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

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Wearable Fitness Trackers Can Motivate You to Keep Active

Today’s fitness trackers are mini-computers with their internal memories and digital displays that count the number of steps taken, calories burned, minutes spent being active and hours spent sleeping, making my Timex as obsolete as my Walkman and VCR ... The Orbit syncs with the Runtastic Me app, which displays the data collected in a series of categories including number of steps, active minutes, calories burned, distance travelled and hours of sleep. Each of these categories drills down to more detailed graphs that highlight what time of the day produced the most activity and calorie burn as well as the times at night when I was in a heavy or light slumber. For each of these areas (except sleeping) I can set a specific goal, for which I am rewarded with a vibration signalling I have met my target. All of these features are built around established behaviour modification techniques, goal setting, self-monitoring, feedback, rewards and revealing the difference between the stated goal and actual behaviour, in the hopes that exercisers will be motivated to keep moving. more

Friday, October 03, 2014

Persuasive Technology for Energy Conservation and Carbon Emission Reduction

This paper presents the results of energy conservation strategies implemented in the University residential halls to address energy consumption issues, using IPTED (Integration of Persuasive Technology and Energy Delegate) in the student residential halls. The results show that real time energy feedback from a visual interface, when combined with energy delegate can provide significant energy savings. Therefore, applying IPTED reveals a significant conservation and carbon emission reduction as a result from the intervention conducted in student hall of residents comprising of 16 halls with 112 students. Overall, the intervention revealed that, the use of real time feedback system reduced energy consumption significantly when compared to baseline readings. Interestingly, we found that the combination of real time feedback system with a human energy delegate in 8 halls resulted in higher reduction of 37% in energy consumptions when compared to the baseline amounting to savings of 1360.49 kWh, and 713.71 kg of CO2 in the experimental halls. On the contrary, the 8 non-experimental halls, which were exposed to the real time feedback and weekly email alert, resulted in only 3.5% reduction in energy consumption when compared to the baseline, amounting to savings of only 165.00 kWh, and 86.56 kg of CO2. more

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral

Within the academy, many of [Evolutionary Psychology]'s methods have been questioned and even discredited. Yet even as academics continue to point out its flaws, the mainstream media have increasingly accepted evolutionary psychology as a mode of explaining human behavior ... Many scientists rejected sociobiology for its lack of methodological rigor. The Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described Wilson’s work as a series of Just So Stories, after Rudyard Kipling’s volume fancifully explaining phenomena like “How the Tiger Got Its Stripes.” Gould’s point was that the new discipline created fictional origin myths, projecting modern ideas onto an imaginary past. Without hard evidence of how our prehistoric ancestors met and mated, how could scientists make claims about the evolutionary basis of our behavior? ... By the early 1980s, sociobiology desperately needed a rebrand. Evolutionary psychology rose to the task ... An entire discipline now existed to tell the cold, hard truths about human nature, and the public was ready to listen. In the early 1990s, evolutionary psychology went mainstream. more

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How To Get Children To Behave Without Hitting Them

There's plenty of evidence that spanking, paddling or hitting children doesn't improve their behavior in the long run and actually makes it worse. But the science never trumps emotion, according to Alan Kazdin, head of the Yale Parenting Center and author of The Everyday Parenting Toolkit ... When you're drowning, you can't teach someone how to swim, Kazdin says. "We don't reason with them, we don't moralize with them, we don't tell them about the science. That kind of talking doesn't influence behavior." Instead, Kazdin has parents practice what they'll say to a child, with words carefully chosen to get a specific response. The goal is to teach children to respond differently, without the problem behavior. What happens before a child misbehaves is critical, Kazdin says. Knowing that gives parents the opportunity to head off bad behavior before it happens ... Parents typically think of consequences as punishment, but decades of research in behavioral psychology has shown that promptly praising a child for good behavior is much more effective in improving behavior than punishment, Kazdin says. Punishment should be brief, simple and used sparingly. more

Friday, September 26, 2014

To Get More Out of Science, Show the Rejected Research

In 2013, the federal government spent over $30 billion to support basic scientific research. These funds help create knowledge and stimulate greater productivity and commercial activity, but could we get an even better return on our investment? The problem is that the research conducted using federal funds is driven — and distorted — by the academic publishing model. The intense competition for space in top journals creates strong pressures for novel, statistically significant effects. As a result, studies that do not turn out as planned or find no evidence of effects claimed in previous research often go unpublished, even though their findings can be important and informative. For instance, a top psychology journal refused to consider studies that failed to replicate a disputed publication claiming to find evidence of extrasensory perception. In addition, the findings that do get published in these journals often just barely reach the statistical significance thresholds required for publication — a pattern that suggests selective reporting and publishing of results. Not surprisingly, other scientists often cannot reproduce published findings, which undermines trust in research and wastes huge amounts of time and money. These practices also create a shaky knowledge base for science, preventing scholars from effectively building on prior research. more

