Friday, March 29, 2013

Justifying Libertarian Paternalism: It’s For Your Own Good!

Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves...Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging. more

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Looking for Evidence That Therapy Works

Mental-health care has come a long way since the remedy of choice was trepanation — drilling holes into the skull to release “evil spirits.” Over the last 30 years, treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and family-based treatment have been shown effective for ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders. The trouble is, surprisingly few patients actually get these kinds of evidence-based treatments once they land on the couch — especially not cognitive behavioral therapy. In 2009, a meta-analysis conducted by leading mental-health researchers found that psychiatric patients in the United States and Britain rarely receive C.B.T., despite numerous trials demonstrating its effectiveness in treating common disorders. One survey of nearly 2,300 psychologists in the United States found that 69 percent used C.B.T. only part time or in combination with other therapies to treat depression and anxiety. C.B.T. refers to a number of structured, directive types of psychotherapy that focus on the thoughts behind a patient’s feelings and that often include exposure therapy and other activities. Instead, many patients are subjected to a kind of dim-sum approach — a little of this, a little of that, much of it derived more from the therapist’s biases and training than from the latest research findings. And even professionals who claim to use evidence-based treatments rarely do. The problem is called “therapist drift.” more

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hi-Tech Shoes That Nag You To Get Off The Sofa

It is the perfect invention for anyone who needs a gentle reminder to get off the sofa.
Google has invented a talking shoe that can sense activity – and inactivity – and tells the wearer when they need to get moving. Fitted with a host of gadgets that measure movement, direction and balance, the built-in microprocessor connects to an audio speaker in the tongue of the Adidas trainer.The gadgets are programmed to translate the pressure sensor and accelerometer readings into simple audio instructions for the wearer. But not content simply to give someone feedback, the inventors at Google have given the shoes their own personality – that of a sarcastic, impatient personal trainer who cheers and sneers in equal measure. more

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pavlov Inverted: Reward Linked to Image Is Enough to Activate Brain's Visual Cortex

Once rhesus monkeys learn to associate a picture with a reward, the reward by itself becomes enough to alter the activity in the monkeys' visual cortex. This finding was made by neurophysiologists Wim Vanduffel and John Arsenault (KU Leuven and Harvard Medical School) and American colleagues using functional brain scans and was published recently in the journal Neuron...[T]he researchers used a variant of Pavlov's well-known conditioning experiment: "Think of Pavlov giving a dog a treat after ringing a bell. The bell is the stimulus and the food is the reward. Eventually the dogs learned to associate the bell with the food and salivated at the sound of the bell alone. Essentially, Pavlov removed the reward but kept the stimulus. In this study, we removed the stimulus but kept the reward." more

Friday, March 22, 2013

Communicating Science Effectively

The actor, director and author Alan Alda recently spoke about his passion for science — and the art of communicating science — with Paul Costello, head of the Office of Communication & Public Affairs, as part of the 1:2:1 podcast series. Alda won five Emmy Awards for his work on the TV sitcom "M*A*S*H," in which he played the character of Hawkeye Pierce. He also hosted "Scientific American Frontiers," interviewing more than 700 scientists during that PBS program's 12-year run. Alda is now a visiting professor at the State University of New York-Stony Brook's Center for Communicating Science, which he co-founded, where he teaches science students the art of improvisation and impresses on them the importance of effective science communication. Following are edited excerpts of Alda and Costello's conversation. more

(Note: The link directs to text of an excerpt from the interview. I strongly encourage everyone to listen to the entire audio interview, as it is well worth the time.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tourist-Fed Stingrays Change Their Ways

Stingrays living in one of the world's most famous and heavily visited ecotourism sites -- Stingray City/Sandbar in the Cayman Islands -- have profoundly changed their ways, raising questions about the impact of so-called "interactive ecotourism" on marine wildlife, reports a new study published March 18 in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers from Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Institute in Hollywood, Fla. and the University of Rhode Island studied the southern stingray population of Stingray City -- a sandbar in the Cayman Islands that draws nearly a million visitors each year to feed, pet and swim with its stingrays -- to assess how the intensive ecotourism has affected the animals' behavior. "Measuring that impact is important because there's a lot of interest in creating more of these interactive ecotourism operations, but we know little about the life histories of the animals involved or how they might change," said study co-author Guy Harvey, who initiated the project.
The researchers found that Stingray City's stingrays show distinctly different patterns of activity than their wild counterparts, who don't enjoy daily feedings or close human contact. more

