Tag Archives: Behavior

Online apps and social media platforms heavily track your behavior, without your consent

Are you being tracked online? New research says yes — especially on the largest social media platforms out there.

Applications like YouTube and TikTok track your digital movements with more than a dozen first- or third-party tracker software. These are ‘invisible’ stretches of code that allow for the gathering of user behavioral data even when said users opt-out of sharing their personal information. The findings come from an analysis performed by Atlas VPN, a private company offering virtual private network (VPN) services, which help protect user anonymity online.

Although Atlas VPN has a vested interest in these results — as a company that sells products that work directly against tracking software — their report does align well with the hushed suspicions many of us harbor in regards to digital platforms. The findings are also validated by being part of a larger study of 200 iOS apps conducted with Apple’s Record App Activity feature.


“Internet users are starting to care more and more about their privacy, which challenges app developers to engage customers using first-party data strategies and tools,” said Vilius Kardelis, Junior PR Manager at Atlas VPN. “Currently, customers cannot see what data is being shared with third-party trackers or how their data will be used, creating a lack of transparency between the brand and the consumer.”

According to the company, YouTube contains 10 first-party trackers and 4 third-party trackers; TikTok, on the other hand, has 1 first-party and 13 third-party trackers. The difference between these two types of trackers is where they beam back the data they collect. First-party trackers send it back to the application’s domain (so, for example, one on YouTube will send it back to Google, which owns the platform), while third-party trackers send it to some other domain. The last kind is particularly concerning for most people, as the ultimate destination of the data is not shown to users, nor how it is going to be processed and used.

Social media applications analyzed in the study averaged around 6 trackers; Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and Messenger were the most modest offenders, containing a single tracker each.

TikTok recently became the most popular website worldwide, snatching that distinction from Google late last year. As such, the high number of trackers it uses, especially third-party ones, is particularly concerning. The website is also owned by a Chinese company, and all Chinese companies are required by law to provide any data that the Chinese government requires. What exactly TikTok does with all that user data is, obviously, not clear.

Data for the above-mentioned study, of which these results are also part, were obtained using Apple’s Record App Activity feature. This allows users to track which apps on their device connect to networks. Each of the studied apps was downloaded, started up once, and not registered, to determine a beginning set of connections.

Unsurprisingly, in the last few years, businesses selling powerful proxy services or VPN services have boomed. A proxy service (whether it’s an individual proxy or a datacenter proxy) acts as an intermediary between a user and the server while a VPN extends a private network across a public network, enabling the user to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if they were using a private network. This increased demand in proxies and VPNs comes down to better technological infrastructure and capability, but it is undeniably driven by increased demand from the public for internet anonymity and privacy. Findings such as these validate this consumer desire, showcasing the incredible extent to which our behavior is tracked and monetized online without our consent.

Oh, and if you thought social media was the worst offender, think again. These apps, in fact, made the fewest network connections among the 20 categories of apps that the study investigated. Apps by magazines, news, and sports applications made the most with 26, 21, and 18 connections upon download respectively. Most of these were third-party trackers.

There’s no reason to believe that companies will track us any less in the future. Such behavior is a lucrative business and, unless customers and lawmakers don’t push against it, companies are unlikely to give up a golden goose.

Dogs seem to play more enthusiastically when you’re paying attention to them going at it

Man’s best friend is most playful when we’re watching, says new research.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study reports that pet dogs are much more likely to engage in play with other dogs when their owner is present and paying attention. While such results definitely go a long way towards making us all fuzzy for our furry friends, it also raises an interesting (and quite amusing) possibility: that these animals may, at least in part, put on a show for our enjoyment.

Big stick energy

The authors preface their paper by explaining that the deep attunement dogs seem to have to human interest or attention is well documented. However, we didn’t have any hard, reliable data on how this awareness impacts specific behaviors — like, for example, altering the way our pawed pals engage in play.

“We found overall that the availability of owner attention did in fact facilitate play,” says Lindsay Mehrkam, an animal behaviorist and lead author of the paper.

