Wednesday, September 02, 2015

It's the Environment, Stupid

Image Source: Flickr
News flash: It is behavior, not feelings or attitudes, that ultimately leads to global climate change. Decades of experimental research, basic and applied, has shown that certain features of the environment are responsible for much of our behavior and, moreover, that altering those features can produce dramatic changes in behavior. In general, to understand why people do what they do, whether as individuals or in groups, one has to look to their history of behavioral consequences. It is no exaggeration to say that the consequences of our behavior are its single most important determinant.

More specifically, over the last one hundred years or so, behavioral psychology research has demonstrated that consequences more effectively influence behavior when they are relatively certain, immediate, large, and require relatively little effort to produce. In other words, we are more likely to repeat behaviors that are relatively effortless and that produce desirable consequences or escape or avoid undesirable consequences, especially if the consequences occur with a high probability soon after the behavior and are big enough to be valuable.

Because the problems that result from global climate change do not immediately follow the actions of any individual, company, or government and are not easily attributable to the behavior of any single entity, most of us cannot appreciate the dire effects of our collective actions on our planet and our behavior remains unchanged. In other words, the long-term deleterious consequences of our actions do not influence them in any direct way. Likewise, because most people have more pressing concerns (e.g., unemployment, lack of health care, etc.), they are less motivated to do something about their own small contribution to the problem. The immediate reinforcers for engaging in unsustainable behaviors are barriers that work against engaging in sustainable behaviors.

The primary goal in reversing climate change, then, is to establish and maintain “green behavior” (i.e., behavior that contributes to environmental sustainability) on the part of both individuals and companies. Once green behaviors have been identified, he environmental factors that promote or hinder them can be identified. Changing those environmental factors will lead to behavior change and, eventually, to climate change. The irony should not be lost here: changing behavior to save the environment and, ultimately, the human species, will require more widespread appreciation of the role the environment plays in determining the behavior in the first place.

Even by the 1970s, research had already shown that a variety of interventions based on operant learning could modify green behaviors such as reducing litter, increased bus rider ship, decreasing lawn-trampling, promoting the purchase of drinks in returnable containers, initiating a recycling process, or reducing energy consumption. In general, this research showed that the critical component of any effort to change behavior is arranging contingent consequences. However, that much of this research was published two or more decades ago and it is troubling that effective behavioral interventions incorporating simple technology have not been widely adopted.

In truth, behavior change efforts might be more usefully applied to promoting wider-spread dissemination of proven green-behavior technologies than continuing to investigate more ways of changing green behavior. Green technology continues to advance and afford ever-increasing numbers of opportunities for encouraging green behavior, with such technologies typically satisfying the critical elements of effective behavior-change procedures: immediacy and consistency of consequences with little response effort required to produce them. But this won’t happen without a corresponding behavioral technology; and behavioral psychology is in the best position to provide such a technology.

A behavioral analysis of the behaviors that contribute to climate change can help us understand why the behaviors occur and it represents an optimistic approach to altering the behaviors because, unlike other psychological factors, the consequences that influence one’s behavior are accessible and comparatively easy to alter. However, the very same understanding of the causes of human behavior that can lead to optimism also suggests that the deck is stacked against us; the adverse consequences related to global warming are too delayed and uncertain to affect our behavior. Without intentional intervention—informed by behavioral psychology research and practice—to alter the existing “anti-green” behavioral contingencies, the problem could indeed be intractable. However, we choose to be optimistic because of the ample evidence that environmental changes can produce positive changes in behavior. After all, it’s the environment, stupid.

* This post is adapted from an unpublished manuscript co-authored by Henry D. Schlinger and Matthew P. Normand.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Real Evolutionary Psychology

Image Source: Flickr
Some estimates suggest that, compared to women, almost twice as many men cheat on their spouses.  Why?

The answer seems obvious.  The more sex a man has, the more likely he is to get a woman pregnant.  The more sex he has with more than one woman, the more likely he is to get more than one woman pregnant.  The more women he gets pregnant, the more children he will have, and the more of his genes that will live on in future generations.  Selfish genes in action, as it were.

The poor woman is not so lucky, as getting pregnant once removes her from the system for at least 9 months, if not longer, practically speaking.  But why, then, do at least some women cheat, too?  With a little imagination, we can make sense of this.  It turns out that cheating provides an opportunity for the woman to get better genes from fitter donors.  She can maximize her limited opportunities to get pregnant and give birth.  It is a matter of quality, then, not quantity.

Or is it?

Speculations of this kind about the evolutionary origins of human nature are popular in some circles and such thinking is formalized in the field of evolutionary psychology.  Evolutionary psychologists contend that much of our behavior has been hard-wired into our brains via natural selection.  The field has given off much heat but very little light, but it remains popular.  This is unfortunate, as the heat generated by EP stands to keep people away from the light produced by more rigorous analyses of human behavior rooted in science, not pseudoscience.

Evolutionary psychology is not a science, it is “just-so” psychology in which people are observed to behave in certain ways, some plausible story about the problems faced by our ancestors is formulated to explain why the observed behavior would have evolved, and then observations that people do indeed behave that way are offered in support of the explanatory story.  This is circular reasoning at its finest.  (This is to say nothing of the gross misuse of heritability estimates in research on psychological traits, but that is for another blog post.)

Invoking Darwin, selfish genes, and DNA cannot save it from the clutches of pseudoscience.  So what is the alternative?

It turns out that learning is a much more powerful and plausible explanation for much of what is attributed to genetics by evolutionary psychologists.  Our brains are not hardwired with many special purpose modules guiding our behavior.  What has evolved is an exquisite behavioral sensitivity to our environment, allowing our behavior to be shaped by the pressures we face rather than the pressures our ancestors faced.  More than 100 years of experimental evidence supplies us a rich framework with which to understand human behavior (and the behavior of other animals).  There are, indeed, parallels between biological evolution and behavioral evolution, just not the kind proposed by evolutionary psychologists.

There are three processes critical to biological evolution: variation, selection, and retention (via replication).  As it turns out, these three processes are common features of both biological and behavioral evolution. At the behavioral level, behavior varies from one situation to another and from one time to another in the same situation.  Certain types of behavior will produce beneficial outcomes and some will not.  The beneficial outcomes "select" the behavior that produced them, leading to that behavior being repeated (due to changes in the nervous system) in similar circumstances in the future.

B. F. Skinner
Image Source: Flickr
We know about this process of behavioral evolution, and the details of how it occurs, chiefly from the work of the late American psychologist B. F. Skinner and his many students and colleagues.  Skinner famously discovered operant conditioning, a term he used to collectively refer to the basic laws governing most of human and nonhuman behavior.  Operant conditioning encompasses a relatively small number of very powerful principles, including reinforcement, punishment, extinction, and stimulus control.  Like evolution by natural selection, operant conditioning is a simple mechanism that gives rise to great complexity.

In Skinner's terms, behavior that produces favorable outcomes (reinforcers) is more likely to occur in the future (an outcome called reinforcement). Additionally, the behavior is most likely to occur in the future in situations that are similar to situations in which the behavior has been reinforced in the past. This acquired effect of the environment is referred to as stimulus control, and the controlling stimuli are called discriminative stimuli.  In this way, the reinforcer selects a relationship between a set of environmental circumstances (discriminative stimuli) and certain types of behavior.  That is, the reinforcer "reinforces" the relationship between the circumstances and behavior, meaning that the behavior is more likely to occur when those circumstances present themselves.  The opposite effect is seen with punishment, whereby certain behaviors are less likely to occur in certain situations because, in the past, those behaviors have produced unfavorable outcomes (punishers) in those situations.

