Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Joy of Closure

The holidays bring plenty of reinforcers, and one is simply completing the many preparations.  All my cards are sent, and I purchased my last gift yesterday.  Oh the joy!  Toss that completed Christmas list with a light heart.

More generally, completing any sort of project, big or small, can be reinforcing--whether it's one you've been dreading or anticipating.  I was raised on the rule that when you start something, you see it through, lacking good reasons to the contrary.  Homework, for example.  For me, that approach generalized to playing piano pieces all the way through, finishing long books, completing gardening projects, almost anything.  An interesting but unfortunate side effect makes completion failures into aversives, even when they really shouldn't be. Why not stop halfway through a book or piece that's become unreinforcing?  I have no trouble now quitting midway, but it took a while to work through these opposing consequences.  (And I still end up skimming the rest of the problem book!)  Maybe it's a matter of taking the useful skill of self-control--going for that larger-later reward over the smaller-sooner--a bit too far.

It's also curious how this effect appears to contribute to my daily sense of accomplishment or lack of accomplishment despite similar effort.  Because long projects don't provide the reinforcer of closure until they're done, I have to remind myself that I am making progress.  That does help, and so does the chance to complete shorter tasks along the way.  Can anyone else relate? 

Here's a wish that we can all relate to:  Happy holidays, everyone! 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Thunder Indoors

It used to be that rummaging in your local produce section was downright dangerous:  Without warning, the sprinkler system would turn on, freshening up the broccoli but dousing your hands in the process.  Several of my local grocery stores play a very clever soundtrack as a warning so you can avoid this negative consequence of selecting your veggies:  They run a short tape of a thunderstorm first!  I applaud the cleverness of whoever thought this one up--and I've duly learned to withdraw when I hear this signal.

This is a really short post, but I've had a cold for over two weeks now <sigh>.  Hope all of you are doing a better job at staying healthy!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Step by Step: Exercising the Positive Way

As we plunge into the holiday season in much of the world, weight management might be on your mind.  I covered a number of consequence-based methods that can help in the book, and new research comes out every day.

Exercise is an important part of weight management, and quite apart from that, it's an important healthy habit for everyone.  Here’s a link to the US Center for Disease Control’s webpage with exercise recommendations. The idea is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, and tackle strength training twice a week.  If you’re at these levels, you’re ahead of the game!  How do we get--and keep--ourselves on track (literally)?

Simply recording how much you exercise can provide enough reinforcement for effective motivation.  I know that one of my friends who bought an electronic pedometer started walking more.  After all, what fun to watch the number of steps add up.  If you monitor your progress on a graph with a rewarding upward slope of steps per week, all the better.  Some of the devices on the market do this automatically.

A recent study by University of Florida researchers in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis used an admirably simple approach to investigate what might help inactive older people.  The participants didn't even have to come in to the university much, because the Internet let them submit their results far more easily and frequently.  At first, they followed their usual routines while wearing pedometers, providing a "baseline" level of activity.  Using these initial data, the researchers then set goals for each participant individually.  Everyone submitted their results each night--and got to see graphs of their progress.  In one group, that was essentially it.  In another group, small payments were available in addition for meeting the goals.  Would money make a difference?

Well, yes, the group getting the financial incentives did do better, meeting nearly all of their goals.  But that wasn't the take-home point.  Instead, and even more encouraging:  Both groups exercised substantially more than they had been.

Of course, take advantage of social support, commitments, intrinsically rewarding forms of exercise, etc.  And enjoy the holidays!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

One Year Ago

A year ago, I was frantically preparing for the November 17th launch of The Science of Consequences at the Miami Book Fair International (and worrying about what would follow).  The book was hot off the presses--indeed, the official publication date wasn't until the 20th--so I saw it for the first time at the fair.  What a feeling!--the culmination of so many years of effort.  And what a launch . . .  I enjoyed enthusiastic receptions both at my book fair talk and at my talk at Florida International University.  I'd been a faculty member there for 5 years, so I had lots of friends and colleagues in the area to help give my book tour a memorable start.

