On August 6th, 2017 we learned about

Our favorite robots are those with faults and flaws

You may not find the antics of R2-D2 terribly charming, but apparently a bit of bumbling can make a robot much more appealing to the humans that need to interact with it. This may seem counterintuitive, since any robot that’s tasked with assembling our airplanes or fighting fires should perform those tasks as accurately as possible to help keep us safe. However, robots performing more socially-oriented functions, like helping you check in for a flight, are more likely to get on your good side if they make an error or two (and correct it.) This is great news for roboticists, since we’re a long way off from any robot that can handle every social interaction perfectly… not unlike actual humans.

A study from the University of Salzburg, Austria, asked people to perform various tasks with a robot assistant. The tasks weren’t the focus of the study though, as the real variable was how the robot behaved along the way. Some robots performed the tasks as smoothly and flawlessly as possible, and were were generally rated by their human partners as being very anthropomorphic and intelligent. Other robots were programmed to make mistakes from time to time, and while they weren’t rated as being so intelligent, they were nonetheless the most likable robot to partner with. This is important, because people will be more willing to work with an automaton on any project or transaction if they can find it likable in some way.

Our fondness for flaws

Researchers believe that this is a case of what’s known as the Pratfall Effect. It has been demonstrated experimentally by showing people video of a peer successfully answering questions in a game show setting. After getting 92 percent of the questions right, some viewers see this person spill their coffee in their lap, while others don’t. Everyone can agree that this is a highly competent person, which is good, but the people who saw the spilled coffee also find the person to be very likable. Small flaws make a person, or robot, feel relatable and “human.”

Mistakes only make people, or robots, more attractive if they’re already seen as competent though. So a robot can’t do everything wrong and expect to win anyone over. However, perfection isn’t a practical goal, so researchers propose that robots be designed to take advantage of the Pratfall Effect when mistakes are inevitably made. If a robot can read social cues from humans well enough, it may be able to better scrutinize it’s own behavior for mistakes to correct. Correcting the mistake would then show competency, but also “humanize” the robot in a way that would be otherwise hard to plan for.

Source: Why Humans Find Faulty Robots More Likeable, Scienmag

On December 1st, 2016 we learned about

Supposedly ‘personal’ opinions are shaped by perceptions of price, prestige and popularity

Even if you don’t know much about art, you probably know who’s opinions you like. As much you might feel a gut reaction to a painting or sculpture, your impression of it is likely shaped by what you think the world thinks of it. Being impressed by qualities external to the art itself isn’t exactly a proud notion if you’re interested in making up your own mind, but experiments were able to confirm how malleable our opinions are such matters of “taste.” Price and prestige, measured along a couple of different lines, were all found to make a difference to how well people found an otherwise unchanged painting.

Swayed by others’ status

University students were asked to take a look at a series of paintings and share their opinions of each. Before they saw the paintings, researchers were set them up with potential biases by sharing what a third party thought of the collection. Those fictitious viewers were described as belonging to one of three groups— art experts, the students’ peers, or college dropouts essentially described as doing nothing with their lives. Compared to test subjects who were not primed with any social context about the art, these participants generally made a point of agreeing with the opinions of the experts and friends, while disagreeing with the dropouts. These biases could work either as positives or negatives, indicating that people’s opinion can be nudged in any direction as long as there’s a social incentive to do so. Basically, endorsements from respected groups work.

Persuaded by prices

The second form of bias tested concerned the paintings’ supposed monetary value. Rather than having opinions primed by fictitious social consensus, test subjects’ opinions were pushed by fictitious sales prices. As you might expect, more expensive art was more likable than cheaper pieces. This is in line with similar studies of how people rate their enjoyment of wine, with the a single wine receiving more praise when it has a higher price attached to it.

This may not seem horribly relevant if you’re not actively shopping the art market, but it demonstrates psychological tendencies that likely shape our experiences more than we realize. It seems that even when our “personal opinion” may feel personal, there’s a good chance it has a lot to do with our desire to fit in with the opinions of other people.