In the 20th century, Skinner was the most notable champion of such selectionist principles as the basic mechanism of learning, but he was by no means the only psychologist to suggest as much. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, one of the most famous and influential psychologists of all time, Edward L. Thorndike, was conducting his research on animal intelligence that resulted in his formulation of the Law of Effect—one of the very few "laws" in psychology.  Thorndike placed  hungry cats in a handmade wooden "puzzle box," with a dish of food placed outside and in view.  The  boxes differed from one to another, but all had some way that the cat could open the box and escape, such as a lever that opened a door when pressed.  Thorndike observed that, at first, the cats took quite a while to accidentally make the response that opened the box, essentially stumbling on the right solution by trial-and-error.  After a cat finally did escape, it was placed back in the box and process was repeated many times, across many days.  Over time, and as a result of their experiences, the cats were quicker and quicker to escape, ultimately pressing the lever as soon as they were put into the box.

E. L. Thorndike's "Puzzle Boxes"
Image Source: Yale University Archives
This work is transparently selectionist, insofar as Thorndike reported an ever-decreasing range of behaviors exhibited by the cats as they were repeatedly exposed to the puzzle box.  Over time, the wide range of behavior originally seen (e.g., scratching, sniffing, whining) narrowed so as to be dominated by the lever press, which most reliably opened the box and resulted in escape and access to food.  In this case, the selecting aspect of the environment for the behavior of the hungry cat was escape from the box and access to the food.  This beneficial outcome selected lever pressing as the dominant behavior, while other varieties of behavior went extinct because they were not beneficial under these circumstances.  The cats still did all those other things (e.g., scratching, sniffing, whining), but not when they were in the puzzle box.

In the decades following Thorndike’s work, other psychologists arrived at similar conclusions about the importance of environmental selection as a causal mechanism of learning.  Again, in the language of Skinner’s operant conditioning, those events that follow behavior and result in the behavior occurring more often in the future under similar conditions are called reinforcers; the increase in future behavior is the result of reinforcement. In short, reinforcement selects behavioral characteristics of the individual in much the same way survival selects other (e.g., physical) characteristics of a species.

A chief benefit of learning over natural selection is that when environment change rapidly, the individual can change, too.  With both Darwinian and Skinnerian evolution, a selected characteristic is beneficial only in environments similar in some critical ways to the environment prevailing at the time of selection.  At the Darwinian level, a heightened sensitivity to fatty foods as reinforcers serves the species well in times when fats are in short supply, because we need fat in our diets to survive.  Across many generations living under such conditions, the numbers game favors those individuals most motivated to seek out and eat fatty foods, as they are the most likely to survive long enough to reproduce.  Should conditions change (as they most certainly have) with respect to the availability of fatty foods, this sensitivity to fat as a reinforcer loses its adaptive value and can even become a hindrance.  However, it can take quite a long time for evolution to fix the problem, which is where learning steps in.

Of course, learning requires, at the very least, a behaving organism that is the product of natural selection.  Even more than this can be granted to evolution, however.  Our genes influence our sensitivity to certain aspects of our environment and thereby play a crucial role in determining the extent to which those things influence our behavior.  In this way, our evolutionary past most certainly plays a role in determining our behavior, but not in any direct way, at least in most circumstances.

(The role of genes is undoubtedly even more pervasive in some circumstances.  The presence of seemingly innate aggressive responding to painful or otherwise aversive stimulation has been documented in non-humans and has led many to conclude that the same might hold true for humans.  Though the jury is still out, the claim is not entirely unfounded nor is it especially improbable.)

It is obvious that our genes play a crucial role in the ability of the organism to learn and perform certain behaviors, but the genetic role is one of proximate causation driven by the environment as the ultimate source of causation.  Even our genes are changed as a result of our experiences.  To quote science journalist Sharon Begley, "Evolution indeed sculpted the human brain. But it worked in malleable plastic, not stone, bequeathing us flexible minds that can take stock of the world and adapt to it."

We have inherited an ability to learn from our experiences, because doing so allows us to survive in an ever-changing world.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why Psychologists Study Behavior, Not the Mind

Image source: Flickr
For psychology, behavior is always the subject matter, despite what some might claim to the contrary. At the end of the day, all that psychologists can measure is behavior. Even the psychologist who claims to study the mind is, in practice, studying behavior. There is behavior and there is the nervous system, but everything else is an inference. To infer something between the nervous system and behavior is dualistic, and so much the worse for the progress of psychology as a science.

Consider the following example. We want to know if understanding a question written in all capital letters without any punctuation is more difficult than understanding a question written normally. We hypothesize that it will take longer for subjects to answer if the question is more difficult to understand. We present the following question to half of our subjects:


We present the following question to the other half of our subjects :

"Jim has five dollars. John has two dollars. How many more dollars than John does Jim have?"

Suppose that subjects in the first group take, on average, 5 seconds to answer. And suppose that subjects in the second group take, on average, 1 second to answer. We conclude that the first question--the one in all capitals with no punctuation--was harder to understand. Further, we conclude that it took the subjects seeing the first question longer to "process" the question, with the "processing" presumably being some cognitive processing taking place in the brain.

We might, and psychologists often do, assume that we are measuring cognitive processing of some sort with our experiment. But are we?

What we really are measuring is the relationship between the way a question is printed and the length of time (termed "latency") it takes subjects to answer the question. Providing an answer to the question is behavior and that is what we see and measure. We haven't measured a cognitive process, then, we've measured behavior. We infer the cognitive process from the behavior we observed.

But someone else might infer a very different thing from the very same situation. Maybe another researcher would infer that seeing all capitals and no punctuation makes the subject first say to themselves, "I wonder why the question is written in all capitals with no punctuation." Saying this before answering the question is what accounts for the increased time it takes them to answer the question. Still another research might infer something very different.

There can be no real disagreement about the response latency observed. It is objective, well defined, and easily recorded. No inferences necessary. That is the great benefit of approaching psychology as a science of behavior: it is conservative and assumes no more than what can be established through direct empirical investigation.

Put simply, behavior is anything an organism does. More specifically, behavior is the interaction of the muscles and glands of a live organism with the environment. For scientific purposes, we need to add a caveat. Behavior is anything an organism does that is observable and measurable. If we can't in some way see it, we can't measure it. If we can't measure it, we can't study it.

Talking is behavior. Running is behavior. Pedaling a bike is behavior. Writing an answer on an exam is behavior. Taking notes in class is behavior.

Things like understanding, knowing, loving, and even learning, are not behavior mostly because they are too vague--they are just labels for various kinds of actual behavior. Loving, for example, doesn't specify anything in particular and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of disagreement about what love is and how you would go about studying it. We can simplify things and get a foothold on studying something like "love" if we just identify some actual behavior that we believe to be relevant. We might decide to study how often a husband compliments his wife (and vice versa). We might study how often a wife says nice things about her husband to other people (and vice versa). We might study how close a husband and wife sit to one another at dinner or at a party.

Really, we'd have to identify a whole host of behaviors like those above and study them in concert--no easy feat, to be sure. Absent a clear definition of what we're studying and a way to record what we're studying, we'll be spinning our wheels.

Science is mostly a slow incremental endeavor. You can't start with all the answers to the most important questions. First you have to find out what questions to ask. For psychology, you have to figure out what behavior is relevant and how to measure it.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Bigger Is Not Always Better: Why Psychology Needs Smaller Studies

Image source: Flickr
Psychology has been embroiled in a professional crisis as of late, and deservedly so. The research methods commonly used by psychologists, especially the statistical analyses used to analyze experimental data, have come under scrutiny—again, deservedly so. Although it is encouraging that so many people are becoming aware of the many problems evident in mainstream psychology research, one fundamental problem has received almost no attention. Namely, the focus on studying large groups of people has gone unquestioned. However, focusing on between-group comparisons is, in my estimation, THE problem, especially because those designs are exactly the kind that lead to the very statistical analyses at the center of psychology's professional crisis.