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Frontiers in Neuroscience: Bidirectional Control of a Prosthetic by Operant Conditioning of Neurons in a Rat Motor Cortex

The design of efficient neuroprosthetic devices has become a major challenge for the long-term goal of restoring autonomy to motor-impaired patients. One approach for brain control of actuators consists in decoding the activity pattern obtained by simultaneously recording large neuronal ensembles in order to predict in real-time the subject's intention, and move the prosthesis accordingly. An alternative way is to assign the output of one or a few neurons by operant conditioning to control the prosthesis with rules defined by the experimenter, and rely on the functional adaptation of these neurons during learning to reach the desired behavioral outcome. Here, several motor cortex neurons were recorded simultaneously in head-fixed awake rats and were conditioned, one at a time, to modulate their firing rate up and down in order to control the speed and direction of a one-dimensional actuator carrying a water bottle. The goal was to maintain the bottle in front of the rat's mouth, allowing it to drink. more

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Yorker Faces His Phobia, One Stroke at a Time

Swimming truly matters. On average, 10 people unintentionally drown each day in the United States, according to federal statistics. Black children, historically less exposed to opportunities to swim, drown at a rate several times that of white children. A survey this year for the Red Cross found that more than half of Americans either cannot swim or have not perfected five basic safety skills, like being able to swim 25 yards. What, then, if you could not swim at all and were afraid to try? Phobias are commonly treated with a form of behavioral therapy that involves exposure to the source of the fear. Results are good. Swimming lessons are a version of this. Treatment tends to consume weeks or months, but who knows? Lars-Goran Ost, a Swedish researcher, developed a one-session phobia treatment. To stifle a phobia, you need to confront it. To defeat aquaphobia, you have to get wet. more

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can "Memories" be Implanted and Removed?

At the turn of the twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov conducted the experiments that turned his last name into an adjective. By playing a sound just before he presented dogs with a snack, he taught them to salivate upon hearing the tone alone, even when no food was offered. That type of learning is now called classical—or Pavlovian—conditioning. Less well known is an experiment that Pavlov was conducting at around the same time: when some unfortunate canines heard the same sound, they were given acid. Just as their luckier counterparts had learned to salivate at the noise, these animals would respond by doing everything in their power to get the imagined acid out of their mouths, each “shaking its head violently, opening its mouth and making movements with its tongue.” For many years, Pavlov’s classical conditioning findings overshadowed the darker version of the same discovery, but, in the nineteen-eighties, the New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux revived the technique to study the fear reflex in rats. LeDoux first taught the rats to associate a certain tone with an electric shock so that they froze upon hearing the tone alone. In essence, the rat had formed a new memory—that the tone signifies pain. He then blunted that memory by playing the tone repeatedly without following it with a shock. After multiple shock-less tones, the animals ceased to be afraid. Now a new generation of researchers is trying to figure out the next logical step: re-creating the same effects within the brain, without deploying a single tone or shock. Is memory formation now understood well enough that memories can be implanted and then removed absent the environmental stimulus? more

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Concept of Time May Predict Impulsive Behavior, Research Finds

Obesity, gambling, substance abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are just some disorders that have been linked to impulsive behavior, but the factors contributing to that impulsivity are still a mystery. Research from Kansas State University suggests that understanding the concept of time could predict an individual's impulsive choices. [Kimberly] Kirkpatrick; Aaron Smith, department of psychology at the University of Kentucky; and Andrew Marshall, doctoral student in psychology at Kansas State University, published "Mechanisms of Impulsive Choice: I. Individual Differences in Interval Timing and Reward Processing" in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. The researchers studied rats to determine if particular factors affect individual choices, particularly looking at how long rats can wait to earn a larger reward. Rats were given two different levers to push. One lever produced a small treat after a short time, the other lever produced a larger treat that required waiting longer — a scenario Kirkpatrick said was common for humans. more

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicotine Withdrawal Reduces Response to Rewards Across Species

