Category Archives: Psychology

Another reason why we have music? Parenting?

I love music. Actually, I couldn’t imagine living without it. But where does music comes from? Why does music exist? I’ve heard several explanations in the past, and this new study adds a new theory, and it has all to do with parenting.

From the press release:

A new theory paper, co-authored by Graduate School of Education doctoral student Samuel Mehr and Assistant Professor of Psychology Max Krasnow, proposes that infant-directed song evolved as a way for parents to signal to children that their needs are being met, while still freeing up parents to perform other tasks, like foraging for food, or caring for other offspring. Infant-directed song might later have evolved into the more complex forms of music we hear in our modern world. The theory is described in an open-access paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Music is a tricky topic for evolutionary science: it turns up in many cultures around the world in many different contexts, but no one knows why humans are the only musical species. Noting that it has no known connection to reproductive success, Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, described it as “auditory cheesecake” in his book How the Mind Works.

“There has been a lot of attention paid to the question of where music came from, but none of the theories have been very successful in predicting the features of music or musical behavior,” Krasnow said. “What we are trying to do with this paper is develop a theory of music that is grounded in evolutionary biology, human life history and the basic features of mammalian ecology.”

At the core of their theory, Krasnow said, is the notion that parents and infants are engaged in an “arms race” over an invaluable resource — attention.

“Particularly in an ancestral world, where there are predators and other people that pose a risk, and infants don’t know which foods are poisonous and what activities are hazardous, an infant can be kept safe by an attentive parent,” he said. “But attention is a limited resource.”

While there is some cooperation in the battle for that resource — parents want to satisfy infants appetite for attention because their cries might attract predators, while children need to ensure parents have time for other activities like foraging for food — that mutual interest only goes so far.

Attention, however, isn’t the only resource to cause such disagreements.

The theory of parent-offspring conflict was first put forth over forty years ago by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, then an Assistant Professor at Harvard. Trivers predicted that infants and parents aren’t on the same page when it comes to the distribution of resources.

“His theory covers everything that can be classified as parental investment,” Krasnow said. “It’s anything that a parent could give to an offspring to help them, or that they may want to hold back for themselves and other offspring.”

Sexual reproduction means that every person gets half of their genes from each parent, but which genes in particular can differ even across full siblings.

Krasnow explains, “A gene in baby has only a fifty percent chance of being found in siblings by virtue of sharing two parents. That means that from the baby’s genetic perspective, she’ll want a more self-favoring division of resources, for example, than her mom or her sister wants, from their genetic perspectives.”

Mehr and Krasnow took the idea of parent-offspring conflict and applied it attention. They predict that children should ‘want’ a greater share of their parents’ attention than their parents ‘want’ to give them. But how does the child know it is has her parent’s attention? The solution, Krasnow said, is that parents were forced to develop some method of signaling to their offspring that their desire for attention was being met.

“I could simply look at my children, and they might have some assurance that I’m attending to them,” Krasnow said. “But I could be looking at them and thinking of something else, or looking at them and focusing on my cell phone, and not really attending to them at all. They should want a better signal than that.”

Why should that signal take the form of a song?

What makes such signals more honest, Mehr and Krasnow think, is the cost associated with them — meaning that by sending a signal to an infant, a parent cannot be sending it to someone else, sending it but lying about it, etc. “Infant directed song has a lot of these costs built in. I can’t be singing to you and be talking to someone else,” Krasnow said. “It’s unlikely I’m running away, because I need to control my voice to sing. You can tell the orientation of my head, even without looking at me, you can tell how far away I am, even without looking.”

Mehr notes that infant-directed song provides lots of opportunities for parents to signal their attention to infants: “Parents adjust their singing in real time, by altering the melody, rhythm, tempo, timbre, of their singing, adding hand motions, bouncing, touching, and facial expressions, and so on. All of these features can be finely tuned to the baby’s affective state — or not. The match or mismatch between baby behavior and parent singing could be informative for whether or not the parent is paying attention to the infant.”

Indeed, it would be pretty odd to sing a happy, bubbly song to a wailing, sleep-deprived infant.

Krasnow agrees. “All these things make something like an infant directed vocalization a good cue of attention,” he continued. “And when you put that into this co-evolutionary arms race, you might end up getting something like infant-directed song. It could begin with something like primitive vocalizations, which gradually become more infant directed, and are elaborated into melodies.”

