09 Aug 2017

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe
David Schwebel
APA Fellow David Schwebel not only studies the effects of mobile technology on pedestrian safety, but also harnesses virtual reality to help prevent injuries caused by distracted walking.

A young girl prepares to cross a busy street, her face plastered to a smartphone. Will she step off the curb and run for it or wait for a gap?

It may sound like a phone-happy, distracted pedestrian but it’s actually the reverse: The girl is using a smartphone—coupled with virtual-reality technology—to help her learn how to cross the street safely.

The experiment is the latest brainchild of APA Fellow David Schwebel, a leading researcher in child-injury prevention and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he directs the UAB Youth Safety Lab.

Schwebel has created a sophisticated street-crossing training application that runs using software for a smartphone retrofitted with Google Cardboard—an inexpensive virtual-reality platform.

The user just places a phone into a cardboard or plastic viewer, and looks through its plastic lenses into a virtual world of traffic—complete with sounds and passing cars. The “traffic” moves at different speeds, with variances for car distances and gap sizes. When students judge it safe, they click a button and step off the virtual curb to cross the street.

“We record absolutely everything,” says Schwebel. “We know exactly when they choose to cross the street, their speed of walking, the speed of vehicles, which gaps they’re choosing, whether they enter soon after a car passes or if there’s a delay—which is a good proxy of their cognitive processing.”

The simulator lets Schwebel and his students study a dangerous task without putting children at risk—and it gives participants great practice for the real world.

While the intervention may be fun, the imperative for his work is deadly serious: Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. leaped 11 percent to more than 6,000 deaths in 2016. Of the estimated 270,000 pedestrian traffic deaths worldwide, nearly half are youths.

Schwebel is among a surprisingly scant cohort of research psychologists working in the field of youth safety. His Youth Safety Lab is one of the few academic research centers in North America devoted to researching child safety, and is a major locus for research and student training.

“When you take a step back from pedestrian safety and realize that injuries are by a huge margin the leading cause of child death in America—and one of the leading ones globally—it’s pretty remarkable that more psychologists aren’t thinking about the behavioral aspects of it,” notes Schwebel.

Schwebel has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and conducts a wide spectrum of research at his lab: pedestrian safety, poisoning prevention, global injury prevention, dog-bite prevention, youth soccer safety, playground safety, lifeguard behavior, car-seat safety, among many others.

It’s enough potential danger to keep any helicopter parent permanently on high spin.

“Clearly at every age there are risks,” acknowledges Schwebel, “. . . but children as young as 18 months can be taught to follow rules and avoid injury.”

Although he has earned a reputation as a technologically innovative researcher, one of his most successful youth-safety interventions was decidedly low tech—and targeted caregivers as much as it did children.

He developed a “Stamp-in-Safety” program to help improve teacher supervision of preschoolers on playgrounds, where nearly 70 percent of preschool injuries occur.

“We said, the teachers are in the shade talking about their weekend and the kids are running around on the playground. How can we change this?” notes Schwebel.

The solution was simple: Give nametags to all kids and equip teachers with self-inking stamps. When teachers see a child playing safely they give him or her an ink stamp as a reward. “On the surface it’s rewarding the child for safe behavior,” notes Schwebel, “but underneath the goal was to change teacher behavior too.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Schwebel would become a psychologist. The son and grandson of psychologists—father Dr. Andrew Schwebel taught at Ohio State University, and grandfather Dr. Milton Schwebel was a dean at Rutgers University—psychology was “the family business.”

“I grew up with psychology as part of my life,” he says. “As a kid, I sometimes even went to APA conventions.”

Schwebel got a taste for applied research as an undergrad at Yale, where he worked with noted psychologist Jerome Singer. His mentor had been hired by creators of the Barney and Friends children’s television show on PBS to evaluate its effectiveness in teaching children.

“As much as parents got sick of the [theme] song, the show actually taught children a lot,” says Schwebel. “We had children watch the show, as well as getting lessons in school. Our research showed that children learned as much from the show as they did from their teachers on the same topics.”

Based on their findings, the show’s creators rewrote some episodes to increase their effectiveness. “That taught me how psychology could really make a difference,” says Schwebel.

He has carried that passion for applied psychology into much of his research, developing interventions that offer real-world tools based on data collected in his lab and in the field. In some cases, his work may have directly saved lives.