Since then, it's taken me to 15 US states for about 60 talks, interviews, and other book events.  In the spring I'll have my first international tour, to Scandinavia.  Whew . . .  Give me a moment to take a deep breath and remember some of the highlights, like revisiting FIU, the University of Kansas, and other colleges and universities where I was a student or a faculty member.   Speaking to several large enthusiastic audiences in the hundreds--but also to informal groups of 10 or 20 who explored the science with me in stimulating and adventurous discussion.  Staying with kind friends, colleagues, and (in a few cases) strangers who opened their houses and their hearts to me.  The diner where fellow patrons unexpectedly paid for my lunch without my knowledge.  The airplane seatmates who exchanged some amazing life stories.  The NPR interview in Kansas City and the talk in the Seattle Science Lectures series, both big highlights.  The huge and completely unexpected poster about my talk on the side of Baltimore's downtown public library. Making so many new friends:  people who had read my book, or were inspired by my presentation (this is so rewarding and powerful), or who just happened to fall into intense one-on-ones about life and its possibilities.  Watching a bald eagle mount high into the sky at the end of my southeastern trip, thinking that life doesn't get much better.

And this is just a small sample . . .  Wish I'd kept a journal. 

I wrote The Science of Consequences because I felt so passionate about the incredible value of this science, its life-changing applications, and its critical role in the larger nature-and-nurture system.  It's been an immense privilege to help spread the word about it, and I'll be continuing my efforts.  Many thanks to all those who scheduled and hosted the events, conducted the interviews, wrote the blog posts, helped with the arrangements, came to the talks, and offered advice and assistance in lots of other ways.  Just as so many helped me with the book over its ten-year gestation, I would not have gotten far during this past year of book touring without you.

As I begin my second year of publicizing this science and my book about it, thanks for your support--and wish me luck!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bird Migration, Ultralights, Magnetic Fields, and Consequences

Bird migration is on my mind, and not just because of the geese I’ve been hearing overhead.  I’ve been fine-tuning a book-related talk for the Central Valley Birding Symposium here in California later this month:  "No Birdbrains Here: The Latest on Bird Learning, Instinct, and Intelligence."  Should be fun.

This birding festival is scheduled at a time when many thousands of birds descend upon the Central Valley for the winter, particularly ducks and geese.  An additional winter highlight is the spectacular, nearly five-foot-tall "greater" subspecies of the sandhill crane (along with the smaller "lesser" subspecies).  The crane in the photo is an adult, as you can tell by its red crown.

While learning appears to play at least a small role in the migration of many bird species, it clearly plays a major role for cranes and most waterfowl.  The cranes, for example, migrate in their family groups.  Without adults to guide them south, young birds born that year are clueless.

Attempts to re-establish the endangered whooping crane in some of its former eastern US range have relied on ultralight aircraft leading the way (see this link).  Encouragingly, the first group of young birds managed to return to their breeding grounds on their own in the spring.  Researchers have found, however, that the cranes continue learning, fine-tuning their migration routes over many years (and this long and detailed blog post by GrrlScientist provides a nice summary).

As always, the interactions between "instincts" and learning from consequences are fascinating--and there’s still much we don’t know when it comes to migration.  What exactly is the role of the earth's magnetic field, for example?  Some migrant birds are clearly influenced by it, but decades of research have shown that the story is complex and still mysterious.  One of my colleagues, Michael Davison (University of Auckland, New Zealand), coauthored a study on this topic in the prestigious journal Nature.  Using a choice setup--with rewarding consequences, of course--the researchers demonstrated that homing pigeons could detect changes in the intensity and inclination of a magnetic field.  Pretty impressive.

For really impressive, though, visit your local park or wildlife refuge and marvel at the feats of long-distance migrants, frequently returning over thousands of  miles to the same breeding and wintering areas year after year.  If you can't get away, I recommend Scott Weidensaul's Living on the Wind, a great read about bird migration in the Americas. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Video Games, Schedules of Reinforcement, and a Lot of Money

An NPR radio report this morning covered the way companies use data from online video games to keep kids playing and to sell in-game products.  (Here's a link.) The report says that the for-profit study of these games has "become a science."  Indeed, even several decades ago, science was being applied to the early games.  But few could have anticipated just how big the video game industry would become. 

Why play at all?  Because of the reinforcing consequences--consequences on schedules of reinforcement.

