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