Sunday, December 30, 2012

Motivation and the New Year's Resolution

While driving home from a holiday event last Friday, I listened to National Public Radio's "Science Friday."  I was delighted at clinical psychologist John Norcross's research-based recommendations about how best to follow up on New Year's Resolutions.  Many of his suggestions were based directly on the science of consequences (not really all that surprising). I love this quote:  "Motivation doesn't come in a bottle.  Motivation is, scientifically speaking, a series of small behaviors."  Indeed, as Norcross noted, arranging for suitable signals and positive consequences--like checklists and social support--has been shown to help us stick to our resolutions.  Just making commitments helps--and that of course is what New Year's Resolutions are all about!  Keep them realistic, and "reward your successes, reinforce yourself for each step with a healthy treat or a compliment, perhaps even create a reward contract with a loved one."    Great to see the science covered so well. 

Good luck with any resolutions you make, and have a very happy New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Karen Pryor on The Science of Consequences

Just briefly--I'm pleased to provide a link to clicker training expert Karen Pryor's comments on my book.  Here's an excerpt:  "Fascinating . . . A ten-year labor of stunning scholarship across many disciplines."

Pryor's pioneering work has helped bring positive reinforcement methods to the worlds of companion animals and zoos--and to us too!  Her best-selling book Don't Shoot the Dog is as much about people as about animals, and I cite it a number of times in The Science of Consequences.  I really enjoyed her most recent book too, Reaching the Animal Mind.

Interview about B. F. Skinner

Dr. Sophia Yin has completed her series of blog posts about her interview with me, winding up with the segment about my friendship with famed psychologist B. F. Skinner.  For those interested, here's the link!

Monday, December 17, 2012

On Structure, Function, and Asian Numbers

Asian numbers?  Unlikely as it may seem, the approach taken in some Asian languages to naming numbers can help illustrate an important behavior dimension.

When you try to get someone's attention (the intended consequence), you might wave your hand, lift an eyebrow, cough gently, or just call out "Hey you!"  These behaviors have very different structures, but the same function.  In a way, just as the many nature-nurture factors always work together, so do structural and functional factors.

Structure includes shape, color, intensity, timing, etc.:  the "what" questions about something.  What is Ellie doing?  Running at quite a clip, and we can measure what her speed is.  Function deals with the "why" questions: Ellie might be running for a train or training for a run, for example.  Same structure, different function.  You get the idea.  Any behavior influenced by consequences has structure, and so do signals for consequences. 

OK, so where do Asian numbers come in?  In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell noted that the Chinese number system, to take one of several examples, has a more logical number naming system than does English:  no irregular names like "eleven."  The numbers are also shorter to say, making it easier to remember a series of numbers.  (Imagine if instead of "one," "two," "three" we had to remember "shigaroomph," "taranug," and "froomjokey.")  These are structural features.  Given comparable consequences and (relatedly) motivation levels for learning numbers and doing mathematics with them, it would be surprising if there weren't any advantages to the more logical system, especially during initial learning.  The same principle applies to the format of the numbers themselves.  How many people would be willing to enter a math contest if handicapped by having to use Roman numerals?  How long does it take to decipher dates in Roman numerals on historic buildings?  (Do architects still follow this practice? . . .  If so, I wonder about the function!)

The structure-function interaction can be found in many places:  anatomy (structure) and physiology (function) in the biomedical sciences, for example. The science of consequences is inherently focused on function, but necessarily incorporates the structural side as well--such as how best to design an effective, rewarding online math tutoring program, or tailor a coaching session for a soccer team.  Correspondingly, psychologists who focus on structural questions--such as cognitive scientists--are also necessarily dealing with function.  Just as our new knowledge of the nature-and-nurture system with its ubiquitous interactions has immensely expanded our understanding of its flexibility and potential applications, a better understanding of how structural and functional principles interact is bound to bring many benefits.  More on this in future posts . . . and comments are welcome!

