Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Behavior/Psychology (Page 1 of 22)

Mental Shortcuts, Not Emotion, May Guide Irrational Decisions

If you participate in a study in my lab, the Huettel Lab at Duke, you may be asked to play an economic game. For example, we may give you $20 in house money and offer you the following choice:

  1. Keep half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In such a scenario, most participants choose 1, preferring a sure win over the gamble.

Now imagine this choice, again starting with $20 in house money:

  1. Lose half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In this scenario, most participants prefer the gamble over a sure loss.

If you were paying close attention, you’ll note that both examples are actually numerically identical – keeping half of $20 is the same as losing half of $20 – but changing whether the sure option is framed as a gain or a loss results in different decisions to play it safe or take a risk. This phenomenon is known as the Framing Effect. The behavior that it elicits is weird, or as psychologists and economists would say, “irrational”, so we think it’s worth investigating!

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

In a study published March 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, my lab used brain imaging data to test two competing theories for what causes the Framing Effect.

One theory is that framing is caused by emotion, perhaps because the prospect of accepting a guaranteed win feels good while accepting a guaranteed loss feels scary or bad. Another theory is that the Framing Effect results from a decision-making shortcut. It may be that a strategy of accepting sure gains and avoiding sure losses tends to work well, and adopting this blanket strategy saves us from having to spend time and mental effort fully reasoning through every single decision and all of its possibilities.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we measured brain activity in 143 participants as they each made over a hundred choices between various gambles and sure gains or sure losses. Then we compared our participants’ choice-related brain activity to brain activity maps drawn from Neurosynth, an analysis tool that combines data from over 8,000 published fMRI studies to generate neural maps representing brain activity associated with different terms, just as “emotions,” “resting,” or “working.”

As a group, when our participants made choices consistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental disengagement (i.e. “resting” or “default”). When they made choices inconsistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental engagement (i.e. “working” or task”). These results supported the theory that the Framing Effect results from a lack of mental effort, or using a decision-making shortcut, and that spending more mental effort can counteract the Framing Effect.

Then we tested whether we could use individual participants’ brain activity to predict participants’ choices on each trial. We found that the degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled the brain maps associated with mental disengagement predicted whether that trial’s choice would be consistent with the Framing Effect. The degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled brain maps associated with emotion, however, was not predictive of choices.

Our findings support the theory that the biased decision-making seen in the Framing Effect is due to a lack of mental effort rather than due to emotions.

This suggests potential strategies for prompting people to make better decisions. Instead of trying to appeal to people’s emotions – likely a difficult task requiring tailoring to different individuals – we would be better off taking the easier and more generalizable approach of making good decisions quick and easy for everyone to make.

Guest post by Rosa Li

The Fashion Trend Sweeping East Campus

During the months of January and February, there was one essential accessory seen on many first-year Duke students’ wrists: the Jawbone. The students were participating in a study listed on DukeList by Ms. Madeleine George solely for first-year students regarding their lives at Duke. The procedures for the study were simple:

  1. Do a preliminary test involving a game of cyberball, a game psychologists have adapted for data collection.
  2. Wear the Jawbone for the duration of the study (10 days)
  3. Answer the questions sent to your phone every four hours. You will need to answer five a day. The questions are brief.
  4. Answer all the questions every day (you can miss one of the question times) and get $32.

About a hundred first-year Duke students participated.

Some of the questions on the surveys asked how long you slept, how stressed you felt, what time did you woke up, did you talk to your parents today, how many texts did you send, and so on. It truly did feel as though it were a study on the daily life of Duke students. However, there was a narrower focus on this study.

Ms. Madeleine George

Ms. George is a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology in her 5th year at Duke. She is interested in relationships and how daily technology usage and social support such as virtual communication can influence adolescent and young adult well-being.

Her dissertation is about how parents may be able to provide daily support to their children in their first year of college as face to face interactions are replaced by virtual communication through technology in modern society. This was done in three pieces.

The jawbone study is the third part. George is exploring why these effects occur, if they are uniquely a response to parents, or if people can simply feel better from other personal interactions. Taking the data from the surveys, George has been using models that allow for comparison between each person to themselves and basic ANOVA tests that allow her to examine the differences between groups. She’s still working on that analysis.

For her first test, she found that students who talked to their parents were feeling worse. But, on days students had a stressor, they were in a better mood after talking to their parents. In addition, based on the cyberball experiment where students texted a parent, stranger, or no one, George infers that texting anyone is better than no one because it can make people feel supported.

So far, George seems to have found that technology doesn’t necessarily take away relationship value and quality. Online relationships tend to reflect offline relationships. While talking with parents might not always make a student feel better, there can be circumstances where it can be beneficial.

Post by Meg Shieh.

What is Money Really Worth?

“Yesterday, I was at an event and I sat next to an economist,” Brian Hare told my class. “I asked him: how old is money? He was completely lost.”

