Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What Pavlov Can Tell Us About Why We Eat Too Much

Here are a few of the things that can make you hungry: seeing, smelling, reading, or even thinking about food. Hearing music that reminds you of a good meal. Walking by a place where you once ate something good. Even after you’ve just had a hearty lunch, imagining something delicious can make you salivate. Being genuinely hungry, on the other hand—in the sense of physiologically needing food—matters little. It’s enough to walk by a doughnut shop to start wanting a doughnut. Studies show that rats that have eaten a lot are just as eager to eat chocolate cereal as hungry rats are to eat laboratory chow. Humans don’t seem all that different. More often than not, we eat because we want to eat—not because we need to. Recent studies show that our physical level of hunger, in fact, does not correlate strongly with how much hunger we say that we feel or how much food we go on to consume...The idea that environmental cues affect hunger is not a new one. As early as 1905, Ivan Pavlov demonstrated as much by training dogs to salivate when they heard a bell. In the nineteen-seventies, the French obesity researcher France Bellisle proposed that the timing and the size of human meals was “essentially determined by sociocultural factors,” which could, in turn, override the physiological signals sent by our bodies. Physiology, in other words, had become a secondary consideration. more

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pigeons Share Our Ability to Place Everyday Things in Categories

Pinecone or pine nut? Friend or foe? Distinguishing between the two requires that we pay special attention to the telltale characteristics of each. And as it turns out, us humans aren’t the only ones up to the task. According to researchers, pigeons share our ability to place everyday things in categories. And, like people, they can home in on visual information that is new or important and dismiss what is not..."The basic concept at play is selective attention. That is, in a complex world, with its booming, buzzing confusion, we don't attend to all properties of our environment. We attend to those that are novel or relevant," says Edward Wasserman, UI psychology professor and secondary author on the paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition. more

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Positive Reinforcement Changed Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms

Phantoms is a team-based multiplayer game that needs players to cooperate. Victory is about coordination, as teams sneak, shoot and hold positions to score points and win matches. The problem during the game's long beta was that players weren't cooperating. When Davis joined the development team, he knew things needed to change. But how do you convince lone wolves to rely on their teammates? You give then incentives. "We primarily do it through positive reinforcement," he said. "All the scoring is geared towards doing things that help your team. The game rewards you for kills and that kind of thing, but you get the most points for capturing the objective. Your team only wins if they've capture the most objectives through the whole match." more

Thursday, April 17, 2014

No Child Left Undiagnosed

The very same experts who succeeded in promoting ADHD have now concocted and are promoting a new diagnosis that would be a terrific bonanza for Big Pharma, but terrible for the kids who would be misdiagnosed and over-treated. "Sluggish Cognitive Tempo" is a remarkably silly name for an even sillier proposal. Its main characteristics are vaguely described but include some combination daydreaming, lethargy and slow mental processing. Its proponents estimate that SCT afflicts approximately two million children. Not surprisingly, Eli Lilly is already on the case...However ludicrous SCT may seem, the risk it may do great harm is real. Child psychology/psychiatry/pediatrics/family medicine have become fevered fields of diagnostic excess, Pharma manipulation and careless medication prescription. In just 20 years, rates of ADHD have tripled and Autism and childhood Bipolar Disorder have increased forty fold. more

Monday, April 14, 2014

What Songbirds Tell Us About How We Learn

When you throw a wild pitch or sing a flat note, it could be that your basal ganglia made you do it. This area in the middle of the brain is involved in motor control and learning. And one reason for that errant toss or off-key note may be that your brain prompted you to vary your behavior to help you learn, from trial-and-error, to perform better. But how does the brain do this, how does it cause you to vary your behavior?...In particular, songbirds memorize the song of their father or tutor, then practice that song until they can produce a similar song. "As adults, they continue to produce this learned song, but what's interesting is that they keep it just a little bit variable" says Woolley. "The variability isn't a default, it isn't that they can't produce a better version, they can -- in particular when they sing to a female. So when they sing alone and their song is variable it's because they are actively making it that way." more

Friday, April 11, 2014

You're Waking Up Wrong

LYST CEO Chris Morton used to start his days just like that. He hated it, but found it too addictive to not do. That is, until he read about B.F. Skinner's famous rat experiments, which varied feeding times to determine how the animals formed habits. When feeding intervals were randomized, the rats didn't know when to expect food, so they constantly checked to see if they could get pellets. (In the experiment, the rats pressed a bar for new food.) "These rats did nothing else but press these buttons all day long because they couldn't discern a pattern," Morton told Fast Company. This is essentially the same relationship we have with our email, he realized: open up the inbox, you never know what you'll get. Morton isn't the first to compare us to Skinner's rats. But making the connection has helped him realize that changing his habits could improve his day. "We don't actually do the important things we need to do in our lives because we are obsessively checking," he explained. more

