Thursday, December 18, 2014

Addictive Social Media

Plenty of research has demonstrated that the addictive quality of social media is very real. And according to a new study, heavy social media use may also contribute to a different type of addiction ... Psychologist Julia Hormes, who led the study, said that Facebook was found to have especially addictive properties. The respondents spent an average of one-third of their online browsing time on Facebook, and 67 percent received Facebook push notifications on their phones. "New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently," Hormes said in a statement. "This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a 'variable interval schedule of reinforcement' and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices." more

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In Praise of Small Miracles (and Small Nudges)

Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box — a simple place to put their money. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies. It would have taken a giant tax reform to produce a shift in behavior that large. Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously. The heckling discouraged dangerous driving by an awesome amount. Insurance claims involving injury or death fell to half of their previous levels. These are examples of a new kind of policy-making that is sweeping the world. The old style was based on the notion that human beings are rational actors who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. The new style, which supplements but does not replace the old style, is based on the obvious point that human beings are not always rational actors. Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change. more

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Implementation of Contingency Management in Probation Agencies

Contingency management (CM) is an evidence-based practice (EBP) (National Institute on Drug Abuse 2010) that theoretically appears compatible with the basic strategies used by judicial or probation officials within the U.S. criminal justice system. The justice system routinely uses reinforcers to address compliance with behavior for desired drug- and crime-free behaviors. The compatibility of positive reinforcers with the existing system lies in the similarity between the core concepts of CM and the principles of effective punishment: swift, certain, and increasingly intensified responses. Given this consistency with the core functions of justice processing, CM implementation in justice systems should be relatively easy to implement (Rogers 2003). Contingency management has wide applications in the area of behavior change. In substance abuse treatment settings, CM interventions reduce drug use and increase treatment retention for a wide variety of drug abusers (Stitzer et al. 2010). Among the core components of any CM protocol is a focus on reducing or eliminating certain behavior(s) (e.g., abstinence from drug and alcohol use) and the use of structured and transparent rewards or incentives as the primary driver of behavior change. As such, CM protocols consistently use systems in which points are assigned to desired positive behaviors. Clients earn rewards via redeeming earned accumulated points. In prior work on implementing CM within drug and alcohol addiction treatment, clinicians established CM guidelines detailing which behavior(s) needed changing and how rewards could be earned. In such studies, both clients and clinicians understand that the rewards are achievable only with demonstrated positive behavior in line with the target goal (Stitzer et al. 2010). more

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Keeping Down with the Joneses to Save the Environment

The World Wildlife Fund urges us to think about the poor polar bears and penguins whose homes are swiftly melting away. Meanwhile, documentaries—from Al Gore’s classic An Inconvenient Truth to Showtime’s recent Years of Living Dangerously—warn us of impending natural disasters. Yes, environmentalists tend to go all dramatic on us in order to minimize energy use and treat the planet better. But these efforts, largely, aren’t working. A spate of new evidence suggests that fear-based approaches to environmental change are backfiring, resulting in little more than angry arguments over Thanksgiving dinner between you and your climate-change-doubting uncle. But about a decade ago, behavioral psychologists hit on an important finding: people are actually willing to save energy when they see how much energy their neighbors are using. A groundbreaking 2004 study revealed that, contrary to popular belief, people do not care much about saving money on their electricity bill or protecting the environment; the single biggest motivator to changing our energy consumption is our desire to keep up—or, in this case, down—with the more energy-efficient Joneses. more

Monday, December 08, 2014

Google Deep Mind: A New Artificial Intelligence

Demis Hassabis leads what is now called Google DeepMind. It is still headquartered in London and still has “solve intelligence” as its mission statement. Roughly 75 people strong at the time it joined Google, Hassabis has said he aimed to hire around 50 more. Around 75 percent of the group works on fundamental research. The rest form an “applied research team” that looks for opportunities to apply DeepMind’s techniques to existing Google products.  Over the next five years, DeepMind’s technology could be used to refine YouTube’s recommendations or improve the company’s mobile voice search. They dream of creating “AI scientists” that could do things like generate and test new hypotheses about disease in the lab. When prodded, he also says that DeepMind’s software could also be useful to robotics, an area in which Google has recently invested heavily. DeepMind has combined deep learning with a technique called reinforcement learning, which is inspired by the work of animal psychologists such as B.F. Skinner. This led to software that learns by taking actions and receiving feedback on their effects, as humans or animals often do. In 2013, DeepMind researchers showed off software that had learned to play three classic Atari games - Pong, Breakout and Enduro - better than an expert human. The software wasn’t programmed with any information on how to play; it was equipped only with access to the controls and the display, knowledge of the score, and an instinct to make that score as high as possible. The program became an expert gamer through trial and error. more

Friday, December 05, 2014

There Is No Language Instinct

Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.

That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.

In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar' – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over.

At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. more

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

An Equation for Happiness?

It’s hard to describe happiness, let alone to measure it. We all see it differently. Psychologists have multiple theories in this regard. Neuroscientists point to multiple brain mechanisms and the levels of different neuromediators. Clinicians have studied multiple environmental and medical factors leading to various mood disorders. The picture is complex, and putting various influencing parameters into one equation that could have a predictive value would seem to be an impossible task. But this is exactly what researchers from University College London have attempted. In their article published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science they’ve suggested an equation that rather accurately calculates the level of moment-to-moment happiness. The equation takes into account two major factors: expectation and reward. In their experiments, the researchers asked 26 volunteers to participate in decision-making tasks that could lead to some real monetary gains or losses. It turned out that happiness wasn’t linked to the amount of wealth accumulated. Rather, happiness was experienced when things were going better than expected. On top of this, recent rewards substantially influenced the moment-to-moment happiness. more

Monday, December 01, 2014

Elf on the Shelf--at Work?

Maybe it’s time we put an elf on the shelf in organizations, too, so leaders and managers would know what was done and by whom. Employees wouldn’t have to toot their own horns. Nor would they have to spend time worrying if anyone really knows what they are doing and how they contribute to business results. It’s quite a common occurrence for employees in our client organizations to ask our consultants, “Do you think my boss knows about this?” With a corporate scout elf, you wouldn’t have to engage in behaviors to ensure your boss or others properly recognized you for the value you added to the company. With this out of the way, everybody could instead focus on doing things that added value, and we could leverage each person’s behavior in ways that create greater benefit. I have an idea. Rather than an elf, why don’t we have a person (a manager, maybe) whose job it is to know these things and to provide the proper consequences that will accelerate these behaviors for everyone’s benefit? more

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Addicted to Our Devices

If you drive to the store for a loaf of bread and forget your phone, do you feel adrift? Do you worry that if you don’t check your computer every 15 minutes, you’ll miss the news that Martians just landed in Petaluma? Welcome to my world. And let me introduce you to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Matt Richtel. Here’s what Richtel said last week on the public radio program, “Here and Now”: “It goes all the way back to B.F. Skinner’s studies with rats. There are rats in cages that would press a lever to get food, but they would never know which press of the lever would bring food, so they would press the lever all the time. … We (humans) never know which press on our devices is going to bring the good email, the good text, the good information. So we become conditioned to press it all the time.” more

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's a Parent to Do?

