• 'He’s Pavlov and we’re the dogs': How Associative Learning Really Works in Human Psychology

    November 21, 2017 - 3:15pm

    My ears perked up when, in recent weeks, I heard Donald Trump and Ivan Pavlov mentioned twice in connection with each other. After all, I’m an experimental psychologist who journeyed to Russia to conduct conditioning research with Pavlov’s last living student.

    First, political provocateur Bill O’Reilly wrote online that

    “Donald Trump is kind of like the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov rang his bell and dogs salivated; Trump’s voice rings out and leftists everywhere froth at the mouth.”

    Then, political commentators Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman observed in their lively back-and-forth that

    “It is such a huge master switch that [Trump] can throw to watch both sides and the media completely respond to what he wants in the way he wants. And, so he is Pavlov and we are all the dogs. Right?”

    Each remark contains a profound truth: Extremely strong associations can indeed be formed between events. Remember, Pavlov’s own breakthrough was discovering that dogs could learn to associate the dinner bell with the meal itself and so begin to drool when the bell rang in advance of when the feeding bowl was actually placed within reach.

    But, these commentators cast such learned associations in a decidedly negative light. People were reduced to canines and their reactions downgraded to mechanical reflexes. Nothing in these pejorative remarks hints at how associative learning contributes to performing responses that help us survive and thrive.

    Read the full article on The Conversation.

  • What Can Bird Brains Teach Us About Human Cognition? Plenty.

    June 27, 2017 - 1:15pm

    Pigeons have a storied history in psychology. Famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner, PhD, used pigeons to demonstrate his theory of operant conditioning. In the 1960s and 1970s, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, PhD, devised a classic set of experiments to show that pigeons could classify objects into categories, such as trees or people.

    While that latter work was groundbreaking at the time, something about it bothered Edward Wasserman, PhD, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Iowa. "We don’t form categories like ‘people versus non-people’ or ‘flower versus non-flower.’ That’s not how we carve up the world," he says. "As clever as his work was, it didn’t capture what categorization is all about."

    So, Wasserman decided to take Herrnstein’s work further. He finished his PhD at Indiana University in 1972. After eight months as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sussex, he accepted a position at the University of Iowa and set up his Comparative Cognition Laboratory. He’s housed pigeons there ever since. In addition to categorization, he and his team have explored a range of other cognitive processes, including memory, judgment, task switching and visual processing, in pigeons, people and many other species. Pigeons, Wasserman has shown, can do a lot of what humans can do, including learning many new object categories simultaneously, selectively ignoring irrelevant information and learning to recognize human emotional expressions, even on unfamiliar faces (Journal of Vision, 2011).

    Wasserman’s team currently includes a PhD research scientist, a part-time lab technician, two graduate students, five undergraduates and a rotating pool of collaborators all over the world. It’s a busy and productive group, says former student Fabian Soto, PhD, now an assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University (and recipient of the 2016 APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology). "We were running experiments day and night, and the range of topics was amazing," he says.

    Read the full article on APA's Monitor on Psychology site.

  • Forget the insight of a lone genius - innovation is an evolving process of trial and error

    June 23, 2017 - 4:00pm

    Scientific discovery is popularly believed to result from the sheer genius of intellectual stars such as Darwin and Einstein. Their work is often thought to reflect their unique contributions with little or no regard to their own prior experience or to the efforts of their lesser-known predecessors. Conventional wisdom also places great weight on insight, preconception and design in promoting breakthrough scientific achievements, as if ideas spontaneously pop into one's head – fully formed and functional.

    There may be some limited truth to this view. However, as an experimental psychologist and a philosopher of science, we believe that it largely misrepresents the real nature of scientific discovery, as well as creativity and innovation in many other realms of human endeavor.

    Setting aside the Darwins and Einsteins – whose monumental contributions are duly celebrated – we suggest that innovation is more a process of trial and error, where two steps forward may sometimes come with one step back, as well as one or more steps to the right or left. Instead of revolution, think evolution. This evolutionary view of human innovation undermines the notion of creative genius and recognizes the cumulative nature of scientific progress.

    In a recent book, one of us (ERS) discusses seven little-known scientists whose partly "wrong ideas" yielded major advances in the hands of others.

    Read the full article on The Conversation.

  • Capuchin monkeys can make and use stone tools

    February 1, 2017 - 10:45am

    Scientists hoping to elucidate the origin of human stone tool manufacture and use have looked to extant primate species for possible clues. Although some skepticism has been raised, there is clear evidence that today’s capuchin monkeys can make and use stone tools.

    Keywords: Tool use; Contingency judgment; Human learning;

    Find out more about the article, published in the Learning & Behavior journal (DOI: 10.3758/s13420-016-0257-7).

Edward A. Wasserman
Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology
Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences
E222 Seashore Hall
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242

Phone:  (319) 335-2445
Fax:  (319) 335-0191