Sunday, October 26, 2008

New project with students: Video games and language learning

In graduate school in cognitive science I studied artificial neural networks and language acquisition, a continuation of my interest in psychology and computer science from college.

As a professor, I became knowledgeable in several new areas during the 1990s. One of these is the question of why adults find it difficult to learn a foreign language, even in an immersion context. To answer this, I have been developing "multi-causal" theory: foreign language learning is difficult because of entrenched and routinized first-language structures, decline in brain plasticity, and decreased motivation to practice the second language because immediate rewards are so low. Adult learners may highly desire the end-state of fluency, just as they value other long-term goals like weight gain or smoking cessation; immediate rewards are minimal. The intervention I propose is a virtual reality learning environment. The virtual world is the place to learn and practice a foreign language with game characters providing language recasts and diverse skill levels. The immediate rewards of video-games (solving puzzles, finding clues) means that language learning is part of making progress in the game. After developing a prototype for foreign language learners, I want to extend the video game language learning project to the problem of literacy acquisition for deaf children. With my colleagues at BU, I argue that deaf individuals have difficulty learning to read because they are being asked to do something unprecedented: learn a second language (and sometimes a first language) via print. But can a language be learned just from print? Language learning is typically thought to depend on social-emotional interaction, which is absent when deaf children struggle to learn language from the printed page. Virtual reality environments can be used to immerse learners in a world where printed material can co-exist with interactions between characters, including interaction of the learner.

I'm currently looking for funding and collaborators and welcome suggestions.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Which one of these is not like the others?

Below is an unedited email I received from my university Office of Sponsored Programs. Take a look at items 1-4 (see italicized text below).

AGENCY: Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)/National Institutes of Health (NIH)

PROGRAM: Roadmap Transformative R01 Program (R01)

OBJECTIVES: This program, part of the NIH Roadmap Initiative, provides funding for exceptionally innovative, high risk, original and/or unconventional research with the potential to create new or challenge existing scientific paradigms.

Projects in any area of NIH interest are encouraged. Areas of highlighted need that have been identified through an NIH strategic planning process include: 1) Understanding and Facilitating Human Behavior; 2) Change Complex 3-Dimensional Tissue Models; 3) Functional Variation in Mitochondria in Disease Transitions from Acute to Chronic Pain; 4) Formulation of Novel Protein Capture Reagents; and 5) Providing an Evidence Base for Pharmacogenomics

Proposals must clearly articulate (a) the fundamental issue to be addressed and its overarching importance to the biomedical/behavioral research enterprise, (b) how the studies will either establish new or disrupt existing paradigms, and (c) how the proposed rationale and/or approaches significantly differ from state of the art in the field.

Letters of Intent (optional): December 29, 2008
Proposal submission: January 29, 2009

See why the Annals of Improbable Research say that "Soft is Hard"?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why do people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

In a discussion of whether Dostoevky deserves to be considered a great writer, the blogger Jim H wrote:

does anyone really believe that Raskolnikov would cop so readily to the murder? Was he that weak? Was his conscience so overwhelming? or was this just a way for D. to end the story in a redeeming, sort of uplifting way he couldn't find it in himself to challenge?

Hm.... the question is a reminder that most people don't understand how easily people confess. Most people are surprised to learn how common is the phenomena of false confessions.

I just lectured on this in today's psychology class and can't get the topic off my mind.

I found I was unusually strident because my undergrads were staring at me with looks of disbelief and incomprehension.

One student said, "Because they want to protect their family?"

Silently... uh... no, that was Stalinist Russia.

The evidence that people confess to crimes they don't commit, and the reasons, were recently laid out by Saul Kassin (journal article, blog report), publication list).

Dear young things, only two in a class of 85 (yes, big classes sucks) indicated that they had heard of the "Central Park Jogger" -- the young female stock broker assaulted and left for dead in 1989. Media hysteria over teens going on "wilding" rampages meant that the usual suspects were rounded up and convicted. Five young black men spent the 1990s in jail and were finally released in 2002 when the real rapist, already in prison for another crime, bragged about the assault to an imate and was found to have been the rapist via DNA evidence.

