Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Science Is Often Flawed: It's Time We Embraced That

In his book Derailed, about his fall from academic grace, the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel explained his preferred method for manipulating scientific data in detail that would make any nerd's jaw drop:
"I preferred to do it at home, late in the evening... I made myself some tea, put my computer on the table, took my notes from my bag, and used my fountain pen to write down a neat list of research projects and effects I had to produce.... Subsequently I began to enter my own data, row for row, column for column...3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 4, 5, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2. When I was finished, I would do the first analyses. Often, these would not immediately produce the right results. Back to the matrix and alter data. 4, 6, 7, 5, 4, 7, 8, 2, 4, 4, 6, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4. Just as long until all analyses worked out as planned."
In 2011, when Stapel was suspended over research fraud allegations, he was a rising star in social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He had conducted attention-grabbing experiments on social behavior, looking at, for example, whether litter in an environment encouraged racial stereotyping and discrimination. Yet that paper — and at least 55 others, as well as 10 dissertations written by students he supervised — were built on falsified data. Stories like Stapel's are what most people think of when they think about how science goes wrong: an unethical researcher methodically defrauding the public. But outright fraud is just one potential derailment from truth. more

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cheaters Never Win...or Do they?

Why do people cheat? Quite simply, the reward for cheating typically outweighs the negative consequence. Cheating is an epidemic in today's society where we strive for the path of least resistance and effort in every aspect of our lives. Allow me to indulge you in a little educational psychology for a minute (something I studied and use in my own classroom as an educator). One of the tenants of behavioral psychological is the learning theory of B.F. Skinner. In a nutshell, the basic theory is that people learn by imitation and then subsequent reinforcement. When we are children we copy what we see: other children and adults around us. When we are given praise and acknowledgement after a particular behavior we tend to keep doing the behavior to seek the reward. Of course there are other factors that play a role in behavior: environment, self-efficacy and a host of other learning theories. But I agree with Skinner that imitation and reinforcement are the main keys to learning (and changing behavior). As a teacher I am very aware of when I offer praise to my students. In fact, I tend to withhold praise until I see exactly the kind of behavior I want. Then I reward that behavior. And you know what? Students tend to keep doing whatever I reward. It is the idea of a "reward" that is the primary motivation for a given behavior. So again, why do people cheat? It's because they see other people cheat (ie, imitation), and they are rewarded when they do. Tom Brady cheated and he won a Super bowl. The Saints cheated with the Bountygate scandal, and they won a Super bowl. Did both teams also face a punishment? Yes, but they still got the reward in the end. more

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Smokers More Likely To Quit If Their Own Cash Is On The Line

A new study finds that employer-based programs to help people stop smoking would work better if they tapped into highly motivating feelings — such as the fear of losing money ... The researchers compared a few approaches. Some people simply got cash for quitting. Others were offered a carrot-and-stick approach. They'd get a similar financial reward if they quit, but they'd also lose $150 of their own money if they started smoking again. "People are much more afraid of losing $5 than they are motivated to earn $5," Halpern says. "And so people's actions go with their psychology" ... "The deposit programs were twice as effective as rewards, and five times more effective than providing free smoking cessation aids like nicotine replacement therapy," Halpern says. more

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

First Results from Psychology’s Largest Reproducibility Test

An ambitious effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology ended last week — and the data look worrying. Results posted online on 24 April, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, suggest that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced. But the situation is more nuanced than the top-line numbers suggest (See graphic, 'Reliability test'). Of the 61 non-replicated studies, scientists classed 24 as producing findings at least “moderately similar” to those of the original experiments, even though they did not meet pre-established criteria, such as statistical significance, that would count as a successful replication. The results should convince everyone that psychology has a replicability problem, says Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of one of the papers whose findings were successfully repeated. “A lot of working scientists assume that if it’s published, it’s right,” he says. “This makes it hard to dismiss that there are still a lot of false positives in the literature.” But Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California, says the results suggest that the reproducibility of findings in psychology does not necessarily lag behind that in other sciences. There is plenty of room for improvement, he adds, but earlier studies have suggested that reproducibility rates in cancer biology and drug discovery could be even lower. more