Several years ago, for instance, he was approached by an attorney representing a family whose toddler son had died from drinking torch fuel. It became one of several child-poisoning lawsuits against manufacturers.

In a series of studies, Schwebel and his researchers studied the shape, coloring and labeling of a variety of bottles to determine how likely preliterate children were to consider them as something safe to consume—or to avoid.

“We discovered, not surprisingly, that they were more likely to judge an opaque, black bottle as dangerous than a transparent torch-fuel bottle with juice-colored liquid inside,” says Schwebel, adding: “Then the company started packaging the product in a dark-colored bottle. I have to assume that my research played at least some role in that decision.”

Schwebel’s penchant for applied research and social justice also has resulted in many international research partnerships. He has worked with researchers to evaluate kerosene-safety practices in low-income South African communities and in rural Uganda, and conducted extensive research with partners in China.

”I enjoy working with people from other cultures and I also think I have some obligation,” says Schwebel, “because ultimately we conduct science to improve society. There is higher risk of injury in other countries so that’s a priority for me.”

One long-running collaboration with Iranian researchers, which because of political issues was conducted entirely through emails, highlighted self-immolation among young women in Iran.

“It’s devastating, culturally bound, and it tends to be low-educated young wives who . . . often have tough lives,” he says. “It sometimes leads to severe depression, and immolation is in many cases their only means to commit suicide.”

These days, Schwebel is focusing on getting his pedestrian-safety programs to scale big—and even hop continents.

A recent test run with schoolchildren in China was a big hit. The class went wild when the technology was introduced and the trainings netted great results. The PI on several grants from the NIH, Schwebel hopes to expand this work into other rapidly motorizing countries, including South Africa and Iran.

“With Google Cardboard all you need is a smartphone and a $3 piece of cardboard with a couple of plastic lenses and magnets. It’s not a high-priced device. And since smartphones are everywhere, even in low-income communities . . . it’s really feasible anywhere in the world,” he says.

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21 Jul 2017

Leadership: A Three-Part Series

Leadership: A Three-Part Series

In this 3-part web series, you'll learn the fundamentals of servant leadership, a leader or an organization that seeks first to serve others. The presentations cover effective communication, managing people and processes and positively transforming people and organizations. *This series is eligible for CE credit. Earn 1 CE credit for each session.

Each program runs about 1 hour:

Leadership and Communication

No communication skill is more important than listening. Knowing the basic barriers and shortfalls of communication and doing something about them is a big step in improving our ability to communicate effectively.

Leading and Managing People and Processes

In order to accomplish a mission, establishing a process is important. However, people complete the processes and ensure the mission is accomplished. Learn the importance of maintaining a dual focus on people and processes.

Leaders Implementing Positive Change

It takes strong leadership to help people and an organization transition in order to make a change. Change is the event, transition is the means of getting there. Learn what it takes to implement positive change by focusing on the transition process.

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05 Jul 2017

A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles Booklet
This booklet, A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles, features articles on some timely topics, including how the Internet inflates people’s estimates of their own knowledge and how mobile technology can be used to crowd source data collection for psychological research.
If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on basic experimental psychology. And as an APA member, you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.

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30 Jun 2017

A Collection of Core Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Core Psychology Articles Booklet

This booklet, A Collection of Core Psychology Articles from APA’s publishing office, drills down into some of the most fascinating topics in the field, from personality disorders to youth violence and homelessness.

If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on core psychology. And as an APA member, you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.


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26 Jun 2017

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies
Charlotte Patterson
APA Fellow Charlotte Patterson has done groundbreaking research on child development, most notably on the topic of children of lesbian and gay parents.

It was her career on the line. Could the publication of one paper “taint” a reputation built on 20 years of child development research? It was the question Charlotte Patterson asked herself when she went to work at her University of Virginia (UVA) office one morning in the 1980s.

“I can still remember walking up to this building, looking up and thinking, well, who else is going to do it if not me?” says Patterson, PhD, APA Fellow, Stanford grad, noted developmental psychology researcher. And lesbian.

The paper in question was her landmark work, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” It was among the first research that debunked then-prevalent beliefs that children with lesbian or gay parents showed compromised psychosocial development relative to children from heterosexual parents.

Published as the lead article in Child Development in 1992, it blew open doors for mainstream lesbian and gay studies and became a crucible for public and legal discourse about LGBTQ family issues for decades to come.

