Friday, November 1, 2013

What it's like to quit social media...

"Hi, my name is [your name] and I've gone a week without using social media."  Take note of your reaction to the previous sentence.  Did you experience shock, disgust, disbelief, or even humor?  Do you ever find yourself "needing" rather than "wanting" social media?  In other words, do you ever feel that social media has crossed that psychological line from casual entertainment to an all-encompassing life crutch?  If you answered "yes" you're not alone.

"I quit social media.  Here's what I learned..." is the title of a recent article published by Jessi Hempel on CNNMoney.  Jessi writes of her experience taking a break from social media. "Ultimately" Jessi states, "my month-long social media diet allowed me to catalogue my own bad habits -- to observe the behavior I hoped to change." She observed the following:
I've leaned on social media to remove myself from offline social situations I find uncomfortable. When I landed at a barbecue where I didn't know anyone, I found myself reaching for my phone as a way to hide under the guise of doing something "more important." And I also turned to social media whenever I wanted to avoid really thinking about something. A great example: For the last hour, instead of actually writing this story, I've been checking Twitter and Facebook compulsively for updates. I use it to zone out -- the same way I might have flipped through bad cable channels back when I paid for cable TV.
She does give a balanced view, however, toting both the pros and cons of the technology.  For example, her article opens by highlighting the great power to mobilize groups in times of need. Her friends house burned down and her friends organized fundraising events through Facebook which raised $2,400 for help.  
However, the psychological toll of social media may outweigh it's benefits.  This "toll" is paid in the form of difficulty in removing oneself from constant stimulation or simply a difficulty in just relaxing and "doing nothing" for a few minutes.  She notes:
I often found myself without a lot to do. This was uncomfortable in a brutal and mundane human kind of way. I might sit on the subway for five to seven minutes, looking at my hands. I might pass the time waiting for a friend at a restaurant by doing, well, nothing. And then, inevitably, my mind would wander and sometimes I'd feel uncomfortable.
A quick Google search will reveal that many people across the Internet have talked about their experiences "quitting" social media -- as if social media was psychologically functioning in the manner of an addictive drug that is out of control.  The phrase "social media addiction" is, unfortunately, becoming more common every day. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Confessions of a Drone Operator

When most people think of drones they think about an aircraft carrying out attacks in remote areas without putting pilots in danger. However, there is a team of people behind those aircraft who, free from the physical dangers of the battlefield, are nevertheless susceptible to the psychological toll of war.

In the above video, listen to the story of Brandon Bryant, who served as a drone operator in Nevada and New Mexico for five years. In the interview, he describes his role in drone attacks overseas and his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Though not physically in contact with his targets, the monitor on his screen provides sufficient stimulation to induce psychological effects similar to soldiers on the ground.  Moreover, the temporal contiguity between his actions in the bunker and the consequences of his behavior depicted on the screen likely play a dominant role in his post-traumatic stress.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Positive Reinforcement at a Staten Island School recently published a story on the success of an
incentive system for children in a Staten Island school.  

The incentive system centers around a new "school store" called the K-Coin Canteen.  Students can visit to exchange their coins for "small items ranging from pencils to puppets" contingent on the students' display of "respect, responsibility, and safety during the school day."

The system enjoys support by the school, parents, and the kids themselves, and "is an outgrowth of the New York State Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support program."

Those familiar with the field of Applied Behavior Analysis will recognize this as yet another successful implementation of a "token economy" system.  In short, such systems promote the recurrence of adaptive skills and behaviors through positive reinforcement.  Systems such as this are worthy alternatives to punitive disciplinary measures in some situations.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

How Bedtime Affects Your Child's Behavior

National Public Radio recently ran a story discussing the results of an intriguing study of more than 10,000 British schoolchildren. The study suggests that children who switched to a regular bedtime schedule, from a previously random schedule, were less likely to engage in bad behavior after the switch.  

However, as all reputable researchers do, these researchers are quick to point out the shortcomings of their study.  They note "It doesn't report how much the children actually slept, but rather how much their mothers said they slept. And it could be that the families with random bedtimes had other problems that affected the child's behavior."  The study also does not include objective behavioral measures, but instead relies on subjective ratings of behavior.

Methodological issues aside, this study points to an intriguing area for interdisciplinary collaboration among behavioral scientists and biological scientists.

So, if your children are experiencing behavior problems, try putting them on a regular sleep schedule.  At the very least, they will be well rested, which is always a good thing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Information Overload and Psychological Health

Twitter.  Facebook. Linked-In. The 24-hour news cycle. Smartphones.  This is the world we now live in.  To be sure, look at the picture on the right of this article and ask yourself if this is you.

Though hyper-connectivity allows friends and families to stay in touch, and facilitates business activities, it can also backfire.  For instance, earlier this week the story of Jofi Joseph, the White House national security staffer who was fired for his Twitter activity criticizing the administration.  

At a deeper level, this hyper-connectivity can lead to psychological detriments.  Rolf Dobelli of The Guardian sums it up this way:
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

An over-abundance of information.  Perhaps this is something you have never thought about.  It is more common to think of "over abundance" in terms of material possessions or food, but does this really apply to information?

From a behavioral science perspective, if an "over abundance" is indeed taking place, then we should be able to get objective measures of its effect on behavior.  A few months ago, ABC News published an article called "Farewell Facebook, and Good Riddance."  The gist of the article can be gathered from the following quote:
If you haven't noticed, there's currently a mass exodus from Facebook taking place. In the past three months there's been a drop among users in the United States, and an even more considerable dip among users in the United Kingdom.
The article goes on to site research indicating various deleterious psychological effects of social networking.

