Click-Bait Psychology- How To Beat Misinformation

The world of Psychology has a vast appeal to public interest. We all want to know the inner workings of our minds, and the minds of others. We also like that information in a form that is easily accessible, and quick to understand. For better or worse, there is a great deal of psychological information at our fingertips on the internet; but the kicker is that there is also a disproportionate amount of misinformation. I am going to talk about how to get the right information, how you know whether that information you are consuming is supported (founded) or not, and the tricks being used to grab viewers towards misinformation for the sake of monetization (clicks which generate advertisement revenue). We risk taking these assertions and titles as fact, when in truth there may be little evidence to support it.

 

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What Psychology is, and what it is not.

Psychology is a field of study. People who undertake psychological research often have years of coursework under their belt, and when they publish it is often in the form of academic journals which are peer reviewed. That peer review is the important part. It means that other people with the same amount of skill and experience went over the study and found that the methods and findings were acceptable for publication, and (hopefully) replication. This does not mean the study is true, necessarily, but it does mean that the methods and findings pass the rigor that you would expect from empirical findings.

What Psychology is not; unfounded hypotheses based on invented constructs that have not been tested or platitudes. Let’s look at the difference of a few statements that are either founded or unfounded. Founded is based in fact, or at least the seeking of it. Unfounded is speculative, or unsupported by research into real phenomena, and usually entices readers by a reaction. Usually, the unfounded “click-bait” article is created to gather broad interest by using concrete claims that have very little evidence behind them. If you were to compare any peer-reviewed research article to the “click-bait”, you would see a huge difference in how these are written and how the findings are presented. One attempts to explain something by supporting it, the other takes an assumption as fact and generalizes it to get max appeal/shock.

Example Time!

“Based on a 2003 study, Researcher A and Researcher B found a correlation between the color red and aggression levels in teens.”– This is something we could begin to consider founded. We have three big hints:

  • Reference to an actual study. You could read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
  • The names of the authors/researchers. The reader could look them up, or even contact them for better understanding or replication.
  • The word correlation and not “causes”. This is a big hint that it was actual research with a sample of people. Research often infers, it does not conclude broadly.

 

“10 Things Men or Women Do Differently! Women/Men ALWAYS…”– This seems unfounded. We have some hints.

  • The click-bait style title. Lists are commonly used to draw in interest to a website or article.
  • The word “Always”. Empirically designed research works on philosophic doubt and evidence in a subject. When something is studied, it is usually done with a sample; a small group of people to represent larger groups. These do not mean that it is a perfect causal effect to be applied to all humanity across time or the entire world.

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“Pop-Psych Platitudes” and Title Hooks:

Here are some tricks that are used by “bad”-psychology to get your interest. Hooks. One liners. These are titles and phrases that throw out a topic you could easily agree with, but do not lead you to the “meat” of the matter. That kind of article would not tell you what research it referenced, or even worse, it could misinterpret research to fit a broader and more appealing finding that never existed. A good rule of thumb is; If they can condense 40 pages of research into one statement, you’re probably missing out on the actual findings. They use things called “Pop-Psych Platitudes”; things that appeal to what appears to be a truism and avoid actual empirical findings. Look at some of these examples:

  • Why Your Dog Is Always Right About Your Mate- They Have Senses.
  • Women/Men Choose Better- It’s In The Genes!
  • Read Lies In the Eyes- 5 Big Tips To Liars.
  • If You’re Not Happy, You’re Not Using Mindfulness.
  • Smart People Get Hurt More Easily By Rejection.
  • Every Time You Forgive, Your Brain Becomes Happier.
  • Trust Is Earned, Not Free.
  • 10 Things Anxious People Know.

The titles above have some appealing points to them, don’t they? You could apply them to an experience you may have had before, or a belief you have on a topic. You might really want to affirm that by clicking on it and reading a few persuasive paragraphs on the personal experiences of the writer (these are called anecdotal statements, not research). They appeal to the reader’s biases or personal experiences by using broad language and big claims they want to read. They may reference a single research article to support their claims, but fail to mention the techniques in the article, the sample used in the article, and the actual conclusion of the article itself. They may also have cherry picked a single article (line or paragraph) that had not been replicated by other researchers to support a broad claim. These give the semblance of academic research, but fail several benchmarks of being empirical and trusted as a true representation of a discovered or explored phenomena.

