Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fran Tarkenton on Football and Business: Behavioral Lessons of B.F. Skinner

I met an impressive young psychologist named Aubrey Daniels in the early 1970s. He came from the school of B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychologist. Skinner’s ideas were at the cutting-edge, the first real scientific approach to psychology as opposed to the theoretical Freudian ideas that came before. Skinner’s most important discovery was that behavior was a function of consequences, and he was the first to quantify it. It’s not what comes before the behavior that counts, but what comes after. If you do something and receive praise or a reward, you’ll do it more. If you are punished, you’ll do it less. And, most significantly, if you do something and get no recognition either way, then that behavior would recede as well. more

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Latest Issue of "Operants" Now Available Online from the B. F. Skinner Foundation

The latest issue of Operants, the quarterly newsletter of the B. F. Skinner Foundation, is now available here. In addition to some classic candid photos of B. F. Skinner and Fred Keller, the issue features the following content:

President’s Column (by Julie Vargas)
Memorial: Nate Azrin
Reflections: A plea for science (by Jacob Azerrad)
The Arts (by Gilda Oliver)
Reflections: Tacitus and Skinner (by Paolo Taras)
Skinner's Corner: Are theories of learning necessary? (by E. A. Vargas)
Culture: Skinner's science and psychology (by Kae Yabuki)
Profile: Erik Arntzen
Skinner's Science in the News: Skinner’s Behavior Science and the CIA (by Josh Pritchard)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Doctor: ADHD Does Not Exist

This Wednesday, an article in the New York Times reported that from 2008 to 2012 the number of adults taking medications for ADHD increased by 53% and that among young American adults, it nearly doubled. While this is a staggering statistic and points to younger generations becoming frequently reliant on stimulants, frankly, I’m not too surprised...If someone finds it difficult to pay attention or feels somewhat hyperactive, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder has those symptoms right there in its name. It’s an easy catchall phrase that saves time for doctors to boot. But can we really lump all these people together? What if there are other things causing people to feel distracted? I don’t deny that we, as a population, are more distracted today than we ever were before. And I don’t deny that some of these patients who are distracted and impulsive need help. What I do deny is the generally accepted definition of ADHD, which is long overdue for an update. more

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Efforts To Close The Achievement Gap In Kids Start At Home

Two-thirds of Providence children entering kindergarten already fall short on state literacy tests. Riquetti says this disadvantage in her students would compound over time because so much of learning depends on basic vocabulary...Riquetti now helps run Providence Talks, the city's ambitious effort to change this so-called word gap that researchers discovered two decades ago. They found that professional parents tend to chat away to their children, using sophisticated language even before kids are old enough to understand, while low-income parents tend to speak far less and use more directives: "Do this, don't do that." To help parents measure progress, the city collects hard data. In fact, it's happening as they look at the book. Little Ayleen is wearing a recorder hidden inside a bright red vest specially designed for it. The recorder logs every word spoken, all day long, and can distinguish different voices. It also distinguishes a TV, computer or radio that may be blaring in the background—words from those don't count when it comes to building a child's vocabulary, and in fact too much screen time may hurt, researchers say. During the next visit, Taveras will bring a report that graphs the word count, hour by hour. Parents keep a log to know what they were doing at the time. more

Monday, March 17, 2014

Elephants Prove Discerning Listeners of Us Humans

Dr. Seuss had it right: Horton really does hear a Who. Wild elephants can distinguish between human languages, and they can tell whether a voice comes from a man, woman or boy, a new study says. That's what researchers found when they played recordings of people for elephants in Kenya. Scientists say this is an advanced thinking skill that other animals haven't shown. It lets elephants figure out who is a threat and who isn't...McComb and colleagues went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where hundreds of wild elephants live among humans, sometimes coming in conflict over scarce water. The scientists used voice recordings of Maasai men, who on occasion kill elephants in confrontations over grazing for cattle, and Kamba men, who are less of a threat to the elephants. The recordings contained the same phrase in two different languages: "Look over there. A group of elephants is coming." By about a two-to-one margin, the elephants reacted defensively — retreating and gathering in a bunch — more to the Maasai language recording because it was associated with the more threatening human tribe, said study co-author Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University. more

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Activity Loops in Gamification

I can feel the pent up feelings of many people now who are about to scream the words Operant Conditioning at me. For those who don’t know, this was a form of behaviour modification that was made famous by BF Skinner. He conducted experiments that rewarded or punished animals for types of behaviour. Pull a lever, get a reward. Pull a lever, maybe get a reward. Push the wrong button, get a shock. This was called reinforcement. One of the big arguments we have in gamification is that it is just a new and shiny form of operant conditioning. For the most part, this does seem to be true. Click like, get a point. Click like 10 times, get a badge etc. A big issue here is the lack of any kind of skill or effort needed to get the reward. One of the things that I am trying to show with this activity loop example is the idea of earning the reward of access to new features. more

