Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Prosocial Progress: A Blueprint for Social Sustainability

“Prosocial Progress: A Blueprint for Social Sustainability” is an educational film which has been uploaded to the internet for free download and distribution. It has been written, directed and produced by Thomas Hallatt & Dale Hallatt; founders of Prosocial Progress Foundation. The aim of the film is to demonstrate how behavioural science can be utilised on a large scale in areas of child development, education and the culture itself in order to bring about sustainability both on a social and environmental level. The film is rooted in behaviour analytic methods, which provides specific details on how positive reinforcement can be applied to bring about sustainable behaviour change for a better world. Prosocial Progress Foundation will be concentrating its future efforts on giving behaviour analysis a much larger platform in terms of media representation, as well as putting into action a variety of projects which can bring some of the methods found within behavioural science into reality. more

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Water Fountain Uses Positive Reinforcement to Decrease Bottle Waste

When you consider the fact that much of the Middle East is one big desert, it’s unsurprising that water conservation is high on the list of priorities for most countries in the region. One possible solution is a water fountain that aims to conserve more water and reduce the amount of plastic used in its distribution. Created by an Israeli startup called Woosh Water, it’s a high-tech, networked solution that also relies on positive reinforcement. Anyone is allowed to use the water fountain, but the real social impact becomes clear once you become part of the network. Users who sign up online receive a small keychain sensor to login when they refill their bottle, which tracks how much water has been consumed, along with how many plastic bottles have been kept out of the waste stream by using a reusable bottle. more

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I'm Not Making This Up: Why I'm Skeptical of Eyewitnesses

One of the major disconnects between those who practice effective skepticism and those who believe in paranormal possibilities (or are emotionally invested in unexplained mysteries) is over the topic of anecdotes and witnesses' testimony. If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble. Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in. Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing. more

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pavlovian Conditioning: Discoveries in How Memories Form

“Memory is essential to our daily function and is also central to our sense of self,” Roman said. “To a large degree, we are the sum of our experiences. When memories can no longer be retrieved or we have difficulty in forming new memories, the effects are frequently tragic. In the future, our work will enable us to have a better understanding of how human memories form.” Roman and Zhang set about to unravel some of these mysteries by studying the brains of fruit flies (Drosophila). Within the fly brain, Roman says, there are nerve cells that play a role in olfactory learning and memory. Olfactory learning, he says, is an example of classical conditioning first described by Pavlov in his experiment with dogs. In their study, the flies were trained to associate a weak electric shock with an odor. After training, the flies avoided that odor. “We found that these particular nerve cells – the gamma lobe neurons of the mushroom bodies in the insect brain – are activated by odors. Training the flies to associate an odor with an electric shock changed how these cells responded to odors by developing a modification in gamma lobe neuron activity, known as a memory trace,” he said. “Interestingly, we found that training caused the gamma lobe neurons to be more weakly activated by odors that were not paired with an electric shock, while the odors paired with electric shock maintained a strong activation of these neurons. Thus, the gamma lobe neurons responded more strongly to the trained odor than to the untrained odor.” more

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Pigeon-Guided Missiles and Bat Bombs of World War II

The man behind Project Pigeon was famed American behaviorist and Harvard professor B.F. Skinner, who teamed with the U.S. Army to develop such a system. Pigeons were trained using operant conditioning, a type of learning pioneered by Skinner in 1937 where behavior is modified by its consequences. In operant conditioning, the initial behavior is spontaneous, but when it is either rewarded or punished, that behavior is either reinforced or inhibited. In this case, Skinner rewarded pigeons for pecking an image on a screen to get them conditioned to do it. Skinner then designed a nose cone for missiles that had three windows for the pigeon (or up to three pigeons in some tests) to look through. Via the flight control system and a metal piece on the nose of the pigeon(s) to detect a peck, the pecking of the windows would result in the missile changing course, depending on which window was pecked and where on the window the pecking happened. The pigeons were then trained to peck such that the target, whatever object the pigeon was conditioned to go for, stayed centered in front of the missile. more

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims

Calls for the closer integration of science in political decision-making have been commonplace for decades. However, there are serious problems in the application of science to policy — from energy to health and environment to education...In this context, we suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians. To this end, we suggest 20 concepts that should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists — and anyone else who may have to interact with science or scientists. Politicians with a healthy scepticism of scientific advocates might simply prefer to arm themselves with this critical set of knowledge. more

Monday, December 02, 2013

Gene Found in Human Speech Problems Affects Singing, Not Learning in Songbirds

A genetic defect that profoundly affects speech in humans also disrupts the ability of songbirds to sing effective courtship tunes. This defect in a gene called FoxP2 renders the brain circuitry insensitive to feel-good chemicals that serve as a reward for speaking the correct syllable or hitting the right note, a recent study shows...Though the researchers are cautious not to draw too many parallels between their findings in birds and the deficits in humans, they think their study does highlight the value of songbirds in studying human behaviors and disease. more

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Absolutely Maybe: Statistical Significance and its Part in Science Downfalls

Imagine if there were a simple single statistical measure everybody could use with any set of data and it would reliably separate true from false. Oh, the things we would know! Unrealistic to expect such wizardry though, huh? Yet, statistical significance is commonly treated as though it is that magic wand. Take a null hypothesis or look for any association between factors in a data set and abracadabra! Get a “p value” over or under 0.05 and you can be 95% certain it’s either a fluke or it isn’t. You can eliminate the play of chance! You can separate the signal from the noise! Except that you can’t. That’s not really what testing for statistical significance does. And therein lies the rub. Testing for statistical significance estimates the probability of getting roughly that result if the study hypothesis is assumed to be true. It can’t on its own tell you whether this assumption was right, or whether the results would hold true in different circumstances. It provides a limited picture of probability, because it takes limited information about the data into account. more

Monday, November 25, 2013

For Locusts, The Company You Keep Shapes What You Learn

A team of scientists has shown how the environment shapes learning and memory by training locusts like Pavlov's dog to associate different smells with reward or punishment..."When we presented solitary locusts with an unfamiliar odour together with toxic food, they assigned it an aversive ('bad') value. But if the locust is in a crowd and starting to change towards gregarious, it assigns an appetitive ('good') value to the same odour. Ecologically, this makes sense because, being a gregarious locust, it should find and eat toxic plants to defend itself against predators. "Then we asked, if a solitary locust has already learned about an odour and then it finds itself in a crowd, what would happen to its memories? Can it switch the value that it has assigned to the odour, or more precisely, does crowding change the value of a previous memory from aversive to appetitive? We found that locusts cannot do this: they are stuck with the value of their already acquired memories. However, strikingly we found that locusts in this transitional period also cannot form any new aversive memories, while they can still form new appetitive memories. more

Friday, November 22, 2013

Frequent Tests Can Enhance College Learning, Study Finds

Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, scientists reported Wednesday. The findings—from an experiment in which 901 students in a popular introduction to psychology course at the University of Texas took their laptops to class and were quizzed online—demonstrate that the computers can act as an aid to teaching, not just a distraction. Moreover, the study is the latest to show how tests can be used to enhance learning as well as measure it. more

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Aubrey Daniels International Launches Behavioral Science Institute to Dispel Myths About Improving Workplace Behavior

Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), a leading workplace consultancy, today announced the launch of an institute dedicated to increasing the understanding and advancing the use of the science of behavior (behavior analysis) in the workplace. The institute includes a virtual museum with a one-of-a-kind collection of rarely seen photographs, diagrams and writings and a timeline that illuminate important and historical contributions to behavioral analysis, dating back 100 years. more

Monday, November 18, 2013

Glowing Worms Illuminate the Neural Roots of Behavior

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and The Rockefeller University in New York has developed a novel system to image brain activity in multiple awake and unconstrained worms. The technology, which makes it possible to study the genetics and neural circuitry associated with animal behavior..."One of our major objectives is to understand the neural signals that direct behavior -- how sensory information is processed through a network of neurons leading to specific decisions and responses," said Dirk Albrecht, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI and senior author of the paper. more

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Free-to-Play Gamers are Tired of Skinner Boxes, and That's a Good Thing

Speak to free-to-play detractors, and many will argue that the model reduces games to mere Skinner Boxes, with titles designed to trick players into parting with their cash after being treated to enticing rewards. For those unfamiliar with Skinner Boxes, they work by rewarding subjects (in B.F. Skinner's time, lab rats) with food for pressing the correct lever when stimulated by a bright light or loud noise. Replace 'food' with 'gems', and 'lever' with 'touchscreen' and it's easy to see why the model can be applied to many high profile free-to-play games. However, just because the model fits - and, for a time at least, offers success - doesn't mean it's the only option. more

Monday, November 11, 2013

Chimpanzees: Alarm Calls With "Intent"?