Monday, May 11, 2015

Science That Could Improve the Lives of People with Autism is Being Ignored

The science of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) has been shown to have significant success in helping people with autism who ask for help. This evidence-based practice can also help reduce the associated economic costs. This science involves the systematic use of behavioural principles to help those diagnosed with autism make socially significant changes in their behaviour. In doing so, individuals and families are provided with new opportunities for making personal choices. For example, ABA has enabled families to holiday together for the first time. Currently, 41 States in America have enacted new laws to ensure that ABA is available under health insurance. By contrast, the body that advises the NHS in England and Wales, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, concluded that it could not find any evidence to support ABA and therefore could not make a recommendation about it ... This gulf in perspectives between Europe and the USA can be explained by the lack of available training in ABA in Europe and the fact that professionals without appropriate training perpetuate the misinformation that has then shaped government policies on autism. more

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Time for One-Person Research Trials

Recognition that physicians need to take individual variability into account is driving huge interest in ‘precision’ medicine ... Classical clinical trials harvest a handful of measurements from thousands of people. Precision medicine requires different ways of testing interventions. Researchers need to probe the myriad factors—genetic and environmental, among others—that shape a person’s response to a particular treatment. Studies that focus on a single person—known as N-of-1 trials—will be a crucial part of the mix ... If enough data are collected over a sufficiently long time, and appropriate control interventions are used, the trial participant can be confidently identified as a responder or non-responder to a treatment. Aggregated results of many N-of-1 trials (all carried out in the same way) will offer information about how to better treat subsets of the population or even the population at large. more

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Neurons for Hunger and Thirst Condition Preference for Environmental Cues

Homeostasis is a biological principle for regulation of essential physiological parameters within a set range. Behavioural responses due to deviation from homeostasis are critical for survival, but motivational processes engaged by physiological need states are incompletely understood. We examined motivational characteristics of two separate neuron populations that regulate energy and fluid homeostasis by using cell-type-specific activity manipulations in mice. We found that starvation-sensitive AGRP neurons exhibit properties consistent with a negative-valence teaching signal. Mice avoided activation of AGRP neurons, indicating that AGRP neuron activity has negative valence. AGRP neuron inhibition conditioned preference for flavours and places. Correspondingly, deep-brain calcium imaging revealed that AGRP neuron activity rapidly reduced in response to food-related cues. Complementary experiments activating thirst-promoting neurons also conditioned avoidance. Therefore, these need-sensing neurons condition preference for environmental cues associated with nutrient or water ingestion, which is learned through reduction of negative-valence signals during restoration of homeostasis. more

Friday, May 01, 2015

Flipping the Equation on Challenging Behavior

When you decided to become a teacher, did you envision changing young people’s lives for the better and coming home each day with a glow of satisfaction? Sadly, the reality can be vastly different! When a classroom is filled with students engaging in challenging behavior, it can begin to feel like a war zone. It can be stressful and lack reward. How is a person supposed to teach when one or more students are being noncompliant, disruptive, and distracting other students? There are some simple strategies that can empower a teacher to turn all of that challenging behavior around and get back to the business of teaching. First, we need to see behavior clearly for what it is: Communication. It is never random; it always has a purpose. If we can begin to recognize the pay-off a student is getting from engaging in the behavior, we can affect great change. There are four main “usual suspects” that are the underlying causes of nearly all challenging behavior in a classroom setting. more

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Fix Reward Programs

Once the bastion of airlines and credit cards, rewards programs have expanded to the point where it is now possible to be “rewarded” for buying everything from a pack of gum to a brand-new car. Every retail checkout clerk is trained to ask, at every visit, if you would like to join the store’s rewards program. Merely sharing your email address can result in a bombardment of messages promising points, rewards, and other inducements ... The evolution has led to some serious questions about rewards programs ... To understand why, you have to go back to Psychology 101 — specifically to the concept of “operant conditioning,” also known as reward–response. Pioneering psychologist B.F. Skinner required subjects to be placed in a “Skinner box.” The box allowed Skinner to control the stimuli that a subject was exposed to and ensure that the program of rewards would establish the operant conditioning. Unfortunately for most marketers, consumers can’t be contained in Skinner boxes — aka an environment where the product would have a monopoly. But even if they could, the operant conditioning of reward–response doesn’t quite achieve its objective of repeat behavior and consumer preference. A program might be successful at first. But as soon as other competitors enter the mix, the conditioned behavior is no longer operative, because rewards are no longer unique and the environment is no longer controlled. Instead of behavioral conditioning, companies get balance-sheet liability and consumers are bombarded with offers and emails. Worst of all, consumers may come to expect rewards for doing nothing. To a degree, then, traditional rewards programs are a waste of corporate money. more