Another big trick is a Title Hook. You remember the trick of putting a number in the title? “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety!”. Just 8? Sure. Why not. We all have time to read 8 statements. Right? Sometimes they will employ a stronger hook to get you to read. “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety! Number 5 Will SHOCK you!”. See what they did there? You are tempted to look at number 5, which leads you through over half of their statements separated by clicks to different pages. Those pages are probably monetized, and most likely have very little in the way of actual facts or research supported claims.

 

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The Risks of Being Misinformed

There are risks to misinformation. It gives you, the reader, the experience of feeling as though you have learned something, or reaffirmed a belief you had, without the benefit of using real scientific methods and without the benefit of knowing that this topic was rigorously studied. When researchers take a topic, more often than not, they come away with what is called a Null Hypothesis. A Null Hypothesis is the condition in which the researcher could not prove what they set out to prove. That is what real research runs the risk of every time. Not every hypothesis that’s put to the test works out. Many times, a hypothesis has to be refined several times, with multiple caveats. “No, we couldn’t prove that Disorder A coincides with candy bar eating, but we were able to show that Food Additive B might have an effect on a symptom of Disorder A, based on…”. This is the type of wording you would find in the conclusion section of many research based and peer reviewed articles. See how different it is from the click-bait?

Many times research is not instantly easy to interpret, has a conclusion that is not always completely confirmed , and raises more questions than it was set out to answer. But it is the spirit of science. You find correlation, links or connections between factors, but never the always.

If you would like to further your knowledge in psychology, read some articles with true empirical weight, I suggest you take a look at the National Institute of Mental Health’s webpage (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/) . It has articles free of cost on almost any topic you could have an interest in. I implore you to take a look and see what a truly rigorous study looks like. Much like a good story, it has a beginning, middle, and end that beats out a click-bait unfounded affirmation any day.

 

Questions? Comments? Reply Below!

 

References:

  1. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  3. NIMH » Home. (n.d.).  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos

 

The Modern Behaviorism

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This is going to be a broader piece, and take in to account some of my personal experiences in the field of psychology, at this time. This topic was inspired from a few posts online, and various questions that interns and therapists I supervise have asked me based on their learning in undergraduate Psychology coursework. What it comes down to is: “Isn’t behaviorism outdated? I thought it died out in the 50’s. We’re more than stimulus-response machines.”.  As you might be aware, psychology as a whole has moved in a different direction from the 1950’s, and they are absolutely correct that the modern consensus in all fields view beyond the simple relations of reinforcement and punishment. [1,3,5]

Cognitivism, for example, was born as a kind of backlash to those kinds of simplistic Behaviorist philosophies. Since then, Cognitive-Behavioral theories to therapy, a combination of the two, have taken the greatest root in providing mental health services. So is that the end of it? Is that the extent? Not quite. In my opinion, I believe both far ends of the spectrum will lead to entrenched and nonviable theories. Behaviorists that stick to the Thorndike era mindset are bound to miss out on what usefulness came from the following decades, and on the same hand strict Cogntivists would find themselves battling with the dreaded circular reasoning, unnecessary dualism, hypothetical constructs, and  explanatory fictions. There are two very strong cases for missing the forest for the trees in both of these conditions. One ignores too much, the other risks oversight of what is there by looking for what might not actually be. [1,5,6]

Let’s take some words from B. F Skinner’s own mouth, one of the renown Behaviorist researchers and writers:

“When a person has been subjected to mildly punishing consequences in walking on a slippery surface, he may walk in a manner we describe as cautious. It is then easy to say that he walks with caution or that he shows caution. There is no harm in this until we begin to say that the walks carefully because of his caution. … The extraordinary appeal of inner causes and the accompanying neglect of environmental histories and current setting must be due to more than a linguistic practice. I suggest that it has the appeal of the arcane, the occult, the hermitic, the magical-those mysteries which have held so important a position in the history of human thought. It is the appeal of an apparently inexplicable power, in a world which seems to lie beyond the senses and the reach of reason.”- B.F Skinner (1974). [2]

The concern is clear, as to what might happen if we fall in to traps of circular reasoning and the invention of non-existent causes of behavior and conditions of an individual based on constructs that might not exist. Especially if their definition is circular enough to “explain” itself. But what about the constructs that do exist? What about the biological structures of the brain? What about hormones and neurotransmitters? What about advancements in medicine that has shown viable benefits to mental health? Research has come a long way, and you would be hard pressed in my opinion to find a Behaviorist (Methodological, Radical, or otherwise) that would fully ignore these advancements. [1,3,6]