Anywhere there are consequences (which is everywhere), they're on schedules.  So applications of schedules are everywhere, video games included. A classic article on the reinforcement schedules in video games appeared in the trade magazine Gamasutra in 2001 (article link). And author John Hopson got the schedules absolutely right:  ratio (work-based), interval (time-based), etc., and the typical behavior patterns they produce.  Obviously, game designers generally want a high, steady, and persistent rate of play.  If you've read my book, you know why they go for variable ratio schedules for those basic experience points or extra skills.  But designers also utilize time-based schedules:  With the slower rates of play that they foster, these schedules encourage more exploration--more chances to check out the new possibilities that the game designers introduce for variety.  After a while, also, anyone can get tired of a frenetic pace and want a bit of a break.  The international connections provided by the real Internet friends who are helping or fighting you adds another dimension, with social reinforcers adding to the attraction.  You can see where the science comes in, as game designers try to build in optimal schedules of reinforcement as they balance all the other factors they need to consider. 

Negative consequences play a role too:  You want to avoid getting killed in the game, or losing tools, or friends.  The possibilities are infinite, and avoidance is a powerful motivator.  The NPR report notes what scientists find, that being given an immediate threat enhances the power of the opportunity to pay real money for survival aids.

On a larger scale, reaching the next level in the hierarchy of accomplishment is a big positive reinforcer (shaping!).  While World of Warcraft offers different scenarios, most with dozens of levels, Candy Crush Saga has hundreds of levels.  Caught up in the game for weeks or months, kids and adults alike can lose track of how much they've spent.  Because the games are online and require permission to join, every click can get recorded into the database.

How big are these effects?  The top games raise millions of dollars every day.  That's the power of consequences . . .

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Culture and Consequences

Weisman Art Museum
I hit the road again in a couple days, only a week after I returned from my big southeastern book tour.  This time it's a short trip to the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota's Gehry-designed building in Minneapolis.  I will be one of the presenters in an anniversary evening devoted to a discussion of choice, and I want to devote this blog post to one of my topics: culture.

Different cultures and subcultures maintain different standards in the arts and elsewhere, and consequences are clearly involved.  If everyone at a party prefers pop music and you start playing country/western or rap or classical, there might well be adverse consequences.  Speaking of classical music, a century ago, the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with harsh, unpredictable rhythms and dissonance, famously provoked a riot.  One leading critic called the music "barbaric."  Where have we heard this more recently?  Oh, yes--the introduction of rock music in the 1950s and 60s was greeted with similar expressions by some.

How do we develop musical or artistic preferences to begin with?  Often from positive childhood associations, and sometimes explicit consequences and rules:  "This is considered a classic." - meaning "Most people like this so you probably should too."  Social norms operate all over the place, don't they?  All these processes are dynamic, of course, and our preferences and associated reinforcer values can and do change over time. 

Food cultures have a few extra wrinkles.  In his recent book Cooked, Michael Pollan discusses the laborious process in Korea of developing a taste for the sour national dish, kimchi--in its basic form, fermented cabbage.  I've tried it several times--most recently on my southeastern trip--and with all the good will in the world, I could not make myself eat much of it.  (But I hasten to add that the rest of that Korean dinner was great.)

For many Korean kids also, a taste for the dish must be trained over time:  Eating kimchi is modeled by adults, there's a slew of positive associations in the larger culture that enhance its reward value, and the youngsters get directly praised for persistently trying it.  It goes beyond, say, acquiring a preference for your local barbecue style in the US, because for most people kimchi is definitely an acquired taste.  It's a healthful, nutritional dish, though.

Among the obvious applications, taking advantage of these cultural value-enhancement methods can help to develop healthy eating habits in youngsters.  I'll devote a future post to approaches like the successful Food Dudes program encouraging kids to eat fruits and vegetables.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Road Again (and Loving It)

OK, maybe I don't love all of it--not the long drives, for example--but I do like bringing the science of consequences to people across the nation.  I'm now into the second week of a three-week book tour to the southeast:  Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.  (I speak in Huntsville tomorrow.)  Highlights have been too many to list!

I knew I'd have trouble keeping up this blog this month. Just bear with me . . .  Gotta hit the road!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Nine Events in Nine Days

That's why I haven't posted lately!  Sixteen hundred miles into my Oregon/Northern California/Western Nevada book tour, I'm finally turning toward home.  Just two more events:  Sundance Books in Reno tonight, and Lyon Books in Chico tomorrow.  Then I take a deep breath and prepare for my big southeastern trip in a week and a half. 

