Posts about psychology

Shrink Serving Sizes

Helping Wally Eat Less

When I was a boy, we were admonished to “clean your plate” because “children are starving.” Many of my friends’ mothers were concerned about the children in China. Since my father had organized food relief to German families after WW II, we cleaned our plates for the children “in Europe.” My friend Larry’s family ate their bit for African children.

Now that I am a full-grown man, this conditioning should be easy to overcome, but it isn’t. Normally I have great willpower and discipline. Alas, that’s not true when it comes to eating my wife’s cooking. Put that great food on my plate and will be gone soon.

I’ve tried “eat less” goals. They don’t work. Delicious food appears on my plate, served by my wife’s loving hands. Somewhere in my subconscious my mother is whispering, “Children are starving in Europe.” My willpower is no match.

What to do? Clearly, admonishing myself to “eat less” does not work. In fact, it’s a recipe (pardon the pun) for frustration. You may have situations like that. You or one of your team members or someone you love has a problem. It seems like willpower or goal setting will solve it. But somehow it never does.

The other part of the systems solution is simplicity itself. Serve Wally using smaller bowls and plates. The plate is full, but there’s less food on it. I can eat everything on my plate to the betterment of those European children and my waistline.

Smaller serving sizes is a good idea. Increasing serving sizes over the last few decades is one of the big problems in the USA’s obesity epidemic. From a problem solving approach another good idea is to look beyond the problem at the larger system (the smaller serving size is a great system solution that is inside the eating problem). In this case for some people a way to deal with an eating problem is to exercise more. By changing the overall system a problem of eating too much can sometimes be changed into not a problem (due to a change outside the system).

Related: Study Shows Weight Loss From Calorie Reduction Not Low Fat or Low CarbStudy Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as SmokingEat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Nearly 1 million Children Potentially Misdiagnosed with ADHD in the USA

Nearly 1 million children in the United States are potentially misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder simply because they are the youngest – and most immature – in their kindergarten class, according to new research by , Todd Elder, a Michigan State University economist.

These children are significantly more likely than their older classmates to be prescribed behavior-modifying stimulants such as Ritalin, said Todd Elder, whose study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Health Economics (closed science, unfortunately). Michigan State should stop funding closed journals with free content – other schools have decided to put science first, before supporting a few outdated business models of select journals.

Such inappropriate treatment is particularly worrisome because of the unknown impacts of long-term stimulant use on children’s health, Elder said. It also wastes an estimated $320 million-$500 million a year on unnecessary medication – some $80 million-$90 million of it paid by Medicaid, he said.

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder for kids in the United States, with at least 4.5 million diagnoses among children under age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The youngest kindergartners were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in the same grade. Similarly, when that group of classmates reached the fifth and eighth grades, the youngest were more than twice as likely to be prescribed stimulants.

Overall, the study found that about 20 percent – or 900,000 – of the 4.5 million children currently identified as having ADHD likely have been misdiagnosed.

Related: Lifestyle Drugs and RiskLong Term ADHD Drug Benefits QuestionedMerck and Elsevier Publish Phony Peer-Review Journal

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, Fulfillment and Flow

“After a certain basic point, which translates, more or less, to just a few thousand dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well being don’t see to affect how happy people are.”

The speech includes, the first purpose of incorporation at Sony:

To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.

Excellent books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1991. People enter a flow state when they are fully absorbed in activity during which they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction.
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists to politicians and business leaders to poets and artists, the author uses his famous “flow” theory to explain the creative process.

Related: Honda EngineeringThe Science of HappinessCurious Cat Management: posts on psychologyEngineers Should Follow Their HeartsThe Purpose of an Organization

The Psychology of Choice: We can be Overwhelmed

Is less always more? by Dave Munger

shoppers with just a few flavors of jam to choose from are more likely to buy than those given dozens of options (including the original choices). It’s as if we’re paralyzed when we have a large number of options to choose from, and so we end up getting nothing.

Significantly more students bought the pens when there was a middle number of choices than when there were either high or low numbers of choices. So we appear to prefer a moderate number of choices — not too many, and not too few.

Shah and Wolford believe that purchasing patterns are likely to be similar for a wide range of products — although depending on the particular product, the optimal number of choices might be higher or lower than the 8-12 range they found for roller-ball pens.

In The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz discusses related ideas and mentions the only kind of mobile phone you can’t get not is a simple one.

Related: The Psychology of Too Much ChoiceThe Decoy EffectThe Brain is Wired to Mull Over Decisions

New Yorkers Help Robot Find Its Way in the Big City

Tweenbots by Kacie Kinzer

I wondered: could a human-like object traverse sidewalks and streets along with us, and in so doing, create a narrative about our relationship to space and our willingness to interact with what we find in it? More importantly, how could our actions be seen within a larger context of human connection that emerges from the complexity of the city itself? To answer these questions, I built robots.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

Very cool, fun and interesting. Cute integration of technology, psychology and an inquisitive scientific mind.

Related: The Science of KissingOpen Source for LEGO MindstormsRobot Finds Lost Shoppers and Provides DirectionsMaking Robots from Trash

Why Toddlers Don’t Do What They’re Told

Why Toddlers Don’t Do What They’re Told

Toddlers listen, they just store the information for later use, a new study finds.

“I went into this study expecting a completely different set of findings,” said psychology professor Yuko Munakata at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “There is a lot of work in the field of cognitive development that focuses on how kids are basically little versions of adults trying to do the same things adults do, but they’re just not as good at it yet. What we show here is they are doing something completely different.”

“If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective,” Munakata said. “What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don’t do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like ‘I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom.”

