Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another Kind of Self-Regulation

Robert emailed me the link to this article about industry self-regulation of fast food marketing to children. 

To me, the funniest part of it was the author citing the Catholic church as an authority on the age at which kids develop the ability to reason.  (He also links to the UNESCO child learning web pages, though not to anything that specifically addresses this issue).  Too bad there is no systematic scientific inquiry into such questions, a field like "psychology" or something, because it would be possible, I think, for such scientists to empirically investigate such issues and then disseminate their results so that other people would know about them.

A sad part of all this emphasis on "What do kids know and when do they know it?" is that there is often an assumption that once children are old / cognitively developed enough to "reason," to recognize selling or persuasive intent, or whatever developmental milestone is selected, they will have a robust cognitive defense against these marketing ploys.  But conscious awareness isn't itself all that great of a protection against influence.  While people continue to argue over the plausibility of "subliminal advertising," effective marketing techniques dependent on implicit attitude change, prime-to-action effects, etc., are regularly employed among adults as well as kids.  In addition, there is a large literature on third-person effects in persuasion - the tendency for people to believe that others are more influenced by persuasive communications than they are themselves. And people with high levels of defensive confidence have been shown to willingly expose themselves to more counterattitudinal information, which does change their attitudes.

This being said, I think the McDonald's rant was way overblown.  For example, I don't see any basis for the author suggesting that of course no kid who was not "bioengineered" would ever willingly ask for apple dippers and caramel sauce rather than french fries.  (He offers evidence that McD employees automatically include fries with the Happy Meal 90% of the time, but that doesn't speak very directly to the claim he's making.)  And what does he mean by bioengineered anyway?  (I want somebody to go neuroscience on this guy's ass.)

Robert made the amusing but awesome suggestion that McDonald's should start selling the toy from the Happy Meal independent of the food for the same price.  Imagine: Parents who don't have the will to resist the nagging from their kids about the latest crappy plastic little cartoon-movie tie-in but who are concerned about their kid being obese by age 8 can just buy the toy separately.  (My former principles of marketing professor was in this category; his kid nagged incessantly for Happy Meals but wouldn't even touch the food most of the time - he just wanted the trinket.) 


I have now finished my coursework in the program and managed to maintain my 4.0 GPA even through the neuroscience class. Strangely, I ended up doing better in neuroscience than I did in cognitive my first semester - despite starting off the first exam with 36/40 (90%), I finished with a 96% after getting 20/20 on the paper and 40/40 on the final exam.  So my big neuroscience push paid off.  I also got A's in the two half-semester courses I took, though that wasn't unexpected - but it wasn't certain either, so I'm glad to hear it.

I also spoke to the professor at the PhD program I mentioned earlier this week for about 50 minutes.  He was agreeable/friendly, interesting, easy to talk to, offered some good information and advice, and answered my questions.  From my perspective, it went as well as I could have hoped, and I think I have a good chance of being offered a more formal interview at the applicant weekend based on what the professor said on the phone - I'm not sure what to call it, actually, but it's typical for several applicants (the top choices) to be invited to spend a couple of days at the school, talking to professors, other grad students, etc.  The applicants offered an admit are often drawn from this smallish group (though sometimes people get admitted directly, I understand).  Anyway, I'm definitely not counting my chickens at this point because it's early days yet (applications are due in January sometime) and they could receive mind-blowingly awesome applications that move me into the second rank of applicants, this advisor might for some reason decide/find out they're not accepting a student, or a number of other things could happen.  But I believe it's a good sign that: a) my application passed any initial screening and landed on a potential advisor's desk; b) the advisor was interested enough in my application to give me a call and spend a not insignificant amount of time on the phone; and c) the advisor is already telling me about the applicant weekend.

So now there's just that pesky little detail that I have to write and defend a thesis before I can graduate this spring.  No biggie.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Grocery Spending

Because it's the winter break, I actually have a bit of time to read articles that are not directly related to my current research project.  Here's one I read tonight - a field study in a grocery store - that was pretty interesting:

Grocery store customers were asked to list the items they planned to purchase, the quantity of each, the total amount of money they intended to spend, and their estimated cost for each item.  By subtracting the sum of the estimated costs for the planned purchases from the total amount of money, the researchers estimated the "slack" in their budget - i.e., the room in their mental budget for unplanned purchases (forgotten needs and impulse purchases).  Participants did their grocery shopping as usual, but they used a hand-held scanner gun on each item as they put it in their cart.  By knowing the order in which items were selected, the researchers could then examine purchases of items before and after the participant's "slack" was spent.  The researchers labeled an item as on promotion if its current price was at least 10% lower than it was the previous week.  They calculated the savings on purchases by subtracting the current purchase price from the prior purchase price. 

They wanted to find out how savings (through promotions) on unplanned and planned products before and after the "slack" had been spent affected spending on unplanned and planned purchases.

Savings on planned purchases:

Before the slack was spent (early in the shopping trip), savings on planned purchases led to more purchasing of planned products, but the nature of this effect depended on the participant's income.  Lower income shoppers tended to switch to a higher-priced brand on another planned product that offset the savings on the other product.  Higher income shoppers tended to stockpile (i.e., purchase more of) the sale item, thus spending more money overall on planned purchases.  However, savings on planned purchases did not affect the purchase of unplanned products.

After the slack was spent (late in the shopping trip), each $1 of savings on planned purchases was associated with a $10 increase in spending on unplanned purchases.  It appears that participants viewed this unexpected savings as a windfall and thus spent more money. 

