1. Study suggests commonplace jokes may normalize experiences of sexual misconduct

    November 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Taylor & Francis press release:

    Commonplace suggestive jokes, such as “that’s what she said,” normalize and dismiss the horror of sexual misconduct experiences, experts suggest in a new essay published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, a National Communication Association publication.

    The recent wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations against prominent actors, politicians, media figures, and others highlights the need to condemn inappropriate and misogynistic behavior, and to provide support and encouragement to victims.

    Communication scholars Matthew R. Meier of West Chester University of Pennsylvania and Christopher A. Medjesky of the University of Findlay argue that off-hand, common remarks such as the “that’s what she said” joke are deeply entrenched in modern society, and contribute to humorizing and legitimizing sexual misconduct.

    The first notable “that’s what she said” joke occurred during a scene in the 1992 film Wayne’s World; however, it became a running joke in the hit television show The Office, leading to “dozens of internet memes, video compilations, and even fansites dedicated to cataloguing occurrences and creating new versions of the joke.” After analyzing multiple examples of the joke used in the show, the authors argue that the “that’s what she said” joke serves as an analog to the rhetoric of rape culture.

    By discrediting and even silencing victims, this type of humor conditions audiences to ignore — and worse, to laugh at — inappropriate sexual behavior.

    Furthermore, the authors suggest that these types of comments contribute to dangerous societal and cultural norms by ultimately reinforcing the oppressive ideologies they represent, despite the intentions or naivete of the people making the jokes.

    The authors argue that the “that’s what she said” joke cycle is part of a larger discourse that not only becomes culturally commonplace, but also reinforces dangerous ideologies that are so entrenched in contemporary life that we end up laughing at something that isn’t funny at all.


  2. Study looks at language often used by people with ADHD on Twitter

    by Ashley

    From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    What can Twitter reveal about people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD? Quite a bit about what life is like for someone with the condition, according to findings published by University of Pennsylvania researchers Sharath Chandra Guntuku and Lyle Ungar in the Journal of Attention Disorders. Twitter data might also provide clues to help facilitate more effective treatments.

    “On social media, where you can post your mental state freely, you get a lot of insight into what these people are going through, which might be rare in a clinical setting,” said Guntuku, a postdoctoral researcher working with the World Well-Being Project in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. “In brief 30- or 60-minute sessions with patients, clinicians might not get all manifestations of the condition, but on social media you have the full spectrum.”

    Guntuku and Ungar, a professor of computer and information science with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School and Penn Medicine, turned to Twitter to try to understand what people with ADHD spend their time talking about. The researchers collected 1.3 million publicly available tweets posted by almost 1,400 users who had self-reported diagnoses of ADHD, plus an equivalent control set that matched the original group in age, gender and duration of overall social-media activity. They then ran models looking at factors like personality and posting frequency.

    “Some of the findings are in line with what’s already known in the ADHD literature,” Guntuku said. For example, social-media posters in the experimental group often talked about using marijuana for medicinal purposes. “Our coauthor, Russell Ramsay, who treats people with ADHD, said this is something he’s observed in conversations with patients,” Guntuku added.

    The researchers also found that people with ADHD tended to post messages related to lack of focus, self-regulation, intention and failure, as well as expressions of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. They often used words like “hate,” “disappointed,” “cry” and “sad” more frequently than the control group and often posted during hours of the day when the majority of people sleep, from midnight to 6 a.m.

    “People with ADHD are experiencing more mood swings and more negativity,” Ungar said. “They tend to have problems self-regulating.”

    This could partially explain why they enjoy social media’s quick feedback loop, he said. A well-timed or intriguing tweet could yield a positive response within minutes, propelling continued use of the online outlet.

    Using information gleaned from this study and others, Ungar and Guntuku said they plan to build condition-specific apps that offer insight into several conditions, including ADHD, stress, anxiety, depression and opioid addiction. They aim to factor in facets of individuals, their personality or how severe their ADHD is, for instance, as well as what triggers particular symptoms.

    The applications will also include mini-interventions. A recommendation for someone who can’t sleep might be to turn off the phone an hour before going to bed. If anxiety or stress is the major factor, the app might suggest an easy exercise like taking a deep breath, then counting to 10 and back to zero.

    “If you’re prone to certain problems, certain things set you off; the idea is to help set you back on track,” Ungar said.