Smaller within-subject studies are much more appropriate for the kinds of questions most psychologists are asking. Smaller studies also tend to produce data that can be understood without complicated statistics. Moreover, and contrary to popular belief, within-subject studies actually tell us more about each subject studied and, therefore, provide us with more information about when and where the findings are likely to be useful.

Generally speaking, within-subject research allows each subject to be studied very intensively and over a prolonged period of time. Also, because there are fewer subjects, within-subject research often can be conducted under very controlled conditions, unlike studies of large groups of people, which have to rely on one or a few measures of each subject. Not to mention that those few measures typically are measures of what the subjects say the will do, rather than what they actually do. (Unfortunately, what we say we will do rarely matches what we actually do.)

Moreover, because large group designs focus on the average performance of a large group of subjects, they don't tell us about any real effects on any real person. The "average" effect doesn't exist, and an individual subject almost never responds like the mythical "average." This makes it very difficult to translate research findings into practice, because we will never meet the average person, we will only meet a real person.

What we get from studies of large groups of people typically amounts to very little information about any actual person or persons, few and possibly invalid measures of subject performance, and findings that might be "statistically significant" but have no practical implications in the real world.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Irrelevant Things Matter in Economic Behavior

Supposedly irrelevant factors, or SIFs, matter a lot, and if we economists recognize their importance, we can do our jobs better. Behavioral economics is, to a large extent, standard economics that has been modified to incorporate SIFs ... Consider defined-contribution retirement plans like 401(k)’s. Econs would have no trouble figuring out how much to save for retirement and how to invest the money, but mere humans can find it quite tough. So knowledgeable employers have incorporated three SIFs in their plan design: they automatically enroll employees (who can opt out), they automatically increase the saving rate every year, and they offer a sensible default investment choice like a target date fund. These features significantly improve the outcomes of plan participants, but to economists they are SIFs ... Notice that the irrelevant design features that do all the work are essentially free, whereas a tax break is quite expensive. The Joint Economic Committee estimates that the United States tax break will cost the government $62 billion in 2015, a number that is predicted to grow rapidly. Furthermore, most of these tax benefits accrue to affluent taxpayers. more

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tackling Human Biases in Science

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really? Whereas the falsification model of the scientific method championed by philosopher Karl Popper posits that the scientist looks for ways to test and falsify her theories—to ask “How am I wrong?”—Nosek says that scientists usually ask instead “How am I right?” (or equally, to ask “How are you wrong?”). When facts come up that suggest we might, in fact, not be right after all, we are inclined to dismiss them as irrelevant, if not indeed mistaken. The now infamous “cold fusion” episode in the late 1980s, instigated by the electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, was full of such ad hoc brush-offs. For example, when it was pointed out to Fleischmann and Pons that their energy spectrum of the gamma rays from their claimed fusion reaction had its spike at the wrong energy, they simply moved it, muttering something ambiguous about calibration. more

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Want to Make Your Course ‘Gameful’? A New Tool Could Help

Barry J. Fishman, a professor of information and education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, would like to help you find out. Mr. Fishman has borrowed elements of gaming to develop GradeCraft, a learning-management system that lets instructors organize their courses in a “gameful” way. The system lets students choose their own path through a course, selecting the assignments that interest and challenge them. At its heart is a tool, called the “grade predictor,” that helps to “manage some of the chaos” of such a personalized system. The grade predictor also helps students figure out what they need to do to reach the classroom goals they set for themselves. GradeCraft also aims to give students the ability to fail without detrimental consequences. There are many assignments to choose from, so any students who do poorly on one can find plenty of other tasks to redeem themselves. Instructors, meanwhile, can allow students to revise their work. Mr. Fishman’s assessment system treats unsuccessful assignments not as failures but as learning experiences that pull students closer to mastery. more

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Science Is Often Flawed: It's Time We Embraced That

In his book Derailed, about his fall from academic grace, the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel explained his preferred method for manipulating scientific data in detail that would make any nerd's jaw drop:
"I preferred to do it at home, late in the evening... I made myself some tea, put my computer on the table, took my notes from my bag, and used my fountain pen to write down a neat list of research projects and effects I had to produce.... Subsequently I began to enter my own data, row for row, column for column...3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 4, 5, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2. When I was finished, I would do the first analyses. Often, these would not immediately produce the right results. Back to the matrix and alter data. 4, 6, 7, 5, 4, 7, 8, 2, 4, 4, 6, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4. Just as long until all analyses worked out as planned."
In 2011, when Stapel was suspended over research fraud allegations, he was a rising star in social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He had conducted attention-grabbing experiments on social behavior, looking at, for example, whether litter in an environment encouraged racial stereotyping and discrimination. Yet that paper — and at least 55 others, as well as 10 dissertations written by students he supervised — were built on falsified data. Stories like Stapel's are what most people think of when they think about how science goes wrong: an unethical researcher methodically defrauding the public. But outright fraud is just one potential derailment from truth. more

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cheaters Never Win...or Do they?

Why do people cheat? Quite simply, the reward for cheating typically outweighs the negative consequence. Cheating is an epidemic in today's society where we strive for the path of least resistance and effort in every aspect of our lives. Allow me to indulge you in a little educational psychology for a minute (something I studied and use in my own classroom as an educator). One of the tenants of behavioral psychological is the learning theory of B.F. Skinner. In a nutshell, the basic theory is that people learn by imitation and then subsequent reinforcement. When we are children we copy what we see: other children and adults around us. When we are given praise and acknowledgement after a particular behavior we tend to keep doing the behavior to seek the reward. Of course there are other factors that play a role in behavior: environment, self-efficacy and a host of other learning theories. But I agree with Skinner that imitation and reinforcement are the main keys to learning (and changing behavior). As a teacher I am very aware of when I offer praise to my students. In fact, I tend to withhold praise until I see exactly the kind of behavior I want. Then I reward that behavior. And you know what? Students tend to keep doing whatever I reward. It is the idea of a "reward" that is the primary motivation for a given behavior. So again, why do people cheat? It's because they see other people cheat (ie, imitation), and they are rewarded when they do. Tom Brady cheated and he won a Super bowl. The Saints cheated with the Bountygate scandal, and they won a Super bowl. Did both teams also face a punishment? Yes, but they still got the reward in the end. more

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Smokers More Likely To Quit If Their Own Cash Is On The Line

A new study finds that employer-based programs to help people stop smoking would work better if they tapped into highly motivating feelings — such as the fear of losing money ... The researchers compared a few approaches. Some people simply got cash for quitting. Others were offered a carrot-and-stick approach. They'd get a similar financial reward if they quit, but they'd also lose $150 of their own money if they started smoking again. "People are much more afraid of losing $5 than they are motivated to earn $5," Halpern says. "And so people's actions go with their psychology" ... "The deposit programs were twice as effective as rewards, and five times more effective than providing free smoking cessation aids like nicotine replacement therapy," Halpern says. more

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

First Results from Psychology’s Largest Reproducibility Test

An ambitious effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology ended last week — and the data look worrying. Results posted online on 24 April, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, suggest that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced. But the situation is more nuanced than the top-line numbers suggest (See graphic, 'Reliability test'). Of the 61 non-replicated studies, scientists classed 24 as producing findings at least “moderately similar” to those of the original experiments, even though they did not meet pre-established criteria, such as statistical significance, that would count as a successful replication. The results should convince everyone that psychology has a replicability problem, says Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of one of the papers whose findings were successfully repeated. “A lot of working scientists assume that if it’s published, it’s right,” he says. “This makes it hard to dismiss that there are still a lot of false positives in the literature.” But Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California, says the results suggest that the reproducibility of findings in psychology does not necessarily lag behind that in other sciences. There is plenty of room for improvement, he adds, but earlier studies have suggested that reproducibility rates in cancer biology and drug discovery could be even lower. more