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spotting Neuro-Fiction: A Guide to Dissecting Overblown Neuroscience Headlines

“Neuroscience is turning up more and more in marketing,” says [Molly] Crockett. “Do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.” Crockett stresses that neuroscience is advancing quickly and leading to some truly amazing discoveries. “I am more excited than most people for the potential of neuroscience to treat mental illness and even maybe make us better and smarter,” says Crockett. “But we’re not there yet … We have to be careful that we don’t let overblown claims detract the resources and attention away from the real science that’s playing a much longer game.” more

Monday, March 10, 2014

Improving My Lab, My Science With the Open Science Framework

My lab has a problem. We do research, time goes by, and some research materials and data get lost. I forget why we did the study; we can’t find the final version of the materials that we used. Data just disappears. Gremlins are not stealing it. Machines break; people leave; organizational strategies break down. We presume that we will just remember what, where, and why. Then, we don’t. This loss of data wastes resources and makes our work less reproducible. We should know better. We do know better. But the problems persist. Basic principles from psychological science offer at least three reasons why we struggle to preserve our own research products. First, knowing what one should do is not sufficient to ensure that it gets done. Second, behavior is often dominated by immediate needs and not by possible future needs (e.g., “I know what var0001 and var0002 mean, so why waste time writing the meanings down?”). And third, the necessary changes require extra work; we are too busy for things that make our lives harder. These factors are nontrivial. And I don’t think it is just us. Everyone has an anecdote about the loss of research products because of disorganization, overconfidence in memory, or the complexity of managing information in collaborations. How can this problem be solved? A consultation of the psychological literature suggests that behavior is more likely to change if the solutions: provide immediate rewards; integrate easily with existing behavior; and are easy to do. more

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Technology May Turn You Into A Bigger Tipper

You're probably used to rounding up the total on your taxi ride or dropping a buck in a jar at the coffee shop. Now, new high-tech ways to pay nudge you to tip more generously and more often. Molly Moon Neitzel has seen this firsthand at her Seattle shop, Molly Moon Homemade Ice Cream. Last year, she installed a type of iPad-based cash register made by Square at one of her six shops. When customers pay with a credit card for their scoops, the cashier flips the iPad around so they can swipe their cards. Before they can sign their names, they're presented with a screen that suggests tip amounts. The options at Molly Moon are $1, $2, $3 or no tip. You physically have to hit "no tip" — and feel like a jerk — if you want to be stingy. The system is smart. If you buy only one cone, it will give you whole dollar tip suggestions. However, if you buy scoops for, say, an entire little league team, Square suggests percentage tips. This might sound insignificant, but Neitzel says her staff noticed they were quickly making up to 50 percent more in tips. more

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

California Utility’s Clever New Way to Conserve Water: Behavior Modification

As California’s drought continues to take a toll on the state, the L.A. Times reports on a fascinating new strategy being undertaken to get people to conserve water: comparing their water usage to their neighbors’. It’s known as “behavioral water efficiency,” and the pilot program, which involves report cards that are individually tailored to each household, is being rolled out by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million customers in the San Francisco Bay area....The statements include a household’s water use, how it compares with similar homes in the area and a grade of sorts: “Great,” “Good,” or “Take Action,” accompanied by a water drop wearing a smiley, neutral or worried expression. more

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Losing Our Minds in the Age of Brain Science

As a tool for exploring the biology of the mind, neuroimaging has given brain science a strong cultural presence. As one scientist remarked, brain images are now “replacing Bohr’s planetary atom as the symbol of science.” With its implied promise of decoding the brain, it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will. The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet. more

Monday, March 03, 2014

This Column Will Change Your Life: B. F. Skinner and Self-Management

According to rumour, the psychologist BF Skinner was a sinister fellow, hellbent on manipulating others. The worst story was that he raised his own daughter in a dark box, like the ones he trained rats in, rendering her psychotic; years later, she shot herself in the head in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. This tale was popularised in a 2004 book, but it lost credibility when Deborah Skinner Buzan – neither psychotic nor dead, but understandably cross – surfaced to explain that the "box" was just a homemade crib, warm and open-topped. She'd never even been to Billings, Montana, much less shot herself there. (It's the sort of thing you'd remember.) The truth about Skinner, whose 110th anniversary is this year, is that he was a skilled manipulator of himself. And in a world where we're ever more subject to manipulation by commercial forces, we could stand to learn some of his tricks, since if anyone's going to manipulate us, it might as well be us. In a paper entitled Skinner As Self-Manager, his colleague Robert Epstein explains Skinner's singular ability to see his own life as one big mass of variables, some of which could be altered by tweaking others. more