    Better understanding ADHD has the potential to help clinicians treat such patients more successfully, but having this information also has a downside: It can reveal aspects of a person’s personality unintentionally, simply by analyzing words posted on Twitter. The researchers also acknowledge that the 50-50 split of ADHD to non-ADHD study participants isn’t true to life; only about 8 percent of adults in the U.S. have the disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition, people in this study self-reported an ADHD diagnosis rather than having such a determination come from a physician interaction or medical record.

    Despite these limitations, the researchers say the work has strong potential to help clinicians understand the varying manifestations of ADHD, and it could be used as a complementary feedback tool to give ADHD sufferers personal insights.

    “The facets of better-studied conditions like depression are pretty well understood,” Ungar said. “ADHD is less well studied. Understanding the components that some people have or don’t have, the range of coping mechanisms that people use — that all leads to a better understanding of the condition.”


  3. Study suggests dual-language learners outperform monolingual students once they gain English proficiency

    November 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Not all dual-language learners are at risk academically, but as a group, these students are often labeled as such, despite differences in their English skills.

    A new Iowa State University study examined how variation in dual language status among Head Start students related to development in cognitive and academic areas. The research team led by Ji-Young Choi, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, found dual-language learners (DLLs) had significant growth, eventually outperforming students who only spoke English, once DLLs gained basic English proficiency. The results are published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

    Choi, Christine Lippard, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State; and Shinyoung Jeon, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, analyzed data measuring inhibitory control (the ability to pay attention and control natural, but unnecessary thoughts or behaviors) and math achievement for low-income students in Head Start through kindergarten. The data, collected through the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009, included 825 children — whose home language was English or Spanish — at 59 Head Start programs across the country.

    Instead of treating DLLs as a homogenous group, researchers created two categories — Spanish-English bilinguals, who can function in both languages; and DLLs with limited English skills — based on ability entering Head Start. They identified stark differences between the DLL groups and English-only students over the course of the study. Entering Head Start, bilingual students had higher inhibitory control, but lower math scores, than English-only students did. DLLs with limited English skills lagged behind both groups. However, over the course of 18 months, bilingual students outperformed English-only students with higher scores in math and inhibitory control, despite having lower baseline scores for math at the beginning of the study.

    DLLs with limited English skills — students considered at risk when they entered Head Start — also made significant progress, the study found. These students outpaced bilingual and English-only students in the rate of gains for inhibitory control skills. While their scores had not caught up with the other two groups by the midpoint of kindergarten (the final point of analysis for the study), Choi expects with more time DLLs with limited English skills would eventually match or even outperform English-only peers as they learn more English and become bilingual.

    “Recognizing that dual-language learners can do better than we expected has huge implications. When these students do not have age-appropriate English skills they are more at risk, but once they achieve those skills they actually excel,” Choi said. “This study also confirms that there is a cognitive benefit for bilingual students.”

    Importance of inhibitory control

    The researchers say that bilingual children’s faster growth rate in inhibitory control over time helped explain the significant difference in kindergarten math skills between bilingual children and English-only students. Based on the FACES data, they could not provide a definitive explanation for the faster growth rate in inhibitory control. However, Choi says the research results lend support to the theory that bilingual students develop stronger inhibitory control skills because of their daily practice toggling between languages to fit the conversation, and inhibiting one language while speaking another.

    Inhibitory control encompasses everything from a child’s ability to suppress the impulse to grab a toy away from a friend to inhibiting the impulse to pronounce a “t” sound at the beginning of the, Lippard said. It is an important foundational skill for academic growth as well as behavior.

    Supporting students’ home language

    Recognizing skill-level differences is important given that DLLs are in more than 70 percent of Head Start classrooms. Lippard says all early childhood educators need to understand the developmental strengths of DLLs, and recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach for teaching these students. The study makes the case for instructional support to help DLLs become proficient in English while learning or maintaining their home language. Lippard says one way to achieve that is by giving students the opportunity to engage with linguistically diverse teachers.

    “Preschool programs are so full of academic expectations that adding a Spanish lesson time may not be helpful or developmentally appropriate,” Lippard said. “Learning Spanish by interacting with a native Spanish speaker and experiencing typical preschool activities like singing songs or reading stories in Spanish holds potential benefits for all of the children in the classroom.”

    Choi would like to see instructional support for DLLs throughout their formal education. DLLs use their home language less and less as they are exposed to English in school and risk losing their home language, Choi said. While it is important for students to be proficient in English, she says DLLs would lose the potential bilingual benefits without support for their home language.