“In those days, and still today, if you write something on a LGBTQ topic as a professional research psychologist people will assume you have some connection to the topic,” Patterson says. “I was frankly worried that . . . it would be a real problem for my career. Would people let me work with their children?

“A lot of people were shocked that I wrote it,” she continues. “People saw that article as a kind of professional coming out. That won me some friends and lost me some, as you can imagine.”

Since then, Patterson has been at the forefront of LGBTQ family studies, worked as an expert witness on landmark child custody cases involving lesbian parents, and been party to changes in state recognition of gay marriage that paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court).

A major challenge for Patterson and other early LGBTQ researchers was the dearth of available data on lesbian and gay families. In statistics, as in life, these families remained hidden. To amass a review of the scant literature that existed in the 1980s, Patterson literally drove from campus to campus in search of doctoral dissertations.

“Information was strewn across many fields—some in social work, psychology, psychiatry—a few people here and there who didn’t seem to know one another. It wasn’t a coherent field at that point in time. I realized there were lots and lots of interesting things that nobody had studied, to put it mildly.”

As if to emphasize this, Patterson glances at a bookshelf full of gender studies texts at her UVA office, where she has spent her entire academic career. (“I arrived here at 25, when I didn’t even own a couch!” she laughs.) An entire row of publications are her own, including Handbook of Psychology and Sexual Orientation, the 2013 APA Division 44 Book of the Year. “In those days, it was this sense of seeing an open frontier in front of you and wondering where to begin.”

Patterson started by studying what she knew: the relatively large group of lesbians raising children in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, where she was then living on sabbatical.

“This was the perfect place to try to do that work,” recalls Patterson, who later had children with her own partner-then-wife. “It was the only place in the world at that time with a large concentration of lesbian families who had kids together. So it was my great good luck to begin research there . . . to meet families and to interview them.”

Much of the early work highlighted data on similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex parented households.

“The first findings of primary importance to policy issues were that [same-sex] parents in general were pretty well-adjusted people. That doesn’t seem surprising to people today but it did then. A second conclusion was, in general, that the children were also well adjusted, pretty much like their neighbors and peers in school.”

One study that gained wide media attention presented data suggesting that same-sex parents have a more equal division of household labor than their heterosexual counterparts do, findings corroborated by other studies internationally.

“The division of labor was the first big difference we saw,” recalls Patterson. “It’s so dramatic. A lot of people have taken up the finding and said, ‘Look! This is same-sex couples leading the way into a less gendered world!’”

But that was just the beginning of the story as far as she was concerned. Patterson wanted to understand the nuances of family systems—the distinctive qualities of experiences in families of lesbian and gay parents—and the differences among them.

She embarked on wide-reaching research that yielded significant findings: sex-role identity among children of same-sex headed families; adoption issues among gays and lesbians; division of household labor among gay and lesbian parents; and LGBTQ family issues within the context of changing legal and social policy environments.

Interestingly, it was the cross-examination by a prosecutor in her first of many appearances as an expert witness in lesbian-gay family legal battles that prompted Patterson to take her research to the next level.

“There was a 1993 trial that took place in Henrico Co., Va., not far from here,” recalls Patterson. “It involved a lesbian mom being sued for custody of her little boy by her own mother. It was a dramatic case, a sordid tale.

“Testifying as an expert, I was asked by the opposing attorney, ‘This research you’ve done, isn’t it about some crazy people in Berkeley?’ And of course, the research was about people who lived in Berkeley, not people who lived in Henrico. I thought his point was well taken actually, and it led me to want to know more about other groups and more carefully selected samples. It really made a huge impact on me.”

To obtain a more objective sample, Patterson teamed up with a sperm bank that had extensive records of all clients seeking help in getting pregnant. “It made a wonderful sample—singles, couples, straight, gay. We were able to invite every single woman who had come to this clinic to participate.”

A resulting paper in Child Development in 1998, “Psychosocial Adjustment Among Children Conceived via Donor Insemination by Lesbian and Heterosexual Mothers,” showed that these children were developing normally, and that their adjustment was unrelated to parental sexual orientation or the number of parents in the household.

Later, Patterson was able to tap into a large national data set—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—to develop a methodological innovation in the study of child development in households headed by same-sex couples. The study didn’t ask parents if they were lesbian or gay. But by teasing out details among their answers—Are you in a marriage-like relationship? What is the gender of your partner?—Patterson was able to identify families with same-sex parents.