Many scientists consider non-human primate vocalisations to be a simple read-out of emotion (e.g. alarm calls are just an expression of fear) and argue they are not produced intentionally, in sharp contrast to both human language and great ape gestural signals. This has led some scientists to suggest that human language evolved from a primitive gestural communication system, rather than a vocal communication system...In Uganda, the researchers presented wild chimpanzees with a moving snake model and monitored their vocal and behavioural responses. They found that the chimpanzees were more likely to produce alarm calls when close friends arrived in the vicinity. They looked at and monitored group members both before and during the production of calls and critically, they continued to call until all group members were safe from the predator. Together these behaviours indicate the calls are produced intentionally to warn others of the danger. more

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Super Song Learners: Mechanism for Improving Song Learning in Zebra Finches

Most songbirds learn their songs from an adult model, mostly from the father. However, there are relatively large differences in the accuracy how these songs are copied. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen now found in juvenile zebra finches a possible mechanism that is responsible for the differences in the intensity of song learning. They provided the nerve growth factor “BDNF” to the song control system in the brain. With this treatment the learning ability in juvenile males could be enhanced in such a way that they were able to copy the songs of the father as good as it had been observed in the best learners in a zebra finch nest. more

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Smell of Bull

By the late winter of 2012, Friedman, Sokal and Brown were all in touch via email and working together towards a draft of what would become “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking.” The three men brought different skills to the plate. Brown was the outsider, the instigator, who, knowing no better, dared to question the theory in the first place. Friedman provided psychological expertise and played a diplomatic role, helping guide the paper towards publication. Sokal was the finisher, the infamous debunker with the know-how needed to dismantle the theory in hard, mathematic language. The article they wrote not only took to pieces Fredrickson and Losada’s 2005 paper, but also two earlier articles written or co-written by Losada. Taken together, Brown, Sokal and Freidman tallied a litany of abuses, which they related, one by one, in painstaking detail. “We shall demonstrate that each one of the three articles is completely vitiated by fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors,” they wrote. more

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Research Fraud? A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

We may be witnessing the confluence of two inherent components of the human condition: incompetence and self-interest. Nutrition has had many colossal and costly failures. The list of dietary components claimed to reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD), prevent cognitive decline, and/or fight cancer that were later refuted via clinical trials is extensive. And while the self-correcting nature of science necessitates failure, the vast majority of nutrition’s failures were engendered by a complete lack of familiarity with the scientific method. This deficit is most apparent in the field’s reliance on self-reports of diet. Such information, to which nutrition researchers assign numeric caloric values, is rife with bias, and without the ability to corroborate or falsify the reports, the data should be considered pseudoscientific—outside the realm of scientific research...The National Institutes of Health spent an estimated $2.2 billion on nutrition and obesity research in the 2012 fiscal year, a significant proportion of which was spent on research that used the pseudoscientific methods described above. The fact that nutrition researchers have known for decades that these techniques are invalid implies that the field has been perpetrating fraud against the US taxpayers for more than 40 years—far greater than any fraud perpetrated in the private sector (e.g., the Enron and Madoff scandals). more

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

PubMed Opens for Comment

The informal conversations that researchers have at scientific meetings look set to move online, if a new initiative by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has its way. On 22 October, the NCBI of Bethesda, Maryland, launched the pilot phase of a programme called PubMed Commons. This will allow users to comment on published abstracts on the PubMed website, which indexes some 22 million papers. For now, only a select group of researchers and their invited guests can use the system. But the NCBI's director David Lipman, who helped to develop the programme, says that soon any PubMed author will be allowed to comment under his or her real name. more

Friday, October 25, 2013

Neuroscience and its Discontents

Neuroscience—one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science—often suffers from spasms of “premature extrapolation” due to oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains...Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have written a marvelous book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Its purpose is not to critique neuroscience, but to expose and protest its mindless oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains. more

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rewarding Engagement in Mobile Gaming

One of the concepts I teach in my integrated marketing communications class is the use of classic positive reinforcement in marketing, which has been recently reclassified as gamification by marketers in the digital era. Foursquare, with its achievement and partner badges, was an early pioneer in this era. More recently, retailers have been "combating showrooming," the phenomenon of consumers visiting a store and comparing prices on mobile devices through apps such as Shopify and Target's Cartwheel, with this technique. Shopify nudges shoppers to earn points by visiting stores more frequently and to explore more of the store once inside its doors. These points eventually lead to real-world rewards, from coffee gift cards to a Vespa Italian scooter. The downside is that consumers have to leave home or roam the city and a store for rewards; thus, the most participants will likely engage infrequently at best. more

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How Science Goes Wrong

A simple idea underpins science: “trust, but verify”. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better. But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity. Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis...A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties. more

Monday, October 21, 2013

Science Publishing: The Golden Club

Researchers often say that publishing in prestigious journals can make a career. And for decades, the most sought after of the bunch have been Nature and Science—broadly read journals that reject more than 90% of the manuscripts they receive. A paper in one of these journals, it is said, can bring job opportunities, invitations to speak, grants, promotions and even cash bonuses and prizes...But the publishing world is rapidly changing, and the leading titles are facing increasing competition. The push for open-access publishing has gathered steady steam...Beyond that trend, some advocates for the open-access movement have specifically attackedScience and Nature, which they label as 'glamour journals'. They say that the journals' prestige is part of a business model in which hot findings are flaunted as a way to justify their subscription rates. And many senior scientists worry that too much attention is paid to where people publish rather than to what they have done. more

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Building Feedback and Natural Reinforcement into Software Applications

The launch of a new software application is more often met with muttering and sighs than with enthusiasm. If the new application is replacing an old one, users must not only learn the new application, they must unlearn old habits tied to the application being replaced. The unlearning occurs through extinction and typically has emotional side effects. Anyone who skipped the 2007 release of Microsoft Office and made the leap from Office 2003 to Office 2010 has experienced this directly. Fluent habits that had worked for years abruptly began leading to dead ends and frustration...Building frequent PICs (positive, immediate, and certain consequences) into a software application can transform routine work into something more enjoyable or even fun. Video game designers, the virtuosos of frequent feedback and positive reinforcement, have demonstrated for years that people will demonstrate extraordinary Discretionary Effort™ doing what on the surface might seem like a mindless activity. more

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The "Be Good" Fairy

"The Be Good Fairy" addresses behavioral issues such as potty training, going to bed, behaving at school, sharing, and much more. When parents introduce "The Be Good Fairy" into their lives it helps eliminate stressful situations, and actually makes them fun, a must have for parents with young children that still believe in magical beings such as The Tooth Fairy...A journal is available as a companion to "The Be Good Fairy" and gives children a place to write down what they have done to earn rewards from "The Be Good Fairy," share their favorite Be Good memories, and spaces to draw what the Fairy leaves them as rewards. more

Monday, October 07, 2013

Science Reporter Spoofs Hundreds of Open Access Journals with Fake Papers

Alan Sokal’s influence has certainly been felt strongly recently. Last month, a critique by Sokal — who in 1996 got a fake paper published in Social Text – and two colleagues forced a correction of a much-ballyhooed psychology paper. A few days after that, we reported on a Serbian Sokal hoax-like paper whose authors cited the scholarly efforts of one B. Sagdiyev, a.k.a. Borat. And today, we bring you news of an effort by John Bohannon, of Science magazine, to publish fake papers in more than 300 open access journals..."By the time Science went to press, 157 of the journals had accepted the paper and 98 had rejected it. Of the remaining 49 journals, 29 seem to be derelict: websites abandoned by their creators. Editors from the other 20 had e-mailed the fictitious corresponding authors stating that the paper was still under review…" more

Friday, October 04, 2013

Brain and Song Structure in Zebra Finches Are Strongly Influenced by the Environment

