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Friday, December 29, 2017

On Making Right Choices

Our lives our filled with making choices. Sometimes we make reasoned choices and sometimes we make irrational choices. The drivers of irrational choices were examined in a series of studies by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work. Their experiments showed that humans will make irrational choices when the cost-benefit relations are manipulated in certain ways. They established two generic modes of cognitive function: an intuitive mode in which judgments and decisions are made automatically and rapidly, and a controlled mode, which is deliberate and slower. Cost-benefit parameters need not involve money, but they often do, such as "should I wait for the new cars go on sale" to "how much am I willing to save for retirement."

I had the good fortune back in the early 1970s when these Nobel Prize discoveries were being made to be part of a team at Texas A&M that documented and elucidated the founding "behavioral economics" concepts. We use rigorously controlled experiments with rats in an economic environment where we commoditized their food and drink. Prices were set in terms of how many lever presses they had to make to get an item. Buy the way, they normally prefer root beer over Tom Collins mix (without the alcohol). But what they "bought" was readily manipulated by changing the cost and the amount of item they could get. With certain cost-benefit conditions, they made stupid choices even to the point of making themselves sick. Our widely cited paper apparently stimulated the present-day use by drug companies to use our approach with lab animals to test new drugs for their potential to be addictive.

Today, a recent review of behavioral economics emphasizes that foundational principles of behavioral economics may help in the treatment of maladaptive choice-making, as occurs in preventive medical practices, drug addictions, obesity, and assorted compulsions. The heart of the matter is that such choices entail how much one values a desired target (like chocolate cake) and how much one values the future consequences of delaying or minimizing immediate consumption. Choices are irrational and maladaptive when a person is inadequately sensitive to long-term consequences and is controlled mostly by immediate desires.

Choices are a gamble. You can't know for certain you have made the right choice. But being paralyzed with indecision is no solution. Reason helps you understand the odds.

The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. 
Read about it in my book, Mental Biology.

Jarmolowicz, D. P., Reed, D. D., Reed, F. D. G.,  and Bickel, W. K. (2015) The behavioral and neuroeconomics of reinforcer pathologies: Implications for managerial and health decision making. Managr. Decis. Econ. DOI: 10.1002/mde.2716

Kagel, J. H., Rachlin, H., Green, L. Battalio, R. C., Basemann, R. I., and Klemm, W. R. (1975) Experimental studies of consumer demand behavior using laboratory animals. Economic Inquiry. 13, 22-38.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Production Effect in Memory

When you encounter new information and want to remember it, the formation of a memory is enormously affected by what happens immediately afterwards. The most common problem is that you think of something else, and that something else erases what you just learned from your working memory “scratchpad” before it has time to set up in long-term memory. The way to avoid this problem is to do something with the new learning right away. Memory scientists often call this a “production” effect. That is, if you produce something from the new learning right away, it not only reduces interfering distractions but also strengthens the encoding and speeds up memory formation into lasting form.

Common production activities might include using the new information in a new way, to apply it in some kind of activity, such as solving a problem. This option is not always available, but there are other approaches, such as hearing the same information at the same time you read or see it. The most common production method may be taking handwritten notes during the presentation of the new information. I have noticed that many college students do not take notes or have poor note-taking skills. Many apparently have not been taught how to take notes.

A recent study has compared the effects of silently reading, hearing somebody else read aloud, hearing a recording of yourself reading aloud, and actual reading aloud in the real-time of the learning. The last two groups tested to see if the actual mouth and tongue movements of reading aloud at the time of reading had any effect. It does.

The study divided 75 college students into these four groups in which they participated in two 15-minute sessions separated by two weeks. In the first session, they read a list of 160 words presented one at a time on a computer screen. They were to see each word and say it aloud into a microphone. They were not told why they were recording the sound of the words nor told what was to happen in the return session two weeks later.

In the follow-up session, students were randomly presented 20 of the words from the first session, according to the four groups (read silently, hear another say the words, hear the self-recording, or actively say each word). Immediately after this, students took a self-paced recognition test to identify how many of the study words were recognized.

Upon testing, a clear gradient of improvement was evident with increased production effect.

That is, poorest recognition occurred with silent reading and best recognition occurred with actively saying the words.

Why is reading aloud more effective than hearing yourself or others reading? The authors concluded that the self-reference and self-control over speaking produces more engagement with the words. The deeper the engagement, the better the memory. They also attribute the self-referencing as the explanation for why rehearsal helps memory formation. We do it ourselves and do it in our “mind’s ear.”

I think there are other implications of these findings. Other research establishes that rehearsal should require forced recall, rather than just passively looking over the study material. The data shown here suggests that rehearsal would be even more effective if we forced ourselves to recall by stating the material out loud.

Note that this study measured recognition memory. This is similar to what students do when taking a multiple-choice test: they are given prompts to see if they recognize the correct choice. This is much less demanding than requiring the student to generate the right answer “from scratch,” as in fill-in-the-blank type of question. I would expect that open-ended testing would reveal an even greater benefit from production effects, such as reading aloud. Optimal benefit would probably come from reading aloud from notes that the student took at the time of initial exposure to new information.


Forrin, N. D., and MacLeod, C. M. (2017) This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself. Memory. DOI: 10.1080/09658211.1383434.