So what is a parent to do? If asking, scolding, yelling and punishing don’t work, you need to try another tactic. Try praising. Change how you interact with her. If most of your interactions with her are about things you are unhappy with, she will soon try to avoid you altogether. Anyone who is at all smart will avoid someone who is always unhappy with them ... Let her know when you are happy with what she has done. You can let her know you are pleased by giving her a high five, a smile or a hug. Let her see your enthusiasm with what she has done and be specific. It helps to say, “Great job putting your dishes into the dishwasher!” is better and works better than just saying, “Great job!” Don’t encourage her to be disobedient by giving it a lot of attention. If you focus on defiance, it actually may increase the very behavior you don’t like. Try actually walking away from her behavior when it is annoying. Even walking away sends her the message that her annoying behavior doesn’t work ... Another way to help change your child’s behavior is to try a reward system and make a game of doing what you ask her to do. Give a point each time she does what you ask her to do right away. If she doesn’t do it, you can say that you see she isn’t ready but you will try again later. If she then turns around after you have said that and does what you asked, praise her but don’t give her a point. You want to get her to do what you ask right away without complaining about it. more

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monkeys Learn to Steer Wheelchair Using Only Their Brains

Training a monkey to navigate a wheelchair is as easy as letting the animals go for a few rides—that is, assuming they have electrodes implanted into their brains that allow researchers to decode their neural activity and use it to steer the chair via a brain-computer interface (BCI). Researchers in the Duke University lab of Miguel Nicolelis, who helped design and build the exoskeleton that allowed a paralyzed man to kick off this summer's World Cup games, presented their work on two wheelchair-driving monkeys at this week's Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference being held in Washington, DC. The team first recorded activity in the motor and sensory cortices of monkeys riding around in the chair. A computer decoder then correlated this neural activity with the direction of movement of the chair, and after the training period was over, the BCI worked in reverse—using the neural inputs to actually steer the chair. Both monkeys eventually learned to steer the chair across the room to a grape dispenser, where they received their food reward. more

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Human Touch: New Research Suggests Some Animals Prefer Human Connections

What do animals really want? A new study from the University of Florida suggests it might be human contact, at least in the case of some Galapagos tortoises ... The findings are particularly important for those who work with animals in captivity every day -- zookeepers, trainers and students -- and strive to provide the best experience for them ... In the experiment, three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville named Larry, Moe and Curly, were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years ... “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing" ... Both Dorey and Mehrkam use behavior analysis as the foundation of their research. This methodology, used primarily in human study, focuses specifically on behaviors and what factors or situations influence them rather than looking at root causes. The team also is studying aggression in dogs around guarding behaviors in a paper to be submitted for publication soon. more

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rodent Traders Can Beat the Odds

Eighty-five years ago, a young psychologist called BF Skinner developed what is technically called an operant conditioning chamber but is more famously known as a Skinner box, designed to contain and train laboratory animals. The simplest version rewards a rat for pressing a lever. More complex devices can play sounds, display lights and even deliver electric shocks, though Skinner himself preferred to use rewards rather than punishments ... Skinner’s ideas of modifying behaviour with rewards in a controlled environment seemed somehow manipulative and threatening. These days we call behaviour modification "nudging" and it is perfectly respectable. I thought of all this when I discovered RatTraders.com, a website offering, in its own words, "a professional service to the financial industry; rats are being trained to become superior traders in the financial markets." more

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Everyone Gets Pavlov Wrong

As a college student, B. F. Skinner gave little thought to psychology. He had hoped to become a novelist, and majored in English. Then, in 1927, when he was twenty-three, he read an essay by H. G. Wells about the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. The piece, which appeared in the Times Magazine, was ostensibly a review of the English translation of Pavlov’s “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.” But, as Wells pointed out, it was “not an easy book to read,” and he didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, Wells described Pavlov, whose systematic approach to physiology had revolutionized the study of medicine, as “a star which lights the world, shining down a vista hitherto unexplored” ... Pavlov had formulated a basic psychological principle—one that also applied to human beings—and discovered an objective way to measure how it worked. Skinner was enthralled. Two years after reading the Times Magazine piece, he attended a lecture that Pavlov delivered at Harvard and obtained a signed picture, which adorned his office wall for the rest of his life. Skinner and other behaviorists often spoke of their debt to Pavlov, particularly to his view that free will was an illusion, and that the study of human behavior could be reduced to the analysis of observable, quantifiable events and actions. But Pavlov never held such views, according to “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science” (Oxford), an exhaustive new biography by Daniel P. Todes ... In fact, much of what we thought we knew about Pavlov has been based on bad translations and basic misconceptions. more

Monday, November 17, 2014

Neuroprosthetics: Linking the Human Nervous System to Computers

In its simplest form, a neuroprosthetic is a device that supplants or supplements the input and/or output of the nervous system. For decades, researchers have eyed neuroprosthetics as ways to bypass neural deficits caused by disease, or even to augment existing function for improved performance. Today, several different types of surgical brain implants are being tested for their ability to restore some level of function in patients with severe sensory or motor disabilities. In a very different vein, a company called Foc.us recently started selling simple, noninvasive brain stimulators to improve normal people’s attention while gaming. And perhaps the most visible recent demonstration of the power of neuroprosthetics was a spinal cord–injured patient using a brain-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In short, tinkering with the brain has begun in earnest. more

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Coffee Pot That Only Works When It's Windy

It's going to take more than just reducing, reusing, and recycling to stop wasting energy and precious fuel. It's going to take synchronizing what humans want with what the planet needs. And that might begin with morning coffee. At least, that's how four researchers at the U.K.-based Lancaster University see it. To demonstrate their idea of the future, the team developed a prototype kit called the "Windy Brew," which only allows a kettle to boil when a nearby wind turbine produces enough electricity. No renewable energy means no coffee or tea .... The project, Simm is quick to point out, isn't meant to "force" people into changing their behavior, or punish them by withholding coffee until renewable energy is produced. (After all, anyone can remove the device and make the kettle boil.) Rather, it's about examining how energy affects people's daily lives, and figuring out how to live according to energy cycles ... These kinds of time shifted activities, based on energy availability, are what Simm and Ferrario hope the rest of the world adopts. It would begin with social interactions—deciding when to meet up with others, for example. Ferrario proposes a coffee shop that has deals on days when energy is more available. The positive reinforcement—more renewable energy leads to cheaper coffee—would encourage people to pursue an energy-saving lifestyle. more