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Behavioral Treatments Could Lead to Lower and Safer Doses of Medication for Children with ADHD

Balancing a low dose of behavior therapy with a low dose of medication may be the key to helping children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to a new study by researchers at FIU's Center for Children and Families. High doses of stimulant medication and intensive behavior therapy are each known to be effective individual modes of treatment. But medication may suppress a child's growth and decrease appetite, while intensive behavior therapy is costly, time-intensive and may not be feasible for many families. The researchers say finding a balance may be the key to more effectively treating ADHD. "Our data show that stimulant doses can be reduced dramatically if a child is treated with behavior modification," said lead researcher William E. Pelham, Jr., chairman of the FIU Department of Psychology and director of the Center for Children and Families. "Given concerns about long-term side effects of these medications, such as growth reduction, providing behavioral interventions would appear to minimize the need for medication and maximize response to very low doses for the majority of children with ADHD." more

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Metaphysicians: Combating Bad Science

“Why most published research findings are false” is not, as the title of an academic paper, likely to win friends in the ivory tower. But it has certainly influenced people (including journalists at The Economist). The paper it introduced was published in 2005 by John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist who was then at the University of Ioannina, in Greece, and is now at Stanford. It exposed the ways, most notably the overinterpreting of statistical significance in studies with small sample sizes, that scientific findings can end up being irreproducible—or, as a layman might put it, wrong. Dr Ioannidis has been waging war on sloppy science ever since, helping to develop a discipline called meta-research (ie, research about research). Later this month that battle will be institutionalised, with the launch of the Meta-Research Innovation Centre at Stanford. more

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Heard Museum Award Recognizes UNT Animal Training Services

Pops and Uno did not always cooperate with the museum staff at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney. They would run away and play rather than follow directions. Fortunately, University of North Texas students of behavior analysis found ways to train the precocious ring-tailed lemurs and teach these techniques to staff who work with the primates on a daily basis. The Heard Museum is a refuge for animals, many of which were abandoned or taken from the wild and need proper care. The museum recently recognized UNT students and their professor, animal behavioral expert Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, with a “Birds of a Feather” annual award, a commemorative plaque given this year for the students’ outstanding training solutions and long-term service on behalf of the animals. more

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

How to Create a Positive Workplace Culture

Creating a positive workplace culture is extremely important to cultivating a productive and profitable company. The quality of work we do depends on the quality of our workplace culture. When the environment we work in is positive, we become more engaged and committed employees. By definition, workplace culture is a pattern of behaviors that are supported by a management system over time. Harnessing the power of positive reinforcement is the quickest and most efficient way to a better workplace culture. more

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fran Tarkenton on Football and Business: Behavioral Lessons of B.F. Skinner

I met an impressive young psychologist named Aubrey Daniels in the early 1970s. He came from the school of B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychologist. Skinner’s ideas were at the cutting-edge, the first real scientific approach to psychology as opposed to the theoretical Freudian ideas that came before. Skinner’s most important discovery was that behavior was a function of consequences, and he was the first to quantify it. It’s not what comes before the behavior that counts, but what comes after. If you do something and receive praise or a reward, you’ll do it more. If you are punished, you’ll do it less. And, most significantly, if you do something and get no recognition either way, then that behavior would recede as well. more

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Latest Issue of "Operants" Now Available Online from the B. F. Skinner Foundation

The latest issue of Operants, the quarterly newsletter of the B. F. Skinner Foundation, is now available here. In addition to some classic candid photos of B. F. Skinner and Fred Keller, the issue features the following content:

President’s Column (by Julie Vargas)
Memorial: Nate Azrin
Reflections: A plea for science (by Jacob Azerrad)
The Arts (by Gilda Oliver)
Reflections: Tacitus and Skinner (by Paolo Taras)
Skinner's Corner: Are theories of learning necessary? (by E. A. Vargas)
Culture: Skinner's science and psychology (by Kae Yabuki)
Profile: Erik Arntzen
Skinner's Science in the News: Skinner’s Behavior Science and the CIA (by Josh Pritchard)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Doctor: ADHD Does Not Exist

This Wednesday, an article in the New York Times reported that from 2008 to 2012 the number of adults taking medications for ADHD increased by 53% and that among young American adults, it nearly doubled. While this is a staggering statistic and points to younger generations becoming frequently reliant on stimulants, frankly, I’m not too surprised...If someone finds it difficult to pay attention or feels somewhat hyperactive, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder has those symptoms right there in its name. It’s an easy catchall phrase that saves time for doctors to boot. But can we really lump all these people together? What if there are other things causing people to feel distracted? I don’t deny that we, as a population, are more distracted today than we ever were before. And I don’t deny that some of these patients who are distracted and impulsive need help. What I do deny is the generally accepted definition of ADHD, which is long overdue for an update. more