I was in Hare’s class on a Monday at noon, laughing at his description of the interaction. We had so far been exploring the origins of humans’ particular ways of making sense of the world through his course in Human Cognitive Evolution and we were faced with a slide that established the industrial period as less than 200 years old. As compared to a hunting and gathering lifestyle, this stretch of time is minuscule on an evolutionary scale.

Slide from Dr. Hare’s class. Reproduced with permission.

Why then do so many studies employ money as a proxy for the measurement of human behaviors that have been shaped by hundreds of thousands of years? This kind of research is trying to get at “prosociality,” (the ability to be altruistic and cooperative towards others) or empathy and guilt aversion, just to name a few.

I had started to wonder about this months before as a summer intern at the University of Tokyo. As I listened to a graduate student describe an experiment employing money to understand how humans behaved cooperatively, I grew puzzled. I eventually asked: Why was money used in this experiment? The argument was made that money was enough of a motivator for this sample population of college students to generalize that if they chose to share it, it must mean something.

During a panel discussion about prosociality at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston last month, my chance came to ask the question again. Alan Sanfey, professor at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, used experimental paradigms that rewarded participants with money to tease out the particular effects of guilt on generous behavior.

“Is money a good proxy for understanding evolutionarily ancient behavior?” I asked. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University took a dig at my question and mentioned that the barter system would have likely been the best ancient representative of money. However, the barter system likely came to life during the agricultural period, which itself is less than 10,000 years old.

Dollar bills. Public domain.

Stephen Pluháček, an attendee at the event and a senior scholar at the University of New Hampshire, said in a followup email to me that he “was interested in [my] question to the panel and disappointed by their response — which I found indicative of the ways we can become so habituated to a way of looking at things that we find it difficult to even hear questions that challenge our foundational assumptions.”

“As I said in our brief conversation, I am not convinced that money can stand as a proxy for prosocial behavior (trust, generosity) in humans prior to the advent of agriculture,” Pluháček wrote. “And even barter or gift exchange may be limited in their applicability to early humans (as well as to modern humans prior to the cognitive revolution).” 

So, I’m not alone in my skepticism. However, in my discussion with Leonard White, my advisor and associate director for education in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, he pointed out:

“The brain is remarkably facile. We have this amazing capacity for proxy substitution.”

In essence, this would mean that our brain would be able to consider money as a reward just like any reward that might have mediated the evolution of our behavior over time. We would thus be able to test subjects with “modern” stimuli, it appears.

It is clear that an evolutionary narrative is important to creating a more complete picture of contemporary human behavior. But sometimes the proxies we choose to make these measures don’t fit very well with our long history.

By Shanen Ganapathee

 

Creating Technology That Understands Human Emotions

“If you – as a human – want to know how somebody feels, for what might you look?” Professor Shaundra Daily asked the audience during an ECE seminar last week.

“Facial expressions.”
“Body Language.”
“Tone of voice.”
“They could tell you!”

Over 50 students and faculty gathered over cookies and fruits for Dr. Daily’s talk on designing applications to support personal growth. Dr. Daily is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida interested in affective computing and STEM education.

Dr. Daily explaining the various types of devices used to analyze people’s feelings and emotions. For example, pressure sensors on a computer mouse helped measure the frustration of participants as they filled out an online form.

Affective Computing

The visual and auditory cues proposed above give a human clues about the emotions of another human. Can we use technology to better understand our mental state? Is it possible to develop software applications that can play a role in supporting emotional self-awareness and empathy development?

Until recently, technologists have largely ignored emotion in understanding human learning and communication processes, partly because it has been misunderstood and hard to measure. Asking the questions above, affective computing researchers use pattern analysis, signal processing, and machine learning to extract affective information from signals that human beings express. This is integral to restore a proper balance between emotion and cognition in designing technologies to address human needs.

Dr. Daily and her group of researchers used skin conductance as a measure of engagement and memory stimulation. Changes in skin conductance, or the measure of sweat secretion from sweat gland, are triggered by arousal. For example, a nervous person produces more sweat than a sleeping or calm individual, resulting in an increase in skin conductance.

Galvactivators, devices that sense and communicate skin conductivity, are often placed on the palms, which have a high density of the eccrine sweat glands.

Applying this knowledge to the field of education, can we give a teacher physiologically-based information on student engagement during class lectures? Dr. Daily initiated Project EngageMe by placing galvactivators like the one in the picture above on the palms of students in a college classroom. Professors were able to use the results chart to reflect on different parts and types of lectures based on the responses from the class as a whole, as well as analyze specific students to better understand the effects of their teaching methods.

Project EngageMe: Screenshot of digital prototype of the reading from the galvactivator of an individual student.

The project ended up causing quite a bit of controversy, however, due to privacy issues as well our understanding of skin conductance. Skin conductance can increase due to a variety of reasons – a student watching a funny video on Facebook might display similar levels of conductance as an attentive student. Thus, the results on the graph are not necessarily correlated with events in the classroom.