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Volunteers Smoked Less After a Night of Olfactory Conditioning

New Weizmann Institute research may bring the idea of sleep learning one step closer to reality. The research, which appeared today in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that certain kinds of conditioning applied during sleep could induce us to change our behavior. The researchers exposed smokers to pairs of smells - cigarettes together with that of rotten eggs or fish - as the subjects slept, and then asked them to record how many cigarettes they smoked in the following week. The study revealed a significant reduction in smoking following conditioning during sleep. more

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Behavioral Treatment for Weight Loss Works in Primary Care Setting

Intensive behavioral counseling can help patients lose a significant amount of weight, but it's rarely delivered by primary care doctors, researchers reported here. In a meta-analysis, patients who had counseling achieved a maximum weight loss of 6.6 kg (about 14 lbs), compared with a top loss of about 2 kg (about 4 lbs) for those who did not participate in such programs, reported Thomas Wadden, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and colleagues here at Obesity Week and simultaneously online in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But in none of the studies was that intervention delivered by primary care doctors alone, they reported. "The present findings suggest that a range of trained interventionists, who deliver counseling in person or by telephone, could be considered for treating overweight or obesity in patients encountered in primary care settings," they wrote. more

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Food Dudes: Combatting Childhood Obesity

Food Dudes Health, a Social Enterprise working in partnership with Bangor University, have developed the Food Dudes Healthy Eating Programme, an evidence-based behaviour change intervention, that produces large and lasting increases in the amount of fruit and vegetables children eat. The core psychological principles of the Programme are Role-Modelling, Rewards, and Repeated Tastings. All primary school children in Ireland have taken part in the Food Dudes programme, and it is also being rolled out regionally across primary schools in the UK. However, child obesity begins well before children start primary school. To try to make a difference even earlier, a KESS-funded project has now helped develop a Food Dudes programme for nursery-aged children. Led by KESS scholar Catherine Sharp, and supervised by Prof. Pauline Horne and Dr. Mihela Erjavec, the project measured the impact of the nursery programme in a six-school controlled evaluation. To encourage the toddlers to eat a range of provided fruit and vegetables, they first watched a role-modelling video showing young versions of the Food Dudes characters, Rocco, Razz, Tom, and Charlie, who love eating fruit and vegetables because they provide "special energy" for fun and play. When the toddlers then ate the fruit and vegetables provided each day, they were given small, Food Dudes customised rewards. The children who took part in the Programme began to eat a lot more fruit and vegetable. more

Friday, November 07, 2014

Human Animals

Nonhuman animal behavior has provided many insights into our own species’ psychology. Just take the experiments of Pavlov with dogs around conditioning. When dogs associate certain cues with food, they respond to the cue as they would do to the food itself. The best example is your dog rushing to the refrigerator whenever you open it. The dogs “know” there’s food inside that huge metal box. The smart ones also “know” that if they look cute enough, or hungry enough (or, best of all, cute and hungry enough), they stand a good chance of their human getting something from the metal box to give to them. Pavlov’s experiments, and legions of other psychologists who followed his footsteps to look into conditioning, were important in the development of psychology. Reward people to reinforce “good” behavior, and punish them to reduce “bad” behavior. Our understanding of conditioning in human psychology later went back to nonhuman animals with “clicker training,” where you use a simple little gadget that gives a clicking sound for training. The success of clicker training of dogs and dolphins later went back to human applications. Amy Sutherland, who trained dolphins using clickers, later wrote a book titled “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage.” ... This “clicker wife” suggests that you should not reinforce the bad behavior but that rather than nag, you can offer “rewards” to make the husband want to be good. more

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Automatic Launches License+, A Coaching Program For Teen Drivers And Their Parents

Connected car technology platform Automatic hopes to help ... young drivers develop better habits, and is launching a new program today called License+ that offers parents a toolset for encouraging and coaching their teens as they improve their driving skills. ... The company, like competitors Dash, Zubie, Drive Pulse and many others, involves an OBD device that is plugged into a port on your car that communicates with your smartphone to log your trips, monitor engine health, detect crashes, and track your driving in real-time by offering audio alerts for things like speeding, rough braking and more. The idea with this latter feature is that this sort of real-time feedback can make people drive better — similar to the way that the signs displaying your speed as you approach (flashing when you’re going too fast), can get drivers to become aware of their speed and slow down. more

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Problem Gamblers or Addicts?

How did I become addicted to pokies? How could this have happened to me, an intelligent woman, a psychologist and a former Member of Parliament? When I taught learning theory to psychology students I would use poker machines as an example of classical conditioning, just as Pavlov had taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by pairing it with food, until they salivated when they heard the bell, without waiting for the food. The pokies are a good example of operant conditioning too, with a reward appearing intermittently when a lever or button is pressed, mirroring psychologist B.F. Skinner's demonstration in the 1950s and '60s that rewarding a behaviour increases it. Skinner's rats learnt that if they pressed a lever they would be rewarded with food – not every time though. The greatest increase in lever pressing took place when the rats couldn't predict when the reward would come, because anticipation is just as effective in stimulating the release of dopamine and opioids in the brain as is the actual reward. That's how poker machines work. more

Monday, November 03, 2014

Are Wearables the Cure for Rising Health Costs?

The bottom line is that we’ve become lazy. We’re all looking for a quick fix. Your doctor recommends that you change your diet and exercise, and you ask if there’s a pill you can take instead; it’s less work, and your employer is going to pick up all or most of the prescription cost anyway. Improved prescription drugs have, in some instances, become enablers for continued poor lifestyle behaviours. So what’s the solution? The first step is simply to get your employees moving again. Think of Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. Statistics Canada data show that about half of the population spends less than 30 minutes per day engaging in moderate physical activity during leisure time. How you get your employees moving is where wearable fitness tracking devices come into play. If you’re not familiar with wearables, they’re electronic devices that you put on your wrist or clip to an article of clothing. There are dozens of these devices on the market, but the most popular are made by Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone. These gadgets are more than just a pedometer—they track sleep patterns, heart rates and calories burned while exercising. Some devices can even remind you to get out of your chair at programmed intervals of inactivity. And all of this data can be uploaded to a website and monitored on your mobile phone. It was the electronic age and the advent of television and the remote control that created the couch potato and arguably contributed to more sedentary lifestyles, so maybe electronic devices will get us out of this mess. more

