Hidden Brain is a new podcast from NPR about human behavior. In the latest episode, host Shankar Vedantam points out that sometimes having a back-up plan can actually be bad for you. And if you listen to the end of the episode, you can hear me singing a song about these concepts in the stye of a 90s-era pop-punk band.

Check out the podcast here.
It's mean boys, not mean girls, who rule at school, study shows

Debunking the myth of the “mean girl,” new research from the University of Georgia has found that boys use relational aggression – malicious rumors, social exclusion and rejection – to harm or manipulate others more often than girls.

The longitudinal study, published online in the journal Aggressive Behavior, followed a cohort of students from middle to high school and found that, at every grade level, boys engaged in relationally aggressive behavior more often than girls.

A team led by UGA professor Pamela Orpinas analyzed data collected from 620 students randomly selected from six northeast Georgia school districts. Students who participated in the study completed yearly surveys, which allowed the UGA researchers to identify and group them in distinct trajectories for relational aggression and victimization as they progressed from grade six to 12.

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You’re not irrational, you’re just quantum probabilistic

The next time someone accuses you of making an irrational decision, just explain that you’re obeying the laws of quantum physics.

A new trend taking shape in psychological science not only uses quantum physics to explain humans’ (sometimes) paradoxical thinking, but may also help researchers resolve certain contradictions among the results of previous psychological studies.

According to Zheng Joyce Wang and others who try to model our decision-making processes mathematically, the equations and axioms that most closely match human behavior may be ones that are rooted in quantum physics.

“We have accumulated so many paradoxical findings in the field of cognition, and especially in decision-making,” said Wang, who is an associate professor of communication and director of the Communication and Psychophysiology Lab at The Ohio State University.

“Whenever something comes up that isn’t consistent with classical theories, we often label it as ‘irrational.’ But from the perspective of quantum cognition, some findings aren’t irrational anymore. They’re consistent with quantum theory—and with how people really behave.”

In two new review papers in academic journals, Wang and her colleagues spell out their new theoretical approach to psychology. One paper appears in Current Directions in Psychological Science, and the other in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Their work suggests that thinking in a quantum-like way­—essentially not following a conventional approach based on classical probability theory—enables humans to make important decisions in the face of uncertainty, and lets us confront complex questions despite our limited mental resources.

When researchers try to study human behavior using only classical mathematical models of rationality, some aspects of human behavior do not compute. From the classical point of view, those behaviors seem irrational, Wang explained.

For instance, scientists have long known that the order in which questions are asked on a survey can change how people respond—an effect previously thought to be due to vaguely labeled effects, such as “carry-over effects” and “anchoring and adjustment,” or noise in the data. Survey organizations normally change the order of questions between respondents, hoping to cancel out this effect. But in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, Wang and her collaborators demonstrated that the effect can be precisely predicted and explained by a quantum-like aspect of people’s behavior.

We usually think of quantum physics as describing the behavior of sub-atomic particles, not the behavior of people. But the idea is not so far-fetched, Wang said. She also emphasized that her research program neither assumes nor proposes that our brains are literally quantum computers. Other research groups are working on that idea; Wang and her collaborators are not focusing on the physical aspects of the brain, but rather on how abstract mathematical principles of quantum theory can shed light on human cognition and behaviors.

“In the social and behavioral sciences as a whole, we use probability models a lot,” she said. “For example, we ask, what is the probability that a person will act a certain way or make a certain decision? Traditionally, those models are all based on classical probability theory—which arose from the classical physics of Newtonian systems. So it’s really not so exotic for social scientists to think about quantum systems and their mathematical principles, too.”

Quantum physics deals with ambiguity in the physical world. The state of a particular particle, the energy it contains, its location—all are uncertain and have to be calculated in terms of probabilities.

Quantum cognition is what happens when humans have to deal with ambiguity mentally. Sometimes we aren’t certain about how we feel, or we feel ambiguous about which option to choose, or we have to make decisions based on limited information.

“Our brain can’t store everything. We don’t always have clear attitudes about things. But when you ask me a question, like ‘What do you want for dinner?” I have to think about it and come up with or construct a clear answer right there,” Wang said. “That’s quantum cognition.”

“I think the mathematical formalism provided by quantum theory is consistent with what we feel intuitively as psychologists. Quantum theory may not be intuitive at all when it is used to describe the behaviors of a particle, but actually is quite intuitive when it is used to describe our typically uncertain and ambiguous minds.”

She used the example of Schrödinger’s cat—the thought experiment in which a cat inside a box has some probability of being alive or dead. Both possibilities have potential in our minds. In that sense, the cat has a potential to become dead or alive at the same time. The effect is called quantum superposition. When we open the box, both possibilities are no longer superimposed, and the cat must be either alive or dead.

With quantum cognition, it’s as if each decision we make is our own unique Schrödinger’s cat.

As we mull over our options, we envision them in our mind’s eye. For a time, all the options co-exist with different degrees of potential that we will choose them: That’s superposition. Then, when we zero in on our preferred option, the other options cease to exist for us.