Source: We like what experts like — and what is expensive, Scienmag

On November 17th, 2016 we learned about

People show subtle hesitation when sharing our own possessions

Sharing our possessions is apparently harder than most of us realize. Even outside the context of a toddler anxiously gripping his favorite toy firetruck at daycare, people seem to have a predisposition to avoid giving up what’s ours, even temporarily. Even for friends. Even over a silly coffee mug that was given to us for the purpose of sharing it.

Helping with the hand-off

A study of people’s behavior when handing objects to each other was predicated on the idea that, overall, we do want to get along with each other. There are simple, small things we can do to facilitate cooperation, such as positioning an object so that it’s easier to grasp for the person we want to give it to. A pointed (ahem) example of this would be turning a knife around so that you pass the handle to your partner, instead of passing the blade, but this kind of action even happens when people give each other something safer, like a room-temperature coffee mug.

At the same time, the degree that we help out recipients apparently varies depending on how attached we feel to the object being shared. Test participants were prompted to pass a recently acquired mug to a friend or a stranger. If the participant expected their partner would pick the mug up, they were more likely to position the handle in a helpful orientation. But the partner’s expected response didn’t fully determine how people arranged the handle— ownership played a factor as well.

Who’s mug matters

When people were sharing someone else’s mug, basically returning it, they were more helpful. When asked to hand over their own mug, they would subtly, and almost certainly unconsciously, keep the handle just a bit closer to themselves. On it’s own, it’s a small tick in human behavior, but it likely reveals instincts that also influence bigger moments. Even when we intend to share with others, we can’t seem to help but keep a subtle or symbolic grip on what we think is ours. So the next time you want to be generous, maybe make a point stretch yourself and really reach out to whomever you’re helping.

Source: Yours or mine? How we handle objects depends on who owns them, Scienmag

On November 10th, 2016 we learned about

Payments to persuaders pare down how well they drum up donations

It’s a pretty straight-forward assumption that rewarding people helps motivate them to carry out tasks. Just about anyone would rather wash dishes for a $10.00 than for nothing. Commissions assume that bigger rewards should provide bigger motivations, spurring people to be more successful at their work. However, there are side-effects to compensation sometimes, as it may actually hurt job performance in specific instances, such as when the task at hand involves charitable giving. In that case, charity may work best when it starts with the employee.

Earnings vs. earnestness

An experiment was done where test participants were tasked with soliciting donations via short, persuasive videos. All participants were interested in the cause receiving the money, but half had the situation sweetened by the promise of a one dollar payment for ever 10 dollars they brought in. Videos were then shown to 243 potential donors who did not know which pitches were tied to a payment or not. Donors were given money to contribute, so their personal finances wouldn’t be as much of an influence on their decision to donate or not. It was up to the impression made by the so-called “persuaders” in the videos.

Without knowing the full parameters of what was being tested, the donors proved to be good at picking out which persuaders were promised a payment. They generally rated them as being less sincere in their videos, and felt less motivated to donate to them. It seemed that receiving a payment for their pitch created an internal conflict for persuaders, and that was somehow reflected in the quality of their solicitations.

Payments without personal profit

A follow-up looked at the idea that feelings of insincerity could possibly be reversed through a different kind of incentive. Rather than pay the persuaders, the offer was changed to be a matching donation for the charity itself, possibly making the persuader feel like they were helping more without any conflict of interest. However, that didn’t seem to make them any more effective than the control group, which had not additional payment structure to worry about.

This study didn’t pin down exactly what cues made the difference to donors, but it does seem to point conclusively to the need for persuaders to feel honest about their requests. Further study is planned to see what verbal and nonverbal behaviors are most common with paid persuaders, and which cues bother donors, which may have application beyond fund-raising.

