Air gun psychology

An amusing YouTube video demonstrates Ivan Pavlov’s principal of classical conditioning with an air gun, a novelty alarm and a reluctant college roommate.

Pavlov discovered that we learn to associate an established response to a new event simply by repeatedly pairing the new event to a situation that already caused the response. Famously he could trigger salivation in a dog just with the sound of a bell, simply by ringing a bell every time food was presented.

This video uses exactly the same principle, but instead of food, an airgun pellet is fired at a college roommate causing a painful reaction, and instead of a bell, an annoying novelty alarm is sounded.

Science. Standing on the shoulders of giants.

Link to YouTube video.

In the eye of the swarm

The Economist has a great article on how computer models of how bees, ants and birds operated in swarms, are being deployed as ‘artificial intelligence’ systems to solve previously unassailable problems.

To be honest, the premise of the piece is a little too grand to be plausible: the introductory paragraph announces “The search for artificial intelligence modelled on human brains has been a dismal failure. AI based on ant behaviour, though, is having some success.”

This is really not true, as artificial intelligence has actually been a great success when applied to limited and well-defined problems. The article really just explains how the study of swarm intelligence has allowed us to tackle a new set of limited and well-defined problems that were previously out of easy reach.

However, it does give some fantastic examples of how swarm behaviour, where the combination of simple individual behaviours can solve complex problems, can be applied to a range of problems:

In particular, Dr Dorigo was interested to learn that ants are good at choosing the shortest possible route between a food source and their nest. This is reminiscent of a classic computational conundrum, the travelling-salesman problem. Given a list of cities and their distances apart, the salesman must find the shortest route needed to visit each city once. As the number of cities grows, the problem gets more complicated. A computer trying to solve it will take longer and longer, and suck in more and more processing power. The reason the travelling-salesman problem is so interesting is that many other complex problems, including designing silicon chips and assembling DNA sequences, ultimately come down to a modified version of it.

Ants solve their own version using chemical signals called pheromones. When an ant finds food, she takes it back to the nest, leaving behind a pheromone trail that will attract others. The more ants that follow the trail, the stronger it becomes. The pheromones evaporate quickly, however, so once all the food has been collected, the trail soon goes cold. Moreover, this rapid evaporation means long trails are less attractive than short ones, all else being equal. Pheromones thus amplify the limited intelligence of the individual ants into something more powerful.


Link to Economist article ‘Riders on a Swarm’.
Link to Wikipedia article on swarm intelligence.

The early years

If you’re interested in the psychology of children and how they develop, two new blogs have recently appeared which are doing a fantastic job of covering an area that has previously neglected by online writers.

Child’s Play is a new blog on the Scientopia network that combines the talents of developmental psychologists Jason Goldman and Melody Dye – the latter who we recently featured owing to her writing a couple of great articles for Scientific American Mind.

Evidence Based Mummy is another excellent child psychology blog which focuses on how children develop and the effects of the family. It’s written by psychologist Rachel Robinson who became frustrated with official child care advice that didn’t seem to have much contact with actual studies on children.

Both are lively, engaging and not afraid to pull apart the science. Highly recommended.

Link to Child’s Play.
Link to Evidence Based Mummy .

The inflexible efficiency of babies

Photo by Flickr user imedagoze. Click for sourceScientific American Mind has an excellent article on how the inflexibility of young children’s brains can make them better learners than adults.

The piece riffs on the apparent paradox that humans develop into perhaps the most psychologically flexible of creatures and yet spend the longest with seemingly impaired mental functions. This is due to the relatively delayed development of the frontal lobes during childhood.

One particularly delayed skill is the ability to direct our attention – to the point where young children don’t have the flexibility to switch away from something that has grabbed their focus.

However, the article makes the point that this may be an evolutionary ‚Äúengineering trade-off” that actually makes children much better at learning certain rules – such as those often present in language.

To explain this, it helps to imagine you are playing a guessing game: You have to choose one of two options, either A or B, one of which leads to a prize, and one of which does not. After a few rounds, you notice that about three fourths of the time the prize is at A, and the rest of the time it is at B, so you decide to guess “A” 75 percent of the time and “B” 25 percent of the time. This is called probability matching, and it is the response pattern most adults tend to adopt in these circumstances. However, if the goal is to win the most prizes, it is not the best strategy. In fact, to maximize the number of correct predictions, you should always pick the more frequent outcome (or, in this case, always pick “A”).

Interestingly, if you were playing this kind of guessing game with a toddler, you would see that they would employ the maximization strategy almost immediately…

Children’s inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input, and this appears to play a crucial part in the establishment of stable linguistic norms. Studies of deaf children have shown that even when parental attempts at sign are error-prone and inconsistent, children still extract the conventions of a standard sign language from them. Indeed, the variable patterns produced by parents who learn sign language offers insight into what might happen if children did not maximize in learning: language, as a system, would become less conventional. What words meant and the patterns in which they were used would become more idiosyncratic and unstable, and all languages would begin to resemble pidgins.

The piece was written by researcher Melody Dye, who works in the lab where this research is being conducted. Also, don’t miss her article on why children have trouble acquiring color names, even far past the point when parents are confident that their pride and joy has mastered the skill.

Link to SciAmMind on ‘The Advantages of Being Helpless’.
Link to SciAmMind on ‘Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors’.