  4. How spatial navigation correlates with language

    November 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the National Research University Higher School of Economics press release:

    Cognitive neuroscientists from the Higher School of Economics and Aarhus University experimentally demonstrate how spatial navigation impacts language comprehension. The results of the study have been published in NeuroImage.

    Language is a complicated cognitive function, which is performed not only by local brain modules, but by a distributed network of cortical generators. Physical experience such as movement and spatial motion play an important role in psychological experiences and cognitive function, which is related to how an individual mentally constructs the meaning of a sentence.

    Nikola Vukovic and Yury Shtyrov carried out an experiment at the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making, which explains the relations between the systems responsible for spatial navigation and language. Using neurophysiological data, they describe brain mechanisms that support navigation systems use in both spatial and linguistic tasks.

    “When we read or hear stories about characters, we have to represent the inherently different perspectives people have on objects and events, and ‘put ourselves in their shoes’. Our study is the first to show that our brain mentally simulates sentence perspective by using non-linguistic areas typically in charge of visuo-spatial thought” says Dr. Nikola Vukovic, the scientist who was chiefly responsible for devising and running the experiment.

    Previous studies have shown that humans have certain spatial preferences that are based either on one’s body (egocentric) or are independent from it (allocentric). Although not absolute and subject to change in various situations, these preferences define how an individual perceives the surrounding space and how they plan and understand navigation in this space.

    The participants of the experiment solved two types of tasks. The first was a computer-based spatial navigation task involving movement through a twisting virtual tunnel, at the end of which they had to indicate the beginning of the tunnel. The shape of the tunnel was designed so that people with egocentric and allocentric perspectives estimated the starting point differently. This difference in their subjective estimates helped the researchers split the participants according to their reference frame predispositions.

    The second task involved understanding simple sentences and matching them with pictures. The pictures differed in terms of their perspective, and the same story could be described using first (“I”) or second person pronouns (“You”). The participants had to choose which pictures best matched the situation described by the sentence.

    During the experiment, electrical brain activity was recorded in all participants with the use of continuous electroencephalographic (EEG) data. Spectral perturbations registered by EEG demonstrated that a lot of areas responsible for navigation were active during the completion of both types of tasks. One of the most interesting facts for the researchers was that activation of areas when hearing the sentences also depended on the type of individual’s spatial preferences.

    Brain activity when solving a language task is related to a individuals’ egocentric or allocentric perspective, as well as their brain activity in the navigation task. The correlation between navigation and linguistic activities proves that these phenomena are truly connected’, emphasized Yury Shtyrov, leading research fellow at the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making and professor at Aarhus University, where he directs MEG/EEG research. ‘Furthermore, in the process of language comprehension we saw activation in well-known brain navigation systems, which were previously believed to make no contribution to speech comprehension’.

    These data may one day be used by neurobiologists and health professionals. For example, in some types of aphasia, comprehension of motion-related words suffers, and knowledge on the correlation between the navigation and language systems in the brain could help in the search for mechanisms to restore these links.


  5. How to detect the risk of dyslexia before learning to read

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the FECYT – Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology press release:

    Almost 10% of the world population suffers dyslexia. Establishing an early diagnosis would allow the development of training programs to palliate this disorder. We now may be nearer to reaching this goal thanks to a study carried out by the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL), associating auditory processing in children to their reading skills. The results offer a new approach for detecting the risk before the children learn to read.

    Difficulty recognising words, decoding and writing problems, limitation of reading comprehension … These are the main consequences of dyslexia, a cognitive disorder of neurological origin in which a late diagnosis is the main handicap.

    A study led by investigators of the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) has demonstrated a relationship between the capacity of children to learn how to read and their hearing ability.

    This breakthrough, published in Frontiers in Psychology, casts light upon the detection of the disorder and could help establish the risk of dyslexia from an early stage, as well as develop training programmes to palliate reading limitations on a preemptive basis.

    “The capacity of children to listen and process language is a decisive factor in learning to read,” explains Paula Ríos-López, the supervisor of the study and a research member of the BCBL. At present, we must wait for children to reach 9 years of age in order to diagnose dyslexia.

    However, the results of the San Sebastián centre imply that measurement of hearing capacity in children from a very early age may allow us to identify those individuals that might have reading problems and therefore be more susceptible to dyslexia.

