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