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making Quitting More Than a Game

Dr. Bethany Raiff is on a mission: to help people stop smoking and cut the death rate attributable to the habit. She’s not an M.D. or D.O., however, and she is not unpacking a medical bag to make a difference. Raiff is an assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University, and she is using the ever-popular electronic game format to help save people from a recognized killer. She is a collaborator on research funded in part by a July 1, 2014, National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research Grant of close to $295,000 — a portion of which comes to Rowan — that is designed to help small businesses develop a product and bring it to market. As a subcontractor on the grant with two collaborators, Entertainment Science, Durham, North Carolina, and Playmatics, New York City, Raiff is working to develop a mobile smartphone game tentatively called “Breathe Free.” ... Raiff’s work is similar to an earlier project, a smoking cessation video game for Facebook called “Up from the Ashes” that the NIH funded in 2013. Breathe Free is like Up From the Ashes in that is a contingency management intervention — a game that strives to promote abstinence by using nonmonetary incentives to encourage people to quit smoking, basing those incentives on verification that they abstained from smoking. In both games, players provide carbon monoxide samples, either via a monitor attached to their telephones or a web camera attached to their computers. CO is an indication of whether a player has been smoking and to what extent. “It’s like a breathalyzer for alcohol, but it tests CO levels,” Raiff said. It indicates if players haven’t smoked. If they haven’t, they receive game-based rewards.” more

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quality of Words, Not Just Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children. Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears. more

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dangers of Texting Behind the Wheel

“It’s an addiction,” Shaw says. “How else can you explain it? I see people who can’t sit in class for 45 minutes without using their cell phone. That’s just the way we are now. We have to be connected all the time, and it’s scary.” Richtel makes a compelling case for seeing our desire for digital interactivity “as an analogy to what smokers experience, craving another cigarette when their nicotine levels fall. When you check your phone, you get a little dopamine peak, it regulates and then you start to feel a little yearning, and so you check it again.” We’ve all seen people compulsively refreshing their e-mail as if awaiting the message of a lifetime. “You would think that if you knew that most of what you get is spam or irrelevant, and in fact 67 percent of it is, that it would make your device less magnetic,” Richtel says. “Perversely, it makes it more magnetic because you never know when the good thing will come.” Richtel refers to smartphones as “veritable slot machines in our pockets.” He uses B.F. Skinner’s theory of intermittent reinforcement to make the case that, like Skinner’s rats, we “keep pushing the buttons, waiting for the good thing.” more

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Testing Parents' Patience, While Treating Kids' Problem Behavior

Humans have a focus on the short term. We are more interested in a potential benefit if we can get it now... Psychologists and economists have shown that similar trends can be observed and measured in many spheres of life. They call the tendency for the perceived value of a delayed benefit to diminish “delay discounting.” Now researchers at Marcus Autism Center are studying delay discounting as it applies to parents’ decision-making, when it comes to engaging in treatment for their children’s problem behavior. Their initial report is published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Lead author Nathan Call, PhD... says his team’s work is aimed at designing treatment programs that families can stick to, and helping them do so... Effective behavioral treatments for children displaying problem behaviors exist, but immediate success is not guaranteed. On the part of parents, they require commitment, active adherence and work... “Here’s the frustrating moment for me as a clinician,” Call says. “It’s my job to meet with parents, and develop strategies and programs that we think will work. At the start, parents are committed. If you ask them to say how important is it to you to address these problems, on a scale from 1 to 10, they will say ‘11’, but within a couple months, some parents decide, ‘We’re not going to do this.’ “ Call says that in response to signs of delay discounting, clinicians may be able to modify treatment programs to emphasize smaller, but more immediate treatment successes, or assign additional support resources if necessary. more

How B.F. Skinner Will Save Online Education

Riddle me this: was there ever a worse technology for teaching than the college lecture? Some overeducated knucklehead stands in front of bored adolescents and gasses on for an hour like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. What is the rate of the transmission of knowledge via this method? Anyone? Anyone? ... Fortunately, everything we need to know about how to turn this wagon train around was figured out by behavioral psychologists back in the 1950s. Psychologists studied and optimized how people learn, and Harvard’s Professor B.F. Skinner proceeded to outline the basic principles of programmed learning. more

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Cigna Health Matters: A Comprehensive System to Improve and Sustain Your Health

“Cigna Health Matters integrates the latest insights and practices of the sociology of engagement, motivation and rewarding behavior change with the latest in health tools and technology,” says Eric Herbek, Cigna Vice President, Product Development, Consumer Health Engagement. “By combining clinical insights, health coaches, digital tools, measurement and reward engines, we have our customers’ backs to help them get on the right path, and stay on it, for better health for themselves and their families.” Cigna Health Matters starts with a gamified health assessment – or health survey -- that customers engage with as they enroll in their health plan. By gamifying this process, completion rates have soared: for a typical health assessment completion rates are in the 30 percent range**, Cigna's gamified version delivers completion rates of 90 percent ... To begin, customers take a survey to discover what apps and devices may best support them on their unique health journey. Recommended goals and challenges are available to complete by using the apps and devices. Customers can track their progress across all apps used, through a convenient dashboard. And they can even earn rewards for certain activities and achievements. “This link is crucial as during the past several years, we’ve learned the importance of connecting health improvement to tangible, immediate, recognition and incentives,” notes Herbek. more

Monday, October 13, 2014

From Lean Back to Lean Forward: The Gamification of Television

Watching television in a traditional lean-back manner is no longer applicable in today's digital world, where consumers crave constant interaction with their favorite games, content and TV shows. The internet has turned consumers into lean-forward viewers, who require interactivity and fun to remain invested in a program. Consumers are no longer interested in simply watching television, but interacting at the highest level. This type of character-shift requires an innovative new approach to TV entertainment. But for that approach to be successful, it needs to be rooted in mirroring consumer behavior. B.F. Skinner's 'Reinforcement Theory of Motivation' states that an individual's behavior is a function of its consequences. In the case of traditional television, the "individuals" are the viewers, and their behavior is contingent on the benefits that appointment television can offer them. If a traditional television experience offers viewers a new and tangible value, their behavior will positively follow suit. But the key is to offer something new, while still maintaining the qualities that make it an exceptional and compelling story. Gamification does just that -- it supports the core values of television and story-telling, while weaving in interactivity and positive reinforcement by allowing two-way participation TV. more

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Hush-Puppy' Device Rewards Dogs for Quiet Time