“It was very challenging to do that,” she recalls. “There were lots of technical challenges; we were trying to discern the signal from the noise.”

Importantly, this work confirmed her earlier findings.

Patterson takes satisfaction in the role of her work in expanding knowledge and public policy about what determines a family, but expresses something more personal about its effects on her own community: “I sometimes see that my research has made an impact when people tell me that they used the work in many ways when they were considering having children.

“Most people my age in the gay community grew up assuming they wouldn’t have kids. A lot of us were affected with what I would call internalized homophobia,” she explains. “If you’ve heard people around you forever telling you that you’d be a terrible parent you wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have children. A lot of people told me they read my articles and said, ‘Hey, maybe I could be a good parent!’ Or they used the findings to reassure worried grandparents-to-be.”

She looks at a photo of her grinning children on her desk, reflecting on the wonderful adults each has become.

“There are so many stories!” she marvels. “This work on families continues to rivet my attention. I think families are the most interesting thing in the world.”

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20 Jun 2017

NIH Toolbox Offers Easier Data Collection

NIH Toolbox Offers Easier Data Collection

The set of measures is useful for both researchers and clinicians alike—and can save money and time over traditional tools

For years, neurobehavioral researchers often couldn't compare data across studies or even within the same longitudinal study because they lacked a "common currency" for collecting data on various aspects of research participants' functioning.

"People used all sorts of different measures and assessments," says Molly V. Wagster, PhD, a psychologist who heads the behavioral and systems neuroscience branch in the National Institute on Aging's neuroscience division. And because there were different tests for different age groups, she says, "people had to resort to all sorts of different measures to follow someone over a period of time." Plus, she adds, researchers looking for quick-and-easy assessments sometimes resorted to tools designed for diagnosing disorders, not assessing function.

Now all that has changed, thanks to the National Institutes of Health's creation of the NIH Toolbox® for Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function. Developed by more than 250 scientists, many of them psychologists, the toolbox offers brief measures—some already existing and some created especially for the project—for assessing cognitive, emotional, sensory and motor functioning in research participants ages 3 to 85.

Introduced in 2012 and adapted for the iPad in 2015, the NIH Toolbox offers researchers a comprehensive set of tools for collecting data that can be compared across existing and future studies, says Wagster, the lead federal project officer for the toolbox.

The NIH Toolbox saves researchers time, says psychologist Richard C. Gershon, PhD, the NIH Toolbox's principal investigator and a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "You can administer the equivalent of a one- or two-day neuropsych battery in two hours," says Gershon. The complete cognition battery can be administered in about 30 minutes.

The toolbox can also save money, says Gershon. Take the test used to assess people's sense of balance, which could be used to gauge older people's risk of falling. "Our test arguably replaces between $10,000 and $100,000 worth of equipment with a $160 iPad," he says.

Clinical psychologists could find the NIH Toolbox useful, too, says Abigail B. Sivan, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, who helped develop it. In the future, a clinical psychologist might use the toolbox's assessments to help distinguish between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, for example, or between Alzheimer's disease and normal age-related changes in memory, she says. Clinicians could also use the NIH Toolbox to track patients' progress over time, she says.

Available as an app at iTunes, the NIH Toolbox can be downloaded on up to 10 iPads for an annual subscription fee of $500. Users can try it out for free for 60 days.

For more information, visit www.nihtoolbox.org.

By Rebecca  A. Clay

This article was originally published in the December 2016 Monitor on Psychology

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06 Jun 2017

Predatory Publishers Increasingly Targeting Psychologists, Social Scientists

Predatory Publishers Increasingly Targeting Psychologists, Social Scientists

Publishing in peer-reviewed journals can be rewarding — it allows us to share our research with peers and can advance academic careers. However, it can also be difficult and frustrating. Journals on average reject 75 percent of submissions, according to an APA report (American Psychologist, 2014). Peer review can take months and often requires authors to make significant changes to articles prior to publication.

So just imagine the joy psychologists might experience upon receiving an email from a journal (with a name very similar to a respectable APA journal) that invites them personally to submit a paper for a forthcoming issue. The journal promises peer review within one week and publication within two weeks. Imagine further that the journal claims to have a high impact factor, partly due to the fact that its content is freely available worldwide.