The task of modeling this process mathematically is difficult in part because each possible outcome adds dimensions to the equation. For instance, a Republican who is trying to decide among the candidates for U.S. president in 2016 is currently confronting a high-dimensional problem with almost 20 candidates. Open-ended questions, such as “How do you feel?” have even more possible outcomes and more dimensions.

With the classical approach to psychology, the answers might not make sense, and researchers have to construct new mathematical axioms to explain behavior in that particular instance. The result: There are many classical psychological models, some of which are in conflict, and none of which apply to every situation.

With the quantum approach, Wang and her colleagues argued, many different and complex aspects of behavior can be explained with the same limited set of axioms. The same quantum model that explains how question order changes people’s survey answers also explains violations of rationality in the prisoner’s dilemma paradigm, an effect in which people cooperate even when it’s in their best interest not to do so.

“The prisoner’s dilemma and question order are two completely different effects in classical psychology, but they both can be explained by the same quantum model,” Wang said. “The same quantum model has been used to explain many other seemingly unrelated, puzzling findings in psychology. That’s elegant.”

We eat in restaurants, buy branded toiletries, build skyscrapers, create legislative institutions, travel in flying machines, write poetry, and search for meaning in relationships, temples, and scientific books. Humans have discovered antibiotics, sent probes into space, decimated rainforests, shared a billion views of clips of kitten behaviour, and decoded their own genomes.

But there is one thing that humans have singularly failed to do, and that is to properly understand their own behaviour.

—  Robert Aunger and Valerie Curtis in Gaining Control: How human behavior evolved

Hey smartphone owners — when was the last time you were truly bored? Or even had a moment for mental downtime, unattached to a device?

Many of us reflexively grab our phones at the first hint of boredom throughout the day. And indeed a recent study by the research group Flurry found that mobile consumers now spend an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes each day on mobile devices.

Are we packing our minds too full? What might we be losing out on by texting, tweeting and email-checking those moments away?

Manoush Zomorodi, host of the WNYC podcast New Tech City, is digging into that question. She talked with NPR’s Audie Cornish about a project the podcast is launching called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art Of Spacing Out.

Bored… And Brilliant? A Challenge To Disconnect From Your Phone

Illustration credit: John Hersey/Courtesy of WNYC


Do I detect sarcasm in your tone? 

If you often find yourself reading (and re-reading) emails and texts, trying to decipher if that lighthearted remark sans the ; )  is really a jab, help is on the way. Data scientists from UC Berkeley and the University of Washington have created an algorithm that can detect sarcasm better than humans can.

By using information about the target audience, the author, and contextual clues, the computer can analyze sentiments behind any messages and identify sarcasm with 85 percent accuracy. 

In comparison, a 2005 study revealed that human recipients only accurately identified sarcasm in email statements 56 percent of the time. 

This sentiment analysis algorithm may become useful for detecting sarcasm in online reviews to better understand if users really liked a purchase, or it can be used for national security to discern messages of potential threat.

Now, whether Mary Poppins’ applause is a genuine display of appreciation is for you to decide …

Read more at California Magazine

It’s better to have 4 close friends than 400 casual ones. It’s science. 

Every New Year’s, there’s a rush of pressure to make this year the best one yet by getting out there and meeting new people. But this year, you can skip the resolution to make more friends: Science shows that working on improving the strong relationships you already have will make you happier and healthier in the long run. 

A new study, published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology last month, found that high school and college students have smaller interpersonal social networks than those of students in the past. But despite rising concerns about social media causing feelings of disconnection, the teens actually reported a decline in loneliness. 

Teens feel less isolated because their friendships are stronger

In this episode of Invisibilia, NPR’s new show about human behavior, hosts Alix Spigel and Lulu Miller examine how categories define us — how, if given a chance, humans will jump into one category or another. People need them, want them. This show looks at what categories provide for us.

Invisiblia: The Power Of Categories

Illustration credit: Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Simple Depiction of Wealth Inequality In The U.S.

Research from the Institute for Policy Studies shows that recent Wall Street bonuses are way out of line with minimum wage earners.  Waaaay out of line.  And that's just their bonuses.

Make you think twice about raising the minimum wage?  And think about this – there’s a greater economic impact because low-wage people spend most, if not all, of their money because they have to. They have to pay for a place to live, feed their families, clothe their kids, and so on and so forth. That spending has a much greater stimulative effect on the economy.

While high wage earners may spend more on big ticket items, they can also afford to stash extra cash in a bank.

The researchers estimate that every dollar going to low wage workers adds an estimated $1.21 to the economy whereas each dollar going to high-income households adds only $0.39.

How much would you raise minimum wage to?

Times are hard, resources are scarce and you’re broke.

Now, imagine you’ve been given a limited amount of money to distribute among a small group of people. The faces above.

How do you split up the funds?

This is a question at the center of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Amy R. Krosch and David M. Amodio of New York University set out to determine whether connections exist between economic scarcity and how individuals perceive race. The results form a grim but unsurprising conclusion:

The link is real. And it’s bad news for black people.

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