    Furthermore, different training activities could be implemented before 9 years of age, based on prosody (accents, tone and intonation) and language rhythms, together with programmes designed to palliate reading difficulties.

    The aim is to improve reading skills and avoid future disorders. “For example, we could make an activity as simple as playing a drum improve the rhythmic skills of the child with the purpose of gradually improving language perception and avoiding future disorders,” underscores Ríos-López.

    The importance of rhythm

    The study has been carried out in 40 children in the second and fifth primary school grades. In order to demonstrate the relationship between the ability to learn how to read and hearing capacity, the subjects were exposed to a pseudo-word (an invented word without meaning), which the children were required to repeat verbally when asked about it.

    The experiment showed that this word was better understood when preceded by phrases produced only with prosodic information, i.e., in which the information only consisted of rhythms and intonations, with no phonemes of any kind.

    As explained by the expert, those children that yielded poorer scores in the reading skill test were those that received most help from the phrase with prosodic information to successfully understand and repeat the pseudo-word.

    In this sense, children that do not optimally process low frequency sounds (tones, accents and intonations of speech) have greater difficulty correctly decoding phonemes and words — and this in turn is directly correlated to reading capacity and its possible disorders.

    “Rhythm offers the brain the key to focalising auditory attention in moments when information relevant to speech perception appears,” explains Ríos-López. “When the brain predicts the appearance of such information, an excitable state is produced, with the recruitment of neurons destined to adapt to it,” she concludes.


  6. Study suggests bilingual preschoolers show stronger inhibitory control

    by Ashley

    From the University of Oregon press release:

    For students in preschool, speaking two languages may be better than one, especially for developing inhibitory control — the ability to stop a hasty reflexive response and instead select a more adaptive response.

    That idea isn’t new, but a University of Oregon study took a longitudinal approach to examine the bilingual advantage hypothesis, which suggests that the demands associated with managing two languages confer cognitive advantages that extend beyond the language domain.

    The study appeared in the journal Developmental Science.

    Researchers looked at a national sample of 1,146 Head Start children who were assessed for their inhibitory control at age 4, and then followed over an 18-month period. The children were divided into three groups based on their language proficiency: Those who spoke only English; those who spoke both Spanish and English; and those who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but were fluent in both English and Spanish at the follow up assessment.

    “At the beginning of the study, the group that entered as already bilingual scored higher on a test of inhibitory control compared to the other two groups,” said the study’s lead author Jimena Santillán, a UO doctoral student in psychology at the time of the study.

    Follow-up assessments came at six and 18 months. Inhibitory control was assessed using a common pencil-tapping task, in which the participant is instructed to tap a pencil on a desk twice when the experimenter taps once, and vice-versa, requiring the student to inhibit the impulse to imitate what the experimenter does and but do the opposite instead.

    Over the follow-up period, both the bilingual group and the monolingual-to-bilingual transition group showed more rapid inhibitory control development than the group of English-only speakers.

    “Inhibitory control and executive function are important skills for academic success and positive health outcomes and well-being later in life,” said study co-author, Atika Khurana, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services and scientist at the UO’s Prevention Science Institute.

    “The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years,” she said. “Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns. This study shows one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.”

    Students in this study came from low socioeconomic status families, as is typical of Head start samples. Such children are in a group known to be at-risk for poorer outcomes related to executive function skills. This population allowed the researchers to compare students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds but who had different language experiences.

    Researchers also were able to control for other variables that could be associated with inhibitory control development, such as a child’s age and parenting practices. The study’s design allowed researchers to focus on the effects of bilingual experience on inhibitory-control development during preschool years.

    Previous studies have examined the effects of bilingualism on inhibitory control, but have done so with a focus on one point in time or development and have focused on smaller samples from mostly middle class backgrounds, said Santillán, who now is a senior research manager at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

    “Many studies have addressed the bilingual advantage hypothesis,” she said. “However, the findings have been inconsistent. Part of the reason is the difficulty of randomly assigning participants to be bilingual or monolingual, which would be the ideal research design.”

    The longitudinal approach allowed researchers to see how inhibitory control changed over time for children who were developing bilingualism during the same time period, as well as for those who were already bilingual with those who remained monolingual.

    “This allowed us to get closer to capturing the dynamic nature of the development of bilingualism and inhibitory control, both of which change over time, and rule out other potential explanations for the differences observed between groups,” she said.