While all of this makes for a hectic lifestyle, I have to say that this trip has been great, and I'm looking forward to the next one.  Hope to see some of you soon!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Agility Training--with Mice?

I haven't posted on positive animal training in a while, so here's a link to a youtube video from a few years ago that stuck in my memory:  "Trickmousing."  It's a bit less than 3 minutes long, and "cute" is a word that inevitably will come to mind.

Most people have heard of dog agility by now; there are local and national competitions in which the dogs eagerly leap hurdles, dash through tunnels, and handle a series of other obstacles as directed by their humans, who run alongside.  On the Links page of my website is a video of a lamb surmounting the same challenges.  Why not?  Even so, how cool that mice can do this sort of thing too--and more.  On the video, the mice leap little hurdles, retrieve marbles, dunk a basketball, and even skateboard.  (Hey, remember that dogs can learn to drive a car, no foolin'.)

The accomplishments of these mice show what positive reinforcement and clicker training can do.  As many of my readers know, the clicker sound is immediate and obvious (you can hear it in the video), and serves as a reinforcer in itself as well as a "bridge" to a more powerful reward like the food that the mice get. Specific information about these mice and their training is available through the links at the youtube site.  (For general information, see the links on my website or the references in my book.)  I appreciated that the trainer recognized how social these animals are and took pains to avoid isolating them.  That's why more than one mouse is frequently in view, although only one is showing off its stuff at any given time.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Learning to See

A recent post on Current Developments in Behavioral Science summarized the latest research showing that babies have to learn to perceive and avoid the apparent dropoffs called "visual cliffs."  Even though they can see, their lack of experience with depth perception and the dangers of heights puts them at risk.

While that's taken for granted these days, I was reminded of two related findings even more dramatic.  The first can be illustrated by an example from anthropologist Colin Turnbull's classic, The Forest People, in which he describes his time living with the Pygmies of what's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  On his first trip away from his dense jungle home into large open spaces, Turnbull’s friend Kenge thought distant objects like animals really were as small and bug-like as they appeared.  His background had not provided suitable experience in perspective, showing how important learning from consequences is to this essential skill.  Presumably, as children we have to learn this too.  Anyone remember their experience?

Then there's the line of research on blind people whose sight has been enabled.  Way back in the 17th century, John Locke speculated that such people who were blind from birth would be unable to visually discriminate shapes without some experience.  He appears to have been right (and that's also the case for many blind people who'd previously had sight, but not for many years).

In one recent case study, a young woman born blind had her sight partially restored in one eye at the age of 12.  According to her parents, only after months of learning was she able to acquire skills such as the ability to recognize people visually (Ostrovsky, Andalman, and Sinha, Psychological Science, 2006).  These researchers summarized current views about these skills as "learned over time through experience" (p. 1013).  For a less positive example tracking the ups and downs of the process in detail, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described the case of "Virgil" in An Anthropologist on Mars.  As Sacks pointed out, unfortunately, a number of the re-sighted never attain anything close to normal vision, and some understandably become depressed. 

Talk about depressing, some experts used to think that most re-sighted blind people would never be able to use their vision properly because of irreversible changes in their brains.  Let's hang on to some hope, though:  Clearly some can.  And, while the extensive brain plasticity that we now celebrate is far from unlimited, perhaps new help for rehabilitation may come from the introduction of methods from the science of consequences--much as has been the case for stroke victims (described in Chapter 4 of my book).

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who's Got Rhythm?

Animals do!  People used to think that our own species might be unique in following a musical beat.  Wrong.

In my book, I cited a 20th century anecdote from author and animal lover Gerald Durrell:  "A hand-raised pigeon loved music and would snuggle close to the speaker of an old-fashioned record player. What’s more, the bird performed distinctive dances to marches and waltzes."  That would seem to indicate some sense of rhythm, along with possible intrinsic reinforcement value for moving in time to a beat.  I'm sure there must be many such anecdotes.  (Do share them if you know of any!)  In the end note accompanying Durrell's story, I mentioned a sulphur-crested cockatoo that appeared to be following the rhythm of rock music, made famous on a youtube video that went viral.  Researchers in the journal Current Biology concluded that indeed the bird was.

