Archive for the ‘Behavioral science’ Category

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.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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.

Read 12 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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."

Read 14 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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.

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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

Some clues about why male Guinea baboons fondle each other’s genitals

November 18th, 2018
Two baboons out for a walk carrying a third, infant baboon.

Enlarge / A baby Guinea baboon in its pre-diddling days goes for a ride. (credit: Michelle Bender / Flickr)

Male Guinea baboons have a curious habit. They will walk—or sometimes run—to another male baboon and say a quick hello in a very enthusiastic way: with a “mutual penis diddle”. Or sometimes it’s a quick mount from behind. Other times, they do a short dance-like “polonaise,” facing the same way, on their hind legs, hand on the other’s hip, and a few steps forward.

Clearly, this behavior needs an explanation. In some ways, it’s not all that much of a mystery: ritual greeting is actually fairly widespread among many primate species and takes many colorful forms. It's a behavior that's “common among males living in multi-male groups,” write the authors of a new paper exploring Guinea baboons’ greeting behavior.

So it’s no surprise that the Guinea baboons greet each other. But the intimacy of their behavior stands out. Unlike other species, where ritual greetings serve to cool down a tense or aggressive moment, for Guinea baboons, it seems to be more about keeping their social bonds strong.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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

Chimps have different cultural norms about friendliness, too

November 9th, 2018
The extent that chimps engage in social grooming is different between groups.

Enlarge / The extent that chimps engage in social grooming is different between groups. (credit: flickr user: Tambako The Jaguar)

Human cultures have widely varying norms when it comes to friendliness and politeness. Make accidental eye contact with a Londoner on public transport and suffer mutual horror, but go to South Africa and find yourself routinely embraced by complete strangers. For researchers studying human behavior, there’s a strong push to study a wider variety of different populations around the world in an effort to expand focus beyond rich westerners. But when it comes to animal behavior, differences between populations have come under less scrutiny.

A paper in PNAS this week explored differences in social behavior between four different populations of chimpanzees, finding that the groups had very different norms when it came to hanging out together and grooming one another. They point out that this means studying one population of chimps might not always be enough for accurate claims about the species as a whole.

Midwestern vs. New Yorker chimps

The Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia is an ideal place to investigate differences between chimpanzee groups. It's home to 120 chimpanzees, some of whom were wild-born but needed to be rescued and some of whom were born in the orphanage. The sanctuary has distinct populations separated from each other but all living in the same ecological environment.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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

Why does flat Earth belief still exist?

November 7th, 2018

Reality vs. belief about the shape of the Earth. Click for a full transcript.

There's no shortage of strange beliefs out there, and not all of them involve having a firm grip on reality. But it's truly bizarre to see one from the latter camp have a sudden surge in popularity and attention millennia after we knew it was wrong. But when it comes to the idea that the Earth is flat, centuries of:thu accumulating evidence don't make much of a difference—its adherents have centuries of history of ignoring it, along with at least one not-nearly-as-famous-as-it-should-be instance of threatening a prominent scientist along the way.

That was Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the two co-developers of the theory of evolution.

This is our first try of a new video format where we look at controversies that, well, really shouldn't be controversial. While we may get back to Wallace and his theory, for the most part we're going to focus on cases where the motivation for the controversy is a bit less obvious. What drives people to believe in ideas that are blatantly, obviously divorced from reality? Or to reject ones that have a solid foundation of evidence?

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Posted in Behavioral science, Earth science, flat earth, Psychology, science | Comments (0)

Low-caste men in India cooperate like college students

November 7th, 2018
Cartoon of hunters with stags and hares

A diagram of the options in game theory's Stag Hunt. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Discourses on the Origin of Inequality, the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagines a hypothetical prehistoric Stag Hunt. Each hunter working alone can catch a hare, but hares aren’t very meaty. Working together a group can cooperate to take down a stag—but only if everyone is committed. If someone spots a hare and decides to go after it, the stag escapes and everyone else ends up hungry.

Economic studies in which university students in the US played simulated versions of the Stag Hunt indicated that at some point, pairs would realize that it was in both of their best interests to commit to hunting the stag and they would fall into “an efficient and cooperative equilibrium.” But it turns out that American university students are not a particularly representative subset of humanity and cannot necessarily grant deep insights into human nature. They are too WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Developed.

When Indian men in the rural northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh played the game, only low-caste men acted like the American students. High-caste men decidedly did not fall into an efficient cooperation.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Posted in behavioral economics, Behavioral science, Biology, game theory, Human behavior, science | Comments (0)