    It was important, she said, to focus on a sample of children who tend to be at risk for not developing inhibitory abilities at the same rate as their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds because of the motivation to find factors that could help buffer such children from these negative outcomes.

    “We were able to obtain evidence that bilingualism can be a protective factor that helps children develop these cognitive abilities,” Santillán said. “Provided that more research studies support our results, the findings we’ve obtained could have implications for policies related to bilingual education and could help encourage families to raise their children as bilingual.”


  7. Study suggests luck plays a role in how language evolves

    November 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    Read a few lines of Chaucer or Shakespeare and you’ll get a sense of how the English language has changed during the past millennium. Linguists catalogue these changes and work to discern why they happened. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have been doing something similar with living things, exploring how and why certain genes have changed over generations.

    In a new study published in Nature, researchers in these two academic fields have joined forces at the University of Pennsylvania to solve an essential problem of how languages evolve: determining whether language changes occur by random chance or by a selective force.

    Examining substantial collections of annotated texts dating from the 12th to the 21st centuries, the researchers found that certain linguistic changes were guided by pressures analogous to natural selection — social, cognitive and other factors — while others seem to have occurred purely by happenstance.

    “Linguists usually assume that when a change occurs in a language, there must have been a directional force that caused it,” said Joshua Plotkin, professor of biology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences and senior author on the paper. “Whereas we propose that languages can also change through random chance alone. An individual happens to hear one variant of a word as opposed to another and then is more likely to use it herself. Chance events like this can accumulate to produce substantial change over generations. Before we debate what psychological or social forces have caused a language to change, we must first ask whether there was any force at all.”

    “One of the great early American linguists, Leonard Bloomfield, said that you can never see a language change, that the change is invisible,” said Robin Clark, a coauthor and professor of linguistics in Penn Arts and Sciences. “But now, because of the availability of these large corpora of texts, we can actually see it, in microscopic detail, and begin to understand the details of how change happened.”

    Plotkin and Clark joined with lead authors Christopher A. Ahern, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics, and Mitchell G. Newberry, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology, on the work.

    Just as genomic analyses require massive amounts of data to see signs that one gene or another has risen in frequency over time in response to a selective pressure, this linguistic analysis required a large database of texts written over centuries to determine the role of selection in language evolution. These corpora are the result of generations of work, much of it by Penn linguists, to parse written texts and annotate parts of speech.

    The researchers chose three well-characterized English language changes to evaluate for signs of selection.

    One change is the regularization of past-tense verbs. Using the Corpus of Historical American English, comprising more than 100,000 texts ranging from 1810 to 2009 that have been parsed and digitized — a database that includes more than 400 million words — the team searched for verbs where both regular and irregular past-tense forms were present, for example, “dived” and “dove” or “wed” and “wedded.”

    They identified 36 such verbs. Using an analytical technique that Plotkin and colleagues had developed to detect natural selection in microbial populations, they studied the changing frequency of the different verb forms over time to conclude whether one had risen to dominance due to selective forces or due to chance.

    For six of these verbs, the team found evidence of selection. In four of these cases, selection favored the irregular past tense form.

    “There is a vast literature and a lot of mythology on verb regularization and irregularization,” Clark said, “and a lot of people have claimed that the tendency is toward regularization. But what we found was quite different.”

    Indeed, the analysis pointed to particular instances where it seems selective forces are driving irregularization. For example, while a swimmer 200 years ago might have “dived,” today we would say they “dove.” The shift towards using this irregular form coincided with the invention of cars and concomitant increase in use of the rhyming irregular verb “drive”/”drove.”

    The use of “quit” instead of “quitted,” is another example that coincides with an overall increase in use of the rhyming irregulars “hit” and “split.” Meanwhile “split” has taken on a new meaning since 1900: to depart.

    If you have a phonetic neighborhood with lots of rhyming irregular verbs, it acts like a gravitational force and makes it more likely that the past tense of other rhyming verbs will irregularize,” said Clark.

    Despite finding selection acting on some verbs, “the vast majority of verbs we analyzed show no evidence of selection whatsoever,” Plotkin said.

    The team recognized a pattern: random chance affects rare words more than common ones. When rarely-used verbs changed, that replacement was more likely to be due to chance. But when more common verbs switched forms, selection was more likely to be a factor driving the replacement.

    The authors also observed a role of random chance in grammatical change. The periphrastic “do,” as used in, “Do they say?” or “They do not say,” did not exist 800 years ago. Back in the 1400s, these sentiments would have been expressed as, “Say they?” or “They say not.”