“It’s really quite striking that dogs who have the chance to play with each other whenever they want to, nonetheless are much more likely to get up off their butts and start playing when a person is just paying attention to them,” said co-author Clive Wynne of Arizona State University.

Human attention, the team explains, increased the frequency and intensity of behavior such as bowing, hip nudges, wrestling, chasing, or gentle bites that a dog would engage in with another dog during play.

The team carried out their experiment with 10 pairs of pets that had lived together for at least six months previously. According to owners, they all used to engage in play at least once a day (this step was taken to make sure that the dogs could enjoy each other’s company).

Each pair was then filmed as they interacted under three conditions: with the owner present, the owner present but ignoring them, and with a present and highly attentive owner (offering verbal praise and petting). Each scenario was run three times over the course of several days to ensure that the data was valid, and not flukes.

As for why this happens, the team believes that the owner’s attention could be a reward that the dogs are seeking in itself — similarly to how children playing with their parents will sometimes show off. Alternatively, the animals may have learned that playing among themselves, and playing more intensely, can lead to rewards such as an owner joining in or everyone going out for a walk.

Alternatively, the owner’s presence may act as a stabilizing agent which makes such intense play possible. Their mere presence can cause a rush of oxytocin, a hormone involved in emotional bonding and feelings of safety, which promotes play. Yet still, the human can act as an insurance policy against an all-out fight — although animals use play to strengthen bonds, it can also lead to aggression.

The fact is that right now, we simply don’t know why it happens, only that it does. The authors themselves are aware of this, and they’re already setting out on finding out.

“It’s one of those types of studies that leads to a lot more questions than answers,” said Mehrkam.

The paper “Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect” has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Good news — study finds that people generally try to help one another out

Different motivators to do good don’t drown each other out, the team reports, adding that people generally want to help those around them.

Image credits Andrew Martin.

The findings help cement our understanding of reciprocity and prosocial behavior in the complex societal contexts of today. It’s also a hopeful reminder in these strange and trying times that deep down, we all want to make life better for everyone.

Sharing is caring

We all have four broad categories of motivators for which to help those around us: doing a kindness in return for someone who helped us out, doing something nice for someone we’ve seen helping a third person out, doing good as a response to people in our social circles who might be impressed with or reward that behavior, and as a way to “pay it forward” — to help someone if somebody else has done something nice for us.

The team explains that these four motivators could be at odds with one another. For example, we could prioritize rewarding someone who helped us out before to the detriment of others who might need assistance more than that person. The interplay between these four motivators during our social interactions has not been studied, however.

But there are grounds for hope. The authors report that in their experiment, people overwhelmingly chose to be generous to others, and even if they were complete strangers, even in situations where their motivators could create conflicts of interests.

“We wanted to do an exhaustive study to see what the effects of those motivations would be when combined — because they are combined in the real world, where people are making choices about how generous or kind to be with one another,” said David Melamed, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

The study included 700 participants and was designed to put them in a variety of situations where different motivators might compete. Participants took part in online interactions where they had to decide how much of a 10-point endowment they wanted to give other people. They were informed that these points would have a monetary value at the end of the study. This way, giving points away had a cost for the participants.

“[Prosocial behavior] means doing something for someone else at a cost to yourself,” Melamed said. “So one example would be paying for the person behind you’s order at the coffee shop. Or right now, wearing your mask in public. It’s a cost to you; it’s uncomfortable. But you contribute to the public good by wearing it and not spreading the virus.”

“In the real world, the conditions under which people are nice to each other are not isolated — people are embedded in their networks, and they’re going about their daily lives and coming into contact with things that will affect their decisions.”

Melamed says he expected to see the different motivators ‘crowd’ one another out. For example, a person focusing on giving back help they received might be less inclined towards the other motivators.

However, they found that “while [there is] some minor variation in how a given form of reciprocity might affect other forms,” people overwhelmingly showed an inclination towards helping others in all scenarios (each of which emphasized one type or combination of reciprocity types).

Melamed notes that from an evolutionary perspective, such behavior is very curious, as it decreases an individual’s fitness to boost that of others. Having it so deeply ingrained in our nature then shows the importance social relations played during our evolution. It also shows the extent to which they helped shape our cultures and civilizations.

