It’s Almost Like ESP

Popular psychologist Richard Wiseman is currently conducting a unique study that uses Twitter to gather research participants. He’s seeing if his Twitter followers can engage in remote viewing to detect where Richard is located (explanation here). So the idea is that Richard goes to a randomly chosen location, then asks people on Twitter to use their psychic powers to give any impressions about where he is, then later choose which of 5 locations they think he was at.

When he gave the go-ahead this morning, I was happy to participate.  Here’s what I tweeted to him:

“First thing that came to mind was a star shape (oops, thinking of Zener cards?). Railing. Concrete. A lamp post. Playground?”

I also acted like a real remote-viewer and scribbled a few drawings:

Then it came time to pick which location I thought he was at, out of these five:

Well look at that! My posts, railings, and concrete all over the place. But I thought the most striking resemblence was between my middle picture and his middle picture (C), so that’s the one I guessed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t where he was. He was at D.  So if I am psychic, it’s only for my future experience, not for remote viewing a real location.

Wiseman’s experiment isn’t really unique except for the Twitter aspect. Similar studies have been done many times, and strangely, usually find above-chance results (i.e., people are able to guess where the remote person is more often than if they were guessing). It’s also full of holes and flaws in its methodology (so many that I hope the true purpose of the study is remaning hidden and this is all a cover story for a better study).  Still, it’s good to see psychic phenomena – which the majority of people in the world believe in with little question – getting some attention and new technology applied to it. I think both religious and scientific bigotry have kept good research from being done in this area, and I hope we can overcome silly taboos to engage in more of it.

Go follow Wiseman on Twitter to participate – it’s going for a few more days. Or see his blog for more details and results.

The Psychology of Ice Cream

In the psychological study of learning, there has been a lot of research on how to reinforce behaviours. Of particular interest is the timing of rewards. If you want someone to keep doing something, do you reward them every time they do it? Or do you reward them only some of the time?

Well, it turns out that if you want somebody (or somerat) to do something a lot, and keep doing it, it’s best to reward them only some of the time, and to randomly determine whether they will get rewarded or not. This is called a variable ratio schedule. If you don’t believe me, here is a graph with writing and numbers. Graphs do not lie:

This is why gambling is so addictive. You get rewarded for pulling that lever, but randomly and only every so often. It may also be why checking email can be addictive. Clicking that inbox gets rewarded with a message, but only sometimes.

I think this also applies to ice cream. As we all know, the best part of many ice creams is the chunks. Vanilla ice cream is OK on its own, but in a spoonful with a nice big chunk of cookie dough or a brownie bit, it’s infinitely more rewarding.

But usually, in a tub of, say, 100 spoonfuls, there can only be, say, 25 spoonfuls that contain yummy chunks. And since the chunks are randomly distributed throughout the tub of ice cream, each spoonful only has about a 25% chance of containing a chunk. If eating a spoonful of ice cream is the behaviour and chunks are the reward, this is what we call a VR4 (variable ratio 4) schedule; reinforcement is random, but on average, every 4th behaviour is rewarded. It’s the perfect recipe for making someone eat ice cream quickly, and keep eating it.

This is why I eat so much ice cream. It’s friggin’ science. And while I often complain that there are not enough chunks in ice cream, it’s clear that ice cream manufacturers have outsmarted me. It wouldn’t be quite so addictive if every spoonful had a chunk.

It’s also why you shouldn’t eat right from the tub. With the magic of psychology at work, you would probably eat the entire tub in the time it takes to, say, write a blog post about the psychology of ice cream.

*burp*

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P.S. If you do a Google image search for “Reese ice cream”, you will find a surprising number of pictures of Reese Witherspoon eating ice cream. She, too, must be a victim of variable ratio reinforcement.

Beer : Statistics :: Peas : Carrots

I once got slightly intoxicated while “studying” the night before a major exam in statistics. Normally this would not be something to be proud of, but the fact is, despite the morning headache, my mind was clear of distractions and all that wonderful statistical knowledge flowed onto the paper just as smoothly as the beer flowed into my belly the night before. I aced the exam and secured my future in psychology. (This is a story that Nick likes to tell whenever someone mentions exams and drinking in the same sentence).

It turns out there is a very good reason that beer and statistics go together like birds of a feather. The study of statistics has been linked with beer since its early history. Anyone with basic stats knowledge has heard of Student’s t-distribution, often used to tell if two groups are different from each other on some measure. Student was the pen name of William Sealy Gosset, a statistician working in Dublin. The dude chummed with some of the more familiar names in stats, like Pearson and Fisher.

The thing is, Gosset didn’t give a crap about discovering the inner workings of the mind by poking and prodding samples of unsuspecting humans. No, Gosset just wanted to use mathematics to brew tasty beer. He worked for the Guinness brewery, applying statistical knowledge to growing and brewing barley. Guinness wanted to protect this powerful secret knowledge from competitors, so Gosset was forced to publish under a fake name, and apparently more math-creative than naming-creative, chose the name “Student.”

So that’s how Student’s t-distribution was born. And that’s why having a few pints of Guinness before a major stats exam should be encouraged. Even if it results in failure – and very well might – mention to the prof that it was a tribute to the long and fascinating history of beer and statistics. That’s gotta be worth a few bonus marks.

…..

P. S. I hope you noticed the subtle normal curve in the picture of the Guinness up there. That took some serious Photoshop skills you know.