As the old adage goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that such an invitation has been sent by a "predatory publisher." While these publishers initially focused on biomedical sciences, a growing number now target psychologists and social scientists.

What are predatory publishers?

Predatory publishers are counterfeit scholarly publishers that aim to trick honest researchers into thinking they are legitimate. They use spam email to solicit research manuscripts, which they quickly accept and publish in their many online open-access journals. Though they claim to peer review articles, many conduct no peer review at all or carry out a minimalist or pro forma review, accepting and publishing flawed manuscripts that most legitimate journals would reject.

Predatory journals are supported by fees charged to authors upon acceptance of their manuscripts, and their goal is profit. The journals want to accept and publish as many manuscripts as possible to increase their revenue. This income strategy conflicts with peer review, which, when done properly, often results in manuscripts being denied publication.

Predatory publishers have fooled many honest scholars into believing that they are legitimate. Experts at mimicking respected publishing houses, they use sophisticated spam techniques, pandering to researchers through personalized spam that praises a researcher's earlier work while inviting a new submission. Other spam emails appeal to authors needing to publish in journals that have earned an impact factor. Companies now exist that supply fake impact factors to questionable journals, metrics they then display in their spam email advertising.

Problems caused by predatory publishing

Predatory publishing harms the scientific community in numerous ways. First, authors may be misled into investing their money and intellectual capital in a journal that they think is high impact and stable when it is neither. Some predatory online publications exist for very short periods of time and are rarely cited in journals that are indexed by reputable databases.

Second, predatory publishing has created a substantial body of published literature that is branded as science, but has not passed through adequate peer review, which is a primary form of quality control. For many readers, reporters and the public, the distinction between authentic and junk science is not readily discernable, yet these publications are readily accessible by anyone.

Compounding the problem, comprehensive academic indexes such as Google Scholar routinely index the junk science, mingling it with authentic research in search results. How are learners, such as high school and college students, supposed to tell them apart? Moreover, new research builds on already-published research, as anyone who has ever compiled a literature review knows. Writing such reviews now requires additional skill and more effort, for the author now must filter out unvetted research.

What can be done?

Researchers and academic disciplines benefit from open access to well-managed, high-quality journals. So what can be done to protect the integrity of open-access publishing?

First, researchers need to develop a "scholarly publishing literacy" skillset to recognize and avoid predatory publishers. Researchers can no longer assume that all scholarly journals are trustworthy and must be on guard against the perils of predatory publishers. Educating graduate students, fellows and junior faculty about predatory publishing should become a routine part of mentoring. (See sidebar for tips from APA staff on how to avoid predatory publishers.)

Second, scholars can refuse to serve on the editorial boards of predatory publishers, which seek to enhance their reputations by creating affiliations with scholars at reputable academic institutions.

Finally, the process of scholarly evaluation must adjust to reflect the new reality of scholarly publishing. Tenure and promotion committees must more carefully scrutinize candidates' publishing records. A quick scan of a CV is no longer sufficient, for journal titles that look authentic may not be. To be fair to those seeking promotion and tenure, this recommendation needs to be combined with the first — educating scholars about appropriate venues for scholarly publishing.

The world of publishing is quickly evolving. Electronic media are increasingly supplanting print media; journals are increasingly accessed through subscription packages rather than subscriptions to individual journals; and funding agencies and professional associations are increasingly pushing for free public access to scientific publications. The challenge before us is to protect the integrity of scholarly publishing even as we adapt to new technologies, circumstances and demands.

By Jeffrey Beall, DSc, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver & James M. Dubois, PhD, the director of the Center for Clinical Research Ethics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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05 Jun 2017

When Your Research Gets Criticized or Politicized

When Your Research Gets Criticized or Politicized

As researchers, we are used to having our peers challenge our research and ask questions. It’s part of the scientific process that we hold so dear. But sometimes, our research results can generate unexpected outcomes that run counter to public or political opinion, resulting in personal attacks that are not based on the facts.

If you ever find your research is being attacked because of political views people have attributed to it, you may be unsure how or even whether to respond. Before you do anything, it might be helpful to consider the reason for the attacks.

A 2011 study on politics and social science research reports that ideas play into politics, and those ideas tend to shape people’s reactions to facts more than the actual research does. While people have their own reasons for consulting available research findings, their acceptance of the research has less to do with the actual research results than the message they want to convey. They may attack findings so they can continue to communicate their own messages.