“If a mutation develops in parents that allows them to do that quicker and better, then they have more residual budget to spend on something else, and that would spread,” he said. “Infants would then be able to get even choosier, forcing parents to get better, and so on. This is the same kind of process that starts with drab birds and results in extravagant peacocks and choosy peahens.” And as signals go, Krasnow said, those melodies can prove to be enormously powerful.

“The idea we lay out with this paper is that infant-directed song and things that share its characteristics should be very good at calming a fussy infant — and there is some evidence of that,” he said. “We’re not talking about going from this type of selection to Rock-a-Bye Baby; this theory says nothing about the words to songs or the specific melodies, it’s saying that the acoustic properties of infant directed song should make it better at calming an infant than other music.”

But, could music really be in our genes?

“A good comparison to make is to language,” Krasnow said. “We would say there’s a strong genetic component to language — we have a capability for language built into our genes — and we think the same thing is going to be true for music.”

What about other kinds of music? Mehr is optimistic that this work could be informative for this question down the road.

“Let’s assume for a moment that the theory is right. How, then, did we get from lullabies to Duke Ellington?” he asked. “The evolution of music must be a complex, multi-step process, with different features developing for different reasons. Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that, with other musical behaviors either developing directly via natural selection, as byproducts of infant-directed song, or as byproducts of other adaptations.”

For Pinker, the paper differs in one important way from other theories of how music evolves in that it makes evolutionary sense.

“In the past, people have been so eager to come up with an adaptive explanation for music that they have advanced glib and circular theories, such as that music evolved to bond the group,” he said. “This is the first explanation that at least makes evolutionary sense — it shows how the features of music could cause an advantage in fitness. That by itself doesn’t prove that it’s true, but at least it makes sense!”

Abstract of the paper:

We present a theory of the origin and evolution of infant-directed song, a form of music found in many cultures. After examining the ancestral ecology of parent-infant relations, we propose that infant-directed song arose in an evolutionary arms race between parents and infants, stemming from the dynamics of parent-offspring conflict. We describe testable predictions that follow from this theory, consider some existing evidence for them, and entertain the possibility that infant-directed song could form the basis for the development of other, more complex forms of music.

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Great on Sunday: the best letter to the NY Times in decades

Although my most read Funny on Sunday is about the current president of the US, it was my plan not to post jokes about Donald Trump anymore. But this letter by Demurs isn’t so much funny but just great.

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What I learned about autonomy from Richard Ryan (cfr Deci & Ryan) yesterday

Yesterday I had the pleasure to attend a public lecture by Richard Ryan at Ghent University. Ryan is famous for his work with Deci on the Self Determination Theory (SDT).

For the people who don’t know this theory, a short reminder:

Yesterday Ryan gave an overview, but when he discussed Autonomy he suddenly said something that I thought was really important for education:

So: SDT is no excuse for e.g. letting children learn without guidance or structure. Ryan made it very clear later on in his talk that autonomy within structured classes was the most effective – he also mentioned scaffolding in this case.

I did notice that most of the time Ryan mentioned links between this motivation-theory and wellbeing. He did mention a link between performance for bankers and the theory (but on the slide you could see this correlation was much smaller than on feelings of wellbeing) and the only time the effect on learning was mentioned, was in what I discussed above.

He did also say this, which is a very nice quote:

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A different tune on personality: personality traits ‘contagious’ among children

Last semester I explained to my students that there are different views on personality: dynamic versus static theories which could be summed up by the simple question “can you ever change your partner?”. This new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers is rather in the dynamic area as it shows that when preschoolers spend time around one another, they tend to take on each others’ personalities. Guess you are already looking at your kids in a whole different way…

From the press release:

The study, published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests personality is shaped by environment and not just genes.

“Our finding, that personality traits are ‘contagious’ among children, flies in the face of common assumptions that personality is ingrained and can’t be changed,” said Jennifer Watling Neal, associate professor of psychology and co-investigator on the study. “This is important because some personality traits can help children succeed in life, while others can hold them back.”

The researchers studied two preschool classes for an entire school year, analyzing personality traits and social networks for one class of 3-year-olds and one class of 4-year-olds.

Children whose play partners were extroverted or hard-working became similar to these peers over time. Children whose play partners were overanxious and easily frustrated, however, did not take on these particular traits. The study is the first to examine these personality traits in young children over time.

Emily Durbin, study co-investigator and associate professor of psychology, said kids are having a bigger effect on each other than people may realize.