    Using the Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English, which includes 7 million syntactically parsed words from 1,220 British English texts, the researchers found that the use of the periphrastic “do” emerged in two stages, first in questions (“Don’t they say?”) around the 1500s, and then roughly 200 years later in imperative and declarative statements (“They don’t say.”).

    While most linguists have assumed that such a distinctive grammatical feature must have been driven to dominance by some selective pressure, the Penn team’s analysis questions that assumption. They found that the first stage of the rising periphrastic “do” use is consistent with random chance. Only the second stage appears to have been driven by a selective pressure.

    “It seems that, once ‘do’ was introduced in interrogative phrases, it randomly drifted to higher and higher frequency over time,” said Plotkin. “Then, once it became dominant in the question context, it was selected for in other contexts, the imperative and declarative, probably for reasons of grammatical consistency or cognitive ease.”

    The researchers also confirmed longstanding hypotheses about selection operating to change the form of verbal negation, as “Ic ne secge” changed to “I ne seye not” and then to “I say not,” from Old to Early Modern English. Previous support for this hypothesis relied on comparison across multiple languages, whereas the Penn team established the same result based on data from English alone.

    The research team is continuing its collaboration, with plans to explore the forces at work in linguistic features such as baby naming as well as the evolution of spoken language.

    As the authors see it, it’s only natural that social-science fields like linguistics increasingly exchange knowledge and techniques with fields like statistics and biology.

    “To an evolutionary biologist,” said Newberry, “it’s important that language is maintained through a process of copying language; people learn language by copying other people. That copying introduces minute variation, and those variants get propagated. Each change is an opportunity for a different copying rate, which is the basis for evolution as we know it.”

    “To be able to see this kind of microscopic detail in social evolution, that’s a big deal, that’s something we can sink our teeth into,” said Clark. “By looking at the analogies between social science and biology, this work is pushing toward a unification between the two fields. I think both sides stand to gain.”

    The study was supported by the University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation, David & Lucile Packard Foundation, U.S. Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (Grant D12AP00025) and U.S. Army Research Office (Grant W911NF-12-1-0552).


  8. Researcher suggests rational decision-making doesn’t require language

    by Ashley

    From the University of Houston press release:

    Previous research has shown that animals can remember specific events, use tools and solve problems. But exactly what that means — whether they are making rational decisions or simply reacting to their environment through mindless reflex — remains a matter of scientific dispute.

    Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, argues in an article published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research that a wide range of animal species exhibit so-called “executive control” when it comes to making decisions, consciously considering their goals and ways to satisfy those goals before acting.

    He acknowledges that language is required for some sophisticated forms of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. But bolstered by a review of previously published research, Buckner concludes that a wide variety of animals — elephants, chimpanzees, ravens and lions, among others — engage in rational decision-making.

    “These data suggest that not only do some animals have a subjective take on the suitability of the option they are evaluating for their goal, they possess a subjective, internal signal regarding their confidence in this take that can be deployed to select amongst different options,” he wrote.

    The question has been debated since the days of the ancient philosophers, as people considered what it means to be human. One way to address that, Buckner said, is to determine exactly what sets humans apart from other animals.

    Language remains a key differentiator, and Buckner notes that serious attempts in the 1970s and ’80s to teach animals human language — teaching chimpanzees to use sign language, for example — found that although they were able to express simple ideas, they did not engage in complex thought and language structures.

    Ancient philosophers relied upon anecdotal evidence to study the issue, but today’s researchers conduct sophisticated controlled experiments. Buckner, working with Thomas Bugnyar and Stephan A. Reber, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna, last year published the results of a study that determined ravens share at least some of the human ability to think abstractly about other minds, adapting their behavior by attributing their own perceptions to others.

    In his latest paper, Buckner offers several examples to support his argument:

    • Matriarchal elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park were able to determine the threat level of human intruders by differentiating ethnicity, gender and age, suggesting an understanding that adult Maasai tribesmen sometimes kill elephants in competition for grazing or in retaliation for attacks against humans, while Kamba tribesmen and women and children from both tribes don’t pose a threat.
    • Giraffes are not generally considered prey by lions in Africa, due to the long-necked animals’ ability to deliver skull-crushing kicks. Lions in South Africa’s Selous Game Reserve, however, are reported to have learned that giraffes found in a sandy river bed can get stuck and even trip, making them suitable prey.