Monday, May 11, 2015

Science That Could Improve the Lives of People with Autism is Being Ignored

The science of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) has been shown to have significant success in helping people with autism who ask for help. This evidence-based practice can also help reduce the associated economic costs. This science involves the systematic use of behavioural principles to help those diagnosed with autism make socially significant changes in their behaviour. In doing so, individuals and families are provided with new opportunities for making personal choices. For example, ABA has enabled families to holiday together for the first time. Currently, 41 States in America have enacted new laws to ensure that ABA is available under health insurance. By contrast, the body that advises the NHS in England and Wales, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, concluded that it could not find any evidence to support ABA and therefore could not make a recommendation about it ... This gulf in perspectives between Europe and the USA can be explained by the lack of available training in ABA in Europe and the fact that professionals without appropriate training perpetuate the misinformation that has then shaped government policies on autism. more

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Time for One-Person Research Trials

Recognition that physicians need to take individual variability into account is driving huge interest in ‘precision’ medicine ... Classical clinical trials harvest a handful of measurements from thousands of people. Precision medicine requires different ways of testing interventions. Researchers need to probe the myriad factors—genetic and environmental, among others—that shape a person’s response to a particular treatment. Studies that focus on a single person—known as N-of-1 trials—will be a crucial part of the mix ... If enough data are collected over a sufficiently long time, and appropriate control interventions are used, the trial participant can be confidently identified as a responder or non-responder to a treatment. Aggregated results of many N-of-1 trials (all carried out in the same way) will offer information about how to better treat subsets of the population or even the population at large. more

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Neurons for Hunger and Thirst Condition Preference for Environmental Cues

Homeostasis is a biological principle for regulation of essential physiological parameters within a set range. Behavioural responses due to deviation from homeostasis are critical for survival, but motivational processes engaged by physiological need states are incompletely understood. We examined motivational characteristics of two separate neuron populations that regulate energy and fluid homeostasis by using cell-type-specific activity manipulations in mice. We found that starvation-sensitive AGRP neurons exhibit properties consistent with a negative-valence teaching signal. Mice avoided activation of AGRP neurons, indicating that AGRP neuron activity has negative valence. AGRP neuron inhibition conditioned preference for flavours and places. Correspondingly, deep-brain calcium imaging revealed that AGRP neuron activity rapidly reduced in response to food-related cues. Complementary experiments activating thirst-promoting neurons also conditioned avoidance. Therefore, these need-sensing neurons condition preference for environmental cues associated with nutrient or water ingestion, which is learned through reduction of negative-valence signals during restoration of homeostasis. more

Friday, May 01, 2015

Flipping the Equation on Challenging Behavior

When you decided to become a teacher, did you envision changing young people’s lives for the better and coming home each day with a glow of satisfaction? Sadly, the reality can be vastly different! When a classroom is filled with students engaging in challenging behavior, it can begin to feel like a war zone. It can be stressful and lack reward. How is a person supposed to teach when one or more students are being noncompliant, disruptive, and distracting other students? There are some simple strategies that can empower a teacher to turn all of that challenging behavior around and get back to the business of teaching. First, we need to see behavior clearly for what it is: Communication. It is never random; it always has a purpose. If we can begin to recognize the pay-off a student is getting from engaging in the behavior, we can affect great change. There are four main “usual suspects” that are the underlying causes of nearly all challenging behavior in a classroom setting. more

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Fix Reward Programs

Once the bastion of airlines and credit cards, rewards programs have expanded to the point where it is now possible to be “rewarded” for buying everything from a pack of gum to a brand-new car. Every retail checkout clerk is trained to ask, at every visit, if you would like to join the store’s rewards program. Merely sharing your email address can result in a bombardment of messages promising points, rewards, and other inducements ... The evolution has led to some serious questions about rewards programs ... To understand why, you have to go back to Psychology 101 — specifically to the concept of “operant conditioning,” also known as reward–response. Pioneering psychologist B.F. Skinner required subjects to be placed in a “Skinner box.” The box allowed Skinner to control the stimuli that a subject was exposed to and ensure that the program of rewards would establish the operant conditioning. Unfortunately for most marketers, consumers can’t be contained in Skinner boxes — aka an environment where the product would have a monopoly. But even if they could, the operant conditioning of reward–response doesn’t quite achieve its objective of repeat behavior and consumer preference. A program might be successful at first. But as soon as other competitors enter the mix, the conditioned behavior is no longer operative, because rewards are no longer unique and the environment is no longer controlled. Instead of behavioral conditioning, companies get balance-sheet liability and consumers are bombarded with offers and emails. Worst of all, consumers may come to expect rewards for doing nothing. To a degree, then, traditional rewards programs are a waste of corporate money. more

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Parent Training Can Reduce Serious Behavioral Problems in Young Children with Autism

A multi-site study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) finds young children with autism spectrum disorder and serious behavioral problems respond positively to a 24-week structured parent training. The benefits of parent training endured for up to six months post intervention. Published in the April 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association the study found parent training was more effective in reducing disruptive and aggressive behavior than 24 weeks of parent education. Parent training provided parents with specific strategies on how to manage serious behavioral problems such as tantrums, aggression, self-injury and noncompliance in children with autism spectrum disorder. Parent education offered useful information on autism - but did not provide guidance on how to manage serious behavioral problems. more

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Digital Addiction: The Social Cost of Constant Mobile Connection

“We have some very strong habits around a lot of our technology, particularly the cellphone,” says psychologist Prof Art Markman, author of Smart Change.  “Back when I was in college studying introductory psychology, we had to train a rat to press a bar. We rewarded the rat by giving it water. Whenever it went near the side of the cage where the bar was or when it brushed against the bar, you would reward it. “Once it finally figured out pressing the bar, the idea was to give it a reward 40-50 per cent of the time in a random way. That would keep the rat busy for a long time. “There are two other situations in the modern world where we encounter that exact schedule of reinforcement: in casinos and in our cellphone behaviour. “We look for notifications to see if we have email. In doing so we create a pattern to be rewarded with a new message about half the time we take our phones out. We have trained ourselves to press a bar over and over again. Once we’ve done it enough times, we’re basically no different than a rat in a box. We’ll keep doing it for an awfully long time.” more

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Study Rules Out Link Between Autism and MMR Vaccine Even in At-Risk Kids

At least a dozen major studies have found that early childhood vaccines do not cause autism. But one possibility remained: that immunizations could cause autism in a small group of children who were already primed to develop the disorder. Now, new research has ruled out that possibility too. A study of nearly 100,000 children found that toddlers known to have an elevated risk of autism were no more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder if they were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella than if they weren’t. What’s more, the diagnosis rate for high-risk children who were vaccinated was the same as for immunized children with no family history of the disorder, according to the report published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. By hunting for — and failing to find — a link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, in children with an older sibling who had the disease, the study leaves no doubt that the two are not connected, experts said. more

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Giant Rats That Save Lives

Bart Weetjens, a Belgian product designer, started the HeroRat program after puzzling about how to improve mine detection. As a boy, Weetjens had kept rats as pets, and he came across an article about the use of gerbils for tasks involving scent detection. Weetjens then consulted rodent scholars, who suggested Gambian pouched rats, in part because they compensate for very weak eyes with a superb sense of smell. They are called “pouched” not because they are marsupials but because they fill their cheeks with nuts and other goodies, and then bury them underground — relying upon scent to recover their caches later. Another advantage of Gambian pouched rats is that they have an eight-year life span that offers a lengthy return on the nine months of training needed to detect land mines. So Weetjens started an aid group, Apopo, that trains the rats in Tanzania and then deploys them to minefields in various countries. Apopo is also now branching off into using HeroRats to detect tuberculosis — a disease of poverty that kills 1.5 million people a year around the world. A huge challenge with tuberculosis is diagnosis. It takes a trained health worker with a microscope all day to examine about 25 samples of sputum to determine if they are positive for tuberculosis. In contrast, a HeroRat can screen 100 samples in 20 minutes... more