“Parents spend a lot of their time trying to teach their child to be patient, to be a good listener, not to be impulsive,” Durbin said. “But this wasn’t their parents or their teachers affecting them – it was their friends. It turns out that 3- and 4-year-olds are being change agents.”

Abstract of the study:

Children enter preschool with temperament traits that may shape or be shaped by their social interactions in the peer setting. We collected classroom observational measures of positive emotionality (PE), negative emotionality (NE), effortful control (EC), and peer social play relationships from 2 complete preschool classrooms (N = 53 children) over the course of an entire school year. Using longitudinal social network analysis, we found evidence that children’s traits shaped the formation of play relationships, and that the traits of children’s playmates shaped the subsequent development of children’s own traits. Children who exhibited high levels of NE were less likely to form social play relationships over time. In addition, children were more likely to form play relationships with peers who were similar to their own levels of PE. Over the course of the school year, children’s level of PE and EC changed such that they became more similar to their playmates in levels of these traits. Finally, we observed moderate to strong rank-order stability of behavioral observations of PE, NE, and EC across the school year. Our results provide evidence for the effects of traits on the formation of play relationships, as well as for the role of these play relationships in shaping trait expression over time.

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Young children’s experiences and skills in kindergarten may shape their engagement in society later in life

This study shows that cognitive skills and experiences like classroom-based play in kindergarten are good predictors to participation in extracurricular activities in 8th grade among children growing up in poverty. But still a bit of a warning: this study is pretty close to a causal relation, but despite the interesting longitudinal approach it’s still not 100% imho. The causal explanation is as follows – from the conclusion:

The amount of time kindergarten children spend in self-directed classroom activities predicts the number of hours in school sponsored extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Additionally, when controlling for EF and demographics, participation in school clubs in 8th grade was predicted by the interaction of the frequency of use of materials such as art, music and dramatic play and number of interest areas in kindergarten.

You can wonder how much of this time spend on arts in kindergarten isn’t influenced by e.g. the parents opting for this kind of school, but still it’s very interesting (and any plea for arts is ok in my book).

From the press release:

The findings, published in Applied Developmental Science, look at extracurricular activities as precursors to civic engagement, the building blocks for a healthy democracy.

“This study provides first-time empirical evidence that young children’s experiences and skills in kindergarten may shape their engagement in society later in life,” said study author Jennifer Astuto, research assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and director of playLabNYU, which studies the role of play in children’s lives.

“The developmental skill, executive function, and engagement in classroom-based play are not only important for being ‘school-ready,’ but also may be unique pathways to becoming ‘civic ready’ for children growing up in the context of poverty in America.”

In civic engagement research there has been a focus on examining the gap in civic engagement among low-income communities and their higher-income counterparts. However, little research has focused on how civic engagement develops early in life, as opposed to in adolescence or adulthood, despite the fact that young children indeed are active citizens in school, home, and peer groups.

What has been studied widely in young children is executive function, which represents the intersection of cognitive and social-emotional competencies. Three core executive functions – inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – are viewed as fundamental developmental skills for later civic engagement.

“We view executive functions as the foundation for productive engagement in society. For example, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility may allow young children to be active listeners to the social needs of others,” Astuto said.

Classroom-based play provides an opportunity for children to develop executive functions, including controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-control. Through play, children learn to become a member of a social group and follow rules, foreshadowing the skills and behaviors of a civically engaged adolescent or adult.

“When young children are engaged in play they have the opportunity to create and develop ideas – as well as a sense of community – with other children. Sharing and encouraging each other’s curiosity and imagination through play can build a sense of appreciation for the value of working together toward a common goal, even when differences exist,” Astuto said.

To examine the developmental origins of civic engagement in children growing up in poverty, the researchers used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K), developed by the U.S. Department of Education. A nationally representative sample of 22,782 children enrolled in kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year participated in ECLS-K; these students were followed from kindergarten through 8th grade. This study focused on 7,675 students who were defined as living in poverty in kindergarten.

Using statistical models, the researchers looked at two factors in kindergarten – children’s executive function and exposure to play in the classroom – and how they contributed to the students’ participation in different extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Other civic engagement research suggests that when youth participate in school-sponsored activities, they are more likely to take part in civic behaviors later in life such as volunteering, voting, or reaching out to public officials.