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Efforts To Close The Achievement Gap In Kids Start At Home

Two-thirds of Providence children entering kindergarten already fall short on state literacy tests. Riquetti says this disadvantage in her students would compound over time because so much of learning depends on basic vocabulary...Riquetti now helps run Providence Talks, the city's ambitious effort to change this so-called word gap that researchers discovered two decades ago. They found that professional parents tend to chat away to their children, using sophisticated language even before kids are old enough to understand, while low-income parents tend to speak far less and use more directives: "Do this, don't do that." To help parents measure progress, the city collects hard data. In fact, it's happening as they look at the book. Little Ayleen is wearing a recorder hidden inside a bright red vest specially designed for it. The recorder logs every word spoken, all day long, and can distinguish different voices. It also distinguishes a TV, computer or radio that may be blaring in the background—words from those don't count when it comes to building a child's vocabulary, and in fact too much screen time may hurt, researchers say. During the next visit, Taveras will bring a report that graphs the word count, hour by hour. Parents keep a log to know what they were doing at the time. more

Monday, March 17, 2014

Elephants Prove Discerning Listeners of Us Humans

Dr. Seuss had it right: Horton really does hear a Who. Wild elephants can distinguish between human languages, and they can tell whether a voice comes from a man, woman or boy, a new study says. That's what researchers found when they played recordings of people for elephants in Kenya. Scientists say this is an advanced thinking skill that other animals haven't shown. It lets elephants figure out who is a threat and who isn't...McComb and colleagues went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where hundreds of wild elephants live among humans, sometimes coming in conflict over scarce water. The scientists used voice recordings of Maasai men, who on occasion kill elephants in confrontations over grazing for cattle, and Kamba men, who are less of a threat to the elephants. The recordings contained the same phrase in two different languages: "Look over there. A group of elephants is coming." By about a two-to-one margin, the elephants reacted defensively — retreating and gathering in a bunch — more to the Maasai language recording because it was associated with the more threatening human tribe, said study co-author Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University. more

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Activity Loops in Gamification

I can feel the pent up feelings of many people now who are about to scream the words Operant Conditioning at me. For those who don’t know, this was a form of behaviour modification that was made famous by BF Skinner. He conducted experiments that rewarded or punished animals for types of behaviour. Pull a lever, get a reward. Pull a lever, maybe get a reward. Push the wrong button, get a shock. This was called reinforcement. One of the big arguments we have in gamification is that it is just a new and shiny form of operant conditioning. For the most part, this does seem to be true. Click like, get a point. Click like 10 times, get a badge etc. A big issue here is the lack of any kind of skill or effort needed to get the reward. One of the things that I am trying to show with this activity loop example is the idea of earning the reward of access to new features. more

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spotting Neuro-Fiction: A Guide to Dissecting Overblown Neuroscience Headlines

“Neuroscience is turning up more and more in marketing,” says [Molly] Crockett. “Do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.” Crockett stresses that neuroscience is advancing quickly and leading to some truly amazing discoveries. “I am more excited than most people for the potential of neuroscience to treat mental illness and even maybe make us better and smarter,” says Crockett. “But we’re not there yet … We have to be careful that we don’t let overblown claims detract the resources and attention away from the real science that’s playing a much longer game.” more

Monday, March 10, 2014

Improving My Lab, My Science With the Open Science Framework

My lab has a problem. We do research, time goes by, and some research materials and data get lost. I forget why we did the study; we can’t find the final version of the materials that we used. Data just disappears. Gremlins are not stealing it. Machines break; people leave; organizational strategies break down. We presume that we will just remember what, where, and why. Then, we don’t. This loss of data wastes resources and makes our work less reproducible. We should know better. We do know better. But the problems persist. Basic principles from psychological science offer at least three reasons why we struggle to preserve our own research products. First, knowing what one should do is not sufficient to ensure that it gets done. Second, behavior is often dominated by immediate needs and not by possible future needs (e.g., “I know what var0001 and var0002 mean, so why waste time writing the meanings down?”). And third, the necessary changes require extra work; we are too busy for things that make our lives harder. These factors are nontrivial. And I don’t think it is just us. Everyone has an anecdote about the loss of research products because of disorganization, overconfidence in memory, or the complexity of managing information in collaborations. How can this problem be solved? A consultation of the psychological literature suggests that behavior is more likely to change if the solutions: provide immediate rewards; integrate easily with existing behavior; and are easy to do. more

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Technology May Turn You Into A Bigger Tipper