For many dog owners, incessant barking is the bane of their existence. Some resort to using “shock collars” that deliver a jolt when their animal barks. The brainchild of a School of Veterinary Medicine student, however, may one day help pet lovers quiet their pets using positive reinforcement in the form of food rewards. The device, called the “Hush-Puppy,” is the creation of Lindsay Gallagher, who is in her third year at Penn Vet. Her idea has been ushered into development by the Veterinary Innovation Challenge, a business plan competition that was designed by another Penn Vet student, fourth-year Nikhil Joshi ... Designed in collaboration with her brother Jason Gallagher, a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying electrical and computer engineering, the Hush-Puppy uses a standard automatic feeder linked to a bark-detecting collar. Animals are rewarded with food after they are quiet for a set period of time, which automatically adjusts as the dogs become better trained. more

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Baseball is a Giant, Beautiful Skinner Box

The combination of frequent failure and semi-randomized success turns the baseball field into a giant Skinner box. In one of the more famous conditioning experiments, B.F. Skinner put pigeons in a cage that would produce food at regular time intervals, regardless of the pigeons’ behavior. The pigeons, however, noticed that after executing some chance behavior the food arrived. Thinking that their behavior elicited the food, a number of the pigeons then started repeating those same behaviors in the hopes of getting more food. In essence, the birds “learned” that certain movements produced food, even though it simply wasn’t true. In essence, the birds became superstitious. The exact same phenomenon occurs on the ball field, where there is a massive time interval between successes. Batters get hits at a relatively fixed rate, but there’s enough time in between those hits to ascribe irrelevant behaviors to them. more

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Why Academics Stink at Writing

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: "Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development." In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment "The Dynamics of Inter­being and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes," and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, "Academia, here I come!" No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype ... But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand? more

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Wearable Fitness Trackers Can Motivate You to Keep Active

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

Friday, October 03, 2014

Persuasive Technology for Energy Conservation and Carbon Emission Reduction

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

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How To Get Children To Behave Without Hitting Them

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

To Get More Out of Science, Show the Rejected Research

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can "Memories" be Implanted and Removed?

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Concept of Time May Predict Impulsive Behavior, Research Finds

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicotine Withdrawal Reduces Response to Rewards Across Species

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

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

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

Monday, September 08, 2014

Parents, Listen Next Time Your Baby Babbles

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

Thursday, September 04, 2014

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

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

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Is Psychology's Focus Becoming Too Narrow?

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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Evidence-Based Medicine Actually Isn’t

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Managing to Results Isn’t Enough; Focus on Behaviors

In a results-only culture, managers do whatever is necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. That can include doing things that are illegal or unsafe, such as at GM, or, as at the VA changing numbers to boost results while endangering the lives of veterans. In these situations, employees made choices to avoid the consequences of failing to meet set results. Meanwhile, leaders put their organizations at risk because they managed only to outcomes instead of attending to the underlying employee behavior. Unfortunately, results often mangle the truth, putting blinders on the people who should be in charge. Managing to results alone is like managing by looking at last month’s newspaper. The old newspaper doesn’t tell you what is happening, only what has happened...Leaders and managers need to understand the underlying behaviors involved in achieving results, good or bad. Then they must know how to effectively use positive reinforcement for the behaviors involved in directly improving performance. more

Monday, August 25, 2014

Apps that Help You Help Yourself: Do Incentives Work?

The ‘help me help myself’ concept is nothing new. Humans have always sought to improve themselves. We vow, again and again and especially on New Year’s Day, to quit smoking, take up running, go green, save more cash, consume fewer calories—in short, to nix bad habits and establish good ones. Until recently, we relied mostly on willpower to keep those New Year’s resolutions. But now, consumers are discovering new ways to nudge themselves toward better habits. The behavioral psychology approach by B.F. Skinner developed in the 1920’s suggested that by repeatedly rewarding good choices and punishing bad ones, it’s possible to condition permanent behavior change. This concept endured some harsh criticism and fell out of favor for several decades, but it’s enjoying a renaissance today—only with a few twists. This time, participants are willingly choosing to have their behaviors modified. Moreover, they’re relying on modern tools to do so, particularly through the use of digital apps. Brands can get in on the action by developing the ‘nudges’ they need to stay on track. more

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Memory Factory

For those of you who missed The Amazing Meeting 2014, we present another lecture from that event, by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory in the field of cognitive psychology. One of the biggest myths in the history of psychology is that memory is like a video tape that can be played back for everyone to see what “really happened.” In this lecture, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the world’s leading experts on memory, shows how we all edit our memories from the moment they are formed to the last time we recall them. That editing process is based on a number of emotional, psychological, and social factors that shape our memories. more

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The End of Dyslexia?

In 2005 Julian Elliott contributed to a television programme, The Dyslexia Myth, that highlighted the many misuses and misunderstandings of the dyslexia construct and the corresponding failure of professional services to cater for all who encounter reading difficulties. In the subsequent fallout he was repeatedly accused of undermining efforts to help children with dyslexia and setting back years of hard-fought-for advances. Indeed, in the programme itself he was criticised by a number of teachers on the grounds that parents who have fought for their children for years will be rendered puzzled and distraught by such arguments. Here Julian Elliott and his collaborator Elena Grigorenko ask, What is understood by the term dyslexia? and Is there really any value in the construct? To what extent is it professionally acceptable for psychologists to use diagnostic labels that they know to be scientifically questionable on the grounds that discontinuing their use would reduce the salience of very real difficulties that many people experience, and undermine the influence of lobby groups in highlighting the need for action? In essence, this is a key question that has occupied our thinking since The Dyslexia Myth was broadcast in 2005. more

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tortoises Master Touchscreen Technology

Tortoises have learned how to use touchscreens as part of a study which aimed to teach the animals navigational techniques. The research, which was led by Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences, involved red-footed tortoises, which are native to Central and South America. The brain structure of reptiles is very different to that of mammals, which use the hippocampus for spatial navigation. Instead, it is thought that the reptilian medial cortex serves as a homologue, however very little behavioural work has actually examined this...Dr Wilkinson carried out the initial training while at the University of Vienna, giving the tortoises treats such as strawberries when the reptiles looked at, approached and then pecked blue circles on the screen. more

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Secret To Productivity, In One Sentence

All behavior is a function of consequences. That's not my brilliant, original thought, although I wish it were. That idea belongs to B.F. Skinner, who some call the father of behavioral psychology. Eighty-some-odd years ago, Skinner was a professor at Harvard, trying to crack open the mysteries of human behavior. Much later, when I was trying to unlock the mysteries of starting up my own business, I read quite a bit on Skinner. I realized how much of his theories applied to entrepreneurship, and how much I was already practicing it from my career in football. Skinner was most noted for his studies of the power of positive reinforcement. Skinner realized, and proved through psychological experiments, one of the most basic functions of reinforcement: It's not so much about what happens before the behavior, but it's what you say after that makes all the difference in the world. more

