A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WCLAB recap

The talk at WCALB went well. It was a very small group of people, which was a bit awkward, but overall very nice. I spent a while talking with Herb Terrace, had some nice interactions with Stephanie LaFarge, who had been Nim's human mother. I also got to have some great conversations with
  • Francys Subiaul (who does very interesting studies in apes and human children down at George Mason),  
  • Cody Brooks (who does cool rat work over at Denison; classical conditioning using alcohol as a reinfoncer, with implications for reducing relapse in addicts ).
  • Cameron Buckner (who does some interesting philosophy of psychology work at down at the University of Houston) 
  • Kerry Jordan (who does cognitive development work over at Utah State, who I finally got to meet after some correspondences several years ago) 
  • Scott Cohn (who is interested using learning theory to improve environmental conservation efforts, and does some cool work with undergrads at Western Colorado)
  • Carl Danson, who is retired from Cal State Long Beach, and is awesome to hang out with
  • and Stan Weiss, the conference organizer who is down at American

The vocabulary-highlight of the conference was Cameron's discussing the problem where comparative (e.g. animal) research in psychology is considered interesting only because what humans do is, a priori, assumed to be super awesome. In that context, animals are only interesting because we can learn about their degenerate abilities, which are way worse than human abilities, and will give us insight into how we humans are unique and how we got to be that way. This is a surprisingly common attitude, often explicit in public discourse, but usually implicit in professional research. The problem is not quite anthropomarphism, nor anthropocentrism, which are much written about. Cameron has suggested the term anthropofabulous, which definitely had me smiling. Even better, if this term catches on, there should be a verb form: Anthropofabulation.

The straight-research highlight was Bjoern Bremb's work separating classical and operant conditioning effects in normal and genetically modified fruit flies. He was in a forum on Theory of Mind, ostensibly because one of his genetic manipulations was of a precursor to a gene known to be important for normal language development in humans. Really, there was no connection, but the apparatus was very cool, and the results seemed to show that genetically modified fruit flies could have just operant conditioning, or just classical conditioning, i.e., a double-dissociation. As someone very suspicious that there is ever a clear distinction between operant and classical procedures, I will be meditating on this talk for a while.

There was also a nice talk by Erin Colbert-White who is analyzing "naturally" occurring communication between African gray parrot and their human owners. It is a really clever way of trying to determine what the parrots are capable of, without the research confounds and biases created by in-house rearing. Alas, Erin was pretty handicapped by the vocabulary and concepts of standard animal communication and language models. I recommended she look at the Assessment-Management approach to animal communication developed by Don Owings. The best places to look for that are Don's book, Animal Vocal Communication: A New Approach, or, if you want a quicker version, the last two chapters of Perspectives in Ethology Vol. 12: Animal Communication. The next to last chapter is one of Don's more succinct statements, then in the last chapter Nick Thompson cleans the approach up a bit, introducing several insights that Don later adopts in the book. Also, as Don's approach to animal communication was highly influenced by Gibson (and Nick's by Holt), these should be must-reads for any ecological psychology people interested in "language". This work is well-known in the animal behavior literature, though it is only slowly moving beyond it. Both Don's assessment-management approach and Nick's natural design perspective provide a solid (and realistic) middle ground between the idea that animal communication is simple and stupid, and the corresponding anthropofabulation of human linguistic abilities.

As for my talk, it went well. I ended using material about the better ways to think of radical behaviorism for my introduction. I will try to put that material together for a post in the next few days. As implied in the last post, the punchline was that one of the practical problems with the language of modern cognitive psychology is that it obscures the need for certain types of research, such as the need of determining what, exactly, people are responding to when demonstrating their "theory of mind" abilities.

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