They confessed because they cracked under the relentless pressure and just wanted the harassment to end.

It doesn't sound plausible, does it -- until you start looking at the data.

About 1/4 of DNA exonerations were for death-row inmates who were on death-row because of false confessions; once you make a confession, its not easily retracted.

Readers, what is the solution to the waste of lives mispent in jail and wrong convictions?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Biking in Beijing -- Like Everest for a climber

You might think it'd be safer or easier to bike in Beijing, where often "bike lanes" are special side roads necessary to accommodate the packed throng of commuters. But no, me, a veteran Bostonian biker, who bikes in winter, rode my new candy pink girlie bike with a perpetual grimace of fear. Beijing motorists do not have the ethic that the non-motorist (bike or pedestrian) has the right of way. Its all out war there -- those drivers will hit you if you don't get out of the way.

Even so -- I thrilled to be biking in Beijing, where I wasn't some anomalous college professor who "still" rides a bike. [Of course, in Beijing, I was the far more anomalous Caucasian on wheels -- didn't see a single other round-eye on a bike in my five weeks until finally saw a couple of tourists on bikes in my last days.]

In Beijing, bikes are the primary vehicles supporting local commerce. Bikes are not just the commuting option for the masses, they are:

how large bottled water for coolers is delivered (with attached cart or special holsters, one per side)

how streets are sweeped (wish I had a pic of that -- its all muscle, biker wields broom and trash stabbing implement against the curb)

how children are picked up from school (bikes too valuable to be given to kids -- picture stern father in black suit, packing one kid on the back and one in front)

how produce is packed in from country side gardens-- all fresh food is commonly just bought sold on the streets; conventional western style grocery stores exist but fruits and vegetables are priced at up to 20 times the rate of street vended goods

and more generally, how goods and products are transported.

In contrast, motor vehicles are not used by industry and business -- too expensive when there are the no-gasoline options of bike wheels and human muscle. Cars are for the middle and upper class (and indeed, there are so many on the road that I can get to the Forbidden City from Beijing Normal University (a 40 minute bike ride) about as quickly as a taxi.

At one point I fantasized that I would bring back photos of these "working bikes" but I also had a full time job to get done in Beijing and thus had to snap what I could on the way to work (while not getting killed). But any photo journalists want to take this up, I'm available for comment and will share my few photos.

Bikes vs. Cars: The Grand Debate

Alas, were there such a debate. Ok, I had my title fun, back to reality. A reporter wrote me:

"....said you might be interested in helping us out with a discussion about biking in Boston."

Basically, I'm looking for people who are regular cyclists and who can easily discuss the problems that cyclists encounter on the road--for example: crazy motorists, double parked cars and delivery trucks, dooring, oblivious pedestrians who wander into the street without looking for traffic, construction on the BU Bridge, etc.

But I would also need someone who can address the reckless behaviors that some cyclists display, such as riding without helmets, blowing through red lights, failing to use hand signals, wearing headphones, etc.

Ultimately, we would want the two of participants to reach an agreement of ways in which cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians can all utilize Boston’s streets in a safe and productive manner without angering one another.

Would you be interested?

Of course I agreed. My comments:

I am a regular cyclist and advocate biking as an ideal commuter option for Bostonians. Yes, cyclists breeze thru red lights, but we aren't killing 50,000 people a year via vehicle accidents. We aren't polluting the environment. We are the solution, and drivers need to be grateful to us.

Still, I also understand the aggravation experienced by motorists who feel stressed out enough on the road without the extra burden of worrying they're going to accidentally hit a scofflaw bicyclist. I thus urge bicyclists to take drivers' perspectives on the situation. Bicyclists take it for granted that motorists will stop for them, give them the right-of-way, watch out for bicyclists' weaving in between lanes. I urge "be nice to these drivers" - smiles, eye contact, hand-wave of appreciation when they stop for us or wave us on, etc.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fun Post over at "Contra James Wood"

Read and enjoy

Its an arresting image: the media conspirators plotting to develop the literary critic who will make literary fiction into just another genre -- except no need, because a critic was just then stepping forward (James Wood). It got me thinking about whether this has happened in other arenas.