Source: Paying do-gooders makes them less persuasive, Scienmag

On August 8th, 2016 we learned about

Figuring out the origins of our visual fear responses to snakes, spiders and shots

Once babies are old enough to grasp objects, we start offering them brightly colored shapes, or squeaky giraffes or perhaps snugly bunnies. Some animals, like snakes and spiders, seem to be off limits though, even if their bodies or appendages would actually be really convenient for tiny hands to grip. This probably isn’t surprising, because many humans have what may be an inherent fear of occasionally dangerous animals like snakes and spiders, and that fear seems to turn up at such a young age it may be built into our brains. Scientists have been trying to figure out the exact parameters of these fears though, and how they seem to be a template for new fears we learn later in life.

Searching for snakes

Tests have found that people of all ages respond to the shapes of snakes and spiders with higher priority than other objects. These tests often require an user to pick the potentially scary animal out of a batch of visual information, with even nine-month-olds registering interest in the image of a snake faster than that of a flower. There’s evidence that this interest in potentially venomous animals has been part of the primate experience for a long time, with monkeys showing similar preferences for snakes over other visual information. The priority to avoid grabbing a colorful snake has even been linked to the some primates’ renewed ability to see the color red after it was abandoned by earlier ancestors.

Seeking out spiders

Spiders apparently made some strong impressions on our ancestors as well. They’re one of the most consistent things that children routinely list as a top fear, even outweighing kidnappings, general predators or “the dark.” The scary factor in spiders seems to be very much linked to their physical appearance, as people who break down what bothers them about the mostly benign arachnids point to things like “legginess” and “sudden movement” over explicit physical risks associated with a venomous bite. It’s almost like our brain doesn’t like the way they look, even if it can’t explain why.

Like people’s fears of snakes, this response to spiders seems to be built into our brains. Attitudes towards spiders seem to run in families, with arachnophobic parents being more likely to have arachnophobic children. This was tested with studies of identical twins, who’s attitude towards spiders matched their gene-sharing sibling more than the people who shared their local environment, which would presumably be a better gauge of actual threats from spiders.

Acquired anxieties

This doesn’t mean that our fears are completely set in stone though, since obviously that would leave us vulnerable to responding to real threats in the world that didn’t happen to slither or stick in webs. Negative experiences seem to build visual fear responses akin to the reflexes some of us experience with snakes or spiders. For example, children who had never been cut by a knife weren’t especially interested in images of them, but a kid who had been given a vaccination through a syringe could immediately react to the image of a needle in visual tests. These reactions could even be designed, as volunteers who were given small electric shocks when viewing images of dogs eventually learned to jump at the site of a canine.

Conversely, people exposed to fear-inducing images for tiny but repeated duration of time can have their fear-response blunted to a degree. While these innate responses are processed very quickly, it’s possible to flash images so briefly that they don’t fully register, and thus are “seen” without triggering a fear response. Repeated rounds of such micro-exposures decrease the fear response loop from our amygdala where threat responses are decided.

Situational stress

The last big influence on these visual fear responses is our mood. If you’re already in an aroused state, possibly from watching a scary movie, every object starts to draw attention the way images of snakes or spiders do. People with phobias are more sensitive to the subject of their fears, and people with social anxiety disorders are on constant alert to any threatening cues, like angrier facial expressions on strangers. Assuming we can selectively desensitize ourselves to unwanted fears, the first crucial step is then to identify what your brain is looking for, then helping it train its attention back to the pleasant flowers in the world.

Source: How do children learn to detect snakes, spiders and other dangerous things? by Vanessa LoBue, The Conversation

On July 31st, 2016 we learned about

We may be wired for sharing a sense of social responsibility

To gauge how generous and giving person you are, you might start by looking at how generous your friends and peers are. As a sort of side effect of human instincts driving group cohesion, it appears that our likelihood to behave in a caring or considerate manner is greatly influenced by the examples set by the people around us. If they’re seen as kind, sharing people, chances are you’ll do your best to match them. Happily, this instinct isn’t limited by your ability to perfectly mirror their behavior, as the drive to emulate others’ kindness can even be spurred indirectly, making it easier to “pay it forward,” even you have to pay in a different sort of currency.