Studying our prosocial behavior can also help us better understand it in other species such as bees and ants.

The paper “The robustness of reciprocity: Experimental evidence that each form of reciprocity is robust to the presence of other forms of reciprocity” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Gorillas have ‘old friends’ and other elements of complex societies

Gorillas have complex relationships and social tiers, a new study reports. The system bears striking similarities to human society.

Gorillas resemble us in more than one way.

The way human society is arranged is pretty neat: it starts with a nuclear group of our closest family and friends, which is nested in increasingly larger units. We don’t exactly know when and how humans transitioned from small and autonomous groups to increasingly larger and tiered social systems, but it is a key part of what enabled us to thrive as a species.

But this system might not be unique to us among primates: a new study also reports that gorillas share a similar system.

Gorillas are not easy to study. Not only do they live in inaccessible areas, but they also tend to avoid humans without previous habituation. This study used over six years of data from two research sites in the Republic of Congo, where scientists documented the social exchanges of hundreds of western lowland gorillas.

“Studying the social lives of gorillas can be tricky,” said lead author Dr Robin Morrison, from the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge. “Gorillas spend most of their time in dense forest, and it can take years for them to habituate to humans.”

“Where forests open up into swampy clearings, gorillas gather to feed on the aquatic vegetation. Research teams set up monitoring platforms by these clearings and record the lives of gorillas from dawn to dusk over many years.”

Gorillas live in family groups, but these groups are very different from what we humans have. Typically, a group consists of a dominant male, a few females, and offspring. Meanwhile, the other males live as solitary “bachelors”. But there’s more to the story than that.

After the immediate family, there’s an extended group with which gorillas interact regularly — this group features 13 gorillas on average. Beyond this, there’s a further tier, which averages 39 gorillas and also features regular (though rarer) interactions. There’s also a different type of group formed by male gorillas who are old enough to leave their group but not old enough to fully care for themselves. They form an all-male group to help them cope.

Does all this sound familiar? That’s because it’s a lot like what we humans do.

“If we think of these associations in a human-centric way, the time spent in each other’s company might be analogous to an old friendship,” she said.

The similarities run even deeper. Not only did the team find permanent relationships, they also found periodic interactions, similar to annual gatherings or festivals. For gorillas, these seem to be based around fruiting events (although they are a bit too infrequent to draw definite conclusions from them).

This could also offer new insight regarding the evolution of this type of behavior. Humans (and primates, for that matter) are not the only ones to employ this type of hierarchy.  A small number of mammal species have been found to have similar structures, and these are typically the species relying on “idiosyncratic” food sources — such as elephants looking for irregular fruitings or dolphins hunting for mercurial fish schools. Furthermore, all of them have well-developed spatial memory centers, much like humans do.

However, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have a very different social structure: they live in small territorial groups with fluctuating and aggressive alliances. The findings suggest that either the behavior evolved independently in humans and gorillas or, more likely, it stretches down to the common ancestors of humans and gorillas

The findings suggest that the origins of our own social systems stretch back to the common ancestor of humans and gorillas, rather than arising from the “social brain” of hominins after diverging from other primates, say researchers.

“While primate societies vary a lot between species, we can now see an underlying structure in gorillas that was likely present before our species diverged, one that fits surprisingly well as a model for human social evolution.”

“Our findings provide yet more evidence that these endangered animals are deeply intelligent and sophisticated, and that we humans are perhaps not quite as special as we might like to think,” concludes Morrison.

The study “Hierarchical social modularity in gorillas” was published in Proceedings of Royal Society B.

Danger sign.

Scared? Here’s how your brain decides whether you freeze, flee, or fight

New research sheds light on how our brains react when faced with danger.

Danger sign.

Image credits spcbrass / Flickr.

Hear that? If you listen really hard, you can actually make out the sound of nothing hunting you right now. Safely ensconced in our society, we tend to take this for granted. Make no mistake, however: it’s anything but.