The next step:  Check it out with a mammalian species--and one that's not especially good at vocal flexibility in response to consequences.  In a recent issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Peter Cook and colleagues showed that Ronan the female sea lion could learn to bob her head to different rhythms just fine, even from complex music.  Thirty weekend training sessions was all it took.  Standard positive reinforcement methods were used, and if you want to enjoy watching Ronan in action, check out "Beat keeping in a CA Sea Lion" on youtube.
 From lab studies, we've known for many years that animals can learn to time events quite accurately.  How cool that scientists are now building on this research to look at something that appears to come naturally to many people.  I would say everyone, but I've danced with some who could have used a few lessons!

Most people, like Durrell's pigeon, find that moving in rhythm with the beat of music is rewarding.  Where does that come from?  Would Ronan eventually enjoy "dancing" and do it spontaneously, like Durrell's bird?  Stay tuned for further research.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Following by email

Just a quick note:  I post about four times a month--not four times a week--so having the ability to follow this blog automatically is especially handy.  According to some comments I've received, the existing way to choose "follow" doesn't always work reliably.  I've now added a widget in the righthand column that should let you do this more easily (via email).  Do please let me know of any problems with it, and thanks for your interest in this blog!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Palo Alto and beyond

For those of you following my peripatetic year of book touring, August is a quiet month.  (Very welcome!)  I am really looking forward to my sole event, though--a talk at the Books Inc store in Palo Alto on Thursday the 22nd (7 PM).  Stanford is practically across the street, and it's lovely to be able to drive.

Upcoming in Sep/Oct, another driving trip, to Oregon, northern California, and western Nevada.  Then an ambitious trip crisscrossing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama . . .  I'll be ready for another break after that!

Summer is moving along swiftly; enjoy the rest of it, everyone.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

George Marshall and the "It changed my life" memory

Continuing with the last post's theme of memory, I just finished Ed Cray's biography of George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during World War II and chief author of the postwar Marshall Plan for European reconstruction (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize).  Talk about an individual who had a big impact on the world . . .

His prospects didn't start out looking very good, though.  As Cray reports, the young Marshall was a mediocre student.  Planning to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college, Marshall overheard his older brother urging his mother not to send George there, because he couldn’t cut it.  Hearing that, Marshall said later, gave him loads of extra motivation; in terms of the science of consequences, it considerably changed the reward value of academic and military success.  In his first year, Marshall worked hard, was ranked 18 out of 82 academically, and was named "first corporal" for the following year, a distinct honor. 

That's all neat and tidy, and I'm not doubting that this one overheard remark did have a big impact.  But in any human life, so many things influence consequences and motivation, it seems important to remember that they act in a messy, cumulative way. (It's a system!)  That's taking nothing away from the good story value and real significance of the "It changed my life" memory--which I appreciate as much as the next person.  Indeed, I have a few of my own . . .

Perhaps we all are under some pressure to develop rather simplified answers to common questions like "What's the secret of your success in school/your chosen career/your marriage?"  Think about the consequences for long, rambling, indeterminate answers.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Trying to remember

Yesterday I struggled to remember something I'd intended to mention during a phone conversation.  If I don't write it down ahead of time, it's a hit-or-miss proposition.

Same thing for those great thoughts I might have while I'm driving, or when I awaken at 3 AM.  When I arrive at my destination, or get up at 7, those thoughts have flown the coop.  The science is clear:  Using mnemonic techniques can help us cage those flighty birds.  Even in the 21st century, mnemonics have a place.

In Introductory Psychology, students learn about a method used by the ancient Greeks:  associating things to remember with locations or objects in a consistent sequence.  You might imagine walking around your living room, noting landmarks like a lamp, an end table, a sofa, etc. To remember that you want to attend your niece's trombone recital, you picture a horn sticking out of your lamp.  (The weirder the image, the better.)  For a whole list of things to remember, just add associations to the standard landmarks, in order.

With smartphones and all the rest of our high-tech doo-dads, do we really need mnemonic devices?  Not as much as the ancient Greeks, surely.  But they still come in handy surprisingly often, and the skill is a useful one to develop.

