Friday, August 26, 2016

How I've Spent My Summer Vacation (So Far)

I'm really enjoying my time off between jobs. In addition to sleeping in most days, I've filled my time with fun activities.

I spent 4 days at Comic Con, which I've already blogged about. I've also been doing some writing on my novel, which I hope to finish during NaNoWriMo this year. On Tuesday, I visited Bachelor's Grove, and old cemetery just south of Chicago that is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the country. I went during the day, and I would imagine the place would be creepier at night, but I really wasn't impressed. I was more afraid of snakes, spiders, and mosquitos. But I took lots of pictures:

Wednesday, I attended Jazzin' at the Shedd with some friends. My favorite part was the amphibian exhibit. One little cutie came up to the glass and posed for me:

The last couple days have been spent cleaning and organizing around the apartment. Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention while assembling some shelves this afternoon and sliced my finger. All is well, but I'm taking it easy for the time being. Next week, plans include visiting the Art Institute, doing some outlet shopping for work clothes, and lots of reading.

That's Not How This Works: Reinforcement, Punishment, and the Pavlok

As I've blogged many times before, I started my time in psychology as a behaviorist. I still frequently speak and think in behaviorist terms. So when I saw this device advertised on my Facebook, I kind of wanted to scream.

The device in question purports to be a way to break bad habits:

Here's how it works:
1) Download the app, and choose the habit you want to break.
2) Pavlok integrates with sensors, friends, and GPS to keep you on track with your goals.
3) Use the 'manual' mode for habits that aren't yet detectable.
As a friend pointed out, it's technology's answer to the rubber band on the wrist, the difference being that this device is supposed to snap the rubber band without needing any effort from you beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or with the wrong friends. Or with whatever the sensors pick up.

To give a quick overview, shaping a behavior draws on two overarching concepts: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is meant to increase frequency or intensity of a behavior, and punishment is meant to decrease frequency/intensity. Further, either of these can be done by adding something (positive) or taking something away (negative). Positive reinforcement involves giving something good to encourage a behavior (e.g., clean your room and I'll give you some candy); negative reinforcement involves taking away something bad to encourage a behavior (e.g., clean your room and you don't have to help me with the dishes). Positive punishment involves giving something bad to discourage a behavior (e.g., if you don't clean your room, you'll get a spanking); negative punishment involves taking away something good to discourage a behavior (e.g., if you don't clean your room, you can't go to the party). Each of these approaches has a time and place.

The thing is, punishment, which is what this device is driven by, is tricky. It has to be used in a specific way to be effective. Basically, in order to punishment to be effective, it needs to be immediate and high enough in intensity that it extinguishes the behavior immediately or very quickly. If you keep delivering the same punishment over and over again - to yourself, to your kids, to your pets, whatever - you need to find another punishment because it isn't doing what it's supposed to do.

However, punishment can come with many unintended consequences. The person may come to associate the punishment with a specific person instead of the specific action with which it is associated. It may extinguish a good behavior in the process. One of the best examples I know of came from a friend who works as a dog trainer. She is against the use of punishment when training dogs except in very specific instances - and again, she also says if you have to punish more than a few times, do something else, because the punishment isn't working. But in one instance, she was brought in to train a dog who had already been trained (unsuccessfully) by a person who primarily used punishment. The dog was very territorial around his food. He would guard it for hours, growling at anyone who came near, and finally eat it in the middle of the night when no one was around.

She started training, using reinforcement. Things were going well, the dog was responding, and wagging his tail. Suddenly, he bit her. Why? Because the punishment used in his previous training had extinguished a behavior: growling. But growling serves an important purpose; it is a warning that a dog is about to bite. So now the dog went straight from happy tail-wagging to biting with no warning signs.

When I used to teach learning and behavior, I had my students complete a behavior modification project, where they selected a behavior about themselves (or in some cases, another, often a pet) they wanted to change, and came up with a plan to do that. While I had some propose punishment in their project, I generally talked them out of it, or coached them on how to use it properly (in isolated cases) while mostly depending on reinforcement. Those who insisted on keeping the punishment more often than not ended up dropping it from their project, focusing instead on reinforcement, because they found it just wasn't as effective. Working toward some kind of reward was far more motivating than avoiding some kind of punishment. Another approach I suggested instead is response prevention - keep the behavior from happening entirely rather than punishing when it does. Once again, this approach is far more effective, especially when combined with a reward for avoiding the behavior completely.