A central topic in behavioral biology is the question, which aspects of a behavior are learned or expressed due to genetic predisposition. Today it is known that our personality and behavior are far less determined by the genetic background. Especially during development environmental factors can shape brain and behavior via so-called epigenetic effects. Thereby hormones play an important role. A shift in hormone concentrations in early life can have long lasting effects for an organism, whereas the same change in adults often may show only short-term changes. However, whether the influence of the environment has either strong or weak effects can largely depend on the individual genetic predisposition. However, it is relatively hard to discriminate the effects of the environment from that of the genes. An attempt to tease apart these effects has been conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in collaboration with an international team of scientists in zebra finch breeding pairs. more

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Carrotmob: Rewards for Going "Fair Trade"

Think BUYcotting rather than boycotting. That's the idea behind Carrotmob, an initiative that rewards businesses who make the switch to Fair Trade products. John McPahail, owner of Jonnies Sticky Buns, has made the pledge to switch all of his chocolate and some of his sugar to Fair Trade. In turn, Fair Trade Manitoba is organizing. "I see it as a celebration of what a business is currently doing and It's a good way of enticing a business to go even further," McPhail says. He's always been keen on local and organic produce but hadn't really focused on Fair Trade as much. "So this was a good opportunity to sit down with somebody and look at where we are and where we could go.""It's the image of the carrot vs. the stick, so using positive reinforcement vs. negative reinforcement to produce change," explained Lorissa Kanhai, Fair Trade outreach officer. more

Monday, September 30, 2013

The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human

Two scenes, seemingly disjointed: the John le CarrĂ© shadows against the bright midway lights of county-fair Americana. But wars make strange bedfellows, and in one of the most curious, if little-known, stories of the cold war, the people involved in making poultry dance or getting cows to play bingo were also involved in training animals, under government contract, for defense and intelligence work. The same methods that lay behind Priscilla the Fastidious Pig or the Educated Hen informed projects such as training ravens to deposit and retrieve objects, pigeons to warn of enemy ambushes, or even cats to eavesdrop on human conversations. At the center of this Venn diagram were two acolytes of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, plus Bob Bailey, the first director of training for the Navy’s pioneering dolphin program. The use of animals in military intelligence dates back to ancient Greece, but the work that this trio undertook in the 1960s promised an entirely new level of sophistication, as if James Bond’s Q had met Marlin Perkins. more

Friday, September 27, 2013

B.F. Skinner Totally Geeks Out Over the Box He Built for His Baby

The Skinner Box, as applied to human infants, was not what you think it was. Psychologist B.F. Skinner did not raise his daughter inside a box without human contact. Nor did she later grow up to be crazy and commit suicide because of said lack of contact. In fact, just a few years ago, Deborah Skinner Buzan wrote a column for The Guardian debunking those powerful urban legends herself. Instead, what Skinner did was build his daughter the sort of crib that you might expect a scientist raised in the era of mid-20th-centuryPopular Science-style scientific futurism and convenience to build. more

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Toddlers Learn Language Faster Via Video When It’s Interactive

Toddlers can absorb a language while watching a video that is interactive, but not passive, according to a new study. The findings supply fresh fuel to the debate over whether video- and television-based learning is suitable for young toddlers...“There is some evidence that 18-month-olds will respond to the visuals of programs with words, especially if the content is of high quality. But other studies suggest children under the age of 22 months learn words less effectively from TV than from interactions with people.” To explore why children can readily learn words during live conversations, but less so with video, researchers...had three dozen 2 year olds learn new verbs in one of three scenarios: interacting with a live person, chatting with an adult via the audio and video chat program Skype, or watching a video where an adult taught words to another child who was off screen. more

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Old Memories Fade Away...

If you got beat up by a bully on your walk home from school every day, you would probably become very afraid of the spot where you usually met him. However, if the bully moved out of town, you would gradually cease to fear that area. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon "memory extinction": Conditioned responses fade away as older memories are replaced with new experiences. A new study from MIT reveals a gene that is critical to the process of memory extinction. more

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Better Carrot, A Better Stick

As [game] designers, we create the carrots and the sticks that drive players through our simulation. Most designers typically think first about the carrots -- the rewards and bennies that encourage players to pursue "good behavior," but equally important are the consequences of failure and tough decisions. It's the consequences that give these decisions real weight; they provide the emotional lift for the greatest rewards...Economists are fond of saying that you get the behavior you incentivize. One commonly cited fact from real life is that mandatory seat belt laws have resulted in an increase in pedestrian deaths. One consequence of wearing a seat belt is that the driver himself is safer, which allows him to drive faster and more recklessly. As designers, we must be careful of the behavior we incentivize -- it is dangerously easy to penalize good behavior, or reward activities that actively destroy the player's own game experience. If you make a game where jumping is faster than running, players will jump everywhere they go, no matter how silly it looks. more

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Financial Incentives Motivate Sedentary Adults to Exercise

A review study published today finds that financial incentives –as modest as $5 per week – can increase the amount of exercise people do. Lead author Marc Mitchell, University of Toronto PhD candidate and Cardiac Rehabilitation Supervisor at Toronto Rehab, worked under the leadership of University of Toronto exercise psychologist Guy Faulkner and exercise physiologist Jack Goodman to publish these findings in the September online publication of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine...“The time commitment and discomfort of exercise prevents many adults from starting regular exercise,” said Mitchell. “For those who do start, most drop out within six months.” Financial incentive-based public health strategies have gained popularity in North America in recent years, with smoking and weight loss being the more popular targets. “People’s actions tend to serve their immediate self-interest at the expense of long-term wellbeing,” said Mitchell. “This is often the case for exercise, where the costs are experienced in the present and the benefits are delayed. Because of this, many adults postpone exercise.” more

Friday, September 13, 2013

Let's Start With a Respect for Truth

Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law: It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities. more

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Research Shows That Predators Can Learn to Read Camouflage

Camouflaged creatures can perform remarkable disappearing acts but new research shows that predators can learn to read camouflage...The research was carried out by the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge and is published in the journal PLOS ONE. Moths with high contrast markings -- that break up the shape of the body, like that of a zebra or giraffe -- were best at evading predation at the start of the experiment. However humans learnt to find these prey types faster than moths with low contrast markings that match the background, like that of a stick insect or leaf bug. more

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Behind the Shock Machine

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Milgram's experiments on "obedience to authority." In 1963, two years after the Nazi Adolf Eichmann had claimed at his trial that he was "only following orders" in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, Milgram wanted to know how many everyday, good Americans would obey an authority figure when directly ordered to harm another human being... Some people hated the method and others the message, but the Milgram study has never faded from public attention. It has been endlessly retold in schoolrooms, textbooks, TV programs, novels, songs and films. What, then, is left to say about it? According to Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist and journalist, everything. She has investigated every aspect of the research and spoken with seemingly anyone who had a connection to Milgram (1933-84). In "Behind the Shock Machine," Ms. Perry wants to tell a different story about Milgram's 780 participants—who, in her account, had become "a faceless group that is said to represent humanity and to give proof of our troubling tendency to obey orders from an authority figure." By providing their personalities, backgrounds and some real names, she aims to restore their individuality, show how flawed and inconclusive the experiments were, and counteract what she considers Milgram's "bleak view of human nature." In short, she condemns the method and the message. more

Monday, September 09, 2013

Trainer Rewards Your Puppy For Pottying On Target

A sensor hidden inside the disposable paper cloths detects when a puppy has done its business on target, and automatically dispenses a treat while playing a chime to provide positive reinforcement for a job well done. After just a few days your dog should get the idea, and the $100 price tag is a wonderful alternative compared to how much it would cost to clean up after Fido uses your entire house as his bathroom while you're away. more

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Discovery Helps to Unlock Brain's Speech-Learning Mechanism

USC scientists have discovered a population of neurons in the brains of juvenile songbirds that are necessary for allowing the birds to recognize the vocal sounds they are learning to imitate ... [Sarah] Bottjer collaborated with lead author Jennifer Achiro, a graduate student at USC, to examine the activity of neurons in songbirds brains using electrodes to record the activity of individual neurons. In the basal ganglia--a complex system of neurons in the brain responsible for, among other things, procedural learning--Bottjer and Achiro were able to isolate two different types of neurons in young songbirds: ones that were activated only when the birds heard themselves singing, and others that were activated only when the birds heard the songs of adult birds that they were trying to imitate. more

