Friday, 16 December 2011

My Favourite Albums of 2011 (in no particular order)

It's that time of year again, and here's a list of some of the albums I enjoyed listening (and listening) to during 2011. They're in no particular order, well after the first one anyway. The first is, at a push probably my favourite.

Joan as Police Woman - The Deep Field
Kurt Vile & The Violators - Smoke Ring for my Halo
Josh T. Pearson - The Last of The Country Gentlemen
The Antlers - Burst Apart
Nicholas Jaar - Space is Only Noise
James Blake - James Blake
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
The Radio Department - Clinging to a Scheme
Death Grips - Exmilitary
Girls - Father, Son & Holy Ghost
Austra - Feel it break
Holy Fuck - Latin (+Ghost)
Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
Wild Beasts - Smother
Africa Hitech - 93 million miles
Death in Vegas - Trans-Love Energies
Walls - Coracle
DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better
Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Thievery Corporation - Culture of Fear
Apparat - The Devil's Walk
Salem - King's Night
The Field - Looping State of Mind
Kinshasha One Two - DRC Music
Yelawolf - Radioactive
Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow
Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton

Have I missed any?!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Threat Avoidance and Fear of Fear

When I was a undergrad student of psychology at University College Cork, my future PhD supervisor, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, I think, assigned me a paper to read as part of one of my classes in "abnormal" psychology. It was A Re-Analysis of Agoraphobia by Goldstein and Chambless, which was published in Behavior Therapy, 1978.

In it, the authors introduced the concept of "fear of fear" in which people diagnosed with agoraphobia become fearful, and show avoidance of, the very thought of going outside. That is, it's not the actual going outside that is fearful, it's the thought of it. As a result, people with this diagnosis develop elaborate ways of reducing the impact of this fear, largely through cognitive avoidance and distraction. What becomes a priority for such individuals is the removal of fear, or the avoidance of fear; hence, fear of fear.

That paper made quite an impact on me, but it wasn't until many years later that I was able to undertake an experimental investigation of some of these fear and avoidance processes. 

My colleagues and students and I have just published a paper in Behaviour Research & Therapy that, we believe, gets at some of these processes. In it, we showed how a relatively simple response that avoids or prevents something bad from happening may spread or transfer through indirectly related stimuli. 

This, we argue, resembles a lot of what goes on when we avoid things, people and events that we have never previously had anything bad happen in the presence of. I say "we" because such processes are the staple diet of language-able humans; no diagnosis is needed to show this behaviour. We all do it, so much so that one leading account of human psychopathology, one of the "third wave" behaviour therapies, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), claims that it is an integral part of being human.

Here's the Abstract:
Symbolic generalization of avoidance may underlie the aetiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders. The aim of the present study was to demonstrate inferred threat-avoidance and safety (non-avoidance) behaviours that occur in the presence of stimuli indirectly related to learned threat and safety cues. A laboratory experiment was conducted involving two symbolic stimulus equivalence relations consisting of three physically dissimilar stimuli (avoidance cues: AV1-AV2-AV3 and neutral cues: N1-N2-N3). During avoidance learning involving aversive images and sounds, a key-press avoidance response was trained for one member of one of the relations (AV2) and non-avoidance for another (N2). Inferred threat and safety behaviour and ratings of the likelihood of aversive events were tested with presentations of all remaining stimuli. Findings showed a significantly high percentage of avoidance to both the learned and inferred threat cues and less avoidance to both the learned and inferred safety cues. Ratings in the absence of avoidance were high during training and testing to threat cues and low to safety cues and were generally lower in the presence of avoidance. Implications for associative and behavioural accounts of avoidance, and modern therapies for anxiety disorders are discussed.

You can read the pdf here.

Dymond, S., Schlund, M. W., Roche, B., Whelan, R., Richards, J., & Davies, C. (2011). Inferred threat and safety: Symbolic generalization of human avoidance learning. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 614-621. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2011.06.007

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

It's that graduation/job-hunting/masters-applying time of the year again

The sun is shining (at least, it is in Swansea). Graduation ceremonies are beginning. This is the cue for lots of forced/shocked/concerned/drunk smiles in small and large group photos of people you'll never see or hear from again. That's if my experience is anything to go by.