In light of this, it would be a good time to introduce some more modern concepts and theories in Behavioral psychology, Applied Behavior Analysis, and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. These are by no means exhaustive, but are rather a few insights in to what Behaviorism is today, and what concepts are used in practice and in the field, beyond stimulus-relations and the ignoring the organism and focusing on the behavior.  There have been vast advancements, many outside of the pop-psychological lime light. It would take entire books to describe each of these concepts to their fullest, so I invite you to research them further to your satisfaction.  Here, are a few of my favorites that might stun old Behaviorists, and shock new Cognitivists alike.

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): This is a strictly behavioral (observable, measurable) approach to treatment, but it goes far beyond pigeons in boxes pecking at levers. This approach has shown great empirical and clinical effect with non-verbal and intellectually disabled individuals, as well as a broad scope of learning disorders in children. Not to mention effectiveness in treatment of anxiety disorders and some personality disorders. Focusing on behavioral topics such as reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and motivating/establishing operations, it does have the feel of older behavioral approaches with due regard for medical/physiological processes, and advancements in mental health. [1]

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

Relational Frame Theory (RFT): You might have heard of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” (whose theoretical framework is still used in Applied Behavior Analysis practice), and perhaps the cutting response by Noam Chomsky. Relational Frame Theory was the Behaviorist response to that, decades later. Where Skinner’s approach may not have satisfied Chomsky’s insights in to the human generativity of language, RFT tackles it from a different angle: verbal behavior as a special type of operant behavior; derived relational responding. It bridges a gap in cognitive aspects of the original operant-behavior theory of language, and has growing empirical evidence behind it. [4]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  2. Hayes, S. C. (2010). Relational frame theory: a post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Acad., Plenum Publ.

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM): This is a growing field where Behavioral theory is extended to the business and larger molar views of behavior, and meta-contingencies across larger groups of people working together. It takes an Applied Behavior Analytic approach to many problems that businesses face, and functional alternatives to success based on observable outcomes. [7]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Geller, E. S. (2003). Organizational Behavior Management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.
  2. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Skinner, B. F (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 270-277.
  3. Baum, W. M. (n.d.). Behaviorism, Private Events, and the Molar View of Behavior(Vol. 34, The Behavior Analyst).
  4. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  5. L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach
  6. Shettleworth, Sara J.(2010)Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (2nd edn) Oxford Univ. Press
  7. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com, Getty Images

 

Ghostbusters and Behavior Reinforcement

Ready for some Pop Psych?

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Let’s take a look at Reinforcement and Ghostbusters, and by Ghostbusters, I mean the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. In the start of the film we are introduced to the character Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the process of a humorous experiment with two subjects in which he says the phrase: “I’m studying the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” This is a scene shown in more than a few Psych 101 courses, where it is lambasted for scientific inaccuracy and ethical violation, but there is actually a great deal we could learn about foundational concepts from it.

In the starting scene, Dr. Venkman holds up cards to both individuals, and they are asked to guess what the symbol hidden on the other side might be. When the male subject responds incorrectly, he is given a mild electric shock, and becomes more and more irritated and averse to the experiment. The other female subject, named Jennifer, is never shown the cards true symbols. She giggles, laughs, and gives her best guess and is reported to be correct by Dr. Venkman five times in a row (even though she is not), thus avoiding the shock, and given copious attention and praise for it. The key term here we are going to look at is called Negative Reinforcement, and in the context of the electric shock, is used incorrectly. However, the audience is clearly aware of Dr. Venkman’s true aims, and deception to the subjects, which is where the humor comes in. [1,2]

So what does negative reinforcement mean? A common misconception is that “negative” means painful or averse, when in fact the term relates more to the removal of a stimulus. Let’s compare it to positive reinforcement. [1,2]

Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like a reward. You work a full shift, and you get a paycheck. You’re more likely to work a full shift again. [1,2]

Negative Reinforcement: This is the removal of a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like avoidance. If you ask for no onions on your burger, and you’re given a burger without onions, you have avoided the aversive stimulus. You’re more likely to ask for no onions again.  [1,2]