Related: Kids Need Adventurous PlayScience to PreschoolersSarah, aged 3, Learns About SoapKids on Scientists: Before and AfterPlaying Dice and Children’s Numeracy

Perceptions v. Objective Reality

User Interface Matters by Colleen Dick:

the earliest Hewlett Packard programmable calculators in the early 80’s. When engaging in lengthy number crunching, the calculator would print “crunching” (or processing, or something) on the display, and every few seconds it would add a dot, so the user would know something was happening.

HP engineers discovered that if they completely decoupled the display while serious crunching was going on, they could make the computations run 30-40% faster. Naturally they assumed the users would appreciate such a significant speed increase, so on their next revision, they just shut the screen down on lengthy computations.

Users complained about the slowdown! These are HP early adopters, mind you, mostly “rational” scientists and engineers. Remember, when objectively measured, the computations were measurably and significantly faster when the screen was decoupled!

In subjective time, the computations seemed slower without the feedback, even though in objective time we know they were faster.

There are times when objective improvement is most important, but there are also plenty of times when subjective improvement is more important. Often this difference is ignored.

Related: Packaging Improves Foot “Taste”The Psychology of Too Much Choice

Broken Window Theory Bolstered with Experiments

The broken window theory is that as the visible deterioration of an area (broken windows, graffiti, lettering…) takes place, crime will increase. And that this starts a cycle of decline for the area feeds upon itself (a negatively reinforcing loop in system thinking parlance). The theory was put forth in an article in The Atlantic in 1982 by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson.

Criminology Can the can, The Economist

Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave.

The most dramatic result, though, was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Even if the post box had no graffiti on it, but the area around it was littered with paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and empty cans, 25% still took the envelope.

The researchers’ conclusion is that one example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing. Dr Kelling was right. The message for policymakers and police officers is that clearing up graffiti or littering promptly could help fight the spread of crime.

Related: A Crack in the Broken-Windows TheoryBroken Windows Turns 25Reconsidering the ‘Broken Windows’ TheoryCredit Freeze Stops Identity Theft Cold

Kids Need Adventurous Play

A survey commissioned by Play England for Playday found a change in the places where children and young people today experience adventurous and challenging play. As children, 70% of adults enjoyed most of their adventures in natural outdoor environments. This compares with only 29% of children today as both the space and the freedom to roam has dramatically declined in recent years. Today, children’s experiences of adventure are confined to designated areas such as playgrounds (56%), their homes (48%) or theme parks (44%).

‘Playing is an essential part of growing up,’ said Adrian Voce, Director of Play England. ‘Starting from their earliest play experiences, children both need and want to push their boundaries in order to explore their limits and develop their abilities. Children would never learn to walk, climb stairs or ride a bicycle unless they were strongly motivated to respond to challenges – but we must accept that these things inevitably involve an element risk.

‘Adventurous play that both challenges and excites children helps instill critical life skills. Constantly wrapping children in cotton wool can leave them ill equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life.’

Full press release

Related: Creating a Nation of Wimps5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids doSafe Water Through PlayWhat Kids can LearnLeading Causes of Death$500 Million to Reduce Childhood Obesity in USA

How Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off Track

I post often on examples of scientific inquiry in action. I think it is an important way to see how science works while searching for answers. The process is not a simple one, but after a solution is found it can often be presented as obvious. But while trying to find answers it is quite difficult.

How Prozac sent the science of depression in the wrong direction

But the success of Prozac hasn’t simply transformed the treatment of depression: it has also transformed the science of depression. For decades, researchers struggled to identify the underlying cause of depression, and patients were forced to endure a series of ineffective treatments. But then came Prozac. Like many other antidepressants, Prozac increases the brain’s supply of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. The drug’s effectiveness inspired an elegant theory, known as the chemical hypothesis: Sadness is simply a lack of chemical happiness. The little blue pills cheer us up because they give the brain what it has been missing.

There’s only one problem with this theory of depression: it’s almost certainly wrong, or at the very least woefully incomplete. Experiments have since shown that lowering people’s serotonin levels does not make them depressed, nor does it does not make them depressed, nor does it worsen their symptoms if they are already depressed.

In this sense, Prozac is simply a bottled version of other activities that have a similar effect, such as physical exercise.

It is jarring to think of depression in terms of atrophied brain cells, rather than an altered emotional state. It is called “depression,” after all. Yet these scientists argue that the name conceals the fundamental nature of the illness, in which the building blocks of the brain – neurons – start to crumble. This leads, over time, to the shrinking of certain brain structures, like the hippocampus, which the brain needs to function normally.

Related: Lifestyle Drugs and RiskOverrelience on Prescription Drugs to Aid Children’s Sleep?

Placebo Effect

Don’t laugh, sugar pills are the future

In fact the new study added nothing (and it was ridiculously badly reported): we already knew that antidepressants perform only marginally better than placebo, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) guidelines has actively advised against using them in milder depression since 2004. But the more interesting questions are around placebo.

Another study from 2002 looked at 75 trials of antidepressants over the past 20 years, but looked only at the response in the placebo arms of the trials, and found that the response to placebo has increased significantly in recent years (as has the response to medication): perhaps our expectations of those drugs have increased, or perhaps, conversely to our earlier example, the trial designs have become systematically more flattering. I’m giving you tenuous data, on an interesting area, because I know you’re adult enough to cope with ambiguity.

Related: Placebo Response in Studies of Major DepressionAn Exploration of Neurotic Patients’ Responses to Placebo When Its Inert Content Is DisclosedDiscussing Medical Study ResultsWhy Most Published Research Findings Are False