Recently, I stumbled upon my BA and PhD graduation photos. Of my 30 or so peers at my BA graduation in 1993, I've only kept in touch with just one. And by 'kept in touch' I mean, 'have her email address' and 'we catch up at conferences from time to time'. All of the others didn't even make it to being Facebook friends, mainly because FB wasn't invented way back in 1993. At my PhD graduation in 1996 it was easier to keep in touch with everyone because, well, I was the only one from my faculty at that particular ceremony. Either that or everyone was mysteriously doing laundry that day ...

In any event, it got me thinking: what must it be like nowadays to be leaving the safe surrounds of academe and to be embarking on a new career? Perhaps a new career in research? What words of advice might I humbly proffer someone considering a career in behavioural research?

Well, here's a link (PDF) to some great pearls of wisdom from Prof. Steve Hayes, co-founder of RFT and ACT, on "13 rules of success for graduate students".

And here's a link to the wonderful blog of Prof. Dorothy Bishop, developmental neuropsychologist at Oxford, in which she summarises how to survive in psychological research.

At a time when the world is producing more PhDs than ever before ("The PhD Factory"), we all need as much help and advice as we can get...

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

They Shape Horses, Don't They?

For many horse owners, this only happens in an ideal world.

Every so often, behaviour analysis is able to take an important problem, operationalise it in objective terms, and implement a reinforcement procedure that yields spectacular results. This is one of those occasions.

Charlotte Slater, a former masters student, and I have just had published a two-study article that investigated the use of differential positive conditioned reinforcement for reducing undesirable behaviour and increasing desirable behaviour in horses. It was based on a previous study by Ferguson and Rosales-Ruiz (2001). In our study, the horses were all referred to as "problem loaders" - they resisted being loaded into trailers and were often subject to aversive methods, such as shouting, clapping, tightening of ropes around the rear quarters, and whipping. In addition, one horse had been struck from behind with a large plastic tube during previous loading attempts. Not surprisingly, the horses' owners were desperate for a non-aversive solution to their problem, and one that they could continue to implement, once the intervention had ended.

The first stage involved conducting a task analysis - a detailed breakdown of the sequence of steps involved in fully loading (obtained by watching a horse that could fully load). Clicker training was then conducted, in which the sound of the clicker was paired with food until the horse could 'associate' the sound with a nice, tasty treat (Polo mint, anyone?). This meant that we could use the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer, and save us a fortune on Polo mints! It also allowed us to deliver reinforcement immediately and contingently following the behaviours we were interested in shaping up. Gradually, approximations of the goal behaviour (fully loading) were reinforced, bit by bit, starting with touching a target, which was moved closer and closer to the inside of the trailer.

We used a multiple baseline across horses design to illustrate the effects of the shaping procedure. All four horses showed immediate improvements when the intervention was introduced and all readily loaded, without protest or complaint, on several consecutive days. As if this wasn't impressive enough, all horses showed that they would now fully load when their owners conducted the intervention and when a novel trailer was used. Once learned, these shaped behaviours showed generalization, an important training target for a study like this as horses are often required to load into unfamiliar trailers by unfamiliar handlers.

A further study was conducted with one of the horses that had never had shoes fitted because of the problematic behaviour he showed every time his feet were handled. The target behaviour for this study was to have the horse allow his feet to be held for 1 minute. At the outset, he would not allow his feet to be held for more than 5 seconds, but during the intervention, we reinforced progressively longer periods of feet-handling (in steps of 10s). After 20 sessions, the horse met the training criterion: he allowed his feet to be handled for 1 minute, across consecutive sessions. His problem behaviour decreased, and it was now possible to have shoes fitted for the first time.

The horses owners rated the intervention highly and all considered the program to be completed either “quickly” or “very quickly”. Each owner felt able to continue using the techniques and reported that they would be “very likely’ to use the techniques to train other horses and would “definitely” recommend the procedure.

These encouraging findings show that is possible to overcome seemingly intractable problem behaviour without recourse to aversive treatment by shaping desirable behaviour. They also illustrate the wide range of challenges that are amenable to "the power of positive reinforcement".

Reference (PDF from the link below):

Slater, C., & Dymond, S. (2011). Improving equine welfare: Using differential reinforcement to shape appropriate equine behaviour during truck loading and feet handling. Behavioural Processes, 86, 329-339.

See also:

Ferguson, D. L., & Rosales-Ruiz, J. (2001). Loading the problem loader: The effects of target training and shaping on trailer- loading behavior of horses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 409-424.