Friday, December 14, 2012

News about Reviews

I only just discovered that The Science of Consequences got a (very short) review in November in the prestigious science journal Nature!--really more of a brief summary, but still, wow, I never expected that.  I was also delighted to find a very positive review in the journal ForeWord Reviews.  Here's the excerpt I just posted on the Reviews page of my website:  "Engaging and fast-paced . . . Schneider moves agilely from the worlds of genetics and neuroscience to animal behavior, education, and ethics. She layers insights from decades of research with personal anecdotes to ask increasingly provocative questions. . . From one chapter to the next, she deftly weaves a narrative that keeps the reader turning the page. This title is provocative, compelling, and rewarding." 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Link to Interview by Dr. Sophia Yin

I referred to Dr. Sophia Yin's blog back in August in my post on scrub jays.  I got to meet Dr. Yin, a well-known veterinarian and animal behavior expert, when I gave a talk at the downtown Davis, CA bookstore last weekend.  We chatted about everything from my take on B. F. Skinner's views about nature-and-nurture to intrinsic reinforcement in kids and in dogs--great fun!  She's doing a series of blog posts based on interviews with me, and here's a link to the first post in the series:  click here

Friday, November 30, 2012

Fish Stories

In my book, I describe fish that make choices like we do, learn to follow gestures, enjoy roller coaster-like sensations, and handle delays to rewards (and more)., aquarium fish can learn to do things like swim through a hoop, and you can view cute videos on both of the animal training/enrichment websites in my "Links" page:  Karen Pryor's (also check out the blogs) and Mary Hunter's On youtube, you might want to take a look at "Phish’s Target Training" and "Limbo Perch clicker training."  Yup, perch can do the limbo.

What about fish in the wild?  One way that wild fish got to show off provided a great example of signal learning in a lab many years ago.  What actually happens in their natural habitat may involve much of the whole nature-nurture system. 
For generations, people knew that salmon fry hatched in freshwater, swam to the sea, grew large, and then returned to freshwater streams to spawn.  But which streams?  Early experiments in which the young salmon were distinctively marked or tagged showed that they returned to the same streams where they started.  Yet there they were in adulthood, hundreds or even thousands of miles from their homes.  How could they find their way back?  Many suggestions were offered, but I don’t believe anyone guessed part of the answer:  When they get close, they smell their way to their birth stream.

Step back in time.  One 1950s research project rewarded salmon for learning to tell the difference between 14 kinds of aquatic plants by smell.  They did just fine.  Given this clue, follow-ups confirmed that salmon could smell the difference between water from different streams (and had preferences).  Why do they wait for years to return?  As always, "it's a system," and there clearly are unlearned, "instinctive"-type components in this case--the sort of interaction described in my book.

Now that so many salmon runs have been driven to extinction or near-extinction, it’s especially important to try to understand how salmon homing works.  In a recent research article in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Andrew Dittman and his colleagues noted that chinook salmon reared in hatcheries sometimes homed as expected when the time came, but all too frequently returned to spawn miles away from where they had carefully been released--and that's a problem for restoration efforts.  Does this modifiability reflect any learning from consequences?  We don’t know for sure, but as Dittman mentioned, the full story probably includes many elements of the nature-nurture system.  That's just what we’ve come to expect.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Categories are Cool

So I’ve added an extra set of them!  A sidebar on the right already lets you see which of my posts have been the most popular.  (The one on "Extra Signals" wins by a large margin.)  But some of my readers have said they’d like a way just to pick out the applications--or the animal entries--or the stories relating to everyday life.  I’ve now added an additional categorization system to make that easier.  In Blogger, it’s called "Labels."  The labels (like "everyday") now appear after each blog entry, and clicking on any label brings up all my entries in that category.  I’ve also added a right sidebar that lists all these labels in one convenient location, and again, clicking on them there bring up all those entries. 