Monkey see, monkey donate

As a baseline, it’s been established that being aware of the generosity of your peers will influence how much you’re likely to give of yourself. This can be demonstrated in experiments where people are given a dollar, then told how much of of that money a test subject’s peers supposedly gave. If a person believes the community norm is to be stingy, they’ll follow suit, and vice versa. Newer studies have then taken this premise to see what happens when kindness isn’t so obviously comparable, starting with money but then moving to more nebulous traits like warmth or empathy.

The follow-up study started with descriptions of other people’s donated money, but then gave test subjects a completely different task. Rather than suggest donating money, researchers prompted participants to read personal letters of people describing their lives, and then write a note back. The generosity of test subjects’ peers played a role in these letters, as people who believed their network donated more money wrote friendlier, more supportive notes to their fictional pen pal. People who believed their peers donated very little were more closed and withdrawn in their responses. This showed that the concept of caring was being shared, and that donating money was only one possible mechanism to exercise that idea. Further studies followed, looking at how tight a peer network was necessary to influence a test subject’s behavior. Even reading about how other participants behaved seemed to make a difference, even though the person had never met anyone else from their test subject cohort.

Fitting in with friends

The most likely explanation for this behavior is that humans are very social animals, and we work hard to fit into groups we identify with. When you find a point of agreement with your group, reward centers in the brain are activated. What’s more, those parts of the brain are likely to respond to later action supporting that shared opinion. So in the case of the above studies, agreeing with your group about how much of yourself to give to a stranger is rewarding, and then acting in a way you feel is supportive of that concept at a later time also gives you a neurological pat on the back.

Bestowing belligerence

The downside to this “contagious” caring is that it can work in reverse. Rude behavior has also been found to spread like a contagious pathogen, with people often inadvertently sharing a bad mood with other people, souring their future interactions as well. For example, people who have to engage with a rude partner are more likely to behave rudely with the next person they work with, even if they’re not aware of it. So even if a person is not consciously identifying with their first rude partner, they may end up trying to normalize to that behavior anyway.

It’s likely easier said than done, but the benefits of falling in with a good crowd are probably worth the effort.

Source: Kindness Contagion by Jamil Zaki, Scientific American

On June 9th, 2016 we learned about

Curiosity can make pointless or painful experiences seem more enticing

My first grader is about to start her summer break, which will invariably lead to a number of late afternoon declarations her horrible, insurmountable boredom, at least if her friends aren’t around. While most parents would reflexively suggest things like reading a book or going outside, I’m wondering if I should instead present the option mild electric shocks. It may not sound like as much fun as 30 minutes of Minecraft, if presented in the right way it would likely hold more allure than you might think.

Shocks over solitude

Our brains are wired for stimulation, and have been proven to prefer some kind stimulation, even if it’s negative, over nothing at all. Volunteers who at first said that they would pay money to avoid mild electric shocks ended up repeatedly zapping themselves when faced with the monotony of spending 15 minutes alone. This short amount of time was probably a battle against boredom, but as social animals we have preferences against being alone too long as well. These instincts of course aren’t there to make us miserable, but for that discomfort to drive us to stay in the safety of our group.

Pen puzzles worth the pain

It turns out that we don’t even need to be all that bored to risk unpleasant experiences though. A separate study asked volunteers to sit, one at a time, in a waiting room with nothing but some marked pens on a table. They were free to play with the “clicky-clicky” mechanisms in the pens, at which point they’d discover that pens with red dots would shock them, but green ones wouldn’t. This didn’t stop people from clicking pens, but it didn’t hold volunteers’ interest as much as an alternate scenario in a different room. In that case, a test subject was left with nothing but yellow pens, some of which would deliver a shock, and some which wouldn’t. These pens were clicked the most, indicating that the discovery of the outcome was a more important motivator than the sensation of being shocked.

To be sure that people weren’t just clicking the yellow pens more to try and get a good, thorough sample of potential pain, a third scenario left people with 10 red, 10 green and 10 yellow pens. To learn the pattern, a person would only need to try out a couple of each color, and then have an easy time avoiding future shocks. But once again, the risk of an unpleasant shock was the most attractive option, being clicked 42 percent of the time, versus 14 percent for the red or green pens.