According to a 2015 Pew study, many more people hold positions on issues that are strictly liberal or conservative today than they did two decades ago, which suggests that your research might not just come up against political-minded people in the policy world. The general public may attack your findings, too, if those findings go against what they believe.

This is why Dr. Susan Courtney, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, makes sure her students know that criticism from the public is part of the scientific process. “I try to prep my students from the very beginning of the research planning process to anticipate potential criticisms of the work so that they have already prepared answers when the expected criticism arrives,” she says.

So, should you find your research has become a part of a political debate, Courtney advises not to take it personally, but to respond professionally, only focusing on the scientific issues. Make sure you are very familiar with related literature, so that you can openly acknowledge alternative interpretations of the data, but also effectively defend your study and your results.

The OHSU School of Medicine offers curricula specifically designed to help researchers respond to feedback in a constructive manner, both orally and in written venues. It also has journal clubs that provide students with experience in responding to feedback on research, and seminar classes that often include mentoring on how to answer questions live.

If the feedback isn’t in a live format, but rather in an email or a social media post, you should probably talk to your dean or professor before responding. If your school doesn’t offer mentoring opportunities designed to help you with written responses like at OHSU, you can always go to your Principal Investigator, your Dissertation Advisory Committee, or any faculty member who advises on research for advice on an appropriate response.

The American Psychological Association Science Directorate provides three key pieces of advice. The first is to develop what’s called a one-pager about your research that explains the aims, the context, and the findings of your research, including information such as potential applications if relevant. APA suggests developing one-pagers to explain your research to congressional and other policymakers, but they are very useful in responses to media or other public inquiries as well (see examples). Second, make full use of your university public relations and media staff before responding to any sort of political attack. Third, let the APA Science Government Relations Office (pkobor@apa.org) know as well if your research is attacked by a government policymaker. APA makes it a priority to defend research that is subject to unwarranted political attacks, and co-leads the Coalition to Promote Research which was formed to help defend peer-reviewed research that is attacked in the congressional arena.

If you are the PI, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) freely available guide, Science in an Age of Scrutiny: How Scientists Can Respond to Criticism, and Personal Attacks, offers several suggestions, including evaluating the tone of the feedback and investigating the legitimacy of its source before responding, and refraining from responding in a way in which your response can be edited or manipulated.

The UCS advises to stand by your research and to let your data speak for itself. If you come across people attempting to discredit the findings you are reporting because they don’t fit into their agenda, or simply because they do not agree, convey to them that you are reporting facts, not opinion. Educate them about the meaning of research by letting them know you are neither for nor against what you’ve researched, because that isn’t how research works. The point of research is to examine a topic of importance and to present findings unbiasedly.

The good news is, many in the public respect research and understand that the scientific process may produce unexpected or challenging findings. The American Association for the Advancement of Science summarized several articles that appeared in the March, 2015 issue of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and determined that “the public tends to hold scientists in high regard. People also generally welcome learning more about a controversial issue, such as geoengineering, in which their minds aren’t already made up. So, the situation is far from hopeless.”

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26 Apr 2017

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior
Gregory Ball
APA Fellow Gregory Ball has spent most of his academic career studying animals and birds, and using the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Growing up, Gregory Ball, PhD, learned a lot about birds from his father, who did his undergraduate and graduate studies in zoology. “He wanted to be an ornithologist,” he recalls, speaking to the American Psychological Association from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is a professor and dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science and APA Fellow.

That experience helped shape Ball’s own future interest and research on the interrelation of hormones, the brain, and reproductive behavior. By studying nonhuman animals, in Ball’s case birds, “you can study relationships between the brain and physiology in a way that you can’t in primates and humans,” he said.

In his lab at the University of Maryland, his team is studying how the perception of song induces gene expression in the brain of birds and how early experience with different kinds of song might affect that gene expression. They also recently published a study looking at how hormones interact with the dopamine system to affect sexual motivation. “Hormones do their work by modulating neurotransmitters and we’re trying to understand the circuit that they interact with to do that,” he said. According to the study, the projection from the preoptic area of the brain to the ventral tegmental area, where the dopamine of one of four major dopamine systems originates, to the accumbens, which plays a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, reward, and reinforcement learning, is very important in that process.