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror

Samuel Pulido walked into his local grocery store on a sweltering day, greeted by cool air and the fantasy-world ambience of the modern supermarket. Soft music drifted. Neon-bright colors turned his head this way and that. “WOW!!!” gasped the posters hanging from entranceway racks, heralding the sugary drinks, wavy chips and Berry Colossal Crunch being thrust his way. Then he looked down at his grocery cart and felt quite a different tug. Inside the front of the buggy, hooked onto its red steel frame, was a mirror. It stretched nearly a foot across, and as Mr. Pulido gripped the cart a little more tightly, it filled with the reflection of his startled face. ... The mirror is part of an effort to get Americans to change their eating habits, by two social scientists outmaneuvering the processed-food giants on their own turf, using their own tricks: the distracting little nudges and cues that confront a supermarket shopper at every turn. The researchers, like many government agencies and healthy-food advocates these days, are out to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. But instead of preaching about diabetes or slapping taxes on junk food, they gently prod shoppers — so gently, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the results. more

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Learning How to Migrate: Young Whoopers Stay the Course When They Follow a Wise Old Bird

Scientists have studied bird migration for centuries, but it remains one of nature's great mysteries. How do birds find their way over long distances between breeding and wintering sites? Is their migration route encoded in their genes, or is it learned? Working with records from a long-term effort to reintroduce critically endangered whooping cranes in the Eastern U.S., a University of Maryland-led research team found evidence that these long-lived birds learn their migration route from older cranes, and get better at it with age. more

Friday, August 30, 2013

Can Language Reveal the Invisible?

Words can play a powerful role in what we see, according to a study published this month by University of Wisconsin-Madison cognitive scientist and psychology professor Gary Lupyan, and Emily Ward, a Yale University graduate student, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Perceptual systems do the best they can with inherently ambiguous inputs by putting them in context of what we know, what we expect," Lupyan says. "Studies like this are helping us show that language is a powerful tool for shaping perceptual systems, acting as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. In the case of vision, what we consciously perceive seems to be deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations." more

Thursday, August 29, 2013

US Behavioural Research Studies Skew Positive

US behavioural researchers have been handed a dubious distinction—they are more likely than their colleagues in other parts of the world to exaggerate findings, according to a study published today. The research highlights the importance of unconscious biases that might affect research integrity, says Brian Martinson, a social scientist at the HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who was not involved with the study. “The take-home here is that the ‘bad guy/good guy’ narrative — the idea that we only need to worry about the monsters out there who are making up data—is naive,” Martinson says. more

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Researcher Controls Colleague's Motions in First Human Brain-To-Brain Interface

University of Washington researchers have performed what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand motions of a fellow researcher. Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco's finger to move on a keyboard. While researchers at Duke University have demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and Harvard researchers have demonstrated it between a human and a rat, Rao and Stocco believe this is the first demonstration of human-to-human brain interfacing. more

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Psychedelic Drug "Erases Fear" in Mice

Juan Sanchez-Ramos (University of South Florida): One theme of research in our lab is the regulation by drugs and environmental variables of hippocampal neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons). The role of neurogenesis in learning, especially in classical conditioning, was of interest to us, but not especially fear conditioning. Research by others (T. Shors and E. Gould at Rutgers) had demonstrated that obliteration of hippocampal neurogenesis with a chemotherapeutic agent resulted in inability to acquire a classical conditioned response, the conditioned blink reflex. This earlier work was done in a larger rodent, the rat, in which it is possible to record the eye blink with an electrode placed above the eye. We were interested in this fundamental unit of learning but could not apply it to our mouse model. However, we found that fear conditioning could easily be studied in a mouse. With this background, I speculated that low doses of psilocybin which act directly on serotonin receptors (the 5HT2a) in hippocampus and other areas, might enhance the acquisition of a conditioned fear response by stimulating neurogenesis. In fact, it did not enhance acquisition and surprisingly, it enhanced extinction of fear conditioning. more

Monday, August 26, 2013

Wean Yourself Off Facebook with Shock Therapy and Harassing Phone Calls

Two MIT students, Robert R. Morris and Dan McDuff, were having trouble finishing their dissertations. The culprit? Too much social media. Doing what I can only assume any MIT students would do, they leveraged technology to solve their problems. It was a two-pronged approach. Prong one included connecting a shock circuit to a computer on one end and to conducting pads that sat atop a keyboard wrist wrest on the other end. Morris and McDuff wrote a script that could detect when they started cruising Facebook, at which time a current got sent to the conducting pads, shocking their wrists. They call it the Pavlov Poke... more

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Psychotherapy Lags as Evidence Goes Unheeded

Psychotherapy has issues. Evidence shows that some psychosocial treatments work well for common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and that consumers often prefer them to medication. Yet the use of psychotherapy is on a clear decline in the United States. In a set of research review papers in the November issue of the journal Clinical Psychology Review, psychologists put psychotherapy on the proverbial couch to examine why it’s foundering. Their diagnosis? Much as in many human patients, psychotherapy has a combination of problems. Some of them are of its own making while some come from outside the field itself. Fundamentally, argue Brandon Gaudiano and Ivan Miller, Brown University professors of psychiatry and human behavior whose review paper introduces the section they edited, the psychotherapy community hasn’t defined, embraced, and articulated the ample evidence base clarifying their practice, while drug makers and prescribers have done so for medications. In a system of medicine and health insurance that rewards evidence-based practice and looks upon biology as a more rigorous science, psychotherapy has lost ground among physicians, insurers and policymakers...“We haven’t been holding ourselves to evidence-based practice,” Gaudiano said of fellow psychologists. “Because of that we’ve had other groups who are more medication-focused define practice standards.” more

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Human Eye Movements for Vision Are Remarkably Adaptable

When something gets in the way of our ability to see, we quickly pick up a new way to look, in much the same way that we would learn to ride a bike, according to a new study published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on August 15. Our eyes are constantly on the move, darting this way and that four to five times per second. Now researchers have found that the precise manner of those eye movements can change within a matter of hours. This discovery by researchers from the University of Southern California might suggest a way to help those with macular degeneration better cope with vision loss. "The system that controls how the eyes move is far more malleable than the literature has suggested," says Bosco Tjan of the University of Southern California. "We showed that people with normal vision can quickly adjust to a temporary occlusion of their foveal vision by adapting a consistent point in their peripheral vision as their new point of gaze." more

Monday, August 19, 2013

Researchers Debunk "Right-Brained" or "Left-Brained" Myth

Chances are, you've heard the label of being a "right-brained" or "left-brained" thinker. Logical, detail-oriented and analytical? That's left-brained behavior. Creative, thoughtful and subjective? Your brain's right side functions stronger -- or so long-held assumptions suggest. But newly released research findings from University of Utah neuroscientists assert that there is no evidence within brain imaging that indicates some people are right-brained or left-brained..."It's absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don't tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection, " said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study, which is formally titled "An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging." It is published in the journal PLOS ONE this month. more

Friday, August 16, 2013

Evidence-Based Justice: Corrupted Memory

In a career spanning four decades, Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, has done more than any other researcher to document the unreliability of memory in experimental settings. And she has used what she has learned to testify as an expert witness in hundreds of criminal cases — Pacely's was her 101st—informing juries that memories are pliable and that eyewitness accounts are far from perfect recordings of actual events. Her work has earned her plaudits from her peers, but it has also made her enemies. Critics charge that in her zeal to challenge the veracity of memory, Loftus has harmed victims and aided murderers and rapists. She has been sued and assaulted, and has even received death threats...Now, the 68-year-old scientist's research is starting to bring about lasting changes in the legal system. In July last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling—based largely on her findings—that jurors should be alerted to the imperfect nature of memory and the fallibility of eyewitness testimony as standard procedure. Loftus is working with judges in other states to make such changes more widespread. more

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Online "Likes" Herd Others to Similar Views

Positive opinions are more influential than negative ones, at least on the Internet. If an article is “liked” on a website such as Facebook or Reddit, new readers are more likely to approve of it, according to a study published in the journal Science. While the positive reactions create a “herding” effect, the authors said, negative views don’t appear to affect people the same way. Using an undisclosed news-aggregation website, the scientists tinkered with the favorability ratings of certain comments on the site. The comments that got a positive boost from the researchers subsequently took off in popularity, receiving a 25 percent higher rating on average from other users. more