Educational Research

Daily’s research blends computational learning with social and emotional learning. Her projects encourage students to develop computational thinking through reflecting on the community with digital storytelling in MIT’s Scratch, learning to use 3D printers and laser cutters, and expressing ideas using robotics and sensors attached to their body.

VENVI, Dr. Daily’s latest research, uses dance to teach basic computational concepts. By allowing users to program a 3D virtual character that follows dance movements, VENVI reinforces important programming concepts such as step sequences, ‘for’ and ‘while’ loops of repeated moves, and functions with conditions for which the character can do the steps created!

 

 

Dr. Daily and her research group observed increased interest from students in pursuing STEM fields as well as a shift in their opinion of computer science. Drawings from Dr. Daily’s Women in STEM camp completed on the first day consisted of computer scientist representations as primarily frazzled males coding in a small office, while those drawn after learning with VENVI included more females and engagement in collaborative activities.

VENVI is a programming software that allows users to program a virtual character to perform a sequence of steps in a 3D virtual environment!

In human-to-human interactions, we are able draw on our experiences to connect and empathize with each other. As robots and virtual machines grow to take increasing roles in our daily lives, it’s time to start designing emotionally intelligent devices that can learn to empathize with us as well.

Post by Anika Radiya-Dixit

Life Lessons from a Neuroscientist

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Anne Buckley, a professor and  neuropathologist working in Dr. Chay Kuo’s cell biology lab at Duke. I got a first-hand account of her research on neuron development and function in mice. But just as fascinating to me were the life lessons she had learned during her time as a researcher.

Anne Buckley, M.D. Ph.D., is an assistant professor of pathology

Anne Buckley, M.D. Ph.D., is an assistant professor of pathology

Buckley’s research looks at brain tumors in mice. She recently found that some of the mice developed the tumors in an area full of neurons, the roof of the fourth ventricle, which is of particular interest because humans have developed tumors in the same location. This discovery could show how neurological pathways affect tumor formation and progression.

Buckley also gave me some critical words of advice, cautioning me that research isn’t for everyone.

“Research is not glamorous, and not always rewarding,” she warned me. When she first started research, Buckley learned a hard lesson: work doesn’t necessarily lead to results. “For every question I went after, I found ten more unresolved,” she said. “To be a researcher, it takes a lot of perseverance and resilience. A lot of long nights.”

But that’s also the beauty of research. Buckley says that she’s learned to find happiness in the small successes, and that she “enjoys the process, enjoys the challenge.”

And when discoveries happen?

“When I look at data, and I see something unexpected, I get really excited,” she says. “I know something that no one else knows. Tomorrow, everyone will know. But tonight, I’m the only person in the world who knows.”

kendra_zhong_headshotGuest Post by Kendra Zhong, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Class of 2017

Evolutionary Genetics Shaping Health and Behavior

Dr. Jenny Tung is interested in the connections between genes and behavior: How does behavior influence genetic variation and regulation and how do genetic differences influence behavior?

A young Amboseli baboon hitches a ride with its mother. (Photo by Noah Snyder-Mackler)

A young Amboseli baboon hitches a ride with its mother. (Photo by Noah Snyder-Mackler)

An assistant professor in the Departments of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology at Duke, Tung is interested in evolution because it gives us a window into why the living world is the way it is. It explains how organisms relate to one another and their environment. Genetics explains the actual molecular foundation for evolutionary change, and it gives part of the answer for trait variation. Tung was drawn as an undergrad towards the combination of evolution and genetics to explain every living thing we see around us; she loves the explanatory power and elegance to it.

Tung’s longest collaborative project is the Amboseli Baboon Research Project (ABRP), located in the Amboseli ecosystem of East Africa. She co-leads it with Susan Alberts, chair of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, Jeanne Altmann at Princeton, and Beth Archie at Notre Dame.

Tung has spent months at a time on the savannah next to Mount Kilimanjaro for this project. The ABRP monitors hundreds of baboons in several social groups and studies social processes at several levels. Recently the project has begun to include genetics and other aspects of baboon biology, including the social behaviors within the social groups and populations, and how these behaviors have changed along with the changing Amboseli ecosystem. Tung enjoys different aspects of all of her projects, but is incredibly grateful to be a part of the long-term Amboseli study.

Jenny Tung

Jenny Tung is an assistant professor in evolutionary anthropology and biology.

The process of discovery excites Tung. It is hard for her to pin down a single thing that makes research worth it, but “new analyses, discussions with students who teach me something new, seeing a great talk that makes you think in a different way or gives you new research directions to pursue” are all very exciting, she said.

Depending on the project, the fun part varies for her; watching a student develop as a scientist through their own project is rewarding, and she loves collaborating with extraordinary scientists. Specific sets of collaborators make the research worth it. “When collaborations work, you really push each other to be better scientists and researchers,” Tung said.

Raechel ZellerGuest post by Raechel Zeller, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Class of 2017

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