The ups and downs of smouldering talent

Photo by Flickr user beX out loud. Click for sourceIn Touched with Fire psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison argued that history’s great artists were more likely to have experienced mood problems and especially the ups and down of ‘manic depression’ that fuelled their intense creativity. The idea is attractive, although her book relied on a case by case interpretation of often long-dead figures.

Nevertheless, a new study on almost three quarters of a million Swedish young people has found remarkable support for the theory where high school students who had the highest levels of academic performance were, later in life, four times more likely to be hospitalised for bipolar disorder than average pupils.

It was also noticeable that pupils in the lowest grade range were also twice as likely to develop bipolar, with average students being at lowest risk.

The researchers controlled for parents level of education, social status and birth conditions to rule out these other factors which are known to affect the chances of developing the condition but the effect still remained.

In contrast, there seems to be a fairly direct relationship between performing poorly at school and the chance of developing schizophrenia in later life, suggesting that, to a certain extent, different influences on the developing brain may be at play.

However, it’s worth noting that although the rate of bipolar for the best performing pupils quadrupled, the risk remains low. For example, of the 9,427 top performing students only 12 were diagnosed and hospitalised with bipolar – a high rate compared to the average performers but still rare.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a great podcast discussion of the study with the lead researcher, psychiatrist James McCabe, and the full text of the paper is available online as a pdf.

Although McCabe suggests that the more ‘creative’ subjects seems to be most associated with bipolar, I have to say that’s probably pushing it a bit they seem to be fairly evenly spread, although, interestingly, performing well in handicraft and sport indicated the students were less likely to be diagnosed with the condition in later life.

pdf of scientific article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast about the study.

Pavlov, Office Style

This clip, from the US version of comedy show The Office, shows Jim training co-worker Dwight to expect a sweet everytime he reboots his computer.

From Vodpod.

Psychologists everywhere will recognise this an an application of classical conditioning. The ‘scientist’ Jim has heard of is, of course, Ivan Pavlov.

Thanks to Russ Fazio for showing us this clip during his keynote at the recent BPS Social Psychology Section conference.

The Straight Dope on Learning Styles


The glorious truth is that people think and learn differently. Some people like words, but not pictures, some like movements rather than sounds. Why are people different? Who knows, perhaps because Allah loves wondrous variety.

A funny thing is that we have the tendency to ignore this fact. Perhaps because empathy is difficult, perhaps because learning makes itself invisible. I have a dear friend, Cat, who doesn’t have visual imagery. When she thinks of a dog, for example, she doesn’t see one in her mind’s eye. She doesn’t see anything. When she dreams she rarely has pictures — she just knows what is happening in the dream. People often don’t believe this. They think that everyone must experience their inner world in pictures, the way they do. Sorry. People are just different. Some always see things when they imagine them, some don’t. Some people have a sense of pitch, some don’t. So it goes.

So the idea of learning styles makes a lot of intuitive sense. Surely if we know that people think and learn differently, we should be able to design our teaching to take advantage of different learning styles. Right?

This is where we hit problems. Are learners either primarily visual, auditory, kinesthetic (as claimed in NLP)? Or are they primarily analytic, creative or pragmatic (as proposed by Robert Sternberg). Is the world made of Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators and Accomodators? Maybe instead we should use the Myers-Briggs categories of Sensers, Intuitors, Thinkers and Feelers?

Faced with these possibilities an academic psychologist has a standard set of questions they would like answered: can you really divide people up into a particular set of categories? Are the tests for these categories reliable; if you take the test twice will you come out the same both times? Are the categories you are trying to use related to how people learn? If you use a theory of learning styles, do people learn better? Can you use learning styles to predict who will benefit most from particular styles of instruction? Does using a learning styles system – any system – for teaching have other effects on learners or teachings, such as making them more confident or making them expend more effort?

These questions stem from the way academic psychologists systematically approach topics: we like to establish the truth of psychological claims. If someone comes to us with a theory about learning styles we want to know (a) if learning styles really exist, (b) if they really are associated with better learning and also (c) if, when learning styles are taken into account, learning is better because of something about the specific learing style theory rather than just being a side effect of an increase in teacher confidence, effort or somesuch.

So, what have academic psychologists found out about learning styles? We know that some of the supposed categories of learning styles are actually dimensions that vary continuously across the population. For example visual imagery: it is not that some people are visual thinkers, it is that most people have some visual imagery and a few have very strong imagery and a few, like my friend Cat, have less than average. We also know that people can change their learning styles over time, for different tasks and in different contexts. We also know that it is very difficult to prove that teaching that uses learning styles is better because of the particular theory of learning styles used, rather than merely because a learning style theory, any learning style theory, is being used and this makes people pay more attention to what they are doing.

Learning styles seem intuitively sensible. Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation. But there is no strong evidence that any one theory of learning styles is the best, or most true, compared to the others. Learning style theories can be useful without being true, and it isn’t clear that knowing the truth about the differences in how people learn will be immediately useful or produce a more useful theory of learning styles. This difference between truth and utility is a typical dilemma of psychology.

Sadly, the headlines for this conclusion aren’t snappy. It is easier to say that “Some people are visual thinkers and others are auditory thinkers” than it is to say that “Thinking about presenting information in different sensory modalities will make your teaching more varied and help those you are teaching who have different preferences to yourself”. Using a learning style theory is great, but you lose a lot of flexibility and potential for change if you start to believe that the theory is based on proven facts about the way the world is, rather than just being a useful set of habits and suggestions which might, sometimes, help guide us through the maze of teaching and learning.

Cross-posted at

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Image: jelly belly by House of Sims