button was pressed. B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, also introduced a teaching machine in 1954, a clunky thing that looked like a typewriter. He claimed some of the very same benefits for it that you hear from ed-tech entrepreneurs to this day—allowing every student to move at his own pace, supplying immediate feedback, improving motivation...Today, besides the Knewton-powered products, other adaptive software is sold by Dreambox, Scholastic, and Khan Academy, a nonprofit. Most work more or less the same way. They introduce concepts with text, video or animations, ask students to respond in the form of quick short-answer or multiple-choice questions, give them increasingly broad hints when they get stuck, and choose what concept to bring in next based on the student’s responses. What the “adaptive” part means is that the specific selection of questions and order of content presented to each student will vary according to the students’ responses. You take a quick diagnostic test or start off with a medium-hard question. If you get it right, you proceed to harder questions; flub it and you get easier questions. As a result, each student’s path and pace through the material is slightly different...[These] platform[s] and those like it could reduce the need for high-stakes tests. “Knewton allows for much more gentle, passive data collection via ongoing formative assessment in homework/classwork,” he told me in an online chat. “We can predict your score on a bunch of these high stakes tests anyway, lessening the need for so many of them.” “Formative assessment” refers to the feedback that is part of nearly any teaching and learning scenario, such as when a teacher calls on the class during the lecture, or when a student is studying vocabulary with flash cards and flips the card over to see the right answer. It’s opposed to summative assessment, which “sums up” learning at the end of a period of time, ranging from a unit test to a graduation exam. more

Thursday, January 22, 2015

We Lie About What We Eat, And It's Messing Up Science

How many peanuts did you snack on last week? If you don't remember, you're not alone. We humans are notoriously bad at remembering exactly what and how much we ate. And if there's one pattern to our errors, it's that we underestimate — unintentionally and otherwise. And yet, for decades, researchers who want to amass large quantities of data about how much Americans eat and exercise have had to rely on individuals to self-report this information. These self-reported data on diet and exercise have long been called flawed. But a paper published Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity goes one step further. The authors, led by David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, write, "[The data] are so poor as measures of actual [energy intake] and [physical activity energy expenditure] that they no longer have a justifiable place in scientific research." more

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Internet of Me

The so-called “internet of things” has been the talk of the technology world for years now. Consumer electronics firms are exploring ways of connecting all manner of personal and household objects to the internet, thereby extending their functionality...Despite the rush to connect all our household objects to the internet, there is an even more important technical trend which has appeared in the past year or so – the internet of me. Instead of just wanting to hook up our home appliances to the internet, we have started to take our bodies and brains online.In recent times we have seen more and more apps applying the logic of behaviourism. Based on the heavily criticised methods once developed by B F Skinner, these apps alternate rewards and punishment to reinforce positive behaviour. One such example is the GymPact. Users of this app specify how many times a week they intend to go to the gym. In the event of them missing a session, which is easily found out through the GPS, they need to pay $5. This money is then shared equally among those who have followed their individually set goals. A more extreme version of this is Pavlok. To break bad habits, this app sends out electric shocks. Or as the slogan goes: “the habit changing device that shocks you”. If you bite your nails, oversleep, or procrastinate you will be handed out a punishment. The app is marketed as a personal coach on your wrist. These apps do not just shape our behaviour so that we will become more productive people. They also promise to make us healthier and happier. more