Friday, April 17, 2015

Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavior analysis—the science of adaptive behavior—focuses on behavior as a subject matter in its own right, not as an index of cognitive events, and is, thus, not dualistic. Behavior analysis incorporates several laws of learning discovered by researchers using single-subject experimental designs. I argue that behavior analysis can provide neuroscientists with an experimental and a theoretical framework within which to investigate the neural bases of behaviors, including those that are usually described in cognitive terms ... It is behavior, not cognitive events, which is important for organisms—human and nonhuman—both evolutionarily and in their own lifetimes. Behavior interacts with and adapts to the (i.e., is selected by the) environment; and the nervous system has evolved to support that interaction. Behavior analysis, as a science of behavior in its own right, and not as an indicator of inferred cognitive structures or processes, is best positioned to parsimoniously explain that interaction. Neuroscientists require a cogent theory of behavior to support their search for the neurophysiological correlates of behavior. Thus, behavior analysis can offer both an experimental model based on single-subject research and an elegant theory of behavior that can provide neurophysiologists a non-dualistic road map for understanding the neurophysical correlates of adaptive behavior. more

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab

“I see a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace ... Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed ... The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry. more

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Older People Can Learn to Spend Less Time Sitting Down

Retirement may be more golden if less of it is spent in a resting position. Yet older adults spend an average of 8.5 waking hours a day sitting or lying down, according to TABS study leader Dori Rosenberg, PhD, MPH, an assistant scientific investigator at Group Health Research Institute ... "We're not sure whether older people can improve their health by reducing the time they spend sitting," Dr. Rosenberg said. "To prove that, we need randomized trials--and none have been done yet in older adults." As a first step toward such a trial, she conducted the TABS study, which showed that it was feasible to coach adults aged 60 and older to spend less time sitting: an average of 27 minutes less per day ... In the TABS study, health coaches talked by phone with each participant five times during eight weeks. The coaches used motivational interviewing to engage participants in setting personalized goals to sit less by standing and moving more--and to take more breaks from sitting throughout the day. Participants tracked how much they thought they were sitting. And at baseline, midway through the study, and at its end, participants used two devices for a week to measure how much they were sitting. They also received charts showing feedback from these measurements. Participants found the feedback charts most helpful, followed by the coaching phone calls. "The feedback was like a reward for standing up and moving," Mr. Alexander said. more

Monday, April 13, 2015

Science and Medicine Have '"Publication Pollution" Problem

The scientific community is facing a ‘pollution problem’ in academic publishing, one that poses a serious threat to the “trustworthiness, utility, and value of science and medicine,” according to one of the country’s leading medical ethicists. Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, shares these and other observations in a commentary publishing April 3 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. "The pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing is corroding the reliability of research," writes Dr. Caplan. "Yet neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy." more

Thursday, April 09, 2015

My Bedtime Friend: A Complete Bedtime Solution for Children

My Bedtime Friend promises to be a safe and fun bedtime solution for children that teaches children their bedtime schedule and keeps them on schedule year round using positive reinforcement ... The first part of My Bedtime Friend is a super soft, cuddly and durable plush toy that indicates to children that it's either bedtime or wake-up time ... The second part of this project is the Bedtime Game. It's the key to My Bedtime Friend's success because it gives children the reason why to stay in their bed. It's a reward chart in the form of a board game. It uses a fixed interval reward system that reinforces the desired bedtime schedule and conditions it to become a learned behavior. Suzanne Lane Hittel used her BA in Psychology and background in behavior to develop a reward system based on B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning. more

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Scientists Create Artificial Link Between Unrelated "Memories"

The ability to learn associations between events is critical for survival, but it has not been clear how different pieces of information stored in memory may be linked together by populations of neurons. In a study published April 2nd in Cell Reports, synchronous activation of distinct neuronal ensembles caused mice to artificially associate the memory of a foot shock with the unrelated memory of exploring a safe environment, triggering an increase in fear-related behavior when the mice were re-exposed to the non-threatening environment. The findings suggest that co-activated cell ensembles become wired together to link two distinct memories that were previously stored independently in the brain. more

Monday, April 06, 2015

Defending Darwin

I’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?” ... We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion. more

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Countdown to March Ratness at the Science Museum of Virginia

The Rat Basketball Association is preparing for the March Ratness tip off on Friday, April 3 at 11am at the Science Museum of Virginia. New this year, the RBA tournament will test new-school skills against the traditional tactics of the veteran players. The whiskered players will represent the final four teams of their college compatriots as they go head to head, pitting lay ups against the full body dunk. Which technique will come out on top? Will the rats’ tournament accurately predict the men’s NCAA champion? Find out! “The rats have been training all year long for March Ratness,” says Noah Haden, Educator and Rat Trainer, Science Museum of Virginia. “We use classical and operant conditioning techniques to enable our rodent friends the ability to enjoy the game of basketball – and we enjoy watching them, too!” more

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pavlov, Comfort Food and Family

You’ve had a bad day. Your boss was a jerk and you were yelled at by an irate customer. Back at home, you feel lonely and down in the dumps. You’re hungry, or maybe not so much, but all you can think about is one thing—(insert your favorite comfort food here) ... According to University of Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel, comfort foods “are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children,” and our attraction to these dishes is based on whether we had a good relationship with the person who first prepared them ... Gabriel says this behavior is “straight-up classical conditioning,” the type of unconscious learning discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell after repeated pairings with food. Similarly, we turn to certain foods in times of stress or insecurity because those dishes unconsciously remind us of the positive relationship we had to the person who introduced them to us, according to the study. more

Friday, March 27, 2015

P-Value Ban: Small Step for a Journal, Giant Leap for Science

Last month a scientific journal — Basic and Applied Social Psychology — announced that it won’t publish papers that mention the unmentionable P value. No longer will the journal permit published papers to report the P value’s use in the process of “null hypothesis testing,” which psychologists and scientists in many other fields routinely rely on. Anyone embarking on a research career soon gets infected with this method. When you want to test to see whether a food additive causes cancer, or a medicine cures a disease, you assume that it doesn’t — the null hypothesis — and then do an experiment comparing the drug or medicine with a placebo, or another drug, or whatever. If more people survive with the medicine than with the placebo, maybe the medicine works. Or maybe that result was a fluke — the luck of the draw. P values supposedly tell you whether the difference you saw was luck or reality. Except that they don’t. P value calculations tell you only the probability of seeing a result at least as big as what you saw if there is no real effect. more

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Behavioral Momentum: Modeling Chimp Behavior with Newton's Second Law of Motion

To simulate chimp behavior, scientists created a computer model based on equations normally used to describe the movement of atoms and molecules in a confined space. An interdisciplinary research team has turned to the physical laws that govern matter to explore one facet of the question of climate change: how the animals will cluster and travel through their territory as the terrain they share with other members of their species shrinks ... The key equation the simulation employed was Newton's Second Law of Motion, which states that Acceleration = Force/Mass. Chimps were the masses in the equation, while the forces consisted of attraction to food and repulsion from other chimps. By assigning values to each force and determining the distance at which the forces would begin to affect the chimps, the team was able to simulate the direction and speed at which animals would move in relationship to food and to each other. more

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Gaming Can Motivate You

Gamification works because our responses to games are deeply hard-wired into our psychology. Game design techniques can activate our innate desires to recognize patterns, solve puzzles, master challenges, collaborate with others, and be in the drivers’ seat when experiencing the world around us. They can also create a safe space for experimentation and learning. After all, why not try something new when you know that even if you fail, you’ll get another life? The surface dimension of gamification is motivation through rewards: Earn some points, top the leaderboard, get a badge, win a prize and repeat. Behaviorists such as the legendary B F Skinner called this operant conditioning, and it does work … to a point. If there’s really no point to the points, users lose interest. That’s apparently what happened to marketing-driven Samsung Nation, one of the most prominent early gamification examples. Today it’s nowhere to be found on the Samsung website. Shallow gamification can even be harmful, if it’s used to manipulate people toward results that aren’t truly in their interest, or if it suggests that rewards are the only reason to do otherwise intrinsically engaging activities. The systems that avoid these pitfalls take games seriously. In a good game, the points and the leaderboards aren’t what really matter; the true reward is the journey. Gamification systems that emphasize progression, provide well designed informational feedback, and look for ways to surprise and delight their players can remain engaging for the long haul. more