You're probably used to rounding up the total on your taxi ride or dropping a buck in a jar at the coffee shop. Now, new high-tech ways to pay nudge you to tip more generously and more often. Molly Moon Neitzel has seen this firsthand at her Seattle shop, Molly Moon Homemade Ice Cream. Last year, she installed a type of iPad-based cash register made by Square at one of her six shops. When customers pay with a credit card for their scoops, the cashier flips the iPad around so they can swipe their cards. Before they can sign their names, they're presented with a screen that suggests tip amounts. The options at Molly Moon are $1, $2, $3 or no tip. You physically have to hit "no tip" — and feel like a jerk — if you want to be stingy. The system is smart. If you buy only one cone, it will give you whole dollar tip suggestions. However, if you buy scoops for, say, an entire little league team, Square suggests percentage tips. This might sound insignificant, but Neitzel says her staff noticed they were quickly making up to 50 percent more in tips. more

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

California Utility’s Clever New Way to Conserve Water: Behavior Modification

As California’s drought continues to take a toll on the state, the L.A. Times reports on a fascinating new strategy being undertaken to get people to conserve water: comparing their water usage to their neighbors’. It’s known as “behavioral water efficiency,” and the pilot program, which involves report cards that are individually tailored to each household, is being rolled out by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million customers in the San Francisco Bay area....The statements include a household’s water use, how it compares with similar homes in the area and a grade of sorts: “Great,” “Good,” or “Take Action,” accompanied by a water drop wearing a smiley, neutral or worried expression. more

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Losing Our Minds in the Age of Brain Science

As a tool for exploring the biology of the mind, neuroimaging has given brain science a strong cultural presence. As one scientist remarked, brain images are now “replacing Bohr’s planetary atom as the symbol of science.” With its implied promise of decoding the brain, it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will. The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet. more

Monday, March 03, 2014

This Column Will Change Your Life: B. F. Skinner and Self-Management

According to rumour, the psychologist BF Skinner was a sinister fellow, hellbent on manipulating others. The worst story was that he raised his own daughter in a dark box, like the ones he trained rats in, rendering her psychotic; years later, she shot herself in the head in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. This tale was popularised in a 2004 book, but it lost credibility when Deborah Skinner Buzan – neither psychotic nor dead, but understandably cross – surfaced to explain that the "box" was just a homemade crib, warm and open-topped. She'd never even been to Billings, Montana, much less shot herself there. (It's the sort of thing you'd remember.) The truth about Skinner, whose 110th anniversary is this year, is that he was a skilled manipulator of himself. And in a world where we're ever more subject to manipulation by commercial forces, we could stand to learn some of his tricks, since if anyone's going to manipulate us, it might as well be us. In a paper entitled Skinner As Self-Manager, his colleague Robert Epstein explains Skinner's singular ability to see his own life as one big mass of variables, some of which could be altered by tweaking others. more

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Descartes' Dogs: A Precursor to Pavlov

It is well known in the history of psychology that Descartes was an early thinker on what we would now call classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, which he referred to as “reflex”. Most authors writing on the subject cite two of his works and one letter to make the connection clear: his Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method), 1637; Les passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), the last of Descartes’ published work, completed in 1649; and finally his letter to William Cavendish, 1st duke of Newcastle, Friday, 23 November 1646. However, another much earlier epistolary reference seems generally to be missed: his letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, dated 18 March 1630. What is particularly interesting in this earlier letter to Mersenne is Descartes association of sound (in this case the sound produced by a violin) to the ‘reflex’ response of dogs. As a precursor to Pavlov, and the Pavlovian dogs experiment, it is interesting to see Descartes constructing what is a remarkably parallel experimental test — albeit, in Descartes case and as far as we know, a thought experiment only. more

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In the Beginning was the Word

The more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops. That might seem blindingly obvious, but it took until 1995 for science to show just how early in life the difference begins to matter. In that year Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas published the results of a decade-long study in which they had looked at how, and how much, 42 families in Kansas City conversed at home. Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background. This observation has profound implications for policies about babies and their parents. It suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four—a favoured step among policymakers—comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home. Happily, understanding of how children’s vocabularies develop is growing, as several presentations at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed. more

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brain Implant Lets One Monkey Control Another

In work inspired partly by the movie "Avatar," one monkey could control the body of another monkey using thought alone by connecting the brain of the puppet-master monkey to the spine of the other through a prosthesis, researchers say. These findings could help lead to implants that help patients overcome paralysis, scientists added....The monkey that served as the master had electrodes wired into his brain, while the monkey that served as the avatar had electrodes wired into his spine. The avatar's hand was placed onto a joystick that controlled a cursor displayed on the master's screen. The avatar monkey was sedated so that he had no control over his own body. Computers decoded the brain activity of the master monkey and relayed those signals to the spinal cord and muscles of the avatar monkey. This allowed the master to control the cursor by moving the hand of the avatar. The master received a reward of juice if he successfully moved the cursor onto a target. more