Let me know if you like the system the way I’ve set it up, or if you think I need to add some new labels.  And thanks for checking out my blog!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Keeping Safety on Track

The Thanksgiving holiday is the busiest travel weekend of the year in the United States.  That got me thinking about transport safety, and what a positive approach can accomplish.
In my chapter on work, I discuss a famously successful study introducing a positive approach to safety at two pit mines--very dangerous workplaces.  This sort of "behavior-based safety" approach has taken off. (Note, however, that a number of different approaches have been described under that name, and not all are systems-, positives-, and science-based.)  My colleague Matt Normand runs a website with useful links to stories about the science of consequences,  He discovered a recent article in Progressive Railroading magazine covering the introduction of this comprehensive safety approach at a railroad.  The full story is available by scrolling to the entry for November 15 on his website and clicking on the title, "Improving Railroad Safety by Instituting a Behavior-based Safety Culture."  I particularly liked the way in which workers at all levels were helping to shape the program.  Gotta keep 'em rolling--safely.

For my US readers:  Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Looking the Other Way: Consequences and the "Ostrich Effect"

Sam Kean wrote recently about his unanticipated response when he had his genome sequenced for a book he was writing.  His grandfather had died of Parkinson’s disease, and when push came to shove, Sam realized that he didn’t want to know if he had inherited a genetic predisposition for it.  "I blacked that information out."  (See this link for the article in The Scientist magazine.)

Sam’s not alone in not wanting to risk bad news even when knowing it might be helpful in preparing for it.  As Sam noted, Nobel laureate James Watson had a similar reaction when he had his genome read.  Less serious, everyday examples aren’t hard to come by either.  I know I sometimes turn off the radio when bad news is broadcast.  The consequences of staying tuned in are just too discouraging.  In my book, I refer to this as the "ostrich effect." 

It may not be all that surprising that animals respond similarly to the prospect of bad news.  Pigeons, for example, learned to peck for a signal indicating the schedule of reinforcement that they could currently work on.  This schedule switched back and forth unpredictably, so the best way to optimize their efforts was to peck periodically for the signal during lean times when few or no rewards could be earned.  Eventually, a more encouraging signal would tell them good times had returned.  Unfortunately, the "bad news" signal stopped most of the birds in their tracks (and thus acted as a punisher)--an effect that's been demonstrated in a number of species now, even fish.  And as we’ve seen, for all our sophisticated intellects and fancy delay-bridging rules and rationalizations, people frequently behave the same way, both in the lab and in real life.  That's the case even when the bad news could be really important.  One of the examples in my book is the large Centers for Disease Control estimate of the number of HIV-positive people in the United States who have avoided taking the simple, inexpensive test to check their status.  Some of them may unknowingly be spreading the disease.

Sam Kean eventually worked up the courage to confront his fears about his possible genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s, and get the facts.  Just as ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand, we can learn to face potentially bad news.  What we know about the science of consequences can help us do so.  It still isn’t easy, though.  Anyone want to share examples of how they coped with this all-too-common challenge?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Expanded Website

Just a short post:  Now that my book is so close to publication, I've added "Events" and "Reviews & Media" webpages.  Let me know what you think! 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Positive Reinforcement Frontiers with Zoo Animals

For this post, I take you to a recent entry on one of the blogs in my Links page:  Mary Hunter's at   Mary covers positive reinforcement training, and she helped advise an artist on the development of a poster featuring "twelve great examples of wild animals who have been trained to do extraordinary tasks without any use of force or punishment."  The first one certainly grabbed my attention:  training a whale to pee in a cup.  Way cool!  Some feats are covered in my own chapter on animal applications, such as birds that spy and animals that willingly weigh themselves on scales, or allow blood samples to be taken.  Here's the link.  It's a great poster!  (Note:  I have no connection with the artist.)  Don't miss the fish that plays soccer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Risky Choices

Risky, that is, in the sense of passing up a sure thing in favor of a much larger reward--maybe.  In The Science of Consequences, I note that people and animals alike often prefer variable schedules of reinforcement over fixed ones even when they don't pay off as well.  What about when it’s the amount of the reward that's unpredictable?  Do we still take a chance on the riskier variable choice?