That’s exactly why we (and basically every other animal) evolved from the ground up with self-preservation in mind. Despite our sheltered existence, the brain circuits that generate our responses to perceived threats are still very much alive to this day. In a bid to better understand how these networks operate, and why they work the way they do, researchers at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU) in Lisbon, Portugal, set about to terrify the pants off some very tiny flies.

Fly, fruit fly!

“Just like any other animal in nature, our reaction to a threat is invariably one of the following three: escape, fight or freeze in place with the hope of remaining unnoticed,” says Marta Moita, co-lead author of the study.

“These behaviours are fundamental, but we still don’t know what the rules of the game are,” adds the study’s first author Ricardo Zacarias. “In each situation, how does the brain decide which of the three strategies to implement and how does it ensure that the body carries it through?”

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) might not seem like the coolest or smartest organism out there — in all honesty, they’re not — but they do have a few saving graces: they’re easy and cheap to care for in large numbers and they’re low maintenance. They also procreate fast and with a fury, so there’s always plenty of them to experiment on.

Given their simpler natures (and wings), Moita admits, many people “believed that flies only escape”, but the research showed that’s not the case. They devised an experiment in which the flies didn’t have the option of flying away and then spooked them to see their reaction.

The flies were placed in covered dishes and were then shown an expanding dark circle, which ” is how a threat looks like to a fly,” Moita explains. With flying away out of the question, the flies froze, the team reports. In a perfect mirror of the same behavior in mammals, birds, and several other species, the flies remained completely motionless for minutes on end. There’s no doubt as to why the flies froze since they would maintain positions that were obviously awkward and uncomfortable for them, such as half crouches, or holding a leg or two “suspended in the air,” Moita explains.

Some flies, however, decided to make a dash for it.

“This was very exciting,” says Vasconcelos, “because it meant that similarly to humans, the flies were choosing between alternative strategies.”

The next step was to take a closer look at what triggered each response. For this goal, the team used machine vision software to produce highly-detailed accounts of each fly’s behavior. Analyzing this data revealed that the flies’ response was determined by their walking speed at the moment the threat appeared. If the fly was walking slowly, it would freeze. By contrast, if it was traveling at speed, it would attempt to run away instead.

“This result is very important: it is the first report showing how the behavioural state of the animal can influence its choice of defensive strategy,” Vasconcelos points out.

The team later identified a single pair of neurons that underpin these defensive behaviors. The pair — with one neuron on each side of the flies’ brain — decided whether the flies would freeze or not. When the team inactivated these neurons, the flies stopped attempting to freeze and just ran away from threats all the time.

When the team artificially forced the neurons to stay active all the time, even without a threat being present, the flies would freeze depending on their walking speed — the fly would freeze if it was walking slowly, but not if it was walking quickly.

“This result places these neurons directly at the gateway of the circuit of choice,” says Zacarias.

“This is exactly what we were looking for: how the brain decides between competing strategies,” Moita adds. “And moreover, these neurons are of the type that sends motor commands from the brain to the ‘spinal cord’ of the fly. This means that they may be involved not only in the choice, but also in the execution”.

The findings should help provide a starting point for identifying how the brains of other species handle defense, the team explains, as “defensive behaviors are common to all animals”.

The paper “Speed dependent descending control of freezing behavior in Drosophila melanogaster” has been published in the journal Nature.

Unlike humans, bonobos prefer jerks

As the saying goes, you can tell the character of a person by how he treats those who can do nothing to him. If someone’s mean to a waiter, that’s a big turn-off. No one likes a bully — no one except for bonobos, that is.

A new study reports that bonobos, who along with chimps are our closest relatives, don’t really care much for avoiding bullies.

Bonobos are very social. Image credits: Wcalvin / Wikipedia.

Studies have shown that infants as young as six months can distinguish between good and bad guys. Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology, and doctoral student Christopher Krupenye, both from Duke University, wanted to see if the same carries out for bonobos.

Study after study has shown how human-like bonobos can be, with a study just a few months ago reporting that they sometimes perform random acts of kindness — just like humans. They also tend to be less aggressive than humans, so researchers were expecting bonobos to prefer calmer, more peaceful individuals. However, this wasn’t really the case.