I could summarize some of the extensive data showing that these methods really work.  But instead, I want to focus on why we use them.  And that's--consequences!  I can personally testify how annoyed I get when I think I'll remember something and I don't.  Ouch.  Conversely, when I take the extra time to use a mnemonic technique, how rewarding when it works--and how much more likely I am to use it again.  Even a simple method, like saying out loud what I want to remember, does take extra time and effort.  It's a choice:  a more effortful behavior with the likely consequence of a longer-lasting memory, versus just hoping for the best and (all too often) forgetting.  Those darned delays are an inherent part of these particular choices, exerting their usual drag.  But over time, we can learn to remember--given enough consequences.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Schedules of consequences on the Pacific Crest Trail

 "Every time I moved, it hurt.  I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again.  The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one" (p. 63).  That's a quote from Cheryl Strayed's engrossing, bestselling memoir, Wild, which I recently read.  After personal losses and struggles, Strayed saved up to be able to hike much of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California through Oregon.  With boots that were too small and feet rubbed raw, her persistence wins readers' hearts.

The strategy in the quote will be familiar if you've read my book:  Added signals that indicate progress can double as extra rewards that help us keep going.  The schedule for these particular signals?  A steady hundred by hundred means a fixed work-based schedule, the same as a "fixed ratio."  Keeping track of progress in other ways ought to have helped too, such as making it to the next bend, then to a particular tree, etc.  Little rewards can make a surprisingly big difference.

Much farther along the trail, out of water during a heat wave and desperate (and still with those painful feet!):
"I counted my steps, working my way to a hundred and starting over again at one.  Each time I completed another set it seemed as if I’d achieved a small thing.  Then a hundred became too optimistic and I went to fifty, then twenty-five, then ten" (p. 193). 

Not to spoil it, but obviously Strayed did live to tell the tale.  And this application from the science of consequences helped.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Say hello to Seattle

I was in Seattle last year for the largest annual behavior analysis conference--which was terrific--and now I get to return.  I'm thrilled to be presenting in the Seattle Science Lectures series at their Town Hall on Thursday, July 11 (7:30).  My other public talk in the area is at Tacoma's King's Books on Monday, July 15 (7 PM).

And while I'm there, naturally, I'll be doing some birdwatching--possibly even Mt. Rainier!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

More on Signals: Reviving "Over"

My most popular blog post to date is last September's on "Extra Signals."  In it, I provided examples of the benefits of "extra" signals like the color coding for the "Send" button in gmail.  I still muse over these daily applications of the science of consequences, so here's a not-entirely-whimsical suggestion as a follow-up.

Ever get slightly annoyed when a phone conversation turns into an awkward tussle over taking turns?--where you and your phoner jump in at the same time, or, avoiding the unpleasantness of an interruption, you let the phoner drone on about something far too long?  The visual cues in a one-on-one are lacking. 

Clear and efficient communication is especially critical for airplane-control tower conversations, among others.  We all know from movies and TV that "over" is a standardized signal that the speaker is ready to become a listener. How about bringing this into our ordinary phone conversations?

Speaker 1: Yadda, yadda, yadda . . .  And by the way, I wonder how your daughter's been doing with that.  Over.

Speaker 2:  Well, she yadda, yadda, yadda . . .

If anyone tries this, let me know how it goes!  Over and out.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Discriminating Pigeons

We know pigeons can categorize classical music, apparently in similar ways that we do.  We also know they can distinguish a Monet painting from a Picasso.  These and many other pigeon feats are in my book.  But who would possibly have thought that pigeons could learn to categorize children's "good" and "bad" art? 

One of the neat things about being on a book tour is learning from members of my audiences--stories from their lives or their reading.  In Minnesota, one audience member told me about this recent study in Animal Cognition by the same researcher (Shigeru Watanabe) who did the Monet-Picasso study.  The "good" and "bad" art was judged by people, of course, 10 adults and an art teacher--but the pigeons readily learned similar standards.  Then they generalized to novel examples of children's art.

What is it that makes for "bad" art?  It was messier and harder to identify objects, for one.  But defining the basis used for categorizing wasn't easy even for the art teacher.