Hm... maybe... the current political situation?

Just a month ago, the ruling kleptocracy was still riding high, thinking they could keep cronyist pay-outs while proclaiming the rigtheous need to rally the public patriotically around the war against Eastasia -- oops, I mean Eurasia. Then the banks started failing. And failing. And failing. Someone would have to pay. And the public wasn't going to accept McCain now, not after the curtain has been ripped away showing Wall Street graft and mismanagement, not with Sarah Palin's word salad (speaking in tongues?).

There would he hard times ahead. The average American would need to do some belt-tightening, hell, would need to drill new holes in their belts, would need to take pay cuts, and pay, and pay, and pay.

The ruling class realized they needed a new kind of President, the kind they hadn't tolerated since, who, oh, Clinton. They needed someone who would look good on the international stage, someone who could calm the eye-rollers in France, Germany and Italy (those commies). They needed someone who wouldn't constantly have to fight the working class, the middle class, the liberal media elite, the Hollywood bleeding hearts. They needed someone to do their dirty work: ram down the throat of the middle class the hard fiscal reforms necessary to clean up the debacle of Wall Street's greed.... Who... Gather round, start conspiratin'. But did they need to find... They already had 'im: Obama.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In which I am challenged to dig into my encyclopedic knowledge of scientific psychology

Dear Professor,

I am writing to you because I would like to have your advice on how to find literature or studies on a certain topic and I am having trouble finding them on my own.

When developing a new products/services, there is a phase of the user- based research where the researcher tries to assess the “consumer’s latent needs”. It is said to be more of an art than a science. It usually occurs during an observational session, interview or beta testing.

A “latent need” could be defined as a need that the user has but is unaware of and cannot define when asked. The user frequently only realizes the existence of a “latent need” when she/he is presented with a product which addresses/satisfies the need. In this moment everything becomes that there was an obvious need for this product in the past and it is seemingly “strange” that no one has invented it before. This term is frequently used in marketing terminology. Good examples of these “needs” are: the necessity of being able to store money in a place other than your home or under your bed (BANK), to buy an item for which you do not have all the cash on your person at the time (CREDIT CARD), the ability to temporarily stick notes on all surfaces (POST-Its), etc.

Therefore my question for you is, is there a “psychological term” for a latent need? Have there been any studies regarding this subject?

Dear Z,

Mainstream psychologists have not studied latent needs. However, your question could be rephrased to be a specific variant of a more general topic that has been well studied: the habits of mind which prevent us from being able to see solutions to existing problems. In particular, I recommend Howard Margolis' Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs

Innovative product ideas like those you mentioned (e.g., Post-its, or think about famous intermittent car windshield wiper) can be understood as creative breakthroughs similar to the scientific breakthroughs discussed by Margolis. You wondered if psychologists have studied latent needs, and if not, why not. You noticed that it is quite interesting and even puzzling why people frequently hadn't noticed their need until the solution was posed, and then apparently suddenly felt the need had been present all along, but had been unnoticed.

To the extent that people don't recognize needs until the solution is presented, I propose that the reason why people apparently hadn't noticed the need before they saw the solution, is the same reason why the solution took so long: because people have mental habits which keep them thinking in a fixed routine. Their mental assumptions about the world entail that the problem doesn't have a solution, so they just keep stepping through their routine. I submit that they grumble, complain, and are annoyed, but the reason they don't look for a solution is not because they don't have a need, but because they haven't conceived of a solution being possible.

Let me illustrate my position with the case of post-it notes. Is it really plausible that no one had previously noticed the need to stick notes to any surface? I suspect masses of people had been annoyed at not having tape handy, were disgruntled by notes falling out of the pages of books or blowing off surfaces. But they assumed this is insurmountable because that had accepted long-standing and true generalizations about how glue works: glue is permanent and detaching a previously glued paper tears and wrecks the material. It was the accidental discovery of a very weak "glue" by chemists at 3M that led to the innovation of post-its.

I thus propose that your question is well-studied by psychologists, but they approach it from the angle of: what habits of mind keep us from seeing solutions to problems. The voluminous psychological work on creativity is only a click away.