(Note:  I regularly post descriptions of new or classic research that are a bit more technical than my regular posts.  This is a "research post" that I hope is of general interest.)  

In a new study, Carla Lagorio and Tim Hackenberg report that past research results have been inconsistent.  They also note that this type of research has been viewed as a way to approach the study of gambling.  Obviously, not every gamble pays off:  Success is variable and (often) unpredictable in amount.  Problem gambling is a large and expensive problem worldwide, and laboratory analogs that help us understand some of its contributing factors are valuable. 

The researchers looked at pigeons working for "token" symbols:  lights on a panel.  Each light could be exchanged for a short period of access to food, but only during signaled "exchange" periods a short while after each choice.  This approach helped make this research setup more analogous to real-life human gambling:  People also frequently get tokens like chips that can be exchanged only later for money (which itself is an exchangeable token, of course!).

In this particular study, seven pigeons pecked to initiate a trial, then pecked again to make their choice.  The fixed choice payoff stayed constant at either 2, 4, 6, or 8 tokens.  The variable payoff could be anything from 0 to 12 tokens, offered on one of a number of different distributions ("rectangular" or "exponential" for those of you who are mathematically inclined).  A bird might earn 9 tokens after a "variable" choice, then only 2 after another "variable" choice.

This was a thorough "parametric study" in which different combinations of fixed vs variable schedules were run.  Once an individual's choice pattern was stable for one combo, that bird would be switched to a different one, and so on.  The outcome?--a strong preference for variable rewards rather than fixed ones, similar to the results for variable vs fixed schedules of reinforcement.  And again, that was frequently the case even when the birds lost by their risky choices:  that is, even when switching to the fixed choice would have provided substantially more reward over time. In a way, they're like problem gamblers in this respect.

Just as interesting:  When the token signals were removed and the birds simply worked for direct access to food, these skewed results were less likely; the birds made more rational choices instead.  What's going on?  Stay tuned.

One final finding I have to mention:  Some of my own past research examined the influence of one particular reinforced schedule choice on the next choice, in a process called "sequential analysis."  If you’ve just TV-surfed to a baseball game and happened to catch a home run or a spectacular double play, are you more likely to stay with the game than if you tuned into a batter engaging in boring warm-up swings?  These moment-to-moment influences on our choices make intuitive sense in our daily lives.  That was also the case here:  Pigeons were significantly more likely to go with the "variable" option if they had just enjoyed a handsome payoff for choosing "variable."  If they’d received no tokens for the "variable" choice, they were very likely to switch to fixed for their next choice.  How human of them . . .

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Odd Consequence Value Effect (Or, Why Do I Mop the Kitchen Floor When I Get Good News?)

There's no doubt about it:  I can go for weeks without mopping the kitchen floor.  (Sweeping is so much easier.)  It weighs on my mind.  A little.

What nudges its consequence value up enough to tip it over the threshold of it-can-wait to let's-get-it-over-with?  It's often getting good news.  Suddenly, chores become easy as their aversiveness mysteriously declines. 

My kitchen floor
  Social psychologists verified years ago what our own
  experience tells us:  "Be happy to be good."  When is
  a charity more likely to successfully appeal to you (in
  other words, when does giving hard-earned cash become
  sufficiently rewarding)?--after you've had a horrible day
  at work, or a great one?  How does this effect fit in with the
  principles of consequences?  Well, we already know
  that the relationship between emotions and consequences
  is complex.  This is another way in which they interact.