Using clever tests, Watanabe showed that the birds were using color and pattern as a basis for their choices.  We do too, of course.  Does that mean that the birds would enjoy viewing the "good" art?  It's not an outlandish question.  We know that a species of sparrow prefers melodic music over dissonant sounds, after all (also courtesy of Dr. Watanabe).  And pigeons have great vision, unlike our closer companions, dogs.

Kind of makes us look at these common street birds a bit differently!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Minnesota book tour highlights

I'm back from beautiful, rainy Minnesota, where I gave four book talks, two separate book signings, attended a conference, tried an Afghan restaurant, watched dog "flyball" practice, and fit in a bit of birdwatching with colleagues.  It was an eventful week!  One of the highlights:  Roughly 250 attended my invited address at the Association for Behavior Analysis conference (a group that specializes in the science of consequences).  Wow.  That's my biggest book tour audience yet.  Another highlight was visiting St. Olaf College, where I taught 20 years ago, and catching up with an old friend.  Actually, there were a lot of highlights!  Doing the book tours is more fun than arranging them, no question.  Rain or not.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Helping Kids Undergo Medical Procedures

Adults have enough trouble with painful medical procedures.  Think about what kids face . . .  How can we help them cope? 

An article in the March issue of the Monitor on Psychology, a magazine from the American Psychological Association, summarizes several approaches, including one based directly on the science of consequences.  (See link here; the article is called "Vulnerable Patients.") 

Psychologist Keith Slifer (Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University) helps children with sleep apnea, who may have to wear an uncomfortable breathing mask at night.  By gradually introducing the mask--watching others use it, for example--and rewarding the children for making progress, the youngsters have less trouble adjusting to wearing it. 

What reinforcers are used in this sort of work?  Praise is pretty universal, but beyond that, not surprisingly, they vary.  While stickers work for many kids, they don't work for all.  One youngster hated getting wired up for an electroencephalogram (EEG).  Slifer's team ended up using the chance to toss a ball as a very effective reward.

One successful innovation also used elsewhere is "break cards."  Children undergoing a procedure can give these to the nurse when they need a break--getting immediate reinforcement by escaping the discomfort, plus the benefits of control.  (Not a bad idea for adults either.)  Do the kids ask for too many breaks?  No, says Slifer, they're generally reasonable--a real win-win situation.

The rewards for the psychologists?  Seeing their patients cope better, with less pain and frustration.  Successfully thinking up more ways to ease the process.  And, not least, the fun of coming up with creative rewards for their patients. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Heading to the Twin Cities area

And I'll be there in Minnesota throughout the last week of May, doing book events practically every day!  I'll start out with an invited address at the Association for Behavior Analysis conference (and two book signing sessions).  As I mention in the book, "behavior analysis" is the name for the scientific/practice field that specializes in the science of consequences as its core area, so I eagerly anticipate this event each year.  Then I'm speaking at Common Good Books (Garrison Keillor's bookstore) on May 29 at 7 PM.  On the 30th, I'll be at Carleton College in Northfield for a noon talk, and on the 31st at 6:30 PM, at the Twin Cities Obedience Training Club (positive reinforcement basis).  Whew.  See the Events page on the book's website for details--and see you there!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On not getting the reference: When popular culture fragments

People may disagree about the consequences, but not about the basic fact:  In the United States, as elsewhere in the developed world, popular culture ain't what it used to be.  So many entertainment, educational, and other cultural choices are now available that the mass media are reaching far less massive masses, and common ground can be hard to find. While that makes it easier to enjoy your favorite niches, it's become harder for people to connect.
Herman Melville
I think of this every time someone exclaims about a character in a new TV show I never heard of.  (I don't have cable.)  The other day, someone showed me a New Yorker cartoon of Captain Ahab and a red whale.  Allusions to well-known classics like Melville's Moby Dick may still be safe for most New Yorker readers, but certainly not everyone.

What's especially interesting for me is, naturally, the connection to reward value.  Hearing an unknown reference can make tracking it down reinforcing--sometimes so much so that I head for my computer and do it right away.  Talk about creating motivation.  It's almost like a mystery to be solved. 