So what about you?  Do you sometimes get a nagging feeling that you just need to step away from it all?  To put your smart phone down for a few minutes?  To go an hour without checking your email?  Share your story below.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Predicting Violent Behavior

The New York Times recently published an article on our (in)ability to predict violent behavior, such as the shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard.

In the social and behavioral sciences, the word "prediction" has at least two different meanings.  In one sense, we can predict future behavior to the extent we can influence it.  This is the type of prediction involved in applied work.  We call a treatment or other method of behavior change "reliable" and "effective" to the extent that we are confident in the outcome it will produce.  Along these lines, the New York Times suggested a "mental health ambulance" of sorts in which mental health professionals would be dispatched to a scene in order to diffuse the situation.

A second type of prediction  relates to the prediction of events as they occur in naturalistic settings, separate from any treatment or intervention.  A common term for this type of prediction are "forecasting." Weather forecasting aside, the most common type of forecasting we hear about are economic forecasts.  The latter exert significant influence over individuals' monetary decisions.  

Macro-economics aside, behavioral or psychological forecasting is actually more common than you might think.  The Guardian published an article a few years back titled "Forecasting Human Behavior Carries Big Risks" which stated the following: 
The personalised recommendations and special offers that pop up when you order books or groceries online, and even the specific sequence of questions an insurance call centre asks about your claim, are all generated by computerised predictive algorithms derived from analysing patterns, links and associations in large sets of data.

The suggested movies and shows given to you by Netflix, for example, can be said to use a type of behavioral forecasting.  

Both articles suggest that while we may be able to predict large-scale sociological trends over time, the ability to predict what an individual will do in a naturalistic environment, particularly low-rate once-in-a-lifetime behavior, is extremely difficult.  All sciences have their boundaries of knowledge, and this is certainly one for behavioral science.  

However, crossing this boundary may present a host of ethical concerns (e.g., a surveillance state) that mankind simply does not want to deal with.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Review of Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists was kind enough to reach out to Behavioral Science in the 21st Century and asked for a review of Dr. Alexandra Levitt’s new book Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites.

Deadly Outbreaks will forever change the layperson’s view of disease as something that occurs only “inside the skin” of a person.  Rather  “epidemiologists…essentially view their patients as a herd – members of a single species that live together in large groups – rather than as individuals.” (p. 148).  Moreover, our “herds” are in a dynamic interaction with the natural and technological environments that facilitate the spread and adaptation of the very microbes we are fighting against.  Like people, microbes travel on planes, in our air ducts, and are gregarious organisms that spread among crowds.  Moreover, microbes change quickly and become resistant to our vaccines, giving rise to new types of disease.

As the book states in the introduction, when faced with such a dynamic adversary that is partially of our own making, we are left only with our wits.  The book, and this review, serves to answer the following question: “What type of person is ready and able to pit his or her wits against the endless inventiveness of infectious microbes?” (p. xvi). To answer the question, the author gives the reader a glimpse into this epic battle by focusing on seven different disease epidemics in recent history and the people who fought to find a cure.  In doing so, the author (without realizing it) places behavioral science front and center in the fight to maintain public health.

In the first story, Levitt carries the reader along a trail that begins with a few patients in New York apparently suffering from encephalitis.  What came next was, in Annie Fine’s perspective, “one of the most fascinating episodes in her career, equal in interest to the investigation of the anthrax incidents of 2001, still two years in the future” (p. 1).  The investigative trail would lead investigators to back yard mosquito habitats, local zoos, and more, to discover the origins and spread of West Nile Virus.

To avoid a spoiling the book for potential readers, this review will give only brief overviews of the six equally gripping stories that fill the rest of the book.  The second story ties Khmer Rouge gun-runners and their jungle trails, to an outbreak of a resistant form of Malaria in a refugee camp.  Next, is the story of suspicious infant deaths in two different hospital wards, which are linked to standard pharmacy practices present at the time.  Then we have the mysterious death of four men after attending the same Philadelphia convention.  The epidemic that followed would later be known as “Legionnaires Disease.” 

The next two cases relate to the food industry.  One traced ice cream poisoning to trucking practices that allowed cross contamination with different payloads; the case ultimately lead to tighter food regulations regarding food distribution.  The other tells the tale of an outbreak of nerve damage linked to the gruesome practice of “blowing brains” or removing pork brains via air pressure at a food processing plant. 

The book concludes with the tale of a young and healthy woman who came to a hospital complaining of flu-like symptoms.  The next day, she would be dead, followed by her fiancĂ© a few days later.  These deaths, and several others, are linked to housing conditions in rural New Mexico.

The book, by design, focuses on the characteristics of the people involved in the fight against these and other disease epidemics, and will be a welcome read to those in the public health field.  From a behavioral science standpoint, I propose the book is also of interest to those interested in behavioral systems analysis and organizational functioning more broadly.  

In this vein, a take-home message is that no one person can combat a deadly outbreak.  Such a task requires effective information sharing and cooperation from numerous agencies and individuals with different resources and areas of expertise.  We must ensure that our epidemiological databases are structured for effective information sharing around three goals: (a) the prediction of outbreaks, (b) the tracking of their origins, and (c) their eradication.  For these three goals to be achieved, however, the information must evoke meaningful responses from the appropriate people in the public health sector.

Throughout the book, the importance of understanding the “bigger picture” is paramount.  This includes the broad knowledge base of the epidemiologists themselves.  It was emphasized that “the CDC and its infectious disease detectives need to maintain scientific expertise that is both broad and deep, enabling investigators to rule out known diseases and identify new ones” (p. 114).  In the 1970s the latter statement was not in favor, as many assumed that all of the microbes worth worrying about have already been found.  The bigger picture also includes viewing diseases in their broader context. The surrounding environment, including our very own behavior, perpetuates their existence and adaptation.

The public's health is our own health.