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Open-Access Website Gets Tough

When Lars Bjørnshauge founded a website to index open-access journals in 2003, just 300 titles made the list. But over the next decade, the open-access publishing market exploded, and Bjørnshauge’s Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) along with it. Today the DOAJ comprises almost 10,000 journals — and its main problem is not finding new publications to include, but keeping the dodgy operators out. Now, following criticism of its quality-control checks, the website is asking all of the journals in its directory to reapply on the basis of stricter criteria. It hopes the move will weed out ‘predatory journals’: those that profess to publish research openly, often charging fees, but that are either outright scams or do not provide the services a scientist would expect, such as a minimal standard of peer review or permanent archiving. “We all know there has been a lot of fuss about questionable publishers,” says Bjørnshauge. The reapplication process will also create one of the largest ‘whitelists’ of acceptable open-access journals, helping the DOAJ to become a more useful tool for funders, librarians and researchers who want to look up information on a publication or import its metadata into their catalogues. Those journals meeting the highest criteria — expected to be about 10–15% of the total — will also be given a ‘seal’ of best practice. more

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dog Training, Animal Welfare, and the Human-Canine Relationship

Many people are concerned that aversive-based dog training methods can have side-effects. A new study by Stéphanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet (in press in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior) observes dogs and their humans at training classes using either positive or negative reinforcement. The results support the idea that positive reinforcement is beneficial for the canine-human bond and better for animal welfare...The findings do not demonstrate causality, but are a valuable step in our understanding of the effects of different training methods on dogs. more

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Online Behavioral Intervention Improves Weight Loss Outcomes

While adding in-person group support sessions to a weight loss program produces the best results, adding just an online behavioral intervention can produce results nearly as good, at a much lower cost. Those are the findings from a 230-person trial from social wellness platform ShapeUp, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. “The findings of this study are significant in that they reveal substantial progress in identifying cost-effective, scalable, online behavioral weight loss interventions that are capable of significantly improving outcomes,” Dr. Rajiv Kumar, founder and CEO of ShapeUp and one of the co-authors of the study, said in a statement. more

Monday, August 04, 2014

Why Thoughts Aren't Causes

There is a lot of rubbish spouted about behaviourism, often by people who should know better. Claims that behaviourists deny the existence of internal psychological events like thoughts and emotions might not be ridiculous if you’re thinking about the behaviourism of of John B. Watson, but virtually no behaviour analysts today are thinking about him. Watson’s behaviourism is often called methodological behaviourism and it stands in stark contrast to Skinner’s more recent radical behaviourism. Skinner explicitly was interested in thinking and feeling. Indeed, he wrote an entire book about it (which arguably lead to the falling out of favour of this school of psychology). Claims that behaviour analysts routinely punish their clients into compliance are simply bullshit. (I’m using the word here in the sense of Harry G. Frankfurt’s classic text where he defines bullshit as making knowledge claims when you have insufficient familiarity with the knowledge domain. So there.) more

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Logarithms Celebrate Their 400th Birthday

You may find this hard to believe, but there are people still alive today who once did their mathematical calculations by sliding sticks back and forth. No keypads, no batteries, no LEDs. Just sticks. Yes, it sounds like a device from the Stone Age, but as late as the 1970s scientists and engineers commonly used such a stick-sliding device, known as a slide rule, to perform multiplication and division and other tasks like extracting square roots. Working versions of these instruments still are on display in museums today. But as primitive as they sound, slide rules could not have been invented in the Stone Age or even in ancient Greece. They owe their existence to a much later mathematical development that is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year: the invention of logarithms. more

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Gene That Turns Worms Into Pavlov’s Dogs

Like Pavlov’s dogs, most organisms can learn to associate two events that usually occur together. Now, a team of researchers says they have identified a gene that enables such learning. The scientists, at the University of Tokyo, found that worms could learn to avoid unpleasant situations as long as a specific insulin receptor remained intact. Roundworms were exposed to different concentrations of salt; some received food during the initial exposure, others did not. Later, when exposed to various concentrations of salt again, the roundworms that had been fed during the first stage gravitated toward their initial salt concentrations, while those that had been starved avoided them. But the results changed when the researchers repeated the experiment using worms with a defect in a particular receptor for insulin, a protein crucial to metabolism. Those worms could not learn to avoid the salt concentrations associated with starvation. more

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Monetary Reward Speeds Up Voluntary Saccades

Past studies have shown that reward contingency is critical for sensorimotor learning, and reward expectation speeds up saccades in animals. Whether monetary reward speeds up saccades in human remains unknown. Here we addressed this issue by employing a conditional saccade task, in which human subjects performed a series of non-reflexive, visually-guided horizontal saccades. The subjects were (or were not) financially compensated for making a saccade in response to a centrally-displayed visual congruent (or incongruent) stimulus. Reward modulation of saccadic velocities was quantified independently of the amplitude-velocity coupling. We found that reward expectation significantly sped up voluntary saccades up to 30°/s, and the reward modulation was consistent across tests. These findings suggest that monetary reward speeds up saccades in human in a fashion analogous to how juice reward sped up saccades in monkeys. We further noticed that the idiosyncratic nasal-temporal velocity asymmetry was highly consistent regardless of test order, and its magnitude was not correlated with the magnitude of reward modulation. This suggests that reward modulation and the intrinsic velocity asymmetry may be governed by separate mechanisms that regulate saccade generation. more

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History

In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, science writer Nicholas Wade claims that race is real—that Darwinian natural selection has resulted in a number of biologically separate human populations characterized by distinct, genetically determined social behaviors. He asserts that many of these differences have emerged over the last 10,000 years and that they explain much of human history. He writes that recent science has “established that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional” and uses this framework to account for regional variations in economic power and cultural pursuits. As soon as it appeared, Wade’s book touched off a firestorm of controversy—as he surely knew it would...Early reviews of Wade’s book show a familiar division: Anthropologists mostly take a critical view, whereas psychologists and economists generally like the book...So is Wade right? Are there human races? Is the variation seen between different cultures and locations best explained by genetic differences between human populations? And have anthropologists been turning a blind eye to the evidence in front of them? There is no shortage of scientific information, and it gives a clear answer: no. more

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crack Down on Scientific Fraudsters