I'm sure our past experiences--our history of consequences--and the rules we've learned are involved. As someone particularly aware of the motivators in my life (teaching this science and then writing this book), I can see the value of consequences vary with my mood.  As always, the situation is complex:  For household chores, I've also noticed that the other extreme can work too.  That is, when very little in my life is reinforcing, again, it can be easier than usual to do chores.  After all, they provide some reward value, if only by escaping that annoying feeling that I ought to do them, and, of course, escaping the unpleasantness of seeing dust balls in the corner. I couldn't find any research about this in a quick check, but I'm sure there's some out there.  (Let me know.)

Most effective of all, when I get a visitor, wow, see me reach for that mop.  Serious consequences (both positive and negative).

Am I just weird, or does this phenomenon apply to you too?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Launch at the Fair!

The Miami Book Fair International, that is--one of the largest in the United States!  I'm pleased to announce that I will be launching my book there over the weekend of November 17-18 (the weekend before Thanksgiving).  When I get around to it, I'll be opening an Events webpage that will include the specifics (which I don't know yet myself).

I'm especially pleased because I spent five happy years in Miami as a research faculty member at Florida International University, working on nature-nurture relations and the mathematical modeling of behavior.  A behavioral enrichment project from those years is described in my book.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Extra Signals

Compose a new message in gmail and it's hard to click on the Send button by mistake:  It's the only button in red.  (Wonder why the programmers didn't set up this "extra" color-coded signal for the "Reply" function as well . . .)

In a similar manner, I appreciate the "extra" raised dots on the "f" and "j" on my keyboard, helping me touch-type truly by touch, no peeking needed.  They signal when my fingers are on the right keys, indicating that certain key strokes will be reinforced by enabling me to type what I need to (such as this blog post).  I've often wished there were more such extra signals on the standard keyboard.  In fact, to help me move the arrow keys efficiently, I put sticky paper on one--and that lets me navigate to the adjacent ones easily just by touch.  My focus can stay on the monitor, rather than switching back and forth to the keyboard. I get things done faster.

Such redundancy in signaling has lots of practical applications.  A couple years ago, I happened to get into conversation with a motorcyclist who commented on his efforts not to disturb the neighbors when he rode in late at night.  I'd wondered why more work hadn't been done to muffle the roar of the engine.  Turns out that motorcyclists--naturally enough--want to make a big commotion when they're on the roads risking their lives among the heavy bruisers like trucks and SUVs.  Even subcompacts, for that matter.  Like ambulances, they want to be both seen and heard so that other drivers can give them a safe berth. (Of course, the attention all the noise brings them can sometimes be rewarding in itself.)

That makes sense, but wouldn't it be great if motorcyclists could turn off the roar when they don't need it, like ambulance drivers do?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

If the Sky was Pink All Day

People who live near mountains get so used to them, they hardly bother to look.  These are the same mountains others might drive hundreds of miles to see.  What's happening to the reinforcer value here?

California sunset ©Ken R. Schneider
  Imagine if the sky was pink all day, and only blue at sunrise
  and sunset. People would gather to watch the wonderful
  blue emerge, and sigh as it slowly faded away--much as
  they do now for glorious pink sunrises and sunsets.

  Frequently, things that are easy to get, like a blue sky, are
  less powerful rewards than things that are harder to get, like
  a pretty sunset.  The schedule of reinforcement is different,
  for sure: You can't just walk outside and marvel at a sunset
  any time of day.   

Another factor is satiation:  For many rewards, too much of a good thing is not a better thing.  Two or three delicious candies might be a longed-for treat, but a whole box is a surfeit with no extra immediate value.  Indeed, being forced to eat a whole box might be a punisher.

I don't know that anyone's ever had a surfeit of sunsets, but I suppose a photographer trying to capture the perfect one, evening after evening after evening, could find blue skies a lot more appealing!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Jays in My Backyard

Western Scrub-Jay (©Ken R. Schneider)
Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of watching two fledgling Western Scrub-Jays learn from consequences.  They were perched on my brush pile underneath my redwood when I spotted them, and clearly had left the nest not long before.  They were waiting impatiently for their parents, who stopped by regularly with food that got eagerly grabbed.  Meanwhile, they explored their surroundings.  One found a small yellow leaf, trapped it under one foot and pecked at it, as if checking whether it was good to eat (no).  It was discarded.  The other youngster poked around a bit too, also without success.  Still, it was a start on the path to independence.