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

B.F. Skinner, Behavioral Scientist Who Invented 'Skinner Box,' Remembered By His Daughter

Today is the birthday of B.F. Skinner. The celebrated and sometimes controversial American behavioral scientist, who was born in Susquehanna, Penn. on March 20, 1904 and spent much of his career as a psychology professor at Harvard University, would have turned 104. Skinner, who died in 1990, is best remembered for his radical ideas about animal and human behavior. A story on the PBS website described him in this way: Skinner expressed no interest in understanding the human psyche... He sought only to determine how behavior is caused by external forces. He believed everything we do and are is shaped by our experience of punishment and reward. He believed that the 'mind' (as opposed to the brain) and other such subjective phenomena were simply matters of language; they didn't really exist. But Skinner wasn't interested only in theorizing about behavior. more

B.F. Skinner: The Man Who Taught Pigeons to Play Ping-Pong and Rats to Pull Levers

From Besides Freud, Skinner is arguably the most famous psychologist of the 20th century. Today, his work is basic study in introductory psychology classes across the country. But what drives a man to teach his children’s cats to play piano and instruct his beagle on how to play hide and seek? Last year, Norwegian researchers dove into his past to figure it out. The team combed through biographies, archival material and interviews with those who knew him, then tested Skinner on a common personality scale. They found Skinner, who would be 109 years old today, was highly conscientious, extroverted and somewhat neurotic—a trait shared by as many as 45 percent of leading scientists. The analysis revealed him to be a tireless worker, one who introduced a new approach to behavioral science by building on the theories of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson. more

Happy Birthday B. F. Skinner

On March 20th, 1904, B. F. Skinner was born. Skinner's radical behaviorism provided a systematic analysis of the effects of consequences on behavior. His principles of instrumental conditioning affected nearly every field of psychology. He won the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1958; the National Medal of Science in 1968; and the APA Citation for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology in 1990.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Gone to the Dogs: Students Help Get Impaired Canines Ready For Adoption

You might say Valeri Farmer-Dougan’s rat lab has gone to the dogs. But that’s good for her psychology students, not to mention the dogs themselves. Now, instead of learning how to train a rat to run through a maze, Illinois State University students are learning how to use behavior modification techniques to train dogs from animal rescue organizations. “What’s great about working with the dogs is you can make them more adoptable. They help us out and we can help them, too,” said Kellie Swoboda, a senior from Cary. And these aren’t just regular strays from a shelter. Several have hearing or vision impairments that give students additional challenges. Farmer-Dougan used to teach a traditional “rat lab.” But the rat lab was “getting prohibitively expensive” at $40 per rat plus $5 a week to care for them, she said. So in late 2010, as she started working with foster dogs that had hearing and vision disabilities, Farmer-Dougan got an idea: “I don’t have enough time to work with my dogs and my students need something to do.” So it was that the Canine Behavior Lab was born. more

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Stick or the Carrot: Punishment Can Enhance Performance?

The stick can work just as well as the carrot in improving our performance, a team of academics at The University of Nottingham has found...To investigate this, they asked participants in the study to perform a simple perceptual task—asking them to judge whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a person or something else. They punished incorrect decisions by imposing monetary penalties. At the same time, they measured the participants’ brain activity in response to different amounts of monetary punishment. Brain activity was recorded, non-invasively, using an EEG machine which detects and amplifies brain signals from the surface of the scalp through a set of small electrodes embedded in a swim-like cap fitted on the participants’ head. They found that participants’ performance increased systematically as the amount of punishment increased, suggesting that punishment acts as a performance enhancer in a similar way to monetary reward. more

Friday, March 15, 2013

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

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

Positive Reinforcement vs. Positive Thinking (And Why Pollyanna Would've Sucked at Dog Training)

