Archive for the ‘Behavioral science’ Category

Aggressive police policies may backfire

April 9th, 2019
Image of the police searching a young male minority.

Enlarge (credit: Petras Gagilas)

What's the impact of aggressive policing policies, like New York City's former "stop and frisk" approach to high-crime communities? The evidence suggests that aggressive policing can work to lower the crime rate in some neighborhoods, but it also comes at a cost: lots of innocent individuals stopped and resentment of the police within some communities. While crime statistics are relatively easy to gather, these later issues are much harder to quantify.

But a team of US-based researchers has now attempted to do so, tracking a group of minority male students over a couple of years. Their results suggest that interactions with the police cause distress among these students, and that distress ultimately leads to what they term delinquency—which can include more crime.

Mixed record

The general concept of proactive policing involves putting more police out in high-crime neighborhoods, with the expectation that they'll act as a deterrent to criminal activity. But there are a large number of approaches that fall under this umbrella, leading to a somewhat mixed record. "Although most quantitative studies support that proactive policing is associated with reduced crime," the new paper notes, "there is no consensus in the literature: some studies find no relationship, whereas others find that proactive policing may be counterproductive." In addition, most existing studies have focused on short-term changes in crime rates rather than long-term ones.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Human behavior, policing, Policy, science | Comments (0)

People who live near wind turbines prefer them to solar and fossil plants

March 19th, 2019
Wind turbines near Palm Springs, Calif.

Enlarge / Wind turbines near Palm Springs, Calif. (credit: nate2b / Flickr)

More and more people are finding themselves with a new neighbor: a commercial electricity-generating system. As electricity grids move from centralized fossil fuel plants to decentralized renewables, the world is switching from fewer, larger plants to more, smaller ones. For some people, this means they're looking out of their windows at wind turbines that weren't there a few years ago.

How do people feel about these turbines? That may seem like a question best answered with "why should we care?" but if we get serious about addressing climate change, lots of people might end up living with generating hardware. To better understand people's preferences, researchers Jeremy Firestone and Hannah Kirk analyzed the results of a large-scale survey on attitudes toward wind turbines. The results, published this week in Nature Energy, show that people in both red and blue states who live near wind turbines would rather keep them than swap them out for either solar or fossil fuel plants.

Wind over coal

The results came from a survey of 1,705 people living less than five miles from at least one commercial-scale wind turbine across the United States. The survey, conducted in 2016 by the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, included a hefty set of questions aiming to get a full understanding of how community members feel about their local turbines. It asked questions like how involved people felt in the planning process for the project, how noticeable the turbines are from people's homes, and whether they notice the impact of things like turbine noise.

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Posted in Behavioral science, renewable energy, science, wind energy | Comments (0)

Food innovations changed our mouths, which in turn changed our languages

March 14th, 2019
Close-up photo of a bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit preserves.

Enlarge / Soft grains, dairy, and preserved food may have changed our mouths—and ultimately our languages. (credit: David Lifson / Flickr)

Something deep in the history of the German language pulled speech sounds toward hisses rather than pops. Words like that and ship end with a small popping sound in English, Dutch, and other Germanic languages—but in German, they end in softer s and f sounds—dass, Schiff. Centuries ago, before German was even German, this change was already underway, an example of one of the many small shifts that ends up separating a language from its close cousins and sending it off as its own distinct tongue.

How does change like this happen? One of the major reasons is speech efficiency. Speakers are constantly walking a tightrope between being understood and making speech as easy as possible—over time, this tension pulls languages in new directions. But if efficiency pushed German speakers in this direction, why not Dutch speakers, too? That is, if two languages share a given feature, why does that feature sometimes change in one language but not the other?

A paper published in Science today lays out an intriguing answer: technology might accidentally trigger a change. Changes like agriculture and food-preparation technology changed the arrangement of our teeth—and in turn, the authors suggest, this made certain speech sounds more likely. It's a daring suggestion, flying in the face of well-established linguistic thought. But the authors draw on multiple strands of evidence to support their proposal, which is part of a growing raft of ideas about how culture and environment could play a role in shaping language.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, Linguistics, science | Comments (0)

Migrating blue whales rely on memory to find their feeding grounds

February 27th, 2019

Breakfast spots, coffee shops, and watering holes pepper the daily commutes of modern urban humans, but we try to remember the ones where we get the best food or drinks. If we do longer journeys routinely, we also keep track of the best grazing grounds—a diner, a gas station with the best snacks, and so on.