The researchers found that greater executive function predicted participation in drama and music clubs, sports, and the overall number of hours spent in extracurricular activities. Engagement in classroom-based play was also a significant predictor of participation in clubs and activities in middle school after controlling for executive function. For example, how frequently children used play-based materials in kindergarten such as art supplies, theatre props, and musical instruments predicted whether they played sports during 8th grade.

The results speak to the unique role of play in early childhood classrooms today, particularly within low-income communities.

“Young children’s first social blueprint is the early childhood classroom setting, which is ripe for the development of skills and exposure to experiences which build the foundation for future engagement,” Astuto said. “Because of the structural disparities that lead to differences of civic engagement between the economically advantaged and those growing up in poverty, it is critical that we identify, support, and cultivate skills and experiences for children and youth which addresses this inequality.”

Abstract of the study:

In the United States a “civic engagement gap” persists between low-income youth and their higher-income counterparts. To examine the developmental origins of civic engagement in a sample of U.S. children growing up in poverty, a conceptual model was tested employing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K) national data set. Using generalized linear models, we examined the contributions of kindergarten children’s executive function and exposure to classroom based play to participation in different extracurricular activities in 8th grade. Results suggest that executive function is a significant predictor of participation in drama and music clubs, sports and number of hours spent in extracurricular activities. Play was also a significant predictor of participation in school clubs, while controlling for executive function. These findings provide initial evidence of a developmental trajectory toward civic engagement beginning in early childhood.

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Sad… how inaccurate are introductory psychology textbooks? #urbanmyths

Long live Twitter as sometimes it can be a source of pretty depressing studies, like this tweet:

It’s good that some myths aren’t covered, but that still many myths persist in introductory textbooks is a call to action.

This study is a nice follow up to the teacher training report earlier this year, do check the abstract:

The introductory psychology class represents the first opportunity for the field to present new students with a comprehensive overview of psychological research. Writing introductory psychology textbooks is challenging given that authors need to cover many areas they themselves may not be intimately familiar with. This challenge is compounded by problems within the scholarly community in which controversial topics may be communicated in ideological terms within scholarly discourse. Psychological science has historically seen concerns raised about the mismatch between claims and data made about certain fields of knowledge, apprehensions that continue in the present “replication crisis.” The concern is that, although acting in good faith, introductory psychology textbook authors may unwittingly communicate information to readers that is factually untrue. Twenty-four leading introductory psychology textbooks were surveyed for their coverage of a number of controversial topics (e.g., media violence, narcissism epidemic, multiple intelligences) and scientific urban legends (e.g., Kitty Genovese, Mozart Effect) for their factual accuracy. Results indicated numerous errors of factual reporting across textbooks, particularly related to failing to inform students of the controversial nature of some research fields and repeating some scientific urban legends as if true. Recommendations are made for improving the accuracy of introductory textbooks.

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Does the mother know her child the best? (in comparison to father)

It may sound as a cliché, but maybe this cliché holds truth: does the mother know her the child the best? A new study from TrygFonden’s Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS published in Review of Economics of the Household.shows that fathers are often as good. And this can have important consequences: when the mother’s rather than the father’s evaluation of the child’s well-being is emphasized in parental rights cases, schools or other places, it might not be best practice.

From the press release:

The researchers have taken the results from the so-called CHIPS-tests (Children’s Problem Solving), which test the child’s linguistic and cognitive level and psychiatric diagnosis, and have compared the results with the parents’ overall evaluation of the child’s academic and behavioural performance (the latter specified in a Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire). The test results from 6,000 Danish families, adjusted for variables such as gender, the parents’ age, educational background, work situation, income, psychiatric diagnosis etc., show that dad is just as able to evaluate the child’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills as mum.

“This is important knowledge not least in e.g. divorce cases, where the majority of parental rights cases are decided in favour of the mother – among other things based on the parents’ testimonies on the well-being and skills of their children,” says Nabanita Datta Gupta, one of the three people behind the study.

Mum’s mental problems affect her judgement

The study also shows that mothers who have mental issues often evaluate their children’s competences as being poorer than they actually are. At worst, this will give the children a lower self-esteem and a lack of confidence in their own abilities, according to the researchers behind the study. Another study from Aarhus BSS has previously shown that children of parents with mental illnesses are at a greater risk of attempting suicide.