So if you really want to break that bad habit, give yourself some small rewards for resisting while working your way up to a bigger reward, and avoid situations where you would be likely to give into the bad habit. And if you really need to include punishment in your modification plan, find something you'll work hard to avoid. Don't use a human shock collar.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Oliver Sacks on Life and Death

Neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, passed away from liver cancer almost one year ago. Recently, his final interview was released, which will be part of a documentary on Dr. Sacks's life:

First look: The last ever interview with Dr Oliver Sacks from TED Ideas on Vimeo.

As always, Sacks is witty and informative, but at one point in the interview, things take a more personal turn:

My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be nobody like us when we are gone, but then there is nobody like anybody ever. When people die they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled. It is the fate, the genetic and neural fate of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. Even so, I am shocked and saddened at the sentence of death, and I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and this in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

More from Comic Con

I just wrapped up my last day at Wizard World Comic Con. Once again, I saw so many great costumes:


I didn't wear a costume today but did yesterday - Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter:

At final count, I had spotted 52 girls/women dressed as Harley Quinn. Probably 3/4 of them were dressed as the more recent iteration of Harley Quinn (shorts, Daddy's Lil Monster t-shirt, etc.) and the rest in the previous iteration (black and red outfit). And 5 were probably too young to be wearing such an outfit - I'm being very conservative here; since I know many people look young for their age, I counted "too young" as anyone who looked under the age of 12. Perhaps Harley Quinn is the new Slave Leia?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Wizard World Comic Con

I've spent the past two days at Wizard World Comic Con Chicago and I'm having a blast! I've had a few celebrity sightings, most notably Norman Reedus, attended some great panels, and seen some amazing costumes!

I've also been in costume the last couple days:

More tomorrow!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Open Source Publishing, Peer Review, and a What-If Scenario

On the Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped Facebook page, someone posted an interesting scenario:

Some of the responses included references to other types of social media: e.g., "It would be like Facebook" or "It would be like blogging". But what this user is proposing is somewhat different than that. True, I could publish my research on my blog - which would in many cases preclude me from publishing it elsewhere - but you either have to know about my blog to find it or it would have to come up during a web search. Same thing with Facebook: you'd have to know me to see my posts. This scenario, on the other hand, involves putting articles from different authors in one place. So a user would just have to know about the journal to access the articles.

Of course, that doesn't make this a good scenario. Let's, for the sake of argument, say there are multiple such sites for different subjects - that deals with the problem of having articles on so many different topics that it fails to be readable. After all, to make this like a regular journal, it would need to have aims and scope: a description of what the journal is about so that authors know whether their article would be a good fit. But we already have a potential failure point - authors may be very bad at determining whether their article fits, or they may be such poor writers that they fail to show the article fits. Part of what happens during review is the editor and reviewers determine if the article is a good fit. So now you have articles on, say the strength of different concrete mixtures next to an article about college students' social media behaviors.

Obviously, if this is an online journal, people can search the articles. People who search for articles on concrete shouldn't find articles on social media behavior. But once again, we have a failure point: who checks those keywords, to make sure they accurately reflect the subject of the article? In the current state of publishing, authors do generate their own keywords, often using specific standards. Certain keywords are more likely to be searched for than others, so authors might be tempted to pad their keywords with more common headings, even headings that are only somewhat relevant, to increase the chances their article is found. Fortunately, editors can double-check those keywords and drop ones that don't fit. But with the proposed system, there is no quality control.

Two major issues, and we haven't even gotten to the posting or user comments yet. And before you say, "The post said to drop reviewers, not the editor," remember that the proposal was a publishing source where instead of review, users up/down-voted articles and left comments. If editors can decide what does and does not get published, and can control (to some extent) the content, you still have the same system as you do now, where a small number of people control the flow of information. For this to work as the poster intended, you can't really have editors.

Now for the key portion of the proposal: users get to rate and comment on articles. This is where the similarities to Facebook are strongest. What posts do you "like" on Facebook? Often, ones you agree with. You would have the same danger here: that people would up-vote the articles whose results they agree with, even if the study is methodologically flawed. When you evaluate scientific research, you have to evaluate the methods. If the methods are sound, the results are presumed to be valid, even if you disagree with them. That is, the rating system would be driven by opinion rather than scientific validity. Sure, some people would evaluate the strength of the methods to generate their rating, but their voices would probably be drowned out by ratings based purely on opinion. And if you have many non-scientists visiting the articles and giving ratings, the difference between the two would be even stronger. Once again, there is no quality control of who does the rating and whether they have the necessary knowledge, as there would be if an article is peer-reviewed.