One week later, I watched what was probably one of these youngsters in my yard again, this time foraging more actively, picking up dead grass stalks systematically.  Once again, its efforts did not appear to be crowned with success, but it was trying.

The adults are omnivorous, kind of like feathered bears:  They’ll go after anything that’s edible.  And they readily learn their way around minor obstacles.  Someone in my neighborhood feeds peanuts in the shell, and the birds come to particular flat fencepost stumps in my backyard to hold them down and peck them open with their all-purpose beaks.  I'm sure the youngsters will be up to that--someday.

Update:   I happened to catch a cool scrub jay post on animal expert Sophia Yin's blog (link here).  As she reports, two scientists published a 1999 Nature article on how jays learn from consequences when they store food like nuts in hidden "caches."  The nuts last a long time, but cached foods like waxworms don't.  It turns out that "the birds had to learn that food such as waxworms degrade after long intervals. A separate set of scrub jays whose rotten waxworms were secretly replaced with fresh ones after long intervals, never learned that waxworms go bad."  And they behaved accordingly, very differently from the jays that had learned otherwise.  The flexibility provided by learning--even if it's researcher-assisted and "unnatural"--helps the birds survive.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Joy of Escape

Shelter, London Blitz (public domain)
I’m not talking about a trip to Hawaii here.  Escaping a big negative is a powerful reward, one that can be accompanied by powerful emotions.  My community’s "One Book" selection this year is Rebecca Solnitt’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (which I thought was excellent, by the way; 2009, Viking).  Solnitt quotes a young woman describing her feelings of relief after making it to a shelter and surviving a bomb during the World War II London Blitz:  "It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experienced such pure and flawless happiness" (p. 103).  She was not alone.

For most of us, the joys of escape come on a much smaller scale in less tragic circumstances.  When I read this passage, I flashed back to a sensation I’d experienced years ago.  I was a commuter cyclist for decades, but the statistics eventually caught up with me and I got hit by a car, fracturing my back as well as suffering many minor injuries.  The accident occurred during a stressful time in my life and, weirdly, even during the immediate aftermath, I had a feeling of liberation from those other problems.  I’d escaped from them--albeit not in a way I would have chosen--and could simply appreciate being taken care of and working on recovering. My bicycling had been punished pretty strongly by this powerful negative consequence, but when I recovered, I did eventually get back to it. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fun with Hummingbirds

Male Anna's (©Ken R. Schneider)

One of the delights of living in California is hosting hummingbirds year-round--including one of the most spectacular North American species, the Anna’s Hummingbird.  My brother took this picture of an adult male.

Last year I rescued a young, probably female Anna’s that hit a back window (despite the warning stickers).  She didn’t seem to  be injured, just stunned.  It was cold, so to help her recover--and keep her away from predators--I held her in my hand in the sun, while she stared at me and one wing quivered.  How could I reassure her?  I decided to take the opportunity to play a game that’s described in my book.  It entails rewarding an animal’s eyeblinks by giving unusually long eyeblinks in immediate response--a sort of communication, if you will.  My hummer didn’t blink much at first, but I took advantage of every blink.  Then she caught on, and within 3 minutes, every time I opened my eyes after my own blinks, she immediately blinked!  Great fun, and best of all, after 5 min, she lifted off, apparently back to normal.  What a magical experience. 