Obviously, being curious can be very helpful in helping us discover positive things in our life, from new food sources to less survival-oriented things like new music. It just so happens that this kind of curiosity, dubbed the Pandora effect by the authors of the pen study, is powerful even when nobody thinks it will lead to any kind of gain beyond new knowledge. The real test will come in a few weeks, when we find out if I can get my first grader to feel curious enough about cleaning her room to see if housekeeping can count as a cure for boredom.

Source: Why People Try Repulsive Things by Cindi May, Scientific American

On May 12th, 2016 we learned about

Your sense of smell is swayed by your sense of identity

You might not understand what you find to be stinky as well as you think you do. One might assume that something you find repulsive is a fairly indelible judgement— you think stinky socks smell gross because you find it to they have a gross smell, right? However, your relationship with the source of the sweat, boogers, or whatever may matter as much as the dirt, bacteria, or whatever else. The closer you identify with the source of a stink, the less it bothers you.

Sniffing the same sweat

An experiment at the University of St. Andrews asked students to smell three sweaty shirts, telling them they were studying odorless pheromones. The shirts actually all had sweat from the same person, leaving any perceived differences in their particular odor to the mind of the sniffing volunteer. To measure how unacceptable people found each sweaty shirt, researchers secretly kept track of how long people waited, or rushed, to use some hand washing stations across the room. Presumably, the less you could tolerate a certain shirt, the sooner you’d want to wash its stink off your hands.

The differences people may not have realized they were picking up on was the printing on the shirts, rather than the sweat content. One shirt was blank, one had a logo from St. Andrews and one from the rival school, Dundee University. Students generally were more tolerant of sweat from their own school, with the St. Andrews logo somehow acting as a visual deodorant. The blank shirt was usually rejected quickly, while the Dundee shirt varied depending on prompts from the researchers. If students were asked questions about students in general, both schools’ shirts seemed to be more acceptable than the blank shirt. If students were asked about St. Andrews specifically, they were more likely to reject the smell of the Dundee shirt instead.

Adjustable judgements

The last bit of manipulation is a key demonstration of what was driving participants’ reactions. The more closely people identify with a group, the more acceptable the fallibilities (or sweat) of that group become. So when the group in question was students, the blank shirt became the extra-stinky outsider. When identifying as St. Andrews students, Dundee students were thrown into greater, smellier contrast. This may seem similar to when people find their own farts to be less offensive because of their biological familiarity, but the fact that these shirts’ supposed smells were so interchangeable speaks to a less objective measure than one’s own microbiome. If opinions on something like smells can be reshaped based on a malleable sense of identity, we may be well served to remind ourselves of such biases when forming opinions on more important matters.

Source: How Disgusting Are Other People? by Daniel Yudkin, Scientific American

On March 15th, 2016 we learned about

Battling the boredom and monotony of a mission to Mars

Could anything in the universe be more exciting than traveling through space and exploring new worlds? Apparently… yes. Despite the mind-blowing, historic nature of being some of the first humans to set foot on another planet, mission planners are very concerned about pioneering astronauts getting bored. Obviously, they’d have their hands full at times, and have to keep a cool head in various intense moments, but between the long voyage to a place like Mars, plus the likely need for an extended stay on the Red Planet, there will be plenty of time to get horribly, dangerously bored.

The problem with boredom is that it can dull a person’s thinking. Too much monotony can put a damper on anything, even alert signals from freak anomalies like engine failure in one’s spaceship. Bored astronauts are likely to start eating less, which after a two-and-a-half years on Mars, is likely to leave them dangerously malnourished. Living in enclosed, controlled spaces also removes many markers of time and progress that we’re used to, which disrupts sleep cycles, further corroding people’s coping mechanisms.

Testing the tedium

Some of these issues have come up with astronauts living on the International Space Station (ISS), although it’s far from perfect analogue for what astronauts going to another planet will deal with. While crews of the ISS have to eat food from packets, have odd sleep cycles and more, they also have a few ‘luxuries’ to help them out. Being in the Earth’s orbit means they can watch the planet, and have a reference point for their connection to humanity. They’re kept busy with massive numbers of experiments, but they also have time to keep in nearly live contact with Earth, which obviously provides some variety and stimulation.