Blue whales, according to research published in PNAS this week, seem to make similar mental notes. On their annual migration, their path takes in the spots that have proven to be the most reliable feeding grounds over the years. In doing this, the whales may bypass hotspots that pop up and fade from one year to the next, suggesting that they rely heavily on memory to find a solid meal. But in a world where “normal” is shifting rapidly, the endangered whales may no longer be able to rely on the abundance of those old, faithful feeding grounds.

Why do whales go where they go?

Blue whales are the largest animal that we know to have lived, and that means they need colossal amounts of food. Despite this, they’re picky eaters, feeding almost exclusively on small crustaceans called krill, which they eat by lunging through a large swarm with an open mouth, trapping the animals in their mouths while the sea water filters back out. And they manage to find sources of food while migrating from a summer near the poles to a winter spent closer to the equator.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, climate change, science | Comments (0)

The replication crisis may also be a theory crisis

February 16th, 2019
A jumbled jigsaw puzzle, AKA the state of theory in the behavioral sciences.

Enlarge / A jumbled jigsaw puzzle, AKA the state of theory in the behavioral sciences. (credit: flickr user: giveawayboy)

A replication crisis has called into question results from behavioral (and other) sciences. Complaints have focused on poor statistical methods, the burying of negative results, and other “questionable research practices” that undermine the quality of individual studies.

But methods are only part of the problem, as Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich argue in a paper in Nature Human Behaviour this week. It’s not just that individual puzzle pieces are low in quality; it’s also that there’s not enough effort to fit those pieces into a coherent picture. "Without an overarching theoretical framework,” write Muthukrishna and Henrich, “empirical programs spawn and grow from personal intuitions and culturally biased folk theories.”

Doing research in a way that emphasizes joining the dots constrains the questions you can ask in your research, says Muthukrishna. Without a theoretical framework, “the number of questions that you can ask is infinite.” This makes for a scattered, disconnected body of research. It also feeds into the statistical problems that are widely considered the source of the replication crisis. Having too many questions leads to a large number of small experiments—and the researchers doing them don't always lay out a strong hypothesis and its predictions before they start gathering data.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, replication crisis, science | Comments (0)

Social media can predict what you’ll say, even if you don’t participate

January 22nd, 2019
Stylized version of Twitter's bird logo.

Enlarge (credit: Marie Slim / Flickr)

There have been a number of high-profile criminal cases that were solved using the DNA that family members of the accused placed in public databases. One lesson there is that our privacy isn't entirely under our control; by sharing DNA with you, your family has the ability to choose what everybody else knows about you.

Now, some researchers have demonstrated that something similar is true about our words. Using a database of past tweets, they were able to effectively pick out the next words a user was likely to use. But they were able to do so more effectively if they simply had access to what a person's contacts were saying on Twitter.

Entropy is inescapable

The work was done by three researchers at the University of Vermont: James Bagrow, Xipei Liu, and Lewis Mitchell. It centers on three different concepts relating to the informational content of messages on Twitter. The first is the concept of entropy, which in this context describes how many bits are, on average, needed to describe the uncertainty about future word choices. One way of looking at this is that, if you're certain the next word will be chosen from a list of 16, then the entropy will be four (24 is 16). The average social media user has a 5,000-word vocabulary, so choosing at random from among that would be an entropy of a bit more than 12. They also considered the perplexity, which is the value that arises from the entropy—16 in the example we just used where the entropy is four.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Information science, science, social media, word use | Comments (0)

For teens, digital technology is good. Or bad. Or maybe neutral?

January 18th, 2019
For teens, digital technology is good. Or bad. Or maybe neutral?

Enlarge (credit:

In South Korea, people under the age of 16 can’t play online games between midnight and 6am. The UK Parliament has launched an official inquiry into “the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health.” Meanwhile in the United States, the Wait Until 8th campaign asks parents to delay giving their children a smartphone until they’re in eighth grade. Worry about kids and technology is rampant—so have smartphones, in fact, destroyed a generation?

A paper published in Nature Human Behaviour this week answers that question, often differently, thousands and thousands of times. Researchers Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski took three huge datasets and threw every possible meaningful question at them. In part, their analysis is an illustration of how different researchers can get wildly different answers from the same data. But cumulatively, the answers they came up with indicate that tech use correlates with a teeny-tiny dent in adolescent well-being—and that there’s a big problem with big data.