One of the Ball’s favorite recent findings to come out of his lab is related to steroids. “People think that a steroid has a very general effect on behavior – that it just makes you more motivated, or stimulated to do something,” Ball said enthusiastically.

“And we’ve done experiments where we’ve put tiny amounts of hormones or hormone blockers on the brain and we’ve shown that hormones actually act in multiple parts of the brain in specific ways to modulate behavior. For instance, the desire to sing is controlled in one part of the brain, but the control of how well you produce song in a temporal fashion is modulated in another part of the brain.”

Ball first got swept up in the studies of brain function and behavior in animals while studying at Columbia University. He took his introduction to psychology course with Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, who, among other things, led the famous study of animal language acquisition in the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. Ball began working with Terrace, who had studied under B.F. Skinner, the year after he began working with Chimpsky. He was intrigued by the studies of brain function and behavior in animals at Columbia (along with the then-contentious, now-settled debate between behavioral and cognitive psychologists) and began his longtime specialization in experimenting on pigeons.

Under Terrace, they employed the Skinnerian approach, which doesn’t take into the account private events – like thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions – as causes of an organism’s behavior. Ball said he sensed something was missing in studying the pigeons this way.

“They didn’t know if they were males or females, they didn’t know anything about pigeons. They were just animals that you put in the box and you saw how the stimuli affected them. And this is that Skinnerian notion that the organism didn’t really matter – that the contingencies of reinforcement were so powerful that the same thing that happens in a pigeon could be programmed to happen in [other animals].”

Despite disagreeing with the Skinnerian approach, he learned in his early work in Terrace’s lab that he could parse and further understand many topics related to the brain and behavior by looking at nonhuman animals. He began to understand the potential for studying animals other than humans and use the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Around that time, he met Dr. Rae Silver, who had just come to Columbia University and was studying the parental behavior of doves in their natural habitat. He became her first research assistant at the university, which he said was a key event in his career as a psychologist.

“It was another milestone in my career because I realized ‘Oh, this is it!’ You study the animal on its own terms, you study the natural behavior of the animal, and try to glean what you can about the general principles of physiology and the brain related to behavior,” Ball said. “And that’s when I sort of saw that by studying these relationships in animals, you can understand the evolution, the adaptiveness of behavior and put it in the broader natural context.”

After his formative years at Columbia, he earned a PhD in psychobiology at Rutgers University, and completed his postdoctoral work in comparative neuroendocrinology and ethology at Rockefeller University. Prior to getting hired by the University of Maryland in 2014, he taught at Rutgers, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University.
Today, as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science, much of his time is filled with administrative tasks, but he still finds time to pop over to the lab and check on his staff’s research while sharing encouraging stories to inspire the next generation of academics to follow their dreams.

One story he always enjoys retelling is about growing up right down the street from the University of Maryland and how on one summer break from his studies at Columbia, he took a job cutting the institution’s grass.

 “[I tell them] I used to mow the lawn of the building that I’m now dean of,” he says with a chuckle.

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25 Apr 2017

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren
APA Fellow Stanley Coren's research on dog behavior has brought him worldwide acclaim. (Photo: SC & Ripley UBC photo)

He wrote the textbook on sensory processes, published hundreds of papers on wide-ranging neuropsychological topics—and wrote a groundbreaking book on problems associated with left-handedness.

But it was his 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, which ultimately brought psychologist and APA Fellow Stanley Coren, PhD, worldwide acclaim.

The Intelligence of Dogs was the first popular book to apply multiple intelligences to dogs—including instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence—and it blended colorful personal anecdotes with a scientist’s understanding of the dog’s natural history, evolutionary relationship to humans, and trainability.

Notably, the book included data Coren collected from North American dog obedience judges that ranked 110 breeds by intelligence. (Unsurprisingly, Border Collies topped the list, while beautiful, but pea-brained, Afghan Hounds rounded out the bottom.)

It also employed aspects of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories to begin measuring canine language comprehension, an innovative adaptation of human psychological testing.

Speaking from his home in British Columbia, with his Toller pup Ranger whining for attention, Coren reflects on the meandering pathways his scientific explorations have taken him on, and the new concepts of canine research his work has unleashed.

“It used to be the case that you didn’t do research on dogs . . . because they were not considered a natural species,” says Coren, adding: “After my book came out, people began to see . . . what a wonderful genetics lab dogs could be because the breeds have been kept so pure that you actually can have genetically determined behavior differences.