Ong-Pyou Han needed impressive lab results to help his team at Iowa State University move forward with its work on an AIDS vaccine — and to continue receiving millions of dollars in federal grants. So Dr. Han did what many scientists are probably tempted to do, but don’t: He faked the tests, spiking rabbit blood with human proteins to make it appear that the animals were responding to the vaccine to fight H.I.V. The reason you’re reading about this story, and not about the glowing success of the therapy, is that Dr. Han was caught... Even though research misconduct is far from rare, Dr. Han’s case was unusual in that he had to resign. Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are even more uncommon. In fact, according to a study published last year, “most investigators who engage in wrongdoing, even serious wrongdoing, continue to conduct research at their institutions.” As part of our reporting, we’ve written about multiple academic researchers who have been found guilty of misconduct and then have gone on to work at pharmaceutical giants. more

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Operant Conditioning of Spinal Reflexes: From Basic Science to Clinical Therapy

New appreciation of the adaptive capabilities of the nervous system, recent recognition that most spinal cord injuries are incomplete, and progress in enabling regeneration are generating growing interest in novel rehabilitation therapies. Here we review the 35-year evolution of one promising new approach, operant conditioning of spinal reflexes. This work began in the late 1970’s as basic science; its purpose was to develop and exploit a uniquely accessible model for studying the acquisition and maintenance of a simple behavior in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). The model was developed first in monkeys and then in rats, mice, and humans. Studies with it showed that the ostensibly simple behavior (i.e., a larger or smaller reflex) rests on a complex hierarchy of brain and spinal cord plasticity; and current investigations are delineating this plasticity and its interactions with the plasticity that supports other behaviors. In the last decade, the possible therapeutic uses of reflex conditioning have come under study, first in rats and then in humans. The initial results are very exciting, and they are spurring further studies. At the same time, the original basic science purpose and the new clinical purpose are enabling and illuminating each other in unexpected ways. The long course and current state of this work illustrate the practical importance of basic research and the valuable synergy that can develop between basic science questions and clinical needs. more

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scientists’ Grasp of Confidence Intervals Doesn’t Inspire Confidence

Sometimes it’s hard to have confidence in science. So many results from published scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Part of the problem is that science has trouble quantifying just how confident in a result you should be. Confidence intervals are supposed to help with that. They’re like the margin of error in public opinion polls. If candidate A is ahead of candidate B by 2 percentage points, and the margin of error is 4 percentage points, then you know it’s not a good bet to put all your money on A. The difference between the two is not “statistically significant.” Traditionally, science has expressed statistical significance with P values, P standing for the probability that the result you observe is a fluke. P values have all sorts of problems...Consequently many experts have advised using confidence intervals instead, and their use is becoming increasingly common. While there are some advantages in that, it is sadly the case that confidence intervals are also not what they are commonly represented to be. more

Monday, July 14, 2014

EveryMove Leaps Past Traditional Fitness Tracking To Deliver A Network Of Positive Reinforcement

EveryMove, the world’s first fitness tracking network, today unveiled a fresh new mobile app and website to deliver even more benefits for living an active lifestyle. Since its launch in 2012, EveryMove has demonstrated that unifying an individual’s fitness data gives them influence across a broad network of partners that want to reward and recognize an active lifestyle. “It doesn’t matter how consumers track their activity or what activities they prefer. What we care about is that they are getting consistent feedback from a personalized network that recognizes progress,” says Russell Benaroya, CEO of EveryMove. “EveryMove has created the one network where friends, employers, health plans, and brands can rally around each individual in a fun and engaging way to turn fitness into real-life tangible benefits.” more

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Shocking Way to Keep Fit: Band Gives You an Electric Jolt If You Don’t Exercise Enough

It is the wristband that could literally jolt you in action--by giving its wearer an electric shock if they don't reach their fitness goals or hit their work deadline. Called Pavlok, it uses the idea of positive reinforcement to try and change a user's behavior. Its makers hope it could go on sale this year - and be far more effective than current tracking bands...Negative reinforcement "really does make people pay attention," he said. According to the firm's website,"Pavlok offers a simple, wearable device that helps consumers form better habits." Using psychologically proven and user tested algorithms, the Pavlok wristband enforces users’ commitments to fitness, productivity, and more — even if that means 'sparking' their commitment by delivering a mild (but jolting) electric shock." more

The Push to Screen Statistics in Papers

The journal Science is adding an extra round of statistical checks to its peer-review process, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt announced today. The policy follows similar efforts from other journals, after widespread concern that basic mistakes in data analysis are contributing to the irreproducibility of many published research findings. “Readers must have confidence in the conclusions published in our journal,” writes McNutt in an editorial today. Working with the American Statistical Association, the journal has appointed seven experts to a statistics board of reviewing editors (SBoRE). Manuscript will be flagged up for additional scrutiny by the journal’s internal editors, or by its existing Board of Reviewing Editors (more than 100 scientists whom the journal regularly consults on papers) or by outside peer reviewers. The SBoRE panel will then find external statisticians to review these manuscripts. more

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Habituation, Sensitization, and Pavlovian Conditioning

In this brief review, I argue that the impact of a stimulus on behavioral control increase as the distance of the stimulus to the body decreases. Habituation, i.e., decrement in response intensity repetition of the triggering stimulus, is the default state for sensory processing, and the likelihood of habituation is higher for distal stimuli. Sensitization, i.e., increment in response intensity upon stimulus repetition, occurs in a state dependent manner for proximal stimuli that make direct contact with the body. In Pavlovian conditioning paradigms, the unconditioned stimulus (US) is always a more proximal stimulus than the conditioned stimulus (CS). The mechanisms of associative and non-associative learning are not independent. CS−US pairings lead to formation of associations if sensitizing modulation from a proximal US prevents the habituation for a distal anticipatory CS. more

Monday, July 07, 2014

Operant Conditioning: Why YouTube Beats Facebook in Fan Engagement

Recently I wrote about engagement rates in brand communities on YouTube versus Facebook; the data I gathered suggests that Facebook communities may be larger, but YouTube engagement runs far deeper. The question is why? I think the answer lies in some of the fundamental principles of behavioral psychology. The top performing YouTube creators are masters of building communities—and have spent the last few years building them from the ground up. And whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, the creators with the largest followings leverage one of the fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology: operant conditioning. more

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Smarter Than You Think: Fish Can Remember Where They Were Fed 12 Days Later

It is popularly believed that fish have a memory span of only 30 seconds. Canadian scientists, however, have demonstrated that this is far from true – in fact, fish can remember context and associations up to twelve days later. The researchers studied African Cichlids (Labidochromis caeruleus), a popular aquarium species. These fish demonstrate many complex behaviours, including aggression, causing the scientists to predict that they could be capable of advanced memory tasks. Each fish was trained to enter a particular zone of the aquarium to receive a food reward, with each training session lasting twenty minutes. After three training days, the fish were given a twelve day rest period. The fish were then reintroduced into their training arena and their movements recorded with motion-tracking software. It was found that the cichlids showed a distinct preference for the area associated with the food reward, suggesting that they recalled the previous training experiences. Furthermore, the fish were able to reverse this association after further training sessions where the food reward was associated with a different stimulus. more

