Archive for the ‘Behavioral science’ Category

Test performance, gender, and temperature

May 26th, 2019
Promotional image of a hand adjusting a digital thermostat.

(credit: Nest)

As we move from a season marked by unstoppable heating units and into one dominated by aggressive air conditioning. Figuring out how to optimize the thermostat involves a balancing of individual comfort and energy efficiency. But a new study suggests that there's an additional factor that should feed into decisions: the performance of any employees or students who happen to be subjected to the whims of whoever has access to the thermostat.

Unexpectedly, the new results show that men and women don't respond to different temperatures in the same way. And, in doing so, they raise questions about just what we've been measuring when other studies have looked at gender-specific differences in performance.

You’re making me cold!

As someone whose mother admonished him to put on sweaters because my bare arms "made her cold," I'm well aware that there's a long-standing cliché about the sexes engaging in a battle of the thermostat. What I hadn't realized is that the existence of that battle is backed by data. Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite are able to cite four references for the tendency of women to prefer their indoor environments warmer than men do. Chang and Kajackaite, however, found that the academic literature is silent on a related issue: do women have a good reason for wanting it warmer?

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, math, science, sex differencess, verbal | Comments (0)

Hunter-gathering seems to have been easier than farming

May 24th, 2019
An Agta family relaxing in the afternoon.

Enlarge / An Agta family relaxing in the afternoon. (credit: Mark Dyble)

For most of our history, humans got hold of food like any other animal: by hunting and foraging, moving around to find the best resources. Settling down in one place to cultivate crops is a comparatively recent development. But once it started around 12,000 years ago, agriculture spread through human cultures across the world, fundamentally changing our societies, genomes, and possibly even languages. In many ways, farming seems to have been terrible news for the people who adopted it, leading to poorer nutrition and greater social inequality—but it also resulted in higher fertility rates and a massive population expansion.

Understanding how and why this technological change was adopted remains a challenge. Studies mostly rely on fossil evidence, but there are also clues in the modern world, as some present-day groups of people are moving away from hunting, fishing, and gathering their food and toward agriculture.

A paper published in Nature Human Behaviour explores how this shift affects the time budgets of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, finding that women who participate more in agricultural work have less leisure time—around half the leisure time of women who prioritize foraging. The results fall in line with past research that challenges the concept of hunting and foraging as arduous work with scant rewards, and this work contributes to a growing understanding of the social dynamics that go along with a shift to agriculture.

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Posted in Behavioral science, Biology, human evolution, science | Comments (0)

People drop support for a carbon tax when getting less effective “nudges”

May 13th, 2019
A carbon tax would address carbon emissions across sectors, from industry to transport and residential use.

Enlarge / A carbon tax would address carbon emissions across sectors, from industry to transport and residential use. (credit: Shiyang Huang / Flickr)

"Nudge" policies have come in for a lot of positive attention. Small tweaks like changing the default on organ donation to opt in (still allowing people to opt out if they choose) seem to be effective at boosting pro-social behaviors. Nudges also work for things like saving for retirement or using less energy while still allowing people freedom of choice.

But nudges like these are "being used as a political expedient," wrote economists George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel in The New York Times in 2010. Nudges, they wrote, allow "policymakers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics." Now, Loewenstein has teamed up with colleagues David Hagmann and Emily Ho on a series of studies showing how this operates. Their results, published today in Nature Climate Change, suggest that if people are offered the chance to support a painless "nudge" policy on energy usage, they seem less likely to support a much more effective carbon tax.

Nudge vs. tax

Nudge policies can be implemented in different ways, but one popular tool is to change a default option to the desired behavior—like employers taking monthly retirement-fund contributions directly out of a paycheck or signing people up with a green energy supplier. Because people are still able to choose the non-default option if they prefer, policies like these are seen as not interfering with individual choice while still ensuring that the positive choice is used more often.

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

Boys, the wealthy, and Canadians (?) talk the most BS

April 28th, 2019
The Canadian flag waves against a blue sky.

Enlarge (credit: Scazon / Flickr)

The existence of what's colloquially known as "bullshit"—a combination of lies, exaggerations, and inaccuracies that makes it hard to figure out what the truth is—is familiar to all of us. Most of us have come across an individual so skilled in deploying it to advance their goals that we refer to them as "bullshit artists." Given it's such a prominent aspect of human behavior, however, you might be surprised to learn that field of bullshit studies is relatively young. Researchers trace BS back to an obscure 1986 essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, but it didn't pick up traction until it was expanded to book form nearly 20 years later.

Even then, another seven years had to go by before other researchers expanded on Frankfurt's theoretical framework, and empirical studies have only really picked up over the last several years. Now, a group of social scientists (John Jerrim, Phil Parker, and Nikki Shure) have done a massive study that polled 40,000 school students to find out who bullshits and why. The researchers use the phrases "bullshit" and "bullshitters" throughout, so we are, too.

Bullshit quantification

As defined by the academic community, bullshit can be contrasted with lying by the fact that the people who use it are indifferent to the truth. While lies are often a strategic mix of truth and falsehoods deployed for a specific goal, bullshit is just a collection with a random accuracy meant to establish an impression. So how do you test for that?

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

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)