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