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Why We Aren’t The Parents We Know We Could Be

Most parents I know suffer from occasional — or constant — eruptions of parental self-judgment: moments when they feel they fall short of being the parents they could be. There’s a gap between what they know about effective parenting (in the abstract) and what actually happens in everyday practice — in the car, in the supermarket, in the living room...Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why “knowing better” doesn’t always translate into “doing better”: we’re busy and exhausted, we’re lazy and set in our ways. Plus, it isn’t always obvious when and how the abstract applies to the concrete. But it turns out that one of the most important lessons from psychology about how to change children’s behavior is also the key to why knowledge of better parenting is rarely enough to make us better parents. The lesson is this: to encourage a behavior, you need to generate the best conditions for it to arise and then reinforce the heck out of it. Merely knowing what you should do is often insufficient to reliably bring the behavior about and merely knowing doesn’t offer much in the way of reinforcement. more

Monday, June 30, 2014

Fruit Flies Help Scientists Uncover Genes Responsible for Human Communication

The evolution of language in humans continues to perplex scientists and linguists who study how humans learn to communicate. Considered by some as "operant learning," this multi-tiered trait involves many genes and modification of an individual's behavior by trial and error. Toddlers acquire communication skills by babbling until what they utter is rewarded; however, the genes involved in learning language skills are far from completely understood. Now, using a gene identified in fruit flies by a University of Missouri researcher, scientists involved in a global consortium have discovered a crucial component of the origin of language in humans. more

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Once Viewed as a Flaw, Variability Now Appears Critical to Learning

Though variability is often portrayed as a flaw to be overcome, a new study conducted by Maurice Smith, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Bioengineering, and Bence Ölveczky, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences, suggests that variability in motor function is a key feature of the nervous system that helps lead to better ways to perform a particular action. The study is described in a Jan. 12 paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “I think this changes the paradigm of how we think about motor variability and performance,” Ölveczky said. “In human performance, variability is usually thought of as a consequence of noise in the nervous system — it’s something we’re trying to overcome. What we’re trying to understand is whether variability might be useful. The question is: Does the nervous system perhaps use that variability as a feature to improve learning?” more

Friday, June 20, 2014

I Don't Want to Be Right: Why Do People Persist in Believing Things That Just Aren't True?

Last month, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost two thousand parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of seventeen, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines? Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds. The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. more

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pavlovian Response and Drug Overdose

There are a limited amount of places where one can do drugs. Of those places, drug users select a certain few places where they prefer to do drugs, and then do drugs most often at a select number of places that are convenient. Essentially, a regular drug user will often have a regular place to take their drugs. After they've done drugs regularly in the same place, the connection is made. A bathroom, a bedroom, a certain club, will always be associated with drug use. People trying to quit drugs often talk about how they have to avoid their old haunts, because they feel a rush of anticipation. That rush is not just mental. Scientists learned that putting a dog in a certain injection booth every day and injecting it with adrenaline produced a dog with bradycardia - a dangerously slow heartbeat - when they put the dog in the same booth but only injected it with a placebo. The dog's body was compensating for the adrenaline it anticipated. It was trying to reduce the dangerous effects of the adrenaline by slowing down the dog's heartbeat. A drug user's body does the same. more

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Human Nurture

“I began really as a disciple of British empiricism,” Prinz says, espresso machine frothing in the background. His primary intellectual antecedent and inspiration is David Hume, a towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. For Prinz, one of Hume’s most persuasive arguments is that core human values are something we construct in society—“something that we need to invent as opposed to thinking of it as something that’s handed down by theological dictate,” he says. Prinz never suggests that genetic and biological considerations should be absent, but cautions against overreliance on such explanations. Near the end of his least technical book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (W. W. Norton, 2012), he writes, “Every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait—every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment.” But in chapters on human intelligence, language, gender, and more, Prinz makes the case that culture’s influence dwarfs that of biology. more

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Science, Trust And Psychology In Crisis

When I attended my first scientific conference at the tender age of 20, one of my mentors surprised me with the following bit of advice. Transcribed directly from memory: "You should be sure to attend the talk by so-and-so. You can always trust his results." This casual remark made a deep impression on me. What did trust have to do with anything? This was supposed to be science! Based on evidence! It shouldn't have mattered who performed the experiment, who delivered the talk or whose name was on the ensuing publication...This notion of trust didn't stem from fears of fraud or deception. When a result was approached with some skepticism, it wasn't that data fabrication was ever suspected, or that anyone assumed nefarious intent on the part of the scientists involved. So it took some personal experience conducting research and going through the publication process before I had a good sense for what was going on. And here's what I learned: There's a gap between what you get in a polished scientific presentation or publication and actual scientific practice — the minute details of what happens in the preparation, execution, analysis and reporting of every study. And that gap can be traversed with more or less diligence and care. The gap between practice and publication is one reason psychology is embroiled in what some are calling a "replication crisis" — a lack of confidence in the reality of many published psychological results. more

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spatial Generalization in Operant Learning: Lessons from Professional Basketball

According to the law of effect, formulated a century ago by Edward Thorndike, actions which are rewarded in a particular situation are more likely to be executed when that same situation recurs. However, in natural settings the same situation never recurs and therefore, generalization from one state of the world to other states is an essential part of the process of learning. In this paper we utilize basketball statistics to study the computational principles underlying generalization in operant learning of professional basketball players. We show that players are more likely to attempt a field goal from the vicinity of a previously made shot than they are from the vicinity of a missed shot, as expected from the law of effect. However, the outcome of a shot can also affect the likelihood of attempting another shot at a different location. Using hierarchical clustering we characterize the spatial pattern of generalization and show that generalization is primarily determined by the type of shot, 3 pt vs. 2 pt. more

Thursday, June 05, 2014

App Paired with Sensor Measures Stress and Delivers Coping Advice in Real Time

Computer scientists at Microsoft Research and the University of California, San Diego have developed a system that combines a mobile application and sensor to detect stress in parents and delivers research-based strategies to help decrease that stress during emotionally charged interactions with their children. The system was initially tested on a small group of parents of children with ADHD. The system, called ParentGuardian, is the first to detect stress and present interventions in real-time—at the right time and in the right place. It combines a sensor worn on the wrist with a smart phone and tablet, as well as a server that analyses the data from the sensor. more