The kind of dog training I do, and that I teach, goes by many names. Some call it "science-based" training, or "clicker training," or "progressive reinforcement training" (the latter term even has an entire branded manifesto). Most commonly, it is called "positive reinforcement training." That's fine with me, but the fact is that many people don't hear anything past the word "positive." The word so often stops people and sends them away. Hello, are you still reading this?...Positive, in the world of animal behavior, means adding something. Reinforcement means making something more likely to occur. So, "positive reinforcement" just means adding something to the equation to encourage that a behavior will happen again. We encourage the behaviors we like, and, by limiting the possible choices the animal has to make and using good timing and rewards, we can end up eradicating a lot of the stuff we don't like.
Of course, positive reinforcement isn't always used wisely. You can easily positively reinforce stuff that isn't nice -- stuff you don't like. more

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Parrots Barter With Nuts

In studies from the 1970s, kids were presented with a marshmallow and were told that they could either eat it now, or wait and receive a second one if they could hold out for a time delay of some minutes....For the new study, Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology and colleagues presented an Indonesian cockatoo species, the Goffin’s cockatoo, with food snack options. The best of that bunch, from the bird’s perspective, were pecan nuts. Mirroring the kid-marshmallow experiment, the researchers next offered the birds an even better deal. If the birds did not eat the pecan, they could trade it for a cashew....“When exchanging for better qualities, the Goffins acted astonishingly like economic agents, flexibly trading-off between immediate and future benefits,” Auersperg said in a press release. “They did so, relative not only to the length of delay, but also to the difference in trade value between the ‘currency’ and the ‘merchandise’: they tended to trade their initial items more often for their most preferred food, than for one of intermediate preference value and did not exchange in a control test in which the value of the initial item was higher than that of the expected one.” more

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Money Talks When It Comes to Losing Weight

Weight loss study participants who received financial incentives were more likely to stick with a weight loss program and lost more weight than study participants who received no incentives, according to Mayo Clinic research that will be presented Saturday, March 9 at the American College of Cardiology's 62nd Annual Scientific Session. Previous studies have shown that financial incentives help people lose weight, but this study examined a larger group of participants (100) over a longer period (one year), says lead author Steven Driver, M.D., an internal medicine resident at Mayo Clinic. more

Monday, March 11, 2013

Human Brain Cells Make Mice Smart

A team of neuroscientists has grafted human brain cells into the brains of mice and found that the rodents’ rate of learning and memory far surpassed that of ordinary mice.  Remarkably, the cells transplanted were not neurons, but rather types of brain cells, called glia, that are incapable of electrical signaling.  The new findings suggest that information processing in the brain extends beyond the mechanism of electrical signaling between neurons...Long-term potentiation (LTP) is the widely-studied strengthening of synaptic connections that is observed after a neuron is stimulated repeatedly.  This fundamental phenomenon of repetitive firing strengthening synaptic connections is thought to be the cellular basis for memory, just as repetition in learning helps form lasting memories.  In mice engrafted with human astrocytes, much less stimulation was needed to cause the synapse to suddenly increase the voltage it produced in signaling to the postsynaptic neuron and this amplified signal was maintained long after the stimulus was delivered (LTP).  When these mice were given standardized behavioral tests of learning and memory, the mice engrafted with human astrocytes outperformed mice injected with astrocytes from other mice as a control. more

Friday, March 08, 2013

Test-taking May Improve Learning in People of All Ages

Older adults who haven’t been in school for a while are as capable of learning from tests as younger adults and college students, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. No matter their age or if they work or go to college full time, people appear to learn more when tested on material, rather than simply rereading or restudying information, according to research published online in the APA journal Psychology and Aging . . . In this experiment, adults of various ages improved their retention of new information just as much as college students if they were tested on the material and received feedback on their scores, rather than just restudying the materials, according to the article. The improvement was significant and comparable to the college students’ improvement, even though the college students performed better on the initial test. "Both groups benefited from the initial testing more than the additional studying. Taking the test and then being told how many answers they got wrong or correct was enough for these adults to improve their memory of the material as shown in a final, more difficult, test," said Meyer, who conducted the research with co-author Jessica Logan, PhD, at Rice University. more