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Parent Training Can Reduce Serious Behavioral Problems in Young Children with Autism

A multi-site study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) finds young children with autism spectrum disorder and serious behavioral problems respond positively to a 24-week structured parent training. The benefits of parent training endured for up to six months post intervention. Published in the April 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association the study found parent training was more effective in reducing disruptive and aggressive behavior than 24 weeks of parent education. Parent training provided parents with specific strategies on how to manage serious behavioral problems such as tantrums, aggression, self-injury and noncompliance in children with autism spectrum disorder. Parent education offered useful information on autism - but did not provide guidance on how to manage serious behavioral problems. more

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Digital Addiction: The Social Cost of Constant Mobile Connection

“We have some very strong habits around a lot of our technology, particularly the cellphone,” says psychologist Prof Art Markman, author of Smart Change.  “Back when I was in college studying introductory psychology, we had to train a rat to press a bar. We rewarded the rat by giving it water. Whenever it went near the side of the cage where the bar was or when it brushed against the bar, you would reward it. “Once it finally figured out pressing the bar, the idea was to give it a reward 40-50 per cent of the time in a random way. That would keep the rat busy for a long time. “There are two other situations in the modern world where we encounter that exact schedule of reinforcement: in casinos and in our cellphone behaviour. “We look for notifications to see if we have email. In doing so we create a pattern to be rewarded with a new message about half the time we take our phones out. We have trained ourselves to press a bar over and over again. Once we’ve done it enough times, we’re basically no different than a rat in a box. We’ll keep doing it for an awfully long time.” more

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Study Rules Out Link Between Autism and MMR Vaccine Even in At-Risk Kids

At least a dozen major studies have found that early childhood vaccines do not cause autism. But one possibility remained: that immunizations could cause autism in a small group of children who were already primed to develop the disorder. Now, new research has ruled out that possibility too. A study of nearly 100,000 children found that toddlers known to have an elevated risk of autism were no more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder if they were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella than if they weren’t. What’s more, the diagnosis rate for high-risk children who were vaccinated was the same as for immunized children with no family history of the disorder, according to the report published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. By hunting for — and failing to find — a link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, in children with an older sibling who had the disease, the study leaves no doubt that the two are not connected, experts said. more

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Giant Rats That Save Lives

Bart Weetjens, a Belgian product designer, started the HeroRat program after puzzling about how to improve mine detection. As a boy, Weetjens had kept rats as pets, and he came across an article about the use of gerbils for tasks involving scent detection. Weetjens then consulted rodent scholars, who suggested Gambian pouched rats, in part because they compensate for very weak eyes with a superb sense of smell. They are called “pouched” not because they are marsupials but because they fill their cheeks with nuts and other goodies, and then bury them underground — relying upon scent to recover their caches later. Another advantage of Gambian pouched rats is that they have an eight-year life span that offers a lengthy return on the nine months of training needed to detect land mines. So Weetjens started an aid group, Apopo, that trains the rats in Tanzania and then deploys them to minefields in various countries. Apopo is also now branching off into using HeroRats to detect tuberculosis — a disease of poverty that kills 1.5 million people a year around the world. A huge challenge with tuberculosis is diagnosis. It takes a trained health worker with a microscope all day to examine about 25 samples of sputum to determine if they are positive for tuberculosis. In contrast, a HeroRat can screen 100 samples in 20 minutes... more

Friday, April 17, 2015

Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavior analysis—the science of adaptive behavior—focuses on behavior as a subject matter in its own right, not as an index of cognitive events, and is, thus, not dualistic. Behavior analysis incorporates several laws of learning discovered by researchers using single-subject experimental designs. I argue that behavior analysis can provide neuroscientists with an experimental and a theoretical framework within which to investigate the neural bases of behaviors, including those that are usually described in cognitive terms ... It is behavior, not cognitive events, which is important for organisms—human and nonhuman—both evolutionarily and in their own lifetimes. Behavior interacts with and adapts to the (i.e., is selected by the) environment; and the nervous system has evolved to support that interaction. Behavior analysis, as a science of behavior in its own right, and not as an indicator of inferred cognitive structures or processes, is best positioned to parsimoniously explain that interaction. Neuroscientists require a cogent theory of behavior to support their search for the neurophysiological correlates of behavior. Thus, behavior analysis can offer both an experimental model based on single-subject research and an elegant theory of behavior that can provide neurophysiologists a non-dualistic road map for understanding the neurophysical correlates of adaptive behavior. more