Researchers carried out two experiments. First, they showed the bonobos 24 bonobos animated videos of a Pac-Man-like shape struggling to climb a hill. Then, another similar silhouette appears. Sometimes, it would help the protagonist to the top, and other times it would kick him back down.

Credits: Krupenye and Hare.

Next, they watched a live skit in which a human drops a stuffed animal, somewhere out of reach. A second person tries to give the toy back, but a third person steals it. The bonobos were then given the choice of receiving a piece of apple from the helper or from the thief.

In both scenarios, bonobos were able to distinguish the good guys from the jerks, but unlike humans, they tended to pick the jerks.

This was a bit surprising for scientists, who believe that the bonobos interpret rudeness as a sign of domination. Basically, they think that jerks behave this way because they can get away with it as they’re more powerful — and they choose powerful individuals as their allies. Teaming up with bullies could mean they have a lower chance of being bullied themselves.

Perhaps even more interestingly, this could indicate that the innate tendency of humans to shun bullies may be unique to our branch of the primate family tree. It may be exactly this that allowed us to form a society and develop in such large groups — something which other animals might not be capable of.

“In the animal kingdom, there are all kinds of acts of cooperation. But we don’t see things like building skyscrapers or the establishment of institutions,” says comparative psychologist Christopher Krupenye.

“Humans might have this unique preference for helpers that is really at the heart of why we’re so cooperative,” said Krupenye, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

The study was published in the latest issue of Current Biology.


Bacterial communities take turns to eat when food becomes scarce

When food gets scarce, cooperating so everyone gets his or her fill is a sensible way to go about business. Bacteria seem to have caught on to this fact a lot earlier than we did, and developed time-sharing.


The biofilms grown by the team. Cyan color represents electrical activity.
Image credits University of California San Diego.

A team of researchers from the University of California San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain have found that competing communities of bacteria will enter a timesharing agreement when faced with limited sources of food. Under this strategy, the cultures will alternate feeding times to maximize efficiency and make sure everyone gets enough to eat.

“What’s interesting here is that you have these simple, single-celled bacteria that are tiny and seem to be lonely creatures, but in a community, they start to exhibit very dynamic and complex behaviors you would attribute to more sophisticated organisms or a social network,” said Gürol Süel, associate director of the San Diego Center for Systems Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute — Simons Faculty Scholar at UC San Diego.

“It’s the same timesharing concept used in computer science, vacation homes and a lot of social applications.”

Only that the bacteria seem to be enjoying their time-sharing plan.

Better living through electricity

Back in 2015, Süel and his team found that organized cultures of bacteria (biofilms) pump out electrical signals to communicate with and recruit neighboring bacteria into their little society. Building on that research, they wanted to find out if and how biofilms interact together using these signals. Through laboratory observation and mathematical modeling, they found that these communities will use them to ‘talk’ and cooperate by synchronizing their behavior.

To test their conclusions, they placed two Bacillus subtilis biofilms on the same culture with limited available food. The team writes that the two biofilms became “coupled through electrical signaling,” purposefully synchronizing their growth patterns from in-phase to anti-phase oscillations. In other words, instead of both biofilms going to eat in the morning and sleeping at night, they would take turns so each would have full access to the resource part of the time.

It’s a pretty elegant solution to a reduced nutrient supply. Instead of entering a costly competition, the two cultures simply decided not to step on each other’s toes and time-shared the available food — a strategy we also employ to maximize output in systems with limited resources.

“It is common for living systems to operate in unison, but here we’re showing that working out-of-sync can also provide a biological benefit,” said Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo, professor of systems biology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and co-author of the study.

It’s interesting to think that these single-celled bacteria could develop the same economic strategy we did, without the benefits of say, brains. Now they just need to develop a health care plan and they’re all set to take over the world.

The paper “Coupling between distant biofilms and emergence of nutrient time-sharing” was published in the journal Science.


Memories for opposing behaviors are stored in the same parts of the brain, study finds

The same brain region can both motivate us to undertake a learned behavior or suppress it altogether, a new study found. The results will help us better understand how our brain stores memories and how they’re called upon when needed.