Monday, August 12, 2013

How Little We Understand Our Own Behaviour

An intriguing article in the June 2013 issue of the Psychologist journal got me thinking of BF Skinner, an old hero of mine. Skinner is one of the most famous psychologists of the 20th century and was a man who stirred much controversy, both among his peers and within society generally. Skinner was often referred to as the father of behaviourism. In his attempts to understand, predict and control behaviour, he emphasised the role of environmental factors above internal factors such as feelings, states of mind, innate personality and so on, seeing these, in essence, as emergent consequences of our learning environment. He did recognise the importance of physiology and genetics, but argued that in gaining psychologically relevant knowledge we should attend to the environment in which a person lives, their learned behavioural repertoire and the consequences that follow their actions. In other words, if you really want to understand me, pay attention to what I do, not what I say – or what you think I think. more

Friday, August 02, 2013

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

By reducing human thought and behavior to colorful images of excited neurons, neuroscientists have turned brain scans into brain scams, write psychiatrist Satel and psychologist Lilienfeld. The argument that thinking involves more than brain activity is not new, but the authors give it an up-to-date, provocative treatment. Satel and Lilienfeld take aim at functional MRI scans that have been used by researchers and media to claim that specific brain areas represent the seats of love, hate and other human experiences. At best, the authors say, these scans detect a fraction of brain activity that occurs when people perform mental tasks. Such brain measures can neither fully predict nor explain people’s thoughts and feelings, they assert. more

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Science of Behavioral Safety 101: A Little Praise Goes a Long Way

We probably have all heard the old adage: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Well, there’s plenty of science to support it. Psychological research has shown us time and again that positive reinforcement is the single most powerful tool in our arsenal for eliciting and maintaining desired behavior. It’s true when it comes to parenting children and it’s true when it comes to creating safe work environments. Strategic use of positive reinforcement is effective and highly cost-efficient...Remember that safety is defined as a dynamic non-event. As such, word spreads quickly when a big safety mishap occurs but not when minor safety errors are committed without incident. So, our knowledge can be limited when it comes to understanding the current risk for error among employees. To monitor risk, we must have awareness of how people are performing with respect to many discrete and routine tasks. Staying safe depends on doing the right thing all day every day, even when nobody is looking. Staying focused on the “little things” requires frequent reminders and reinforcements. In the absence of such feedback, human beings naturally drift away from safe practices and use of error prevention tools. To stay safe, we need others to notice and reinforce proper adherence to safety expectations. more

Monday, July 29, 2013

Statistics: Too Good to Be True

Are women three times more likely to wear red or pink when they are most fertile? No, probably not. But here's how hardworking researchers, prestigious scientific journals, and gullible journalists have been fooled into believing so. The paper I'll be talking about appeared online this month in Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which represents the serious, research-focused (as opposed to therapeutic) end of the psychology profession. "Women Are More Likely to Wear Red or Pink at Peak Fertility," by Alec Beall and Jessica Tracy, is based on two samples: a self-selected sample of 100 women from the Internet, and 24 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia...Pretty exciting, huh? It’s (literally) sexy as well as being statistically significant. And the difference is by a factor of three—that seems like a big deal. Really, though, this paper provides essentially no evidence about the researchers' hypotheses, for three little reasons and one big reason. more

Friday, July 26, 2013

How Do Babies Learn to Be Wary of Heights?

Infants develop a fear of heights as a result of their experiences moving around their environments, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Learning to avoid cliffs, ledges, and other precipitous hazards is essential to survival and yet human infants don't show an early wariness of heights. As soon as human babies begin to crawl and scoot, they enter a phase during which they'll go over the edge of a bed, a changing table, or even the top of a staircase. In fact, research shows that when infants are placed near a virtual drop-off--a glass-covered table that reveals the floor beneath--they seem to be enthralled by the drop-off, not fearful of it. more

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Science in Seattle: The Science of Consequences

Every day, our actions have consequences, large and small—a completed chore, a smile, a promotion. And even consequences have consequences: They motivate us and shape our choices—and our choices shape us and our societies. They also appear to follow a common set of scientific principles, and to share some similar effects in the brain, says biopsychologist Susan Schneider, with the science of consequences becoming an integral part of psychology, biology, medicine, education, and economics. Taking an “interacting systems” approach, Schneider, author of The Science of Consequences, describes this science and its role in the larger realm of nature-and-nurture, and explains how something so deceptively simple can help make sense of so much. Presented by Town Hall and University Book Store as part of The Seattle Science Lectures, sponsored by Microsoft. Series media sponsorship provided by KPLU. more

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ability to Learn New Words Based On Efficient Communication Between Brain Areas That Control Movement and Hearing

The average adult's vocabulary consists of about 30,000 words. This ability seems unique to humans as even the species closest to us--chimps--manage to learn no more than 100. It has long been believed that language learning depends on the integration of hearing and repeating words but the neural mechanisms behind learning new words remained unclear. Previous studies have shown that this may be related to a pathway in the brain only found in humans and that humans can learn only words that they can articulate. more

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Shame Game: Incentives and Free-to-Play Gaming

Jesse Schell is well known for his discussions of monetization, gamification, achievements, and generally the systems that connect or repel games and players. As many games trend toward free-to-play and social models, his words become even more poignant...[I]n the free-to-play world, you've got to do anything that's going to keep people coming back. And some of those things are positive reinforcement, and some of them are negative reinforcement. Obviously if you have too much negative reinforcement, people leave. But if you have a certain amount of positive reinforcement, you can put some negative reinforcement, and people don't leave. It's not so much that people leave; they'll stay, and now you'll have more reinforcement to return than ever. What it really comes down to is designers need to optimize, they need to optimize for maximum incentives for return. more

Friday, July 19, 2013

Breaking the Seal on Drug Research

Peter Doshi walked across the campus of Johns Hopkins University in a rumpled polo shirt and stonewashed jeans, a backpack slung over one shoulder. An unremarkable presence on a campus filled with backpack-toters, he is 32, and not sure where he’ll be working come August, when his postdoctoral fellowship ends. And yet, even without a medical degree, he is one of the most influential voices in medical research today. Dr. Doshi’s renown comes not from solving the puzzles of cancer or discovering the next blockbuster drug, but from pushing the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies to open their records to outsiders in an effort to better understand the benefits and potential harms of the drugs that billions of people take every day. Together with a band of far-flung researchers and activists, he is trying to unearth data from clinical trials—complex studies that last for years and often involve thousands of patients across many countries—and make it public. The current system, the activists say, is one in which the meager details of clinical trials published in medical journals, often by authors with financial ties to the companies whose drugs they are writing about, is insufficient to the point of being misleading. more

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Challenges of Salvaging Smelt and Other Delta Fish

Fish--including endangered species like the Delta smelt--are put in holding tanks then trucked to other parts of the Delta and released. From there, little is known about their fate. But most scientists agree it's not good. Predator often wait for what amounts to a daily feeding...A few years ago as part of a predation study, he lowered a sonar camera in the murky Delta waters to find out exactly what was going on. “We thought there might be kind of a dinner bell effect where when they heard the truck drive up they’d all come up to the site,” he says. Like Pavlov’s fish, salivating...“We could see fish kind of coming out of the pipe and on a good day you would see them kind of swim off and other days when there was predators there you would see them get picked off,” he says...Brent Bridges is a fish biologist at the Tracy fish facilities, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. They have the same problem at their release sites. Bridges says they’re now trying to trick the predators by turning on and off the pumps at the release site. “The idea is that we want to prevent the fish, the predators, from realizing they’re going to be fed," says Bridges. "We just don’t want them to learn that when they hear the pump running they’re going to get fed.” more

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Yale Psychologist Alan Kazdin Calls for Radical Change in Therapy

Is individual therapy overrated and outdated? In many ways, says Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, writing in the leading journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Kazdin contends that treatments for mental health issues have made great strides over the last few decades, but the problem is that these evidence-based therapies aren’t getting to the people who need them. Nearly 50% of the American population will suffer some kind of mental illness at least once in their lifetimes, but the mental health field, which relies largely on individual psychotherapy to deliver care, isn’t equipped to help the vast majority of patients. Some 70% currently go untreated. more

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Pavlovian Response? Diet Soda Might Do More Harm Than Good