“And then the later books that suggested that dogs have a mind of roughly a human equivalent of a 2- to-3-year-old began to impel people to think that maybe dogs are an important species to study.”

The dog book wasn’t his first brush with renown. Just a year earlier, Coren had published a bestseller on left-handedness, The Left-Hander Syndrome, which included nearly a decade of work on handedness.

His research indicated that left-handedness might be associated with birth stress and could cause some psychological and health problems—a highly controversial assertion that spurred new research in the field. Eventually, it also led to design changes in machinery to reduce hazards for left-handers, an accomplishment for which Coren enjoys obvious pride.

The book shot to the top of the bestseller list and landed Coren a spot on talk show couches from Oprah to Larry King to Charlie Rose. “I had been teaching monster-sized classes, hundreds of kids. That’s basically show biz, so I had lots of practice,” quips Coren.

What the two books shared was a deft, natural writing style that blended extensive scientific research with colorful personal anecdotes, examples from history, mythology, physiology and, in the case of handedness, advocacy. “All of my [popular] books are written as though I’m sitting across the table telling a story to my Aunt Sylvia,” he says, laughing. “She had a short attention span.”

Coren says he always knew he wanted to study the human-canine bond even as an undergrad in the 1960s, but in those days there was no precedent for “studying the critter at either end of the leash.”

“Anybody who claimed they wanted to study the human-animal bond at that time was looked at as if they had just gotten out of a flying saucer with a beanie [and] propeller on top,” says Coren. “There was no way for funding for that sort of thing.”

And so Coren pursued research in sensory processing, publishing his first paper in Science before earning a doctorate in psychology from Stanford. He established a prolific research career, publishing on wide-ranging topics that included vision and hearing, perception, laterality, birth stress, sleep, handedness, behavior genetics and cognitive processing.

“I always believed that a good scientist had to follow his interests and the questions which intrigued him,” notes Coren, who has amassed roughly 300 publications in publications including The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and American Journal of Public Health.

His body of neuropsychological work earned him the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed on a scientist. But even then, Coren was dogged by his “other” life.

“At the induction ceremony the governor general—who is the queen’s representative in Canada—shook my hand,” recalls Coren. “And all she wanted to do was talk about her Golden Retrievers. But, they’re the fourth smartest dogs in all of dogdom and they’re kissy-faced . . . so it’s an irresistible package.”

Coren has heard tales by besotted dog owners from movie stars to presidents. George Bush, Sr., once told Coren that First Dog Millie, his famed Springer Spaniel, routinely took showers with him at the White House.

“For a psychologist like me it was absolute proof of just how strong our bonds can be with our dogs . . .  that we would talk about these intimate moments with people we don’t know all that well when they involve our dog,” Coren chuckles.

Naturally, Coren has been a lifelong dog owner and longtime competitive dog obedience trainer—several of his dogs have won obedience titles. His books are filled with stories of pups he has loved and trained, and he even devoted an entire book to a clever Cairn Terrier, Flint, who could perform counting tasks and operate an answering machine.

Probably not surprising in the often siloed world of science, Coren’s success as a scientist-communicator would eventually undercut his work as a researcher.

“When I published The Intelligence of Dogs I was told by my colleagues it would be the end of my career,” says Coren, who nonetheless balanced his popular writing with neuropsychological research, until funding dried up in 2001. Undaunted, he continued research with his own funds before retiring from academics in 2007.

Coren has made peace with the price of success. He harnessed his own devotion to dogs to publish more than a dozen books on the subject. He writes a regular column on dogs for Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to the Canadian TV show “Pet Central.”

Coren says he’s excited about the explosion of dog research taking place internationally since his first book was published and the growing understanding of capabilities of service and therapy dogs. “In 1972, I remember there were 16 assisted-animal programs in all of America. In the year 2000, when I stopped monitoring, there were well over 1,000.”

All of Coren’s dogs are certified therapy dogs, he says, and he also trains them for competition-level obedience trials, whether they compete or not. But even in his household, dogs will be dogs. He confesses: “When my wife is not around they sometimes sneak on the sofa.”

At this Coren lets out a roaring laugh, which Ranger answers with an urgent whimper. “Okay puppy,” he says. “Okay. Time to go out.”

Dog Tips

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