Both positive and negative reinforcement aim to increase the behavior that they follow. Reinforcement is an effect that strengthens behavior. Think of it this way: “Positive” means add a stimulus or stimuli. “Negative” means subtract or remove a stimulus or stimuli. [1,2]

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Returning to our example, Dr. Venkman is not interested in demonstrating the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP. He is not accurately tracking any real variables associated with “ESP”, but he is using Negative Reinforcement to some degree. [2]

Remember Jennifer? What behavior might she be exhibiting to avoid the electric shock? Clearly, the target behavior is not guessing the symbol correctly.  Instead, Jennifer is engaging socially with Dr. Venkman, she is giggling, guessing confidently, displaying attention to him, and responding eagerly to his comments and expressions. She avoids electric shock in each of those conditions, so it could be said that her attention is the true target of the experiment. Negative Reinforcement is, in a sense, in effect for the shocks for Jennifer, but so is Positive Reinforcement; her attention, giggling, and eager guesses are reinforced by Dr. Venkman’s added encouragement to continue the experiment. [1,2]

Let’s circle back to his other subject, the male who is being shocked repeatedly following incorrect guesses. Dr. Venkman gives him false encouragement by telling him “you have only 75 more to go!”, following the complaints and visible increase in irritation. Here, Dr. Venkman is using what is called Positive Punishment, which is the addition of a stimulus, the electric shock, following the incorrect guess. It could be said from this limited experiment, that using Positive Punishment was the actual independent variable controlled by Dr.Venkman, and that it’s effect was used to fluster the male subject into leaving. The subject’s attention and responses were punished, leading to a decrease in that behavior and the male subject leaving the experiment early. [1,2]

Ethically, very dubious experiment, but its comedic effects do demonstrate some actual psychological (and behavioral) phenomena.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

 

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Murray B., Aykroyd, D., Weaver S., Ramis H., Moranis R., Columbia Pictures Industries (Film). (1984). Ghostbusters. Burbank, CA. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.

Photo Credits: http://ghostbusters.wikia.com

Behavioral Extinction and Extinction Bursts

There a few interesting phenomena we study in behavioral psychology when it comes to the reduction of maladaptive (“bad”) behaviors by their consequences. The process by which a behavior is reduced or eliminated by removing the factors that maintain or reinforce it, is called extinction. That is the end goal. Sometimes it works quickly, and other times it doesn’t. The challenging part is figuring out why.

Where it all starts is in a framework called functionalism. In this framework, we see certain types of behaviors as “operants”; meaning that they operate on their environment in order to accomplish something. They are a response with a purpose. What functionalism does is to take these behaviors, in whatever form they are in, and use the context of the situation or repeated situations, to hypothesize why they may be exhibited by the person. In other words, to find the function of the behavior.

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Extinction

The process of extinction is necessitated by knowing the function of the behavior. Extinction works by removing that maintaining factor of the maladaptive behavior; the thing it is functioning to get, in order to make it useless. Behaviors that do not achieve their function, decrease, and are replaced by more adaptive or useful learned behaviors. This is a basic concept in behavioral science. It’s useful to note that the function of a behavior might not always be apparent, or easy to discern. Sometimes it takes several instances of the same behavior in similar situations to see what the function of that behavior is.

Let’s preface examples with the 4 most common functions of learned (operant) behavior: Escape, Access (Items/Activities), Attention, and Sensory. Most behaviors are governed by these either individually, or in combination. “Control” over specifics of these functions are also theorized to be included in the exact conditions that are preferable to the individual.

 

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Now for some examples:

A child in a grocery store wails and grabs for candy bars on the shelves every time they go to the store.

What’s the maladaptive behavior? Wailing and grabbing.

What might be the hypothesized function of that behavior?  Access (to the candybars).

It might be that somewhere along the line, that behavior was reinforced by that candybar being given to quiet the crying, or even that candy bars are a common reinforcer to crying behaviors. The history is useful to know, but not the most important feature in decreasing this behavior; the function is.

What we could do to stop the crying and grabbing is to give the candy bar. This is not extinction. Extinction is when a behavior is weakened and is unlikely to happen again. Giving the candy bar is actually going to satisfy the behavior and reinforce it (strengthen it), by what’s called reinforcement and satiation. It’s satisfying it, making that function stronger. The crying stops, this time, but next time it will be back because it was useful.