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab

“I see a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace ... Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed ... The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry. more

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Older People Can Learn to Spend Less Time Sitting Down

Retirement may be more golden if less of it is spent in a resting position. Yet older adults spend an average of 8.5 waking hours a day sitting or lying down, according to TABS study leader Dori Rosenberg, PhD, MPH, an assistant scientific investigator at Group Health Research Institute ... "We're not sure whether older people can improve their health by reducing the time they spend sitting," Dr. Rosenberg said. "To prove that, we need randomized trials--and none have been done yet in older adults." As a first step toward such a trial, she conducted the TABS study, which showed that it was feasible to coach adults aged 60 and older to spend less time sitting: an average of 27 minutes less per day ... In the TABS study, health coaches talked by phone with each participant five times during eight weeks. The coaches used motivational interviewing to engage participants in setting personalized goals to sit less by standing and moving more--and to take more breaks from sitting throughout the day. Participants tracked how much they thought they were sitting. And at baseline, midway through the study, and at its end, participants used two devices for a week to measure how much they were sitting. They also received charts showing feedback from these measurements. Participants found the feedback charts most helpful, followed by the coaching phone calls. "The feedback was like a reward for standing up and moving," Mr. Alexander said. more

Monday, April 13, 2015

Science and Medicine Have '"Publication Pollution" Problem

The scientific community is facing a ‘pollution problem’ in academic publishing, one that poses a serious threat to the “trustworthiness, utility, and value of science and medicine,” according to one of the country’s leading medical ethicists. Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, shares these and other observations in a commentary publishing April 3 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. "The pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing is corroding the reliability of research," writes Dr. Caplan. "Yet neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy." more

Thursday, April 09, 2015

My Bedtime Friend: A Complete Bedtime Solution for Children

My Bedtime Friend promises to be a safe and fun bedtime solution for children that teaches children their bedtime schedule and keeps them on schedule year round using positive reinforcement ... The first part of My Bedtime Friend is a super soft, cuddly and durable plush toy that indicates to children that it's either bedtime or wake-up time ... The second part of this project is the Bedtime Game. It's the key to My Bedtime Friend's success because it gives children the reason why to stay in their bed. It's a reward chart in the form of a board game. It uses a fixed interval reward system that reinforces the desired bedtime schedule and conditions it to become a learned behavior. Suzanne Lane Hittel used her BA in Psychology and background in behavior to develop a reward system based on B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning. more

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Scientists Create Artificial Link Between Unrelated "Memories"

The ability to learn associations between events is critical for survival, but it has not been clear how different pieces of information stored in memory may be linked together by populations of neurons. In a study published April 2nd in Cell Reports, synchronous activation of distinct neuronal ensembles caused mice to artificially associate the memory of a foot shock with the unrelated memory of exploring a safe environment, triggering an increase in fear-related behavior when the mice were re-exposed to the non-threatening environment. The findings suggest that co-activated cell ensembles become wired together to link two distinct memories that were previously stored independently in the brain. more

Monday, April 06, 2015

Defending Darwin

I’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?” ... We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion. more

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Countdown to March Ratness at the Science Museum of Virginia

The Rat Basketball Association is preparing for the March Ratness tip off on Friday, April 3 at 11am at the Science Museum of Virginia. New this year, the RBA tournament will test new-school skills against the traditional tactics of the veteran players. The whiskered players will represent the final four teams of their college compatriots as they go head to head, pitting lay ups against the full body dunk. Which technique will come out on top? Will the rats’ tournament accurately predict the men’s NCAA champion? Find out! “The rats have been training all year long for March Ratness,” says Noah Haden, Educator and Rat Trainer, Science Museum of Virginia. “We use classical and operant conditioning techniques to enable our rodent friends the ability to enjoy the game of basketball – and we enjoy watching them, too!” more

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