Cigarette smoking is a leading cause of preventable death worldwide and is associated with approximately 440,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population continues to smoke cigarettes. While more than half of U.S. smokers try to quit every year, less than 10 percent are able to remain smoke-free, and relapse commonly occurs within 48 hours of smoking cessation. Learning about withdrawal and difficulty of quitting can lead to more effective treatments to help smokers quit. In a first of its kind study on nicotine addiction, scientists measured a behavior that can be similarly quantified across species like humans and rats, the responses to rewards during nicotine withdrawal. Findings from this study were published online on Sept. 10, 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry. Response to reward is the brain's ability to derive and recognize pleasure from natural things such as food, money and sex. The reduced ability to respond to rewards is a behavioral process associated with depression in humans. In prior studies of nicotine withdrawal, investigators used very different behavioral measurements across humans and rats, limiting our understanding of this important brain reward system. more

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Evolutionary Explanation for Why Some Lessons are More Easily Learned Than Others

Animals are flooded with stimuli, but survival often depends on their ability to form specific associations that enhance fitness while ignoring others entirely. Psychologists have a name for it: the Garcia Effect. In the 1960s, John Garcia showed that rats are primed to learn certain associations (taste and illness) and not others (light and illness). "Different learning abilities evolved in different environments, and we had a hypothesis about how that should happen," says Stephens. "What we wanted to know the general properties that cause natural selection to favor some learned associations over others." Dunlap and Stephens tested their hypothesis using techniques associated with experimental evolution. "Experimental evolution is different than artificial selection," says Stephens. Instead of selecting for specific traits, the idea is to create specific environments and ask whether they generate selection in the predicted way. more

Monday, September 08, 2014

Parents, Listen Next Time Your Baby Babbles

Pay attention, mom and dad, especially when your infant looks at you and babbles. Parents may not understand a baby’s prattling, but by listening and responding, they let their infants know they can communicate which leads to children forming complex sounds and using language more quickly. That’s according to a new study by the University of Iowa and Indiana University that found how parents respond to their children’s babbling can actually shape the way infants communicate and use vocalizations. The findings challenge the belief that human communication is innate and can’t be influenced by parental feedback. Instead, the researchers argue, parents who consciously engage with their babbling infants can accelerate their children’s vocalizing and language learning. “It’s not that we found responsiveness matters,” says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in the July/August edition of the journal Infancy. “It’s how a mother responds that matters.” more

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Scientists Switch "Good" and "Bad" Memories in Mice

"Recording a memory is not like playing a tape recorder, it's a creative process," Susumu Tonegawa, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT and senior author of the paper, said in a Nature news conference...The researchers used genetically engineered mice who expressed a light-sensitive protein, allowing the scientists to activate different neurons by targeting them with a laser. They exposed half of them to a positive stimuli (interaction with a female mouse) and half to a negative one (small electric shocks). This activated both the neurons that form the structure of a memory, which are found in the hippocampus, and the neurons that determine the emotional value of a memory, in the amygdala. Then the mice were placed in a box with two sides that the mice could move freely between. When the mice moved to one particular end of the box, a light would shine down on them — activating the neurons that had been active during their conditioning. So for the mice who'd been shocked, the "target" end of the box meant an activation of the fearful memory. For the mice who'd spent time with a female, the same target end meant and activation of the pleasurable memory. Sure enough, the shocked mice avoided the target, while the others spent more time there than the side without a laser light. more

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Is Psychology's Focus Becoming Too Narrow?

In the past 20 or so years, there have been major advances in our understanding of the role of genetics, neural processes, and physiological processes (e.g., hormones, respiratory sinus arrhythmia) in human functioning. These domains of research have contributed immensely to our understanding of an array of issues in psychology and will no doubt continue to do so. However, as a consequence of the visibility and excitement about biologically oriented work, I have noticed a tendency toward reductionism by some individuals in the field and by some funding agencies. There seems to be an increasing tendency to assume that studying genetic/neural/physiological processes is more important than research on behavior and psychological processes per se because biological findings will eventually explain most of human psychological functioning. This belief is especially evidenced in the funding priorities at some of the National Institutes of Health. It can also be seen in the hiring patterns of many psychology departments that place a priority on hiring people who study biological processes or aspects of cognition that can be tied to neuroscience...Direct measures of behavior seem to be valued no more, and perhaps less, than self-report data and other types of nonbehavioral data collected in artificial experimental contexts. Yet the crux of what many of us want to understand is real-life human behavior. more

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Evidence-Based Medicine Actually Isn’t

In medical practice, the concept of evidence shares a lot with Saint Augustine’s understanding of time. He understood time perfectly well, of course, until somebody asked him to explain it. Medical evidence is similar. Everybody thinks they know what evidence means, but defining what counts as evidence is about as easy as negotiating peace in the Middle East. As a result, demands for “evidence-based medicine” pose some serious practical problems. In fact, the label “evidence based” applied to medicine has been confused, abused and misused so much lately that some experts suggest that the evidence-based medicine movement is in a state of crisis. more