Artificial sweeteners in diet soda fulfill a person’s craving for a sweet taste, without the calories. But that's the problem, according to researchers. Think of it like crying wolf. The fake sugar in diet sodas teases your body by pretending to give it real food. But when your body doesn't get the things it expects to get, it becomes confused on how to respond. While the studies they reviewed only looked at diet soft drinks, the researchers suggest that this could apply to other products that contain artificial sweeteners as well. "You've messed up the whole system, so when you consume real sugar, your body doesn't know if it should try to process it because it's been tricked by the fake sugar so many times," says Swithers. On a physiological level, this means when diet soda drinkers consume real sugar, the body doesn’t release the hormone that regulates blood sugar and blood pressure. more

Friday, July 12, 2013

Treasures in the Smithsonian’s Attic: A Pigeon in a Pelican

Psychologist B.F. Skinner had grand plans for Project Pigeon. Pilots during World War II had no way of aiming missiles—they just dropped them and hoped for the best. An expert on conditioning animals, Skinner decided to train pigeons to steer missiles from the inside. Doing so would certainly shorten and might even win the war for the Allies, he argued. The military had doubts, but it gave Skinner $25,000 to build a prototype nose cone, which the Smithsonian now owns. It’s a gumdrop-shaped device about two feet long, painted hazard orange and silver...In final design, they would have viewed the outside world through a primitive touchscreen. The birds would peck at any targets they saw. If the peck struck the middle of the screen, the missile would stay on course. If it struck off-center, air valves would open and adjust the flight path. What ultimately doomed Project Pigeon wasn’t the birds. more

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Placebo Effect Largely Ignored in Psychological Intervention Studies

Many brain-training companies tout the scientific backing of their products – the laboratory studies that reveal how their programs improve your brainpower. But according to a new report, most intervention studies like these have a critical flaw: They do not adequately account for the placebo effect. The new analysis appears in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The results of psychological interventions, like medical ones, must be compared to improvements in a control condition, said University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons, who co-wrote the article with Walter Boot, Cary Stothart and Cassie Stutts, of Florida State University. In a clinical trial for a new drug, some participants receive a pill with the critical ingredients, and others receive an identical-looking pill that is inert – a placebo. Because participants cannot tell which they received, people in each condition should be equally likely to expect improvements. In contrast, for most psychology interventions, participants know what's in their "pill," Simons said. more

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"Food Dudes" Should Be in Every School

One of the most interesting nuggets in the "critique" of our current health policy chaos by Royal College of General Practitioners president, Professor Steve Field, was his praise for Food Dudes. This is a scheme that shows you can get young children to eat and enjoy fruit and veg – if you use similar marketing techniques to those that major brands use to peddle junk food...What began as an experiment by psychologist Professor Fergus Lowe at Bangor University won the WHO best-practice award in 2006 – a success story begging to be put into action as we agonise over childhood obesity. Strangely, it is only in Ireland that children have benefited from an extensive roll out of the Food Dudes programme. Even though Food Dudes received a gold medal in public health awards made by the then Department of Health chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, this was only for the scheme adopted by Wolverhampton City primary care trust, which aims to see 20,000 children in 91 schools take part in the programme over three years. Across the whole of England, only 2,500 children in 11 schools benefit from what are still termed pilot schemes. Yet California and Sicily have taken up the Food Dudes scheme, which won the accolade "exemplar case study for health behaviour change" by the National Social Marketing Centre in London. more

Monday, July 08, 2013

From the Mouths of Babes and Birds

Babies learn to speak months after they begin to understand language. As they are learning to talk, they babble, repeating the same syllable (“da-da-da”) or combining syllables into a string (“da-do-da-do”). But when babies babble, what are they actually doing? And why does it take them so long to begin speaking? Insights into these mysteries of human language acquisition are now coming from a surprising source: songbirds. Researchers who focus on infant language and those who specialize in birdsong have teamed up in a new study suggesting that learning the transitions between syllables—from “da” to “do” and “do” to “da”—is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking. more

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Researchers Use mobile Application to Improve Asthma Outcomes Among Minority Adolescents

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL and The University of Illinois at Chicago are using the Internet and motivational multimedia coupled with positive reinforcement via a smartphone application to try to improve asthma outcomes among low-income, minority adolescents with asthma. Each participant in the study receives a smartphone preloaded with an application that uses a reward system to encourage them to proactively take their daily asthma controller medications. They also receive a free data plan (including unlimited talking, texting, email and internet) for the duration of their participation in the study. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). more

Friday, June 28, 2013

Does Life Have a Purpose?

One of my favorite dinosaurs is the Stegosaurus, a monster from the late Jurassic (150 million years ago), noteworthy because of the diamond-like plates all the way down its back. Since this animal was discovered in the late 1870s in Wyoming, huge amounts of ink have been spilt trying to puzzle out the reason for the plates...But this essay is not concerned with dinosaurs themselves, rather with the kind of thinking biologists use when they wonder how dinosaur bodies worked. They are asking what was the purpose of the plates? What end did the plates serve? Were they for fighting? Were they for attracting mates? Were they for heat control? This kind of language is ‘teleological’ — from telos, the Greek for ‘end’. It is language about the purpose or goal of things, what Aristotle called their ‘final causes’, and it is something that the physical sciences have decisively rejected. There’s no sense for most scientists that a star is for anything, or that a molecule serves an end. But when we come to talk about living things, it seems very hard to shake off the idea that they have purposes and goals, which are served by the ways they have evolved. more

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Computer-Enabled Socks Help Track Your Personal Fitness

If you are a fitness buff and just have this constant urge to exercise, then this may be for you. This latest wearable technology claims to beat the current top of the line wrist fitness trackers with improved accuracy and convenience. Heapsylon is a small start up company located in Redmond, Washington with special focus on body sensing devices for the human foot...So what exactly is their product? Their product is called the "senSoria" which is a computer embedded in socks to track even the slightest movements. Equipped with the proper software analysis technology, every movement can produce valuable data detailing the ways you use your body. Furthermore, this can help to better understand how one can improve and improve on their performance and goals. more

DIY Money-Shredding Alarm Clock Motivates You to Wake Up

You've tried waking up with loud noises and multiple alarm clocks, but you just can't get out of bed in the morning. If you're looking for some motivation, this DIY alarm clock will slowly shred money until you get out of bed to stop it...As of right now, it looks like the clock is just a concept, and we can't find the original designer. However, if you're feeling desperate for motivation in the morning, we realized you could hack one together yourself with a paper shredder and an indoor outlet timer. Just set the timer to turn on at your designated wake-up time, stick a bill in the shredder, and haul your ass out of bed when it goes off in the morning. more

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lifestyle Gamification With The Basis B1 Fitness Tracker

Starting a new routine is easy, maintaining it is hard. The Basis B1 is perfectly aware of this problem. They know that there’s a gap between when we initiate new exercise habits and when we actually start seeing results. Most of us quit in this gap. Our desire for instant gratification is more easily satiated by one of those trendy all-natural artisan fast-food joints that keep popping up in urban centers...Luckily, keeping you on track is where the B1 shines. The idea is that because the web interface shows your progress, you will sustain motivation in the difficult beginning phase. You get bonus points for consistency and those points can be used to unlock–or level-up–to your next achievement. See, the Basis B1 is built around habits. You select physical behaviors using the web (and forthcoming mobile apps) and after you’ve made them habits, you can unlock more. In this way, the Basis B1 stands apart from the other fitness wristbands and clips on the market. It is truly designed as a gamifying and motivating product, not just a fitness tracker. more

Monday, June 24, 2013

Trust in Science Would be Improved by Study Pre-Registration

In an ideal world, scientific discoveries would be independent of what scientists wanted to discover. A good researcher would begin with an idea, devise a method to test the idea, run the study as planned, and then decide based on the evidence whether the idea had been supported. Following this approach would lead us step-by-step toward a better understanding of nature. Unfortunately, the life sciences are becoming increasingly estranged from this way of thinking...This publishing culture is toxic to science. Recent studies have shown how intense career pressures encourage life scientists to engage in a range of questionable practices to generate publications – behaviours such as cherry-picking data or analyses that allow clear narratives to be presented, reinventing the aims of a study after it has finished to "predict" unexpected findings, and failing to ensure adequate statistical power. These are not the actions of a small minority; they are common, and result from the environment and incentive structures that most scientists work within. more