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Descartes' Dogs

It is well known in the history of psychology that Descartes was an early thinker on what we would now call classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, which he referred to as “reflex”. Most authors writing on the subject cite two of his works and one letter to make the connection clear . . . However, another much earlier epistolary reference seems generally to be missed: his letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, dated 18 March 1630. What is particularly interesting in this earlier letter to Mersenne is Descartes association of sound (in this case the sound produced by a violin) to the ‘reflex’ response of dogs. As a precursor to Pavlov, and the Pavlovian dogs experiment, it is interesting to see Descartes constructing what is a remarkably parallel experimental test — albeit, in Descartes case and as far as we know, a thought experiment only. . . . It is striking just how similar Descartes’ theory on ‘reflex’ is to Pavlov’s theory of ‘conditioning’. Just as in Pavlov’s conditioning experiment, performed two hundred and seventy one years after Descartes’ letter outlines his theory of ‘reflex’, the two stimuli necessary for conditioning, the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli, are paired causing the ‘planned conditional response’. In Descartes’ letter, the planned conditional response is fear. In Pavlov’s experiments, the planned conditional response is the saliva elicited by hunger. more

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Case for Leading Indicators of Safety

Why do so many organizations continue to take a reactive approach to safety? Why is it so hard to maintain safety as a priority?  Why do supervisors and managers who truly care about safety behave in ways that contradict their values? Remarkably, how we measure safety is a primary root cause for all of these problems.  Incident rate, lost time rate, severity rate and other lagging indicators are poor measures of safety.  Such measures tell us how many people got hurt and how badly, but they do not tell us how well a company is doing at preventing accidents and incidents. While lagging metrics are necessary, adding leading metrics enables better management of safety.  Leading metrics should focus on proactive activities on the part of all employees—measures that track what people are doing daily to prevent accidents. . . . A familiar saying is: “what gets measured gets done”.  As we have just argued, what we measure is important because it sets the stage for what people do.  However, it is not completely true to say what gets measured gets done.  Many of us routinely measure our weight and don’t do anything to improve it.  Similarly many of us measure our speed (with our car speedometer) and don’t drive the speed limit.  In truth, measures don’t change behavior, consequences do. Proactive safety activities must be reinforced if they are to persist.  A positive accountability system that holds people accountable for the leading indicators will ensure safety targets are met. more

Monday, March 04, 2013

Web Therapy for Problem Preschoolers: Advice For Parents From a Long-Distance Observer

Therapists typically use parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) to treat preschool ODD in a clinical setting, where the therapist observes behind a one-way mirror and coaches parents, via an earpiece, as they play with their child. But such therapy isn’t an option for families who live far from clinics. Children in those families are particularly likely to be prescribed medicine with unfortunate side effects. “What we’re seeing is skyrocketing rates of antipsychotic medications to treat aggression in young kids, in preschoolers even,” says Comer, a CAS research assistant professor of psychology, adding that such medications are associated with concerning metabolic, circulatory, and endocrine effects in young children. As a postdoc at Columbia University, Comer had been part of an innovative team that provided PCIT to military families at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Distance (more than five hours by car) and the lack of appropriately trained local clinicians made traditional therapy impossible, so doctors turned to technology. They gave each family a web camera, scheduled meeting times, and conducted telehealth sessions online. The technique worked so well that Comer wondered if it couldn’t trump therapy even in places where therapy was available. “I thought this might very well be advantageous anywhere,” he says. more

Friday, March 01, 2013

Brain-To-Brain Interface Allows Transmission of Tactile and Motor Information Between Rats

Researchers have electronically linked the brains of pairs of rats for the first time, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles. A further test of this work successfully linked the brains of two animals thousands of miles apart -- one in Durham, N.C., and one in Natal, Brazil. . . . [T]he researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem: to press the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, which rewarded the rats with a sip of water. They next connected the two animals' brains via arrays of microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information. One of the two rodents was designated as the "encoder" animal. This animal received a visual cue that showed it which lever to press in exchange for a water reward. Once this "encoder" rat pressed the right lever, a sample of its brain activity that coded its behavioral decision was translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation that was delivered directly into the brain of the second rat, known as the "decoder" animal. The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward. Therefore, to press the correct lever and receive the reward it craved, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface. more