News

May 28, 2009

Ryan Wright ’10 Discovers How Past Experiences Affect Decision-making

He worked on an independent study with Robert Allan, associate professor of psychology

Psychology major Ryan Wright ’10 (Washington, D.C.) and Robert Allan, associate professor of psychology, worked on an experiment to see how past experiences can shape choice. Using pigeons, the researchers studied how the birds’ pecking behavior was affected by how frequently food was delivered to them when they pecked on keys.

The pigeons were placed in skinner boxes, which contain two keys that the birds peck to receive food rewards. The boxes were programmed so that after pecking a key a certain number of times, the bird would get food. On average, a pigeon would have to peck fewer times on one key to get food. Midway through the experiment, the researchers switched the schedule so that the opposite key delivered food more frequently.

This concept is based on operant conditioning. The idea is that if a behavior leads to some type of reward, then it will be more likely to occur in the future.

The pigeons could choose to peck either key, but Wright and Allan were attempting to demonstrate that the pigeons’ choices would support the idea that choice behavior can be shaped by past experiences.

“This idea raises an interesting question; and that is, do we really make choices independent of other factors?” Wright says.

The research is noteworthy because previous studies of this kind have used static reinforcement schedules, whereas the design of Allan’s study uses dynamic reinforcement schedules.

After taking Allan’s course on applied behavioral analysis last year, Wright knew that he wanted to expand his knowledge of this area of psychology. “My work in my independent study has given me the experience to work with a person who is well respected in the career field that I want to go into,” Wright says. “The advice Dr. Allan has given me is invaluable and will be with me for the rest of my professional life.”

After graduation, Wright plans to apply to an applied behavioral analysis program, with the goal of becoming a certified analyst who can work with clients in behavioral intervention programs. He is also considering applying for a Fulbright Scholarship.

Wright’s ability to gain this experience as an undergraduate is just one reason he is pleased with his decision to attend Lafayette. “The small classroom size was a major factor, because it fit my learning the best,” he says. “I was also attracted to the high academic standard that Lafayette supports. This is a place where I can be challenged and grow intellectually.”

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