Friday, June 21, 2013

By Trying It All, Predatory Sea Slug Learns What Not to Eat

Researchers have found that a type of predatory sea slug that usually isn't picky when it comes to what it eats has more complex cognitive abilities than previously thought, allowing it to learn the warning cues of dangerous prey and thereby avoid them in the future. The research appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology..."I had a Pleurobranchaea in a small aquarium that we were about to do a physiological experiment with, and my supplier from Monterey had just sent me these beautiful Spanish shawls," Gillette said. "So I said to the visitor, 'Would you like to see Pleurobranchaea eat another animal?'" Gillette placed the Spanish shawl into the aquarium. The Pleurobranchaea approached, smelled, and bit the purple and orange newcomer. However, the Flabellina's cerata stung the Pleurobranchaea, the Spanish shawl was rejected and left to do its typical "flamenco dance of escape," and Pleurobranchaea also managed to escape with an avoidance turn. Some minutes later, his curiosity piqued, Gillette placed the Spanish shawl back into the aquarium with the Pleurobranchaea. Rather than try to eat the Spanish shawl a second time, the Pleurobranchaea immediately started its avoidance turn. "I had never seen that before! We began testing them and found that they were learning the odor of the Spanish shawl very specifically and selectively," Gillette said. more

Thursday, June 20, 2013

New Tasks Become as Simple as Waving a Hand with Brain-Computer Interfaces

Small electrodes placed on or inside the brain allow patients to interact with computers or control robotic limbs simply by thinking about how to execute those actions. This technology could improve communication and daily life for a person who is paralyzed or has lost the ability to speak from a stroke or neurodegenerative disease. Now, University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that when humans use this technology – called a brain-computer interface – the brain behaves much like it does when completing simple motor skills such as kicking a ball, typing or waving a hand. Learning to control a robotic arm or a prosthetic limb could become second nature for people who are paralyzed. more

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classical Conditioning, Phobias, and Drug Tolerance? Scientists Identify Neurons That Control Feeding Behavior in Drosophila

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a novel transgenic system which allows them to remotely activate individual brain cells in the model organism Drosophila using ambient temperature. This powerful new tool for identifying and characterizing neural circuitry has lead to the identification of a pair of neurons -- now called Fdg neurons -- in the fruit fly that decide when to eat and initiate the subsequent feeding action. Discovery of these neurons may help neurobiologists better understand how the brain uses memory and stimuli to produce classically conditioned responses, such as those often associated with phobias or drug tolerance. The study appears in the journal Nature. more

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Problem With Psychiatry, the "DSM," and the Way We Study Mental Illness

Psychiatry is under attack for not being scientific enough, but the real problem is its blindness to culture. When it comes to mental illness, we wear the disorders that come off the rack...The DSM determines which mental disorders are worthy of insurance reimbursement, legal standing, and serious discussion in American life. That its diagnoses are not more scientific is, according to several prominent critics, a scandal. In a major blow to the APA’s dominance over mental-health diagnoses, Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently declared that his organization would no longer rely on the DSM as a guide to funding research. “The weakness is its lack of validity,” he wrote. “Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.” more

Monday, June 17, 2013

Automated "Coach" Could Help with Social Interactions

Social phobias affect about 15 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and surveys show that public speaking is high on the list of such phobias. For some people, these fears of social situations can be especially acute: For example, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome often have difficulty making eye contact and reacting appropriately to social cues. But with appropriate training, such difficulties can often be overcome. Now, new software developed at MIT can be used to help people practice their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. The software, called MACH (short for My Automated Conversation coacH), uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behavior analysis and synthesis software, to simulate face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on their interactions. more

Friday, June 14, 2013

Apes, Toddler Show That Language May Have Evolved From Gestures

What do a chimpanzee, a bonobo and a toddler all have in common? They all use gestures to communicate. By studying hours of video of a female chimp named Panpanzee, a female bonobo named Panbanisha and a little girl with the initials GN, a team of psychologists hope to gain some insight into how spoken language evolved in humans...“This is one line of evidence for the gestural foundation of human language evolution,” the wrote...“The most basic finding … is the similarity of gestures among bonobo, chimpanzee, and human child at comparable periods of development,” the research team wrote. For all three species, these gestures were most often considered “communicative” because they were paired with eye contact, a vocalization or persistence. The biggest difference was the GN was far more likely to combine her gestures with some type of vocalization. more

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Do Antidepressants Impair the Ability to Extinguish Fear?

An interesting new report of animal research published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that common antidepressant medications may impair a form of learning that is important clinically. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly called SSRIs, are a class of antidepressant widely used to treat depression, as well as a range of anxiety disorders, but the effects of these drugs on learning and memory are poorly understood. In a previous study, Nesha Burghardt, then a graduate student at New York University, and her colleagues demonstrated that long-term SSRI treatment impairs fear conditioning in rats. As a follow-up, they have now tested the effects of antidepressant treatment on extinction learning in rats using auditory fear conditioning, a model of fear learning that involves the amygdala. The amygdala is a region of the brain vitally important for processing memory and emotion. They found that long-term, but not short-term, SSRI treatment impairs extinction learning, which is the ability to learn that a conditioned stimulus no longer predicts an aversive event. more

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Personality Is the Result of Nurture, Not Nature, Suggests Study (on Birds)

Personality is not inherited from birth parents says new research on zebra finches. External factors are likely to play a bigger part in developing the personality of an individual than the genes it inherits from its parents, suggests the study. Researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Hamburg investigated how personality is transferred between generations. They found that foster parents have a greater influence on the personalities of fostered offspring than the genes inherited from birth parents. more

Latest Issue of "Operants: A Newsletter from the B. F. Skinner Foundation"

The latest issue (second quarter, 2013) of Operants: A Newsletter from the B. F. Skinner Foundation is now available online. more

Monday, June 10, 2013

Skinner Marketing: We're the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward

One of the most popular announcements at Google's recent developers conference was the new version of Google Maps, which has a lot of spiffy new bells and whistles, to be sure. But there's an ominous side note here: The new Google Maps for mobile devices allows marketers to offer products and deals based on the consumer's physical location. We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviors. And the new Google Maps is just the start. Google, Facebook, Twitter, retailers, and thousands of application developers are now positioned to keep users engaged on Web sites and program behaviors. That is, to operant condition them. more

Adaptive Behavior of Golden Mantled Squirrels

Arranged and photographed by Lester F. Beck, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon. Beck also wrote the script for Human Growth, the first sex education film shown in Oregon schools in 1948. Filmed in part at Crater Lake, OR. Shows golden-mantled ground squirrels (which resemble, but are not, chipmunks) first at play in the wild, and then learning increasingly complicated tasks in a lab (coerced by nuts). Silent short full of unintentional humor and pathos. Was the basis for the popular educational film Squeak the Squirrel (1957). more

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Behavioral Economics and the Psychology of Energy Savings

“For the past five years we’ve been running the largest behavioral science experiment in the world,” says Alex Laskey in today’s TED Talk, given at this year’s 2013 conference in Long Beach. “And, it’s working.” Laskey’s company Opower partners with utility companies to deliver personalized home energy reports, all based off the insight that people are more inclined to take action on an issue when they think other people are doing better than they are. People’s energy consumption changes for the better after receiving these reports — either in the mail or through their app and website — and the effects appear to be long-lasting. This year, Laskey says, Opower expects to inspire 2 terawatt hours (TWh) in saved electricity. That’s enough to power a city of more than a quarter million people for a year. This idea was sparked by a study run a decade ago by Arizona State University psychology professor, Robert Cialdini, who conducted an experiment to see what might make people turn off their air conditioner, and turn on their fan. Might money persuade them? Or an appeal to their better selves? Or the thought of saving the planet? Nope, nope and nope. Turns out, the one surefire way to get people to do something was to tell them their neighbors were already doing it. more

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Center for the History of Psychology "Book of the Month": The Behavior of Organisms

The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner’s first book, was a landmark publication in the field of psychology. In this work, Skinner laid out his novel ideas about operant behavior and the study of behavior change. These ideas would eventually impact not only psychology, but also education, industry, animal training, and other fields of work. more