What makes it sufficiently reinforcing that this happens?  Lots of factors, of course.  If the reference is made by someone I chat with regularly.  If it's positive and comes up more than once or twice.  If it's relevant to what I do, or something else I find rewarding.  Even if I hear total strangers discussing it, if it sounds sufficiently humorous or important or popular.  You can generate your own list, an interesting exercise in understanding your own motivations.  If I'm crunched for time--recall that we always have choices between different consequences--then I might forget it, or make a note of it for the weekend.

Sometimes the effects are considerably delayed.  I'm not sure what finally did it, but after resisting for years, I finally read the whole Harry Potter series and saw the movies. Now I know what everyone was talking about!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dance of the Balloons

Balloons created and clutched by little dance flies, that is . . . as described in my book.  Over time, different species in this family of insects developed variations on the basic dance that forms their courtship ritual--"as close to behavior fossils as we're going to get."
Dance flies with "balloon."  © Ken R. Schneider

I've never seen this spectacle, but now my brother has!  He was even able to get this photo.  You can't really see it, but attached to the balloon is an even tinier edible insect for the female to nosh on during mating.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Holes in the jeans

Find holes in most items of clothing and throw them out or fix them up.  Holes in jeans, it's a style!

Faddish fashion rewards can and do regularly overrule common sense.  When I taught college in Minnesota, I well remember my surprise at seeing students wearing jeans with holes in the frigid midwinter.  Brrr.  The celebrity who got this one started has a lot to answer for!  The style has been passĂ© for years, which is some reassurance.

But then, no one said that rewards have to make sense.  And no one said marketers couldn't try to make weird things desirable.  They can and they do. 

And we do too.  On a more everyday basis, consider the effort we go to to get others interested in what we like--that is, to change its consequence value for them.  (If they come to like it, that's rewarding for us.)  It might be something unusual, or it might just be a new movie.  Know people well and you know exactly what approach has the best chance of working.  After all, you've seen what works for them in the past.

You might even be able to convince them to put holes in their jeans.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Heading for DC area

I'll be monitoring the progress of spring in an upcoming three-state book tour to Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia.  No more snow, please . . .

The Virginia Festival of the Book is where I start, with a talk on Friday, March 22nd--right near the famous Rotunda!  I've never been to Charlottesville before, and I'm looking forward to it.  I'm in a panel with fellow nonfiction author Toby Lester, speaking about his new book Da Vinci's Ghost--which provides the history of da Vinci's famous anatomical "man in a circle" drawing. It's fascinating, and we were able to find connections between our books.  I also enjoyed Lester's first book, The Fourth Part of the World, which delves into the history of European maps of the world, leading up to how the Americas got their name.

Here's the rest of the talks:  St. Mary's College of Maryland on Monday, March 25th, University of Maryland-College Park on March 27th, West Virginia University on April 1st, and Baltimore's downtown Enoch Pratt public library on April 2nd.  For details about times and locations, please check out the Events page on my website:  here.  I hope to see some of you on the trip!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Second printing

A quick note--I just found out that The Science of Consequences has gone into a second printing!  Thanks, everyone, for your interest in the book.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Preschooler Self-control

Choices.  Go for the impulsive smaller-sooner or the larger-later reward?  These decisions challenge us throughout our lives.  Develop self-control, and choose the wiser larger-later more consistently.  Just as we can see in our everyday experience, researchers find a host of benefits.

But we all know it's not easy.  Starting young helps, but how do we get kids to resist their natural impulse to grab?

In a new article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, researchers at the University of Kansas checked out a few of the possibilities--for preschoolers.  One of the established methods includes a type of shaping process (called "delay fading"), in which individuals face the same delay to the two choices at first, and naturally choose the larger reward.  The delay to that outcome is then gradually increased.  VoilĂ !  Maybe self-control isn't so hard after all.  Another successful method involves teaching kids to repeat a rule about the benefits of waiting.  A third is providing other activities to help bridge the delay.

In their study, the researchers tested different forms of self-control aids that don't rely on gradually increased delays: (a) provide a timer, (b) include a brief rule, one that's not repeated, and (c) make toys available during the delay.  The delay to the larger reward was only 5 minutes.  Even so, in this case, only (c) reliably enhanced self-control for the children.

Psychologist Walter Mischel famously found that preschoolers who had more self-control in the "marshmallow test" (one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes for two) also did better on their college exams many years later.  Self-control matters.  So start 'em young!