Juvenile Anna's (public domain)
Having a hummingbird feeder lets me enjoy behavior-watching as well as beauty.  I get to laugh at hummingbirds learning to find the nectar.  (Sometimes they try in what seems like every possible place before they succeed.)  When I take the feeder in for cleaning and refilling, I see hummers fly to where they’ve learned it should be, casting about fruitlessly before buzzing off.  Talk about well-learned habits!  And I breathlessly witness frequent dominance battles over access to this prime resource.  In most U.S. hummingbirds, females are larger than males, and my own feeder tends to be dominated by one of them.  I still get to enjoy the beautiful magenta iridescence on the throat "gorget," though, because adult female Anna’s have them.  Maybe the hummer I rescued has developed one by now, attracted a mate, and raised little ones of her own.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Genes, Behavioral Economics, and Dinner

As many are well aware, obesity in the United States has reached "epidemic" proportions (Centers for Disease Control), with about two-thirds of us overweight.  Helpful consequence-based approaches are discussed in my book.  But wouldn’t it be easier just to pop a pill that would reduce appetite? 

The drug rimonabant did just that, first for animals, and then in human clinical trials.  It was on the market as a prescription drug only briefly, though:  As you might have guessed, it was too good to be true, and came with problematic side effects.  But suppose we could better understand how it works?  And how it interacts with some of the relevant genes? 

A particular genetic strain of rats is primed for obesity, and has been used for decades as a model for related human problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.  These rats still don’t necessarily become obese, they’re just more likely to.  Erin Rasmussen and colleagues, for example, studied these rats working for sucrose pellets--table sugar.  They showed that when the schedule of reinforcement became lean enough (that is, required a lot more work per sucrose pellet), these rats worked no harder and earned no more rewards than normal rats.  As always, nature-and-nurture systems offer lots of interactions and flexibility.

It’s probably obvious that increasing the amount of work to get a consequence is similar to increasing its price--making the economic demand likely to decrease.  If it’s something we can’t live without, though, like water in a desert, we’ll do whatever we need to:  Demand is "inelastic" in that case.  My own demand level for premium breakfast cereals is seriously elastic:  I don’t buy one unless it’s on sale!  It's simply not a powerful enough reward to overcome a high price.  Mathematical relations let scientists compare demand levels and degree of elasticity in precise ways.

In a follow-up article that appeared this year in the journal Physiology and Behavior, Rasmussen and colleagues checked out the effects of rimonabant on food reward value and elasticity in the normal and "obese" variants of this rat strain.  Sucrose was again the reward, and these nuggets of pure sugar are usually as desirable to rats as they are to us.  The schedule of reinforcement was a "fixed ratio," which means it was work-based:  just 1 lever press per pellet at first, then 15, 30, 50, 90, 150, and 300 (whew).  At the lower prices (lower ratio values), the overweight rats worked harder and earned significantly more sweet rewards than the normal ones, as we might expect.  But, when the going got tough, as in the earlier study, all the rats behaved similarly:  The obese rats were no longer working more and eating more.  Now add the appetite-reducing drug, with its known effects on neurophysiology.  Not surprisingly, all the rats stopped working as hard as they had before:  Sucrose wasn’t as rewarding.  Mathematically, elasticity increased for both groups.

What a great example of interdisciplinary work, including behavioral economics, neuroscience, schedules of reinforcement, reward value, genetics, and more.  Research like this helps us understand how all these factors interact, and may lead to practical applications in preventing and treating obesity. 

Meanwhile, check out the effective consequence-based methods that already exist if you want to work on your weight.  David Freedman's recent articles offer a good, accessible introduction (for example, here).

Monday, July 30, 2012


In the course of researching my book about the science of consequences, I discovered lots of neat information for which there was no space.  This blog gives me a place to share it, along with current news and applications, unexpected connections, and everyday adventures having to do with the science in some way.  It will also give you a chance to ask questions, share stories, and join the discussion.

Anything to do with the science of consequences is fair game:  Just as my book covers a lot of ground, so, I anticipate, will this blog.  Feel free to suggest topics for me to look into, and thank you for visiting this new blog.