This system would really only work if you assume that everyone using it - authors and readers - do so honestly and with the best of intentions. I try to see the best in people, individually (because the way one person will behave is an unknown), but here, we're talking about patterns of groups, which are far more predictable. As much as I want to like this idea - because peer review can be unfair and problematic in its own ways - it would likely be chaos.

What do you think, readers?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Science Behind Simone Biles's Incredible Gymnastics Ability

If you're like me, you've been enthralled with watching the amazing athletes in the 2016 Olympics. And while I'm impressed with all the athletes, the gymnasts seem superhuman. Check out this video explaining the gravity defying techniques of American gymnast (and gold medalist) Simone Biles:

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How to Tell if a Tweet Was Actually Written by Trump

I discovered a new blog today and read a great article involving text analysis of Trump's tweets. The blog, Variance Explained, is written by David Robinson, a data scientist at Stack Overflow. He saw a tweet stating a hypothesis:
When Trump wishes the Olympic team good luck, he’s tweeting from his iPhone. When he’s insulting a rival, he’s usually tweeting from an Android. Is this an artifact showing which tweets are Trump’s own and which are by some handler?
So he decided to test this hypothesis using text analysis. He does this with a few R packages, including twitteR and tidytext (which he created with Julia Silge - it can assign words to 10 sentiments: positive, negative, anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, and trust). And by the way, he gives you all the code he used and shows you step by step how he did everything. I kind of love this guy.

So what did he find? First, tweets from the Android phone tended to occur in the morning while iPhone tweets tended to occur in afternoon/evening. iPhone tweets were more likely to include a picture or a link (38 times more likely, in fact), or hashtags. Text analysis showed differences in the words used:

And sentiment analysis quantified these differences:
Thus, Trump’s Android account uses about 40-80% more words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger, and other “negative” sentiments than the iPhone account does. (The positive emotions weren’t different to a statistically significant extent).
So now you know who's doing the talking in Trump's tweets.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Everybody Laugh

Because I love Honest Trailers, and recently read and loved Watchmen:

More Collaborative Research

On the Association for Psychological Science mainpage today is an article about the need for more collaborative and interdisciplinary research, and an effort by APS Fellow Brent Roberts to help facilitate that:
The Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative (SBSRI) is a new group focused on providing the diverse behavioral and social science faculty with new opportunities to enhance collaboration on large-scale, interdisciplinary research projects: The kind of projects that have the potential to change the world.

“The Initiative has a number of aims that are intended to help faculty with the proposal development and application process. At the broadest level, we are catalyzing groups of social scientists who might not interact directly because they are housed in separate units,” Roberts explains. “For example, we have a number of social scientists interested in collaborating with engineering researchers to bring their technological creativity and vision to the task of assessing psycho-social phenotypes.”
One of the things I've really enjoyed about working in health services research is that it is very collaborative and interdisciplinary. Our researchers have a variety of backgrounds: psychology, neurosocience, economics, nursing, medicine, epidemiology, sociology, library science... As the linked article points out, to study complex social issues requires a multifaceted approach. By bringing together people who look at a problem from different angles, we can get closer to a real solution and hopefully make positive changes in people's lives.

Of course, it takes more than just bringing those minds together to effect positive change. That is, interdisciplinary teams may be a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. It requires good project management and oversight, or else you risk ending up with a cookie cutter solution: one that includes a variety of different approaches but has no synthesis across them.

This certainly isn't easy. Anyone who has tried synthesizing multiple theories in a single field can tell you how difficult that can be - now try doing that with theories and approaches across different fields. Perhaps initiatives like SBSRI can help determine the best way for integrating the interdisciplinary approaches. Either way, it will be interesting to see the work that comes out of SBSRI and other similar groups.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

John Oliver on Journalism

I was going to write today's post on insomnia, but I'm too tired. The end.