“Many women who suffer from post-natal depression are never diagnosed, but their mental state still influences their life and also their ability to evaluate their children’s competences. Generally, our results indicate that parents should be regarded equally in clinical and school-related contexts, where the doctor and the teacher might as well hear the father’s evaluation of e.g. symptoms and well-being as the mother’s. Especially in Denmark, where fathers are typically very actively involved in looking after the child,” says Nabanita Datta Gupta and adds:

“The results are valid, because the parent’s subjective evaluations are compared to the objective measurements of the CHIPS test and the psychiatric diagnoses. Naturally, a lot of other factors are also important, but our research is an important contribution to the collected understanding of the parents’ ability to evaluate their children’s behaviour and competences”, she says.

Abstract of the study:

We investigate the degree of correspondence between parents’ reports on child behavioral and educational outcomes using wave four of a rich Danish longitudinal survey of children (the DALSC). All outcomes are measured at age 11 when the children are expected to be in fifth grade. Once discrepancies are detected, we analyze whether they are driven by noisy evaluations or by systematic bias, focusing on the role of parental characteristics and response heterogeneity. We then explicitly assess the relative importance of the mother’s versus the father’s assessments in explaining child academic performance and diagnosed mental health to investigate whether one parent is systematically a better informant of their child’s outcomes than the other. Our results show that parental psychopathology, measured as maternal distress, is a source of systematic misreporting of child functioning, that the parent–child relationship matters, and that mothers are not necessarily a better informant of child functioning than fathers. This last finding should not only be valid for Denmark but also for many other countries, where the father’s role in childcare has been growing.

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Older adolescents and adults can learn certain thinking skills more effectively than younger people

A few weeks ago I told my students about an interesting question raised and answered by this study by Fuhrmann, Knoll and Blakemore: can adolescence also be regarded as a sensitive period? This new study by a.o. the same researcher adds to their findings: older adolescents and adults can learn certain thinking skills including non-verbal reasoning more effectively than younger people.

From the press release:

The study, published in Psychological Science, also highlights the fact that non-verbal reasoning skills can be readily trained and do not represent an innate, fixed ability.

“Although adults and older adolescents benefitted most from training in non-verbal reasoning, the average test score for adolescents aged 11-13 improved from 60% to 70% following three weeks of ten-minute online training sessions,” says senior author Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “This calls into question the claim that entry tests for selective schools that include non-verbal reasoning ‘assess the true potential of every child’.”

The research involved 558 school pupils aged 11-18 and 105 adults, who were initially tested in various skills and then completed up to 20 days of online training in a particular skill before taking the tests again. They were then tested six months later to see whether the effect of training lasted.

The non-verbal reasoning test involved looking at a 3×3 grid of shapes with the final square left blank. Participants had to choose the correct shape to complete the pattern, and the shapes could vary by colour, size, shape and position. In another test, ‘numerosity discrimination’, participants were shown two groups of different coloured dots in quick succession and had to judge which group had the most dots.

“We find that these cognitive skills, which are related to mathematics performance, show greater training effects in late adolescence than earlier in adolescence,” explains co-lead author Dr Lisa Knoll. “These findings highlight the relevance of this late developmental stage for education and challenge the assumption that earlier is always better for learning. We find that fundamental cognitive skills related to mathematics can be significantly trained in late adolescence.”

At the testing stages, volunteers were tested on various tasks, not just the ones they had trained in, to see if the training effects transferred to other skills. No transfer effects were observed, suggesting that the effect of training was specific to each task.

“Some ‘brain training’ apps claim to improve your IQ by getting you to practise a specific task such as the non-verbal reasoning task we used in our experiment,” says co-lead author Ms Delia Fuhrmann (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “However, there is no evidence that this leads to an improvement in overall cognitive ability. All we can say for sure is that training to spot patterns in a 3×3 grid of abstract shapes improves your ability to spot patterns in a 3×3 grid of abstract shapes. While this ability is commonly tested in IQ tests, it might not be appropriate to make judgements about other forms of intelligence based on the outcomes of such tests.”

Abstract of the study:

In the current study, we investigated windows for enhanced learning of cognitive skills during adolescence. Six hundred thirty-three participants (11–33 years old) were divided into four age groups, and each participant was randomly allocated to one of three training groups. Each training group completed up to 20 days of online training in numerosity discrimination (i.e., discriminating small from large numbers of objects), relational reasoning (i.e., detecting abstract relationships between groups of items), or face perception (i.e., identifying differences in faces). Training yielded some improvement in performance on the numerosity-discrimination task, but only in older adolescents or adults. In contrast, training in relational reasoning improved performance on that task in all age groups, but training benefits were greater for people in late adolescence and adulthood than for people earlier in adolescence. Training did not increase performance on the face-perception task for any age group. Our findings suggest that for certain cognitive skills, training during late adolescence and adulthood yields greater improvement than training earlier in adolescence, which highlights the relevance of this late developmental stage for education.