To try and discover what living on Mars will be like, NASA has been running the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Volunteers have been living in a sealed dome for six months to a year to see how a group of six people may or may not function when cut off from things we take for granted on Earth. Their diets are limited, water rationed, and if they want to go out of the dome, volunteers are required to put on heavy space suits for their walks. Even people who thought they weren’t prone to boredom and actively tried to keep a number of personal projects going eventually started complaining about seeing the same red rocks out their window every day. Contact with the outside world had a 20 minute delay for all transmissions, limiting how much people could talk or even read websites from the rest of Earth. A participant eventually shaved his beard, prompting another to become so discombobulated by the sudden change that she thought he was an intruder when she saw him.

Mixing things up on Mars

This doesn’t mean that space is doomed to painful monotony though. While en route to Mars, there are proposals to include features in the astronauts’ spacecraft to help them feel connected to home. Since they’ll be too far away to see Earth from a window, they may have a special telescope to look back at home, or possibly some kind of interior projection system to simulate an Earth environment in the ship. Once on Mars, there should be enough gravity to allow for cooking that would be impractical on the ISS. Rather than rely strictly on packaged food that will always taste the same, spices and recipes that allow for experimentation will hopefully keep meal time interesting while also giving astronauts a different avenue to interact with each other. In the HI-SEAS tests, recipes were suggested by people outside the dome, providing new challenges and fresh perspectives for the occupants to try out. Even if the food wasn’t someone’s favorite, it was at least something new for people’s brains to dive into.

Source: Even Astronauts Get The Blues: Or Why Boredom Drives Us Nuts by Shankar Vedantam & NPR Staff, Hidden Brain

On March 13th, 2016 we learned about

Calculating our brain’s capacity for concurrent thoughts

On the average afternoon, I’m often trying to keep track of my work obligations, household maintenance, what my three-year-old is about to break, what my wife’s schedule for the day is, when my first-grader needs to be picked up, and ooh, did my phone just buzz?! None of these things are really that complicated on their own, but as a group they’re likely to be more than my brain can keep track off, at which point items start being purged from my working memory. Scientists used to believe that a normal number of concepts to juggle was seven, but newer research has pushed that number down to four. It doesn’t feel like much, but it can be optimized, if you get a handle on what ideas are worth working with.

It’s important to realize what counts as a mental memory unit in all this. The complexity of an idea or experience isn’t necessarily what counts, unless that complexity forces you to think about it as more than one idea. For example, a sentence like “I forgot where I put the ice cream.” can occupy one memory unit, or if you think about each word as a discreet thing, eight at once. More details don’t have to make things harder to keep track of, as long as they’re related enough to be thought of together.

When the medium matters

The type of information you’re handling can make a difference too. Remembering a sequence of seven items is easier if you hear it thanks to how our brains handle audio versus visual information. This was determined after people using sign language were found to have lower ceiling on sequence memorization, but were on par with hearing people for memorizing visuals in general. On the flip side, information received through sight or touch seems to endure longer than things we only hear. This bias may be built into our brains, as it has also been found in other primates like chimpanzees and various monkeys.

Managing our available memory

So aside from being aware of these limits, is there much we can do to boost how well we handle different threads of information? You aren’t likely to suddenly expand your brain’s mental workspace, but you can try to choose what goes in it more carefully. People who seem to juggle more units of information better are likely just better at ignoring things that they don’t need at that moment so that the data they do want remains at their mental fingertips. If you think of your working memory as a desk, clearing the desk of clutter will probably help you get your work done better than simply making a larger space to pile on distractions.

Of course, being able to selectively ignore things may be easier said than done. As I write this, two children are literally running in circles while shrieking and yelling, just a foot away from my desk. I ever want to keep the mental framework of this post intact, I probably need to start ignoring… something…

…too late.

Source: Ignoring Stuff Is Good for Your Memory by Julia Shaw, Scientific American