Savings on unplanned purchases:

Before the slack was spent, savings on unplanned purchases did not affect unplanned spending.

After the slack was spent, each $1 of savings on unplanned purchases was associated with a $6 increase in spending on unplanned purchases.

So a smart grocery store owner will offer price promotions on planned purchases (e.g., yogurt, bottled water, eggs, milk) so that you will spend more money on unplanned purchases (e.g., ice cream, candy bars, cookies).  And if you spend money on unplanned purchases that are on promotion, you will spend even more money on other unplanned purchases.

A smart shopper will not use the fact that cat food was on sale to justify purchasing buy-one-get-one-free gallons of Blue Bell ice cream, which justifies the purchase of King Sized Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in the check-out lane.

Stilley, Inman, & Wakefield (2010). Spending on the fly: Mental budgets, promotions, and spending behavior. Journal of Marketing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Next Phase of the Process Begins

I have completed 16/17 PhD applications (though I have not confirmed yet that they all have everything they need from me).  I should be able to finish the last one in the next couple weeks, well before the deadline.

Today, I received my first email from a professor who has been referred my application and wants to chat about their program (a marketing program).  This is a professor I named as a potential advisor in my statement of purpose. 

So now my semester is over and it's time for me to gear up and get ready to start interviewing with PhD programs.  They may call it a chat, but in effect, it's a preliminary interview. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I didn't feel all that silly studying neuroscience in my apartment tonight wearing a German water-resistant wool loden cape, a fuzzy hat, and a blanket wrapped around my legs (like an old person in a wheelchair).  I have an exam tomorrow, after all.  I couldn't spend all evening looking at rabbit photos on the Internet.

In My Defense

I just successfully defended my thesis proposal.  Onward!

Monday, December 6, 2010


I just finished writing my 12th essay in preparation for the neuroscience final (Wed.).  Now I need to actually learn them so I can reproduce them on the exam.  I was able to do this for the midterm, so I'm going to believe that it is possible this time, too, even though it seems like an unfathomably large amount of information to commit to memory.  Luckily I have two nights of short-wave sleep before the exam during which time my brain can consolidate the information, as described in this excerpt from essay 9:

Consolidation refers to the processes that continue after learning and stabilize, transform, or enhance the newly-encoded memory trace.  Consolidation makes memories more resistant against interference and decay.  During system consolidation, neural memory representations undergo a reorganization so that they become represented by different neural networks.  We consolidate memory more effectively when we are asleep because we use the same processes for taking in (encoding) information and consolidating memories.  Therefore, there is interference in the consolidation process when we are awake (and we are also taking in information) but not when we are asleep.  During sleep, the covert reactivation of the networks that were involved in encoding the information leads to improved memory consolidation.

REM sleep appears to be important for procedural memory (skill at a task).  Depriving people of REM sleep makes it harder for them to learn tasks, and people who have practiced a difficult procedural task tend to engage in greater levels of REM sleep afterward.  The first stage of procedural memory consolidation, stabilization, appears not to be dependent on sleep, but can be improved with sleep.  The second stage, enhancement, might require sleep.

Slow wave sleep (SWS) is involved in the consolidation of hippocampus-dependent declarative memory (explicit memories of facts and events).  Studies have shown that retrieval performance is better when tested shortly after a period of night-time sleep than daytime wakefulness, even after controlling for differences in fatigue and eliminating circadian rhythm confounds.  However, some studies examining memory over a longer time span, such as one week, do not show a benefit to post-learning sleep.  Because consolidation of declarative memory may occur over several nights, sleep in the subsequent nights might compensate for the lack of sleep the first night.  During SWS, newly encoded representations are repeatedly activated in the hippocampus in conjunction with thalamacortical spindle activity (which propogates to the entire neocortex).  These coordinated activations could achieve a transfer of information and a strengthening of weak memory traces.  During sleep, lower levels of ACh (enabling a feedback of information from the hippocampus to the neocortex) and cortisol (reducing interference with memory retrieval) create an environment favorable to memory reactivation and consolidation.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Death by Neuroscience

My grueling, agonizing, loathsome process of preparing for my neuroscience final (which is motivated mostly by the realization that if I don't pass the class, I will have to take it again next semester - including repeating the preparation of the midterm and term paper that I've already done - which would be utter hell) continues.  I am at about 2.5 answers of out 12, which indicates a perhaps unsustainable lack of speed in developing my responses even though I started with the ones that seemed easiest. There is also absolutely no evidence on which to pin any hopes that everybody will do badly on the exam and that a curve will be forthcoming.  It's pretty clear that you've got to hit the mark to get the grade because some people are rocking the class and the prof is quite okay with failing people who miss the mark (like my office mate last year who had the repeat the class).

This is the absolute worst part of my program so far.  I feel that I might actually die.  The professor mentioned that the course should be two semesters, meeting 3 times per week (instead of one semester, 1 time per week).  And while it's true that we did not cover everything in the textbook, we covered about 75% of it, plus additional readings, plus all the extra sources we have to find on our own to prepare for the exams.  Bah.  

I think it's funny and maybe sadly appropriate that we did cover the chapter on sleep but not the chapter on sex. 

On the brighter side, here's my application update:
Applications submitted: 16/17
Applications confirmed completed by the school: 3/17

And no matter what horrors my PhD program will offer, I will not have to take another class in neuroscience EVER AGAIN.  This is a non-negotiable feature of any program I decide to attend.