Thursday, March 19, 2015

This App Pays You in Bitcoin Based on the Intensity of Your Workout

If the 21st-century tabloid celebrity has taught us anything, it’s that having a hot body can pay off. Now, a tech studio has interpreted that modern-day lesson quite literally, in the form of an app that rewards you with Bitcoin, based on how hard you work on the treadmill. The technology, cleverly named Fitcoin, is the creation of Chaotic Moon Studios, an Austin-based design company that’s known for pulling stunts during the city’s annual South by Southwest festival ... When you sync your band to the Fitcoin app and start your workout, it’ll automatically begin recording the length of your activity and the level of your heart rate. The algorithm within the app then triangulates those stats to determine how much energy you’re expending, and ultimately, how much that’s worth in Bitcoin. more

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Behavioral Economics: Chimpanzees Will Travel Farther for Preferred Foods

Just as humans will travel to their favorite restaurant, chimpanzees will travel a farther distance for preferred food sources in non-wild habitats, according to a new study from scientists at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo that publishes on March 17 in the journal PeerJ ... In order to receive a food reward, the chimpanzees had to collect tokens, or small lengths of PVC pipe, from a single location. The chimpanzees could then exchange the tokens with researchers at one of two locations - a close location with a carrot reward or a far location(s) with a grape reward. By the third phase (30 sessions per phase), as a group, the chimpanzees preferred to travel further in order to get the better food item (grapes). more

Monday, March 16, 2015

Scientists Crack Piece of Neural Code for Learning, Memory

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: researchers slice a brain into thin little sections and, just by measuring the properties of specific neurons, they can determine what an organism learned before it died. In fact, this sort of mind reading has become a reality. In work published in Nature, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) describe how postmortem brain slices can be "read" to determine how a rat was trained to behave in response to specific sounds. The work provides one of the first examples of how specific changes in the activity of individual neurons encode particular acts of learning and memory in the brain. more

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Older Adults See Better Following Behavioral Training

Significant improvements in vision in older adults are likely to result after a week of behavioral intervention, restoring age-related decline in contrast sensitivity, new research has found ... Participants were trained over a period of seven days using a forced-choice orientation-discrimination task with stimuli that modified its contrast with multiple levels of additive noise. The improvements in contrast sensitivity among older adults were so significant that their performance was not statistically different from that of younger adults before training, said Andersen. Equally impressive improvements occurred in visual acuity as well in both groups. more

Monday, March 09, 2015

Do Animals Have Consciousness?

There’s a rat in a cage with two sides: one bright and one dark. One of the rat’s survival mechanisms is to favor the dark side and avoid the bright side at all costs. But when the rat goes into the dark side of the cage, it gets shocked. After a few shocks coincide with its favorite habitat situation, it remains on the bright side despite its lifelong instincts. Is the rat now afraid of the dark, or is he simply trained to avoid it? If the rat were a human, he’d probably tell us he’s afraid of the shocks in the darkness, which shows the ability to feel emotions ... The animal consciousness debate has higher stakes than a simple desire to know whether Fido or Fluffy has feelings. It affects how scientists think about and conduct their research on non-human animals, and whether researchers should or should not make assumptions about their subjects’ consciousness while doing their experiments. One side believes scientists must separate the mechanisms that detect and respond to threats from those that create conscious feelings of fear, while the other believes these mechanisms are one and the same. more

Friday, March 06, 2015

APA to Publish "Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice"

The American Psychological Association has announced that it will publish the online journal Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice® beginning this month. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice is a multidisciplinary journal committed to increasing the communication between behavior analysis and psychology, as well as providing up-to-date reports on current developments within the field. The journal will publish original research, applied research, results of clinical work, theoretical and conceptual articles, reviews of the discipline, descriptions of programs and curricular developments, and research in organization and the community. Its areas of interest include clinical behavior analysis, behavior therapy, behavioral consultation, organizational behavior management and human performance technology. more

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

How to Be a Better Spouse

Before you get married, everyone tells you that marriage takes work. I never really believed it until my husband and I landed in therapy after four years, two kids and one seismically stressful cross-country move. Turns out you really can't just flip the switch to autopilot and trust love to take care of itself; you have to devote actual time and effort to understanding and appreciating your spouse. Anyone who is married knows that's not always a simple feat. Here's what relationship research (and a touch of game theory) tells us about how to become a better spouse. more

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Diet Research Built on a House of Cards

The next time a headline about diet and disease catches your eye, check the fine print of the study. If it is based on a food questionnaire — and there's a good chance it will be — then the conclusions should be handled with caution.That's because people don't tell the truth, not even to scientists. Scientists know this. Research has proven it. It's been an awkward problem in nutrition science for more than 40 years. And that's long enough, according to an international group of nutrition researchers. They've launched a campaign to end the use of one of the most common research tools in nutrition science. "All of these studies, if they are based on self-report estimates of energy intake, really don't contain scientifically meaningful information," said David Allison, a prominent obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author on a report signed by 45 scientists from around the world. This matters, the expert group warned, because the flawed data could result in public health policies that are not science-based, but built on a "house of cards," Allison said. "We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of papers published every year." more

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Debunked Autism Treatment Fads Persist

The communication struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder can drive parents and educators to try anything to understand their thoughts, needs and wants. Unfortunately, specialists in psychology and communication disorders do not always communicate the latest science so well. These factors make the autism community especially vulnerable to interventions and "therapies" that have been thoroughly discredited, says Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.  "Hope is a great thing, I'm a strong believer in it," Lilienfeld says. "But the false hope buoyed by discredited therapies can be cruel, and it may prevent people from trying an intervention that actually could deliver benefits." Lilienfeld is lead author of a commentary, "The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example," recently published by the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Co-authors of the commentary are Julia Marshall (also from Emory) and psychologists James Todd (from Eastern Michigan University), and Howard Shane (director of the Autism Language Program at Boston Children's Hospital). more

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Google Builds An AI That Can Learn And Master Video Games via Operant Conditioning

Google has built an artificial intelligence system that can learn – and become amazing at – video games all on its own, given no commands but a simple instruction to play titles. The project, detailed by Bloomberg, is the result of research from the London-based DeepMind AI startup Google acquired in a deal last year, and involves 49 games from the Atari 2600 that likely provided the first video game experience for many of those reading this. While this is an amazing announcement for so many reasons, the most impressive part might be that the AI not only matched wits with human players in most cases, but actually went above and beyond the best scores of expert meat-based players in 29 of the 49 games it learned ... Next up for the arcade AI is mastering the Doom-era 3D virtual worlds, which should help the AI edge closer to mastering similar tasks in the real world, like driving a car. And there’s one more detail here that may keep you up at night: Google trained the AI to get better at the Atari games it mastered using a virtual take on operant conditioning – ‘rewarding’ the computer for successful behavior the way you might a dog. more

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Meet Rudy, The Dog Who Is Being Raised With Science