Kidding. So instead, I'll just share John Oliver's Last Week Tonight segment on journalism:

I mean, if the newspapers go away, how can I write about the dangers of low scientific literacy and the sad state of scientific journalism? #investifarted

Monday, August 8, 2016


It's been a busy past few days, so I unfortunately haven't been blogging. I plan to get back in the habit soon - because I have news DT readers: I'll be leaving my position at VA next week and will start a new job in September. So I'll have a couple of weeks to relax, refresh, and do all those things that have been on my personal to-do list for ages. It struck me this morning just how long that list is, and how many items on the list are simply flights of fancy. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I laughed at myself when I realized that one of the items on that list was "learn to beat box."

Compare that to what I actually did on my summer vacation as a kid: read, go to the library, watch TV, play outside. I suspect my two weeks off will look more like that, and less like a whirlwind tour of self improvement. I'm also considering doing some short trips to nearby places I've been meaning to visit, but we'll see.

Saturday, I cleaned out my office. It looks so empty in here today. But I was glad to get it done so I wouldn't have to stress about during my final days. I also found some interesting lost bits of technology, that I put on my newly clean shelving unit:

In case you're wondering, the giant object on the right and the smaller one on the far left are old transcription equipment. Both play cassette tapes (the big one plays full-sized cassettes, the smaller one plays mini cassettes) and have a foot pedal so you can stop and start playback without having to take your hands off the keyboard. These days, we use a USB foot pedal that stops and starts a media file on your computer. But we had to use these older devices as recently as 4 years ago, when we did a multi-site quality improvement project and had sites recording focus groups with whatever equipment they had on hand (to keep costs down). If that equipment was a tape recorder, that's what they used. I still remember the look on one of our research assistant's faces when I showed him what he would be using to transcribe the tape recordings.

I also found some of the crazy pens people have given me over the years - I collect crazy pens - and an owl slap bracelet:

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Measuring Up

Two things crossed my email inbox just now, both having to do with measurement:

A study about height of Americans versus citizens of others countries found that Americans now rank 37th in the world in terms of height. One hundred years ago, Americans were the 3rd tallest. Using data from epidemiological studies and population health surveys, they looked at height for 18.6 million adults born between 1896 and 1996:
Height is one of the most heritable human traits, but the researchers say environment also plays a role. “Genetics doesn't change so quickly, so if you see a change over 100 years, it has to be environmental,” says the new study’s co-lead author, Mariachiara Di Cesare, now at Middlesex University London. A major influence on height, especially early in life, is nutrition. Another is childhood infections, so clean water and health care are also important.
Essentially, these findings are a sign - according to the authors - that conditions are improving in many countries, which explains the increase in height:
The authors assert that the study shows the potential of using height as an indicator of human development. It is easily measured and provides a link between early-life experiences, health, longevity, education and earnings.
The other is this picture, which I present without comment:

And in response to the claims Trump has made with regard to hand size and other potentially related measurements, I give you this Snopes link.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

More on Impression Formation

A recent article on the Association for Psychological Science website summarizes research on impressions, showing why first impressions are so important, and why it's easier for someone to grow to dislike you over time than to grow to like you:
Across five experiments, Klein and O’Brien found that this moral tipping point is asymmetric — a moral improvement takes a lot more work for us to notice compared to a moral decline, even if the evidence is we observe is the same in each case. In other words, “it is apparently easier to become a sinner than a saint, despite exhibiting equivalent evidence for change.”
The researchers conducted the study using scenarios with a hypothetical coworker, Barbara. They described Barbara as having a neutral personality, but noted that she could occasionally be nice and other times be mean. They described her behavior as it occurred over a period of weeks, and asked participants how many weeks of consistent behavior it would take before they concluded that Barbara had undertaken a "moral change."
When Barbara’s behavior turned mean, it only took a few weeks for participants to conclude that she had taken a turn for the worse. However, it took many more weeks of positive behavior to convince people that Barbara was changing for the better.
The authors explain their results, in part, with the negativity bias, which I blogged about during April A-Z.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Burn It To the Ground

I'm having one of those comically bad days, which included breaking one of my favorite mugs and forgetting my office keys at home. Needless to say, I'm not sure today is the best day to write the post I had planned about psychology knowledge, using that knowledge to get people to spend money, and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Hopefully tomorrow.

In the meantime, I had a wonderful weekend, that included a trip to the Renaissance Faire with awesome friends and a Dissertation Burning party with other (but still awesome) friends.

To quote one of my favorite movies (Donnie Darko), "Burn it to the ground."
Edit: Then the universe took pity on me - it ended my usually 2-hour meeting after 15 minutes, then played one of my favorite songs on the radio.