Monday, June 03, 2013

High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society

Carl Hart wants drug policy to go where science takes it. The rest of us may not be so ready.
The 46-year-old associate professor at Columbia University is out next month with a new book called High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. That long title covers the two sides of Hart's claim to special insight on drugs: his early life growing up in the roughest neighborhoods of Miami, and his remarkable transformation into a researcher upending long-received wisdoms about substance use and abuse. Everything we've been told about drugs is wrong, Hart says. The vast majority of drug users never become addicted. Cops, politicians and the media have consistently told us scare stories overstating the effects of drugs, misinterpreting the science around them in the process. Hart's own research is notable for focusing on drugs administered to humans, not rats, in a lab. It has cut against the prevailing conventional wisdom that, for example, crack-cocaine users don't respond to economic alternatives. more

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pigeons Peck for Computerized Treat

Go to about any public square, and you see pigeons pecking at the ground, always in search of crumbs dropped by a passerby. While the pigeons' scavenging may seem random, new research by psychologists at the University of Iowa suggest the birds are capable of making highly intelligent choices, sometimes with problem-solving skills to match. The study by Edward Wasserman and colleagues centered on the "string task," a longstanding, standard test of intelligence that involves attaching a treat to one of two strings and seeing if the participant (human or animal) can reel in that treat by pulling the correct string. In this case, the UI researchers took the pigeons into the digital age: The birds looked at a computer touch screen with square buttons connected to either dishes that appeared to be full or empty. If the bird pecked the correct button on the screen, the virtual full bowl would move closer, ultimately to the point where the pigeon would be rewarded with real food. more

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

B. F. Skinner: Pigeon Patriot

In May 1937, Life magazine featured an innovative University of Minnesota psychologist and his clever lab rat. B.F. Skinner had taught Pliny, a white rat, to earn and spend “money.” Pliny learned to pull a chain at the top of his wire cage in order to release a marble—the cash in this exercise. A series of photos show Pliny picking up the marble between his little paws and hopping it over to a slot in the floor of the cage. When Pliny inserted the marble, a lever triggered a mechanism that produced a bit of biscuit. Like working a vending machine, Pliny slipped his coins into the appropriate slot and got a snack in exchange.  The tone of the Life story is precious, and Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the young U of M psychology professor who devised the experiment, is mentioned only briefly—and then only to suggest that even he believes the experiment proves merely “how much can be done with an animal if proper patience were taken.” But the article could also be counted as the beginning of B.F. Skinner’s public career and a nod to the direction psychology research would take. more

Friday, May 24, 2013

Shades of Grey and the Risky Oversimplification of Science for Public Health

The political mantra on public-health advice is clear: don’t send mixed messages. The media and those who get their information from the media prefer things in black and white: red wine is good for you; chocolate is bad for you. But, of course, science does not deal in black and white, hence the common criticism that scientists cannot make up their minds. One week, one group argues that extreme exercise is positive for health; the next week, a different set of researchers says the opposite. Scientists like to believe that they can operate in shades of grey. But simple messages and themes are seductive. more

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trust Your Memory? Maybe You Shouldn't

You probably feel pretty attached to your memories -- they're yours, after all. They define who you are and where you came from, your accomplishments and failures, your likes and dislikes. Your memories help you separate friends from enemies. They remind you not to eat too much ice cream or drink cheap tequila because you remember how horrible it felt the last time you indulged. Or do you? One conversation with Elizabeth Loftus may shake your confidence in everything you think you remember. Loftus is a cognitive psychologist and expert on the malleability of human memory. She can, quite literally, change your mind. more

Monday, May 20, 2013

New Study Recommends Using "Exergaming" to Improve Children's Health

Emerging research shows that exergaming – using active console video games that track player movement to control the game (e.g., Xbox-Kinect, Wii) — can increase physical activity in kids. In the study, scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from The University of Western Australia, and Swansea University evaluated 15 children, 9-11 years of age. Participants performed 15 minutes each of high intensity exergaming (Kinect Sports – 200m Hurdles), low intensity exergaming (Kinect Sports – Ten Pin Bowling), and a graded exercise test (treadmill). The researchers measured energy expenditure and an individual’s vascular response to each activity using flow-mediated dilation (FMD) — a validated measure of vascular function and health in children. They found that high intensity exergaming elicited an energy expenditure equivalent to moderate intensity exercise; low intensity exergaming resulted in an energy expenditure equivalent to low intensity exercise. more

Friday, May 17, 2013

Learning from Experiences: Brain Rewires Itself After Damage or Injury

When the brain's primary "learning center" is damaged, complex new neural circuits arise to compensate for the lost function, say life scientists from UCLA and Australia who have pinpointed the regions of the brain involved in creating those alternate pathways -- often far from the damaged site. The research, conducted by UCLA's Michael Fanselow and Moriel Zelikowsky in collaboration with Bryce Vissel, a group leader of the neuroscience research program at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research, appears this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences....For the study, Fanselow and Zelikowsky conducted laboratory experiments with rats showing that the rodents were able to learn new tasks even after damage to the hippocampus. While the rats needed more training than they would have normally, they nonetheless learned from their experiences -- a surprising finding. more

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How Individuality Develops: Experience Leads to Growth of New Brain Cells

The adult brain continues to grow with the challenges that it faces; its changes are linked to the development of personality and behavior. But what is the link between individual experience and brain structure? Why do identical twins not resemble each other perfectly even when they grew up together? To shed light on these questions, the scientists observed forty genetically identical mice that were kept in an enclosure offering a large variety of activity and exploration options. "The animals were not only genetically identical, they were also living in the same environment," explains principal investigator Gerd Kempermann, Professor for Genomics of Regeneration, CRTD, and Site Speaker of the DZNE in Dresden. "However, this environment was so rich that each mouse gathered its own individual experiences in it. Over time, the animals therefore increasingly differed in their realm of experience and behavior." more

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Conscious" Computing: How to Take Control of Your Life Online

To explain what makes the web so compelling – so "addictive" in the colloquial sense, at least – the advocates of conscious computing usually end up returning to the psychologist BF Skinner, who conducted famous experiments on pigeons and rats at Harvard University in the 1930s. Trapped inside "Skinner boxes", equipped with a lever and a tray, the animals soon learned that pushing or pecking at the lever caused a pellet of food to appear on the tray; after that, they'd start compulsively pecking or pushing for more. But Skinner discovered that the most powerful way to reinforce the push-or-peck habit was to use "variable schedules of reward": to deliver a pellet not every time the lever was pushed, but only sometimes, and unpredictably. more

Friday, May 10, 2013

When Money Talks, People Walk

It was a controversial move when a health insurer began requiring people who were obese to literally pay the price of not doing anything about their weight – but it worked, a new study finds. When people had to choose between paying up to 20 percent more for health insurance or exercising more, the majority of enrollees met fitness goals one step at a time via an Internet-tracked walking program, according to a joint study by the University of Michigan Health System and Stanford University. Researchers evaluated a group of people insured by Blue Care Network who were enrolled in a pedometer-based program as a requirement to receive insurance discounts. After one year, nearly 97 percent of the enrollees had met or exceeded the average goal of 5,000 steps a day – including the most resistant participants who disagreed with the financial incentives and found the program "coercive." more

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Psychiatry’s Guide Is Out of Touch With Science, Experts Say

Just weeks before the long-awaited publication of a new edition of the so-called bible of mental disorders, the federal government’s most prominent psychiatric expert has said the book suffers from a scientific “lack of validity.” The expert, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said in an interview Monday that his goal was to reshape the direction of psychiatric research to focus on biology, genetics and neuroscience so that scientists can define disorders by their causes, rather than their symptoms...“As long as the research community takes the D.S.M. to be a bible, we’ll never make progress,” Dr. Insel said, adding, “People think that everything has to match D.S.M. criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book.” more

Monday, May 06, 2013

Pediatric Specialists Not Following Clinical Guidelines When Treating Preschoolers With ADHD

A recent study by pediatricians from the Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York examined to what extent pediatric physicians adhere to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clinical guidelines regarding pharmacotherapy in treating young patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The results showed that more than 90 percent of medical specialists who diagnose and manage ADHD in preschoolers do not follow treatment guidelines recently published by the AAP... Current clinical guidelines for pediatricians and child psychiatrists associated with the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommend that behavior therapy be the initial treatment approach for preschoolers with ADHD, and that treatment with medication should only be pursued when counseling in behavior management is not successful. more