    His goal, Buckner said, was to compile the empirical research, “to see that we’ve accumulated enough evidence to say that animals really are rational in a distinctive way.”


  9. Study examines how the financial press influences investors’ opinion and behaviour

    October 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Luxembourg press release:

    Researchers at the University of Luxembourg have found that the financial press can have detrimental or positive effects on the behaviour of investors and their opinion on the economy as a result of the language used in reporting.

    While a link between financial news and the behaviour of investors has long been assumed, this study (“Modifier words in the financial press and investor expectations”) is the first to deliver empirical data confirming a significant correlation between the press and the development of stocks.

    For the experiment, a group of 80 participants with a background in economics were presented with various news items about particular stocks. In the news items, the names of the companies were anonymized, but they included so-called “modifier words” giving each article a more negative (e.g. “devastating”, “shocking”) or positive (e.g. “healthy”, “encouraging”) angle. The factual information remained the same.

    Participants were then asked to assess the future performance of the stocks with a clear pattern emerging: positive news coverage also led to a positive evaluation and vice versa. Importantly, the style of news reporting had an impact on the hypothetical decision of participants to buy or sell stocks and their overall estimation of the economy.

    Language matters!

    The team of researchers – Prof. Roman Kräussl from the University of Luxembourg’s Luxembourg School of Finance and Prof. Ronald Bosman and Elizaveta Mirgorodskaya (both Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) – concluded that the evaluation of the economy is less fundamental data-driven than it is emotional impression-driven.

    With the press playing a big role in how the public perceive and understand the economy and financial markets, the experiment provides evidence of the influential role of the media. “In a time when journalism is increasingly under pressure, it is important to highlight the influence media can have on real life scenarios,” commented Prof. Kräussl. “We live in the age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, of fast-paced online and social media. Our research clearly shows the importance of factual and accurate reporting and the power that words yield over investors and, by extension, stock markets and the economy.”


  10. Study looks at alcohol’s effect on second language ability

    October 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King’s College London, shows that bilingual speakers’ ability to speak a second language is improved after they have consumed a low dose of alcohol.

    It is well-established that alcohol impairs cognitive and motor functions. ‘Executive functions’, which include the ability to remember, pay attention, and inhibit inappropriate behaviours, are particularly sensitive to the acute effects of alcohol.

    Given that executive functions are important when speaking a second (non-native) language, one might expect that alcohol would impair the ability to speak a second language. On the other hand, alcohol increases self-confidence and reduces social anxiety, both of which might be expected to improve language ability when interacting with another person.

    Furthermore, many bilingual speakers believe that it can improve their ability to speak a second language. The aim of this experimental study was to test these competing predictions for the first time.

    Language performance

    The researchers tested the effects of a low dose of alcohol on participants’ self-rated and observer-rated ability to converse in Dutch. Participants were 50 native German speakers who were studying at a Dutch University (Maastricht) and had recently learned to speak, read and write in Dutch.

    Participants were randomized to consume either a low dose of alcohol or a control beverage that contained no alcohol, before they chatted with an experimenter in Dutch for a few minutes. The exact dose of alcohol varied depending on participants’ body weight, but it was equivalent to just under a pint (460ml) of 5% beer, for a 70kg male.

    The chat was audio-recorded and participants’ foreign language skills were subsequently rated by two native Dutch speakers who did not know if the participant had consumed alcohol or not (observer-ratings). Participants also rated their own Dutch language skills during the conversation (self-ratings).

    The researchers found that participants who had consumed alcohol had significantly better observer-ratings for their Dutch language, specifically better pronunciation, compared to those who had not consumed alcohol. However, alcohol had no effect on self-ratings of Dutch language skills.

    Implications and Limitations

    Dr Inge Kersbergen, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, who was involved in the study, said: “Our study shows that acute alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language in people who recently learned that language. This provides some support for the lay belief (among bilingual speakers) that a low dose of alcohol can improve their ability to speak a second language”

    Dr Fritz Renner who was one of the researchers who conducted the study at Maastricht University, said: “It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol. Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have beneficial effects on the pronunciation of a foreign language.”

    Dr Jessica Werthmann who was one of the researchers who conducted the study at Maastricht University, said “We need to be cautious about the implications of these results until we know more about what causes the observed results. One possible mechanism could be the anxiety-reducing effect of alcohol. But more research is needed to test this.”