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Is this another explanation for the ‘boy-problem’ in education?

This morning I saw a conversation on Twitter and it delivered me a great new insight in intelligence:

Wait? There is a greater male variance in IQ and it has been well replicated? I felt stupid because I didn’t knew. Let’s check the abstract (and the actual paper too of course):

The idea that general intelligence may be more variable in males than in females has a long history. In recent years it has been presented as a reason that there is little, if any, mean sex difference in general intelligence, yet males tend to be overrepresented at both the top and bottom ends of its overall, presumably normal, distribution. Clear analysis of the actual distribution of general intelligence based on large and appropriately population-representative samples is rare, however. Using two population-wide surveys of general intelligence in 11-year-olds in Scotland, we showed that there were substantial departures from normality in the distribution, with less variability in the higher range than in the lower. Despite mean IQ-scale scores of 100, modal scores were about 105. Even above modal level, males showed more variability than females. This is consistent with a model of the population distribution of general intelligence as a mixture of two essentially normal distributions, one reflecting normal variation in general intelligence and one reflecting normal variation in effects of genetic and environmental conditions involving mental retardation. Though present at the high end of the distribution, sex differences in variability did not appear to account for sex differences in high-level achievement.

This graph makes it more clear:

iq-male-and-female

Maybe this isn’t new to you, but if I have ever read it, I didn’t make a mental note of it. But I do see a parallel with what has been called the boy-problem in education. If you look at PISA-reports and reports alike, it’s clear to see that boys have a bigger chance to become a dropout. The past few years there are in many countries more females in higher education than males.

But… if you look at the top students in education, there are males present too, sometimes even still more males than females. Actually, it looks a bit like the charts I just mentioned.

Yes, I know most of the discussions about IQ – btw, you should read the book by Stuart Ritchie – and I’m only suggesting a correlation and no, it doesn’t mean we need to accept that a lot of boys are lost in education. Still, if this is even only a bit true, it’s something interesting to bear in mind.

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Another day, another replication

It has been a very busy day as the academic year has started again with some intense teaching sessions for fresh soon to be teachers on my schedule. That’s why I haven’t shared this new example of replication study tackling a famous insight from psychology yet. And that’s a pity, because the study is mentioned in Nature (yeah!) and was conducted by a team from the KULeuven (a Belgian University and while being patriotic is the least Belgian one can act, still yeah!!).

From the article discussing the replication in Nature:

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to associate food with the sound of a buzzer, which left them salivating. Decades later, researchers discovered such training appears to block efforts to teach the animals to link other stimuli to the same reward. Dogs trained to expect food when a buzzer sounds can then be conditioned to salivate when they are exposed to the noise and a flash of light simultaneously. But light alone will not cue them to drool.

This ‘blocking effect’ is well-known in psychology, but new research suggests that the concept might not be so simple. Psychologists in Belgium failed to replicate the effect in 15 independent experiments, they report this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology1.

“For a long time, you tend to think, ‘It’s me’ — I’m doing something wrong, or messing up the experiment,’” says lead author Tom Beckers, a psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. But after his student, co-author Elisa Maes, also could not replicate the blocking effect, and the team failed again in experiments in other labs, Beckers realized that “it can’t just be us”.

The scientists do not claim that the blocking effect is not real, or that previous observations of it are wrong. Instead, Beckers thinks that psychologists do not yet know enough about the precise conditions under which it applies. (read more)

Abstract from the study:

With the discovery of the blocking effect, learning theory took a huge leap forward, because blocking provided a crucial clue that surprise is what drives learning. This in turn stimulated the development of novel association-formation theories of learning. Eventually, the ability to explain blocking became nothing short of a touchstone for the validity of any theory of learning, including propositional and other nonassociative theories. The abundance of publications reporting a blocking effect and the importance attributed to it suggest that it is a robust phenomenon. Yet, in the current article we report 15 failures to observe a blocking effect despite the use of procedures that are highly similar or identical to those used in published studies. Those failures raise doubts regarding the canonical nature of the blocking effect and call for a reevaluation of the central status of blocking in theories of learning. They may also illustrate how publication bias influences our perspective toward the robustness and reliability of seemingly established effects in the psychological literature.

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