clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Golden Scholars: Berkeley researchers test animals for self-restraint and climate for societal effects

Why are some of us unable to stop loading donuts into our mouths while others demonstrate discipline and self-restraint? Did I really just lash out because it was 2° warmer?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Does brain size control self-control?

How are you when it comes to self-control? Sure, you've got that final tomorrow, but why stop now when you're right in the middle of marathoning Orange is the New Black? Have you ever skipped on going to the gym because your bed was just too comfy to roll out of? Well then, your brain size may be off. Or you may be related to the Asian elephant. Berkeley researchers have joined a fleet of universities in uncovering how brain size and evolution may have affected self-control. Oh yeah, Stanfurd may also be involved in the research in a role more involved than being test subjects. One of the powerful reasons motivating the coming together of so many different universities is the ability for each school to work with animals they're experts in using tried-and-true techniques. Of course, Berkeley researchers tested this with our campus squirrels.

Scientists at Duke University, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and more than two-dozen other research institutions collaborated on this first large-scale investigation into the evolution of self-control, defined in the study as the ability to inhibit powerful but ultimately counter-productive behavior. They found that the species with the largest brain volume - not volume relative to body size - showed superior cognitive powers in a series of food-foraging experiments.

The degree of self-control was determined by testing an animal's ability to fight the desire to take the wrong route to get a snack when they knew the correct way.

One way this was tested was by training an animal to reach through the opening of the side of an opaque pipe to get to a treat. When a translucent pipe was used, some animals were unable to control their urge to grab the food directly, hopelessly trying to push their hand (paw?) through the pipe.

The second test involved showing the animal a snack and placing it under one of three covered containers. Animal handlers removed the snack in full view of the animal and moved it to another container, testing if the animal would reach for the first container or the correct one. With this test, I question incorrect responses are due to a lack of self-control as there seems to be more variables here. Maybe the animal has issues retaining information/learning or gets on a one-track mind upon seeing the food?

The studies potentially uncovered a diet-related cause for self-control:

Moreover, animals with the most varied diets showed the most self-restraint, according to the study published today (April 21) in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So, those vegan, cage-free, organic-only eaters are the unrestrained and uncouth beasts we always knew they were!

Don't invade Russia in the winter unless the climate compels you

Professor Sol Hsiang has been working on unique research that combines physical science with social science to uncover unlikely correlations between phenomenon of weather and climate and societal problems and conflicts.

One of Hsiang's most influential papers ties together startlingly disparate studies to quantify the social impact of severe weather on families in the Philippines. The study brings together satellite weather tracking data and such personal findings as Philippines mothers' views of their family's health needs.

"As social scientists, we study family health in a particular district over a calendar year, but the hurricane is going to go wherever it goes, and whenever it goes. The trick is finding a way to bring these different types of data together - to find the adaptor to plug one data set into the other," he says.

The research showed that periodic typhoons that sweep through the Philippines tear up family life much more and for much longer periods than government studies commonly report.

The impact is always more severe than expected due to "economic deaths" that result from declining conditionslike the ability to care for young children or the availability of nutritious foodin the recovery following a destructive typhoon.

Researchers and government big-wigs are looking to this research to predict and plan for upcoming societal "disruptions." I find this research to be quite perplexing. I'd be reluctant to be swayed too heavily by the research until it can be proven that climate phenomenon and large societal events have a causative relation, not just correlative. I can understand how the aftermath of typhoons lead to decreased quality of life and increased fatality, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to believe increases or decreases in temperature drives us to war.

The possibility of climate-induced disruptions, of course, affects governmental and non-governmental planning to avert or cope with worst-case scenarios. Conflict forecasters in the military also watch his research closely. They hope regional conflicts don't accelerate, but they depend on reliable projections to assess the risk.


As research increasingly points to a global temperature rise in coming decades, dozens of forecasts examine the potential impacts on health, agriculture, water supply and migration. But beneath these disruptions lies the possibility of greatly increased localized crime and regional conflict.


[Hsiang and colleagues] documented for the first time a "striking convergence" of the findings that major climate events have significantly increased human conflict across many regions of the world.

These very temperature shiftsthe ones tied to large conflicts and societal problemsare predicted to happen over the next 40 years. Doom?