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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Animals, self-interest, rewards, and fairness

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

Interesting research about how animals seem to have a sense of fair play.

We would offer a pebble to one of the pair and then hold out a hand so that the monkey could give it back in exchange for a cucumber slice. Alternating between them, both monkeys would happily barter 25 times in a row. The atmosphere turned sour, however, as soon as we introduced inequity. One monkey would still receive cucumber, while its partner now enjoyed grapes, a favourite food with monkeys. While that monkey had no problem, the one still working for cucumber would lose interest. Worse, seeing its partner with juicy grapes, this monkey would get agitated, hurl the pebbles out of the test chamber, sometimes even those measly cucumber slices. A food normally devoured with gusto had become distasteful.

Discarding perfectly fine food simply because someone else is getting something better resembles the way we reject an unfair share of money or grumble about an agreed-upon rate of pay. Where do these reactions come from? They probably evolved in the service of cooperation. Caring about what others get may seem petty and irrational, but in the long run it keeps one from being taken advantage of.

And if the system of rewards gets far enough out of balance, the animals getting the poorer rewards may make life tough for the critter with the better rewards. While acting in self-interest is the default, the tendency can be overridden in cases where there might be repercussions from greed. In other words, spreading the wealth, at least a little bit, might be advantageous and part of the make-up of social animals. The concept is at least interesting enough for further research.

Read the article from New Scientist.

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It’s really harmful? It’s not just my opinion?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology is jam-packed with brief summaries of strange and interesting psychological research. We’re talking about things like whether or not watching religious programming affects people’s senses of humor, how walking speed is related to the pace of life in various cities, and, my favorite, whether regular exposure to country music increases the rate of suicide.

To find out, the researchers looked at the suicide rate and the amount of country music played on national radio in forty-nine areas across the United States. After controlling for several other factors, such as poverty, divorce, and gun ownership, the researchers did find that the more country music played on the radio, the higher the suicide rate. [page 145]

I knew that crap was bad for you.

Now, I tried to read the original article (“The effect of country music on suicide”, by Stack and Gundlach, Social Forces, volume 71, issues 1, pages 211-128, September 1992) and pick it to shreds, but it was written in statistics-ian. And I could only understand about every third word. So I’ll just have to Wiseman’s word that everything about the study is kosher.

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Is there some parallel behavior in humans?

Posted by c. wagner on November 6, 2009

Huh. I had no idea that females of some species trade sex for special treatment from mails. Female fiddler crabs get protection, red-winged blackbirds get hunting rights, and Adelie penguins get nest-building materials. Huh.

Read the article from the New Scientist.

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Can you read MY mind?

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

More and more, life seems to be imitating science fiction. One of yesterday’s headlines was

Psychic computer shows your thoughts on screen

Despite the exciting language, the system can’t read your mind. It can reproduce, in a fuzzy way, images that a person in a functional MRI (fMRI) is seeing or thinking of. It uses the fMRI’s indications of what parts of the brain are stimulated by an image as input for a fancy bit of software that uses that information to generate images on a computer screen. The images are really low resolution and occasionally missing important elements. They can’t yet capture sounds or abstract thoughts. Just images.

But still, it’s a really cool technology.

Of course, the article threatens that this may someday be used to pry into Joe-on-the-street’s private thoughts. Somehow they’re forgetting that the program requires the target be in a huge piece of medical equipment for it to work at all. And it can’t “see” anything but images. There’s a long way to go until we can aim a camera at someone and read their thoughts.

Read the article at the Times Online.

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Should I just take the sugar pills now?

Posted by c. wagner on November 4, 2009

This is just plain weird to me. The placebo response is getting stronger. It’s harder for new medicines in the United States to outperform sugar pills.

Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

Maybe the homeopaths and their sugar pills really are on the cutting edge. Maybe I should stop making fun of them….

Nah. That can’t be it.

A few studies exploring why this seems to be happening have been published.

These new findings tell us that the body’s response to certain types of medication is in constant flux, affected by expectations of treatment, conditioning, beliefs, and social cues.

In other words (and in part), as we’ve gotten used to pills curing what ails us, our response to any old pill has become more powerful.

And, in attempting to figure out why, researchers have learned a lot more about how the nervous system works. Pretty cool.

Read the article at Wired.

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It’s slip-sliding away.

Posted by c. wagner on November 3, 2009

Okay, this is just plain cool. Here we have a landslide that has been sliding for about 700 years. Recent research indicates that it’s moving about a centimeter a day and that the sliding might be aided by daily changes in atmospheric pressure.

Read more about the Slumgullion Earthflow and the effect of atmospheric pressure.

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Is hope overrated?

Posted by c. wagner on November 3, 2009

“Hope is an important part of happiness,” said Peter A. Ubel, M.D., director of the U-M[ichigan] Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine and one of the authors of the happily hopeless study, “but there’s a dark side of hope. Sometimes, if hope makes people put off getting on with their life, it can get in the way of happiness.”

The researchers told divided people with the same medical condition into two groups. The first they told that their condition was permanent. The second was told that the condition was reversible. On follow up, the folks in the “permanent” group were happier overall than those who were expecting a change.

It seems like accepting things the way they are may make you happier than waiting for the day that things are better. Lemons and lemonade, to sink to the level of cliches.

Read the summary from the University of Michigan.

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You mean I can’t be happy all the time?

Posted by c. wagner on November 2, 2009

The key to a happy relationship could be accepting that some miserable times are unavoidable, experts say.

Therapists from California State University, Northridge and Virginia Tech say accepting these problems is better than striving for perfection.

And they blame cultural fairytales and modern love stories for perpetuating the myth that enjoying a perfect relationship is possible.

I love that folks can work for tenure by publishing common sense. Of course, sometimes common sense is wrong…. Or uncommon…. And I’ve published a bit of common sense as well on my ongoing path toward tenure…. *sigh*

Read the summary article from the BBC.

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