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282015Volume 28, Issue8October 2015

Presidential Column

C. Randy Gallistel
C. Randy Gallistel
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
APS President 2015 - 2016
All columns

In this Issue:
Bayes for Beginners 2: The Prior

About the Observer

The Observer is the online magazine of the Association for Psychological Science and covers matters affecting the research, academic, and applied disciplines of psychology. The magazine reports on issues of interest to psychologist scientists worldwide and disseminates information about the activities, policies, and scientific values of APS.

APS members receive a monthly Observer newsletter that covers the latest content in the magazine. Members also may access the online archive of Observer articles going back to 1988.

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    Disaster Response and Recovery

    Disasters like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut draw massive media coverage, trauma interventions, and financial donations to victims. But psychological research shows the efforts don’t always yield the intended benefits.

Up Front

  • Bayes for Beginners 2: The Prior

    In his inaugural Presidential Column, APS President C. Randy Gallistel introduced beginners to Bayesian statistical analysis. This month, he continues the introduction to Bayes with a lesson on using prior distributions to improve parameter estimates. In last month’s column, I focused on the distinction between likelihood and probability. To review, probability attaches to the possible outcomes from a random process like coin flipping (known technically as a Bernoulli process). A probability distribution gives the probabilities for the different possible results given the parameters of the process. Suppose we are given a 50% chance of success (i.e., of flipping a head; p = .5) and told that there were 10 flips. Given these parameters, the probability of getting exactly 5 heads when flipping a coin 10 times is roughly .25.


  • Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science

    Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Current Directions is a peer-reviewed bimonthly journal featuring reviews by leading experts covering all of scientific psychology and its applications and allowing readers to stay apprised of important developments across subfields beyond their areas of expertise. Its articles are written to be accessible to nonexperts, making them ideally suited for use in the classroom. Visit the column online for supplementary components, including classroom activities and demonstrations. Visit David G. Myers and C.

First Person

  • The Science of Scientific Writing

    If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs.” -Gopen and Swan (1990), The Science of Scientific Writing Graduate school is like a juggling performance. Successful jugglers need not only keep the balls from hitting the ground but simultaneously amalgamate new and old tricks, mixing the standard material with the fancy pick-ups. When it comes to academic writing, this juggling is difficult. Depending on your writing experience (or lack thereof), it might feel like tossing two balls back and forth is a laborious challenge, and a complicated routine with more sophisticated tricks may seem entirely out of the question. Once you’ve gained experience as an academic writer, you may find a variety of things to juggle.

More From This Issue

  • Mischel, Others Honored at Bipartisan ‘Golden Goose’ Event

    APS Past President Walter Mischel and two other psychological researchers were among the 2015 Golden Goose Award winners honored last month at a gala ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The award is given annually to highlight federally funded studies that have led to major scientific discoveries and benefits to society.

  • Thinking With Gestures

    Can gestures speak louder than words? APS President-Elect Susan Goldin-Meadow certainly thinks so. During her William James Fellow Award Address, Goldin-Meadow shared highlights from her seminal research on the power of gesture, beginning with the integral role that gestures play in human learning and cognition. “You’ve got to be careful how you move your hands, because as you’re moving your hands, you may be changing the way you think,” the University of Chicago psychological scientist warned an audience at the 2015 APS Annual Convention in New York City.

  • Passing Down Psychopathology

    Researchers have long known that, much like physical traits, characteristics of mental health and mental illness can be passed down through family trees, moving from one generation to the next. Longitudinal studies and new forms of genetic analysis are helping shed light on intergenerational continuity and transmission of psychopathology. At the inaugural International Convention of Psychological Science, held this past March in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Michael E. Lamb (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom), APS Fellow Jay Belsky (University of California, Davis), APS Fellow Marinus H.

  • 1990: An Inaugural Year, a Centennial Year

    Psychological Science’s (PS’s) first year of existence coincided with another critical milestone in the field’s history — the centennial of the publication of William James’s Principles of Psychology. James’s seminal textbook held particular significance for William Estes, PS’s founding editor. Estes and his wife, Katherine (Kay) Estes, lived in the same Cambridge, Massachusetts, home where James himself resided while he completed his formative work. To mark that 100th anniversary, Estes invited a number of influential psychological scientists to contribute a collection of articles to the May 1990 issue of PS.

  • Rotten Reviews

    Back in the early 1980s, the actress Dame Diana Rigg began asking colleagues in the theater and film industries — including some of the world’s most honored thespians — to share their worst-ever reviews. The responses turned into a collection, No Turn Unstoned, which eventually drew a cult following as she toured university campuses reading excerpts from the book. In that spirit, we asked some distinguished APS members, all of whom are leaders in their areas of study, to share their own worst wounds from the critics (in this case, journal editors, peers, job recruiters, or even laypeople hearing about their studies).