Rudy the staghound gets to enjoy a lot of the things that many pets do: trips to the beach, playtime at the dog park, napping on the couch. But Rudy's adventures and home life are examined a lot more closely than those of an ordinary pet, because he's being raised with science... [We] checked his preference for positive reinforcement. Research has shown that dogs tend to prefer food, then petting, then verbal praise and human company (see: Behavioural Processes and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior). [It also shows] that dogs can learn good or bad behaviors from observing each other (see: Applied Animal Behaviour Science and Developmental Psychobiology), so there is great value in having an older 'model' dog to demonstrate good behaviors to a new or young dog. Rudy loves play with a tug toy and food as first choice reinforcers, and we're fortunate to have a very experienced friend with an exemplary Doberman dog named Kade with whom we catch up with regularly. Kade acts in part almost like a guiding chaperone for Rudy on lovely off leash walk adventures, helping us set Rudy up for successful situations (like returning when called) that we can reinforce positively. more

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dogs Can Tell Happy or Angry Human Faces

If you ever get the impression that your dog can "tell" whether you look content or annoyed, you may be onto something. Dogs may indeed be able to discriminate between happy and angry human faces, according to a new study. Researchers trained a group of 11 dogs to distinguish between images of the same person making either a happy or an angry face. During the training stage, each dog was shown only the upper half or the lower half of the person's face. The investigators then tested the pups' ability to discriminate between human facial expressions by showing them different images from the ones used in training. The dogs were shown either the other half of the face used in the training stage, the other halves of people's faces not used in training, a face that was the same half as the training face but from a different person, or the left half of the face used in the training stage. more

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Psychiatry Has Earned Its Stigma

Has there ever been a medical specialty as beleaguered as psychiatry? Since the profession’s founding in 1844, the doctors of the soul have had to contend with suspicions that they do not know what mental illness is, what type their patients might have, or what they should do about it—in other words, that they are doctors who do not practice real medicine... It’s not just diagnostic uncertainty or therapeutic disasters that cast suspicion on the profession. It’s also the bred-in-the-bone American conviction that no one should tell us who we are. For that is what psychiatrists (and the rest of us in the mental-health professions) do, no matter whether we want to or not. To say you know what mental health and illness are is to say you know how life should go, and what we should do when it goes otherwise. You’d better know what to do when you’ve made a grievous error in those weighty matters, or at the very least, how to ask for forgiveness. And you’d better hope that, apologies offered, you can give the public a reason to believe that at long last you know what you are doing. his is the unenviable task that Jeffrey Lieberman, past president of the APA, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school, chief of psychiatry at its hospital, and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, has taken on in his book Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry. “Psychiatry has earned its stigma,” he writes at the outset, and its practitioners must “own up to our long history of mistakes.” Otherwise it will remain “the black sheep of the medical family, scorned by physicians and patients alike.” more

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why In-App Purchases Will Bankrupt You

App purchases, on the other hand, are designed to be incredibly seamless. Your credit card is stored with Apple, Google or Amazon, and all it takes is a quick click of a button to instant gratification, no uncomfortable reminders that you just spent real money on that virtual life or game boost. What’s more, games use subtle-but-effective psychological tricks to keep you playing and spending. The Guardian’s Dana Smith writes that “Candy Crush” is exceedingly popular because it uses a series of ingenious mind-games to make it addictive. First, it’s simple. Games start off easy to play with frequent mini rewards that cause a release of “neurochemical dopamine.” This pleasure response in your brain is similar to the “neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions.” The next step is to increase the challenge, making the dopamine bursts more intermittent. If it stayed easy forever, you would get bored. And, as it turns out, an unpredictable reward schedule (a “variable ratio schedule of reinforcement”) is more addictive to our brain’s pleasure sensors than one where you keep consistently winning. more

Monday, February 09, 2015

Speak & Spell: A History

The Speak & Spell is a teaching machine specifically in the tradition of B. F. Skinner, reflecting some of both Skinner’s design principles and his theories of learning, decades older than the popular Texas Instruments device. Rather than selecting the correctly-spelled word in a multiple choice quiz, for the example, the Speak & Spell prompts the user to construct the response. It praises; it corrects... The shared features in most definitions of teaching machines include automation, immediate feedback, and self-pacing. The Speak & Spell has all three, using “contingencies of reinforcement” to establish appropriate spelling behavior. (Some of its engineers thought it would be funny if the user received a raspberry or a funny comment when they spelled a word wrong. But this idea was rejected as it would “reward” incorrect spelling.) more

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Cocktail Party Effect: Birds Hear Like We Do

I worked in Dr. Micheal L. Dent’s laboratory for a few years as I was earning my undergraduate degree in animal behavior. I was interested in studying birds, and Dr. Dent was interested in studying acoustic communication in animals. Dr. Dent is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. “In the past, I’ve worked with budgerigars, starlings, canaries (multiple strains), Japanese quail, zebra finches, and barn owls,” she recently told me. “I currently work with budgerigars and zebra finches.” Acoustic communication refers to hearing. Other ways that animals can communicate include visual, olfaction, touch, thermal, and some can communicate even through electromagnetic fields. In Dr. Dent’s lab we used operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to measure birds’ abilities to detect, discriminate, identify, and localize sounds by training them to peck keys. One interesting occurrence she discovered was that parakeets and zebra finches exhibit the cocktail party effect. more

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Using Smartphones and Apps to Enhance Loyalty Programs

Capriotti’s, a 106-store chain of sandwich shops in 16 states, expects to introduce an app-based loyalty program early this year that its chief marketing officer, Jason Smylie, says will enable shop owners to enrich and fine-tune a prior punch card rewards program...The software, developed by the company Punchh, will enable Capriotti’s to award a free drink or a dessert — as an unexpected reward at the cash register — to highly valued customers on perhaps 20 percent of their visits. “You’re not only rewarding the customers who are coming more frequently, you’re also giving people an incentive to show up,” he said. “I can come in and potentially get something for free. That’s awesome.” And effective. Psychologists have a name for this kind of reward — random intermittent reinforcement — and know it as a powerful way to encourage repeat behavior. Think no further than slot machines. Casinos have zeroed in on the gambling habits of their patrons through the use of smart cards rather than coins. Retailers can also now better know their customers through loyalty apps, which may also use data from Facebook profiles. “With apps you now can target specific customers and influence specific behaviors and keep track of all the results and understand the results,” Mr. Smylie said. more

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intracranial Stimulation Recovers Learning and Memory in Rats

The research, published in Behavioural Brain Research, was conducted by Pilar Segura and Ignacio Morgado (coordinators), Laura Aldavert and Marc Ramoneda, psychobiologists of the Institute of Neurosciences and the Department of Psychobiology and Health Sciences Methodology of the UAB and by Elisabet Kadar and Gemma Huguet, molecular biologists of the University of Girona, to explore the power of Deep Brain Stimulation treatments in the hypothalamus to recover the ability to learn and remember after a severe lesion of the amygdala...The hypothalamus is a region of the brain in which the most basic impulses are found, helping us to survive and providing us with pleasure. It is part of the brain's reward system, which makes us feel good after carrying out an activity and helps us change our behaviour through positive reinforcement. more

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Standardized Testing and Schools Could Learn from Target

The dream of automated learning is even older than computers themselves. In 1924 an educational psychology professor named Sidney Pressey built a mechanical teaching machine that supplied questions, along with the correct answers, when a button was pressed. B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, also introduced a teaching machine in 1954, a clunky thing that looked like a typewriter. He claimed some of the very same benefits for it that you hear from ed-tech entrepreneurs to this day—allowing every student to move at his own pace, supplying immediate feedback, improving motivation...Today, besides the Knewton-powered products, other adaptive software is sold by Dreambox, Scholastic, and Khan Academy, a nonprofit. Most work more or less the same way. They introduce concepts with text, video or animations, ask students to respond in the form of quick short-answer or multiple-choice questions, give them increasingly broad hints when they get stuck, and choose what concept to bring in next based on the student’s responses. What the “adaptive” part means is that the specific selection of questions and order of content presented to each student will vary according to the students’ responses. You take a quick diagnostic test or start off with a medium-hard question. If you get it right, you proceed to harder questions; flub it and you get easier questions. As a result, each student’s path and pace through the material is slightly different...[These] platform[s] and those like it could reduce the need for high-stakes tests. “Knewton allows for much more gentle, passive data collection via ongoing formative assessment in homework/classwork,” he told me in an online chat. “We can predict your score on a bunch of these high stakes tests anyway, lessening the need for so many of them.” “Formative assessment” refers to the feedback that is part of nearly any teaching and learning scenario, such as when a teacher calls on the class during the lecture, or when a student is studying vocabulary with flash cards and flips the card over to see the right answer. It’s opposed to summative assessment, which “sums up” learning at the end of a period of time, ranging from a unit test to a graduation exam. more