So what would an extinction procedure looks like? That would be denying or depriving the function. The crying and wailing would NOT receive the candy bar. Not this time, or every time after. As the crying and grabbing would no longer achieve the candy bar goal, it would decrease, giving the opportunity to teach a replacement behavior that could receive a candy bar (asking nicely, etc).

Here’s another.

An adolescent does a great job when it comes to completing their Math, English, and History homework, but every Tuesday when they’re given Music homework on their clarinet, they tantrum and throw their bookbag.

What is the maladaptive behavior? The tantrum and throwing of their book bag.

What might be the hypothesized function? Escaping the Music homework is most likely. (Remember: Don’t jump to the “Attention” guess too quickly unless you see a beneficial social effect from other people in the situation).

It might be, that when the adolescent screams, yells, and throws their bag, they get a stern talking to, but never actually have to do that music homework afterwards. (This is also a situation where Time-Outs often fail). The screaming stops, the throwing stops, but this is not extinction. Again, it’s reinforcement and satiation. The music homework never gets done, so it’s been effectively escaped. The function of escape is satisfied. Next Tuesday, you would probably see this behavior occur again when the new fresh homework is assigned.

So what would an extinction procedure looks like? Again, denying or depriving the function. The screaming and throwing of the bag would not receive that out from the homework. Guardians or parents might continue to present the homework option, or a variation including help, but that total escape would not occur. In the following situations, those screaming and throwing behaviors would again be met with a consistent presentation of the homework demand (modified or otherwise), and would decrease the screaming and throwing because they do not work, or achieve their function. Here, skills such as taking a small break, breaking the homework down into manageable steps, or even requesting help would be feasible options for replacement behavior.

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It just made it worse!…Not really. That is an Extinction Burst.

In an ideal world, that pattern would happen every single time. This is for the most part true, but there is a phenomenon called an Extinction Burst, which throws a wrench into the extinction process, as a treatment. An Extinction Burst is related very closely to the function of the behavior. When the function of the behavior is not achieved, sometimes the behavior increases in intensity and frequency in order to regain that pattern the person was used to. The behaviors actually become worse than before.

This is where teachers, guardians, parents, and even behavioral professionals, want to give up. Why try something that is making it worse? As an old adage goes, sometimes things get worse before they get better. An Extinction Burst is actually a sign of functional weakening. It is a last push of that function’s expression through that behavior. The last vestige of that behavioral pattern being the “fittest” of its repertoire to succeed. If the extinction continues, the burst ends, and that is when a replacement behavior is most likely to be able to be taught.

So what would an extinction burst look like in our previous scenarios?

In scenario #1, with the child and the candy bar. Parents/Guardians might refuse the candy bar and then see the Extinction burst. Grabbing becomes more aggressive, screaming becomes wailing, gasping, sobbing, and lasts longer.

In scenario #2, the adolescent with the music homework might scream louder, use harsher language, throw property harder, and exhibit longer durations or frequency of the destructive behaviors.

Giving in to the behaviors here, satisfying their function, would be easy for most guardians/parents. Unfortunately, it is exactly the purpose of those behaviors and the burst. Extinction Bursts are an effective adaptation. Maybe not prosocial, or useful in the longer term to the individual, but the increase in intensity pays off, from an evolutionary or phylogenic perspective.

The Extinction Burst would end if it is deprived and replaced, and very quickly if there is a replacement behavior that is effective to a degree that would be useful across the lifetime and society.  Behaviors that have been useful for longer periods take longer to extinguish, and often have their extinction bursts. It is not an easy process for entrenched maladaptive behaviors with longer histories of success with their function. Certain behaviors (“Please!”/ “Thank You!”, “I need a break from this”), may have less stark effects than their maladaptive counterparts at first glance, but the fact they are useful across almost all situations in the person’s life makes them more likely to be reinforced by consequences in more settings and across a longer span of time.

 

Comments? Questions? Write them below!

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Lerman, D. C., & Iwata, B. A. (1995). Prevalence of the extinction burst and its attenuation during treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28 (1), 93-94.
  3. Ducharme, JM, Van Houten R. Operant extinction in the treatment of severe maladaptive behavior: adapting research to practice. Behav Modif. 1994 Apr;18(2):139–170

Photo Credits: http://www.pixabay.com (users: martakoton, AxxLC, geralt).