  • Report Points to Need for Improved Reproducibility

    Psychological science recently has drawn widespread public attention as a result of a new report estimating the reproducibility of studies in the field. This report, published in Science, showed that fewer than half of the psychology studies from a sample of 100 replicated. These results are eye-opening for many researchers from many fields, but they present a unique opportunity for psychological scientists to advance reproducibility and openness in science generally. “I feel like we are really stepping to the plate and leading the way,” APS Fellow Jonathan Schooler (University of California, Santa Barbara) told The New York Times.

  • Early-Career ‘Memories’

    In late 2005, I applied to several psychology PhD programs. I was invited for an interview at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and I remember meeting Elizabeth Loftus and thinking to myself, “There’s no way I’m qualified to work with a person so highly esteemed and accomplished.” Thus, I approached our meeting less as an interview and more as a fun opportunity to sit down with someone who might offer some wisdom and advice — perhaps an interesting story or two about her experiences as a psychological scientist and expert in criminal cases. I think my mindset made me feel less nervous about our meeting. As we spoke, I was struck by how easy it was to talk to her.

  • Saving for Later by Saving Now

    Unlike civilian government employees, active-duty servicemembers must log into a specific website and select how much they’d like to contribute in order to enroll in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a government retirement savings program. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), the White House SBST, and university researchers worked together to design and test an email-based intervention aimed at boosting TSP enrollment among members of the military. The team randomly assigned 806,861 unenrolled servicemembers to a no-email control group or one of nine email groups.

  • For Farmers, a Little Letter Leads to a Little Money

    The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted farmers who are just starting out, run small farms, or are disadvantaged to apply for its new loan program. In an attempt to increase participation, SBST sent an outreach letter to all farms in certain zip codes, selected randomly, in nine states. The letters contained information about USDA’s loan program, contact information for local loan officers, and a URL for additional information. SBST found that 131 farms (9%) in the zip codes that were not sent a letter applied for and received a small loan, or microloan, from the USDA.

  • Paving the Way to Loan Repayment

    Student-loan balances are ballooning, and many borrowers struggle to keep pace with their loan payments. Loan repayment plans that are tied to borrowers’ current incomes can make repayment more manageable, but borrowers have to know about and apply for these programs. The office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education coordinated with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to test an email campaign intended to raise awareness and use of these income-driven repayment options. The researchers identified borrowers who were between 90 and 180 days past due on their student loans and randomly assigned them to receive a specific email, either in November or in December.

  • Maximizing Email Response Rates

    Small details, like the timing of an email, can have big outcomes for the success of government programs. In a collaboration with SBST, federal agencies found that sending an email at just the right time of day could considerably improve response rates. The General Service Administration (GSA) manages the office space of 9,600 buildings in which more than a million federal employees work. Each year, the GSA sends a short survey — the Tenant Satisfaction Survey (TSS) — to federal employees, asking them to provide input on their overall satisfaction with the quality and safety of their workspaces. In 2014, SBST worked with the GSA to get more employees to respond to the survey.

  • Signature Honesty

    Vendors who work with the federal government are required to pay a fee based on a percentage of their sales. These fees, called industrial funding fees (IFF), are calculated based on self-reports submitted by the vendors. The IFF form, like most forms, requires vendors to confirm that their work is accurate and error-free by signing at the end of the document — after they’ve already completed the paperwork.

  • Proposed ‘Common Rule’ Changes Clarify Requirements for Social, Behavioral Research

    The U.S. government, in announcing its latest step toward overhauling the federal rules governing human-subjects research, is proposing some clear, modernized standards requested by social and behavioral scientists. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Sept. 2 released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on revisions to the so-called Common Rule, the baseline standard of ethics for government-funded research involving human subjects. The proposed updates are designed to extend protections to people more effectively while simultaneously easing the oversight and paperwork requirements for scientists. HHS will launch a 90-day public comment period on the NPRM beginning Sept.

  • Concentration Ability May Get Better With Age

    Like a barrel-aged whiskey or a ripening cheese, some things improve with maturity – including some cognitive abilities, new research shows. While many visual and cognitive abilities seem to peak in early adulthood and decline thereafter, findings from researchers at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard University indicate that a person’s ability to sustain attention seems to be get better over time, reaching its peak around age 43. The study was led by researchers Francesca Fortenbaugh, Joe DeGutis, and Michael Esterman at the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

  • Watch Out for the Experienced Study Participant

    When conducting psychology studies online or in the lab, researchers might not think about participants’ past experiences as a research subject. But research published in Psychological Science suggests that these experiences could make a difference in study outcomes. The research shows that participants who are not naïve to research methods or materials—those who have performed the same task multiple times across different studies, for example—may produce varying results, even when they do not remember having participated in similar experiments before.

  • Das Named to Order of Canada

    APS Fellow Jagannath Prasad (J.P.) Das has been named a member of the Order of Canada. Das is Emeritus Director of the J.P. Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of Alberta in Canada. He also is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Alberta. Das has spent his career studying intelligence outside of conventional measures such as IQ. Using neurophysiological and cognitive measures, he has defined intelligence as a complex concept that involves planning, attention, simultaneous comprehension, and sequencing.