High numbers don’t necessarily mean high quality

Studying small numbers of people, or rats, or trees can be a problem for scientists. Comparisons between small groups of subjects might miss a real finding or luck out and find something that looks like a pattern but is actually just noise. And it’s always tricky to generalize from a small group to a whole population. Sometimes small is the only sort of data that’s available, but some research disciplines have had the recent(-ish) boon of gigantic, rich datasets to work with.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, science, statistics | Comments (0)

On GMO safety, the fiercest opponents understand the least

January 15th, 2019

Science is our most effective means of understanding the natural world, yet the public doesn't always accept the understanding that it produces. Researchers have been trying to figure out why there's a gap between science and the public for decades, an effort that is becoming increasingly relevant as the US seems to have a growing discomfort with facts in general. In some cases, the issue is clearly cultural: politics and religion appear to have strong influences on whether people accept the science on climate change and evolution, respectively.

It would be easy to think that the controversy over GMO foods is similar. After all, opposition to GMOs is often ascribed to liberal granola eaters. But several polls have suggested that's not the case, as there's as much discomfort about GMOs on the right as there is on the left. Now, a new study in Nature Human Behavior suggests an alternate explanation: opposition to GMOs is highest among those who know the least about genetics but have convinced themselves they're experts. Or as the authors put it, "Extreme opponents know the least but think they know the most."

Science literacy

A US-Canadian team of researchers started off by having a demographically diverse group of 500 US residents answer a series of questions. Participants were asked to rate their level of concern with and opposition to GMOs. As had been found in past surveys, there was a lot of uncertainty about the biotechnology; more than 90 percent of respondents reported concern, and a similar number were somewhat opposed to its use. But that opposition didn't break down along political lines: "there were no significant differences in extremity of opposition between self-reported liberals, moderates, and conservatives."

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, GMO foods, GMOs, Human behavior, public understanding of science, science | Comments (0)

Information overload study we covered has been retracted

January 10th, 2019
Sorry, I’m not home right now.

Enlarge / Sorry, I’m not home right now. (credit: flickr user: Rosmarie Voegtli)

January 10, 2019: In 2017, we covered a study that suggested information overload may be responsible for the viral spread of faulty information. The study was based on a mix of modeling of artificial "agents" that forwarded information to their peers, and real-world data obtained from Twitter. In attempting to follow up on their own work, the researchers who produced it discovered two problems: a software bug in their analysis pipeline, and a graph that was produced using invalid data.

Combined, these suggest the model they favored—that high- and low-quality information were equally likely to spread—wasn't valid. While this doesn't alter the empirical data they obtained, it does influence their analysis of it, so they have chosen to retract the paper.

The retraction highlights one of the frequently overlooked aspects of scientific reproducibility. Problems with published work are frequently identified not by repeating the exact same experiments, but by attempts to build or expand upon them.

The original story follows. Credit to Retraction Watch for identifying the retraction.

Original story follows

Once upon a time, it wasn’t crazy to think that social media would allow great ideas and high-quality information to float to the top while the dross would be drowned in the noise. After all, when you share something, you presumably do so because you think it’s good. Everybody else probably thinks what they’re sharing is good, too, even if their idea of “good” is different. But it’s obvious that poor-quality information ends up being extremely popular. Why?

That popularity might be a product of people’s natural limitations: in the face of a flood of information and finite attention, poor quality discrimination ends up being a virtual certainty. That’s what a simulation of social media suggests, at least.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Computer science, science, social media | Comments (0)

Political radicals don’t evaluate their own errors—about anything

December 21st, 2018
Image of a fire burning in front of riot police.

Enlarge (credit: Benno Hansen)

What makes some people radical and prone to taking extreme views on topics? Radical, violent political movements have received a lot of attention in the news cycle, while non-violent radicalism is a significant impediment to the compromises that are necessary to build a functional society. At the same time some things we now take as accepted, like women having the right to vote or same-sex couples the right to marry, were once at the radical fringes of society. Given its importance for the evolution of societies, radicalism seems worth exploring.

One common feature of radicalism is a confidence in the rightness of your ideas, even if they go against those of society at large. So why do radicals have so much certainty? A new study pins the blame on a faulty metacognition, the process by which people recognize when their ideas might not be correct and update their beliefs accordingly.

Cognition, how meta

Our brains are not simply decision-making boxes. We're constantly evaluating how certain we are about our ideas, which can help us minimize risks—if we're not sure whether our opponent is bluffing, we're less likely to go all-in on a bet. Then, as more information becomes available, we'll generally re-evaluate our former beliefs. If we end up watching a player make a series of bluffs, then we'll include that information the next time we need to evaluate the probability.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, Human behavior, radicalism, science | Comments (0)