Thursday, January 22, 2015

We Lie About What We Eat, And It's Messing Up Science

How many peanuts did you snack on last week? If you don't remember, you're not alone. We humans are notoriously bad at remembering exactly what and how much we ate. And if there's one pattern to our errors, it's that we underestimate — unintentionally and otherwise. And yet, for decades, researchers who want to amass large quantities of data about how much Americans eat and exercise have had to rely on individuals to self-report this information. These self-reported data on diet and exercise have long been called flawed. But a paper published Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity goes one step further. The authors, led by David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, write, "[The data] are so poor as measures of actual [energy intake] and [physical activity energy expenditure] that they no longer have a justifiable place in scientific research." more

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Internet of Me

The so-called “internet of things” has been the talk of the technology world for years now. Consumer electronics firms are exploring ways of connecting all manner of personal and household objects to the internet, thereby extending their functionality...Despite the rush to connect all our household objects to the internet, there is an even more important technical trend which has appeared in the past year or so – the internet of me. Instead of just wanting to hook up our home appliances to the internet, we have started to take our bodies and brains online.In recent times we have seen more and more apps applying the logic of behaviourism. Based on the heavily criticised methods once developed by B F Skinner, these apps alternate rewards and punishment to reinforce positive behaviour. One such example is the GymPact. Users of this app specify how many times a week they intend to go to the gym. In the event of them missing a session, which is easily found out through the GPS, they need to pay $5. This money is then shared equally among those who have followed their individually set goals. A more extreme version of this is Pavlok. To break bad habits, this app sends out electric shocks. Or as the slogan goes: “the habit changing device that shocks you”. If you bite your nails, oversleep, or procrastinate you will be handed out a punishment. The app is marketed as a personal coach on your wrist. These apps do not just shape our behaviour so that we will become more productive people. They also promise to make us healthier and happier. more

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Measurement: Friend or Foe?

It seems that the world is becoming obsessed with measurement. We are measuring steps, heart rate, calories, sleep—you name it and there is a device to measure it. People are going to waste a lot of time and money on measurement because, for many, it won’t change a thing. It seems that everyone believes the old adage “What gets measured gets done.” Of course that is wrong. Just because my Fitbit measures my steps each day does not cause me to walk 10,000 steps. Just because I weigh myself every day does not mean that I have met my weight goal. As a matter of fact, I have lost almost no weight even though I have had a Fitbit scale for over a year. This may sound strange coming from someone who has helped managers and executives focus time and effort on measuring all sorts of variables in business. However, it is true, and there is a very clear reason as to why. I believe a more appropriate adage is, “What gets measured improves the chances of getting done.” more

Friday, January 16, 2015

Trying to Cure Depression, But Inspiring Torture

To understand the nature of learned helplessness, one needs to travel back to Seligman’s early graduate-school days in the laboratory of Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania. When Seligman began his studies, Solomon’s lab was working with dogs on a phenomenon that Ivan Pavlov had first identified as aversive conditioning or avoidance learning. The researchers administered shocks to the animals, accompanied by tones or lights, so that they would come to associate the tone or light stimuli with the shock’s onset, and, in some cases, then learn to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier. Solomon would then work to see if he could get the dogs to, in effect, unlearn the association. When Seligman arrived at the lab, he noticed that some of the dogs had started to act rather strangely. Instead of trying to figure out how to avoid a new shock, they just sat there. They didn’t even try to figure it out. Teaming up with fellow graduate student Steven Maier, Seligman began to study what was going on...When Seligman and Maier analyzed the results, they found a consistent pattern. The dogs that had learned to avoid the shocks by pressing their heads against the panels on the first day were quick to jump the barrier on day two. Not a single dog failed to learn to jump quickly after the first go-around. Those that had been unable to escape the shocks, though, weren’t even trying...The effect of the harness experiment was been both severe and lasting. more

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "Next Big Things" in Teaching Technology Never Quite Were

While attending a back-to-school event at his youngest daughter Debbie's school in 1953, influential psychologist B.F. Skinner watched as her teacher taught fourth-grade arithmetic. After writing the problem on the blackboard, the teacher would walk up and down the aisle, occasionally pointing out the children's mistakes. Some students finished quickly and sat bored while others continued to work the problems. The teacher collected the papers, graded them and returned them to the students the following day. This immediately gave Skinner insight into some problems in the pedagogy, as well as an idea toward their solution. Skinner knew that a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not serve as a reinforcer and did not present a good scenario for learning. Understanding the value of using mechanical devices in his experiments with pigeons, he created a crude prototype over the next few days, using a series of cards containing questions, within a box with sliders to "dial in" the answers. It was his first teaching machine. more

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rhesus Monkeys Can Learn to See Themselves in the Mirror

For humans and apes, vanity comes naturally -- homo sapiens and their hairier ancestors both automatically recognize themselves in the mirror. The same can't be said for monkeys. But new research suggests rhesus monkeys can be taught mirror recognition. Scientists say their discovery is likely to help them further understand the neural origins of self-awareness... Scientists have tried to determine whether monkeys could develop mirror recognition before, but nothing seemed to work. In the new study, researchers shined a laser on the monkey's faces -- a mild irritant intended to spur the specimens into using the mirror to their advantage. After several weeks of training the monkeys began recognizing their face and laser in the mirror, moving their hands to the spot of the laser and then often smelling their fingers -- suggesting a recognition of themselves in the mirror. Once the behavior was learned, many of the monkeys were able to use the mirror in a variety of other unprompted ways in order to investigate other parts of their bodies. more

Friday, January 09, 2015

Talk to Your Kids

In the nineteen-eighties, two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, began comparing, in detail, how parents of different social classes talked with their children. Hart and Risley had both worked in preschool programs designed to boost the language skills of low-income kids, but they had been dissatisfied with the results of such efforts: the achievement gap between rich and poor had continued to widen... In all, Hart and Risley reported, they analyzed “more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their language-learning children.” The researchers noticed many similarities among the families: “They all disciplined their children and taught them good manners and how to dress and toilet themselves.” They all showed their children affection and said things like “Don’t jump on the couch” and “Use your spoon” and “Do you have to go potty?” But the researchers also found that the wealthier parents consistently talked more with their kids. Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences, Hart and Risley concluded: “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.” more

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits

Our environments come to unconsciously direct our behavior. Even behaviors that we don't want, like smoking. "For a smoker, the view of the entrance to their office building — which is a place that they go to smoke all the time — becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior," Neal says. Over time those cues become so deeply ingrained that they are very hard to resist. And so we smoke at the entrance to work when we don't want to. We sit on the couch and eat ice cream when we don't need to, despite our best intentions, despite our resolutions. "We don't feel sort of pushed by the environment," Wood says. "But, in fact, we're very integrated with it." To battle bad behaviors then, one answer is to disrupt the environment in some way. Even small changes can help — like eating the ice cream with your nondominant hand. What this does is disrupt the learned body sequence that's driving the behavior, which allows your conscious mind to come back online and reassert control. "It's a brief sort of window of opportunity," Wood says, "to think, 'Is this really what I want to do?' " Of course, larger disruption can also be helpful, which brings us back to heroin addiction in Vietnam. more