Image credits Gerd Altmann / Pixabay.

While there is a general consensus that different memories are stored in different areas of the brain, there has been a lot of debate if each area can hold contradicting memories — those that control opposing behavior. For example, are the behaviors for a red or green traffic light encoded in the same area of the brain?

Pushing both ways

Questions like this one may seem a bit like nit-picking, but they’re actually really important in understanding us and our minds. Memories make us who we are. They’re also what the brain relies on to decide when and whether to take an action. So scientists are obviously keen on understanding how they work.

A new study from The Scripps Research Institute comes to answer this question. It is the first to offer proof that the same brain region can both motivate and suppress the same learned behavior.

“We behave the way we do in a specific situation because we have learned an association — a memory — tying an environmental cue to a behavior,” said Nobuyoshi Suto, TSRI Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

“This study provides causal evidence that one brain region can store different memories.”

Suto’s work focuses on the brain structures that control motivation. For the study, he and the team trained rats to press a lever to get a reward of sugar water. After they got this down (the rats caught on pretty fast) the researchers further trained the animals to recognize two colored lights: green if the reward was available when pressing the lever, red if they would receive none. The rats quickly started adjusting their behavior after training in response to the colors. They pressed the lever more often when the green light was on, and didn’t bother with it when the red one was shining.

Based on previous electrophysiology studies, the team suspected that the mice’s brains stored both sessions of training they received in a region of the brain called the infralimbic cortex.

“We’ve seen correlational evidence, where we see brain activity together with a behavior, and we connect the dots to say it must be this brain activity causing this behavior,” said Suto.

“But such correlational evidence alone cannot establish the causality — proof that the specific brain activity is directly controlling the specific behavior.”

A weapon against addiction

The scientists then started systematically switching off specific groups of brain cells, or ‘neural ensembles’. These ensembles react to ques signaling if the reward is available or not. With the neurons inactivated, the rats didn’t perform any of the behavior encoded in the memories of those ensembles.

This proves that distinct neural ensembles in the same region of the brain directly control reward-seeking behavior or its suppression. Suto called the findings a step towards understanding how different memories are stored in the brain. He says the findings could help battle addiction by discovering which neurons are activated to motivate or prevent drug relapse.

In the future, he’d like to look at what other brain regions these infralimbic cortex neurons may be communicating with. In addition, he also would like to determine the brain chemicals mediating the promotion or suppression of reward seeking.

The full paper “Distinct memory engrams in the infralimbic cortex of rats control opposing environmental actions on a learned behavior” has been published in the journal eLife.

Voles show care for and comfort distressed mates

A study from Emory University looking into prairie voles’ consoling behaviors provides new evidence in support of animal empathy. The tests had pairs of voles isolated from each other, one being exposed to mild electric shocks, to study how the rodents react to a distressed mate.

Image via phys

Empathy is often thought of as something that requires a lot of brain power to pull off. That’s why until recently, it was believed that only humans, great apes and other large-brained mammals such as elephants or dolphins are capable of showing concern and consolation for their fellows. The Emory University vole study is the first study to identify this type of behavior in voles, and adds to a growing body of evidence for animal empathy.

The team separated pairs of voles from one another and subjected one of each pair to mild footshocks. When reunited, the un-shocked one would lick their partner’s fur sooner and for longer durations than control pairs — which were separated but did not receive any shocks.

It could come down to the rodents’ mating habits; Prairie voles are known for the monogamous, lifelong partnerships they form with their mate to care for their offspring. This consoling behavior was only observed between voles who were familiar with each other, not between strangers. Researchers Larry Young and James Burkett say this demonstrates that the behavior was not simply a reaction to aversive cues.

“Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.”

That’s…That’s actually true.
Image via thebiocheminist

To confirm this, the team also tried blocking oxytocin receptors in the voles’ brains, as this neurotransmitter is associated with empathy and bonding in humans. This stoped the rodents from engaging in any consolation behavior, but didn’t affect their self-grooming behavior.

Their report, published this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reads:

“Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species. We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”