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Curiosity, Data Drive Psych Professor’s Research

By Kathryn Thornborough

Alan Silberberg

Although his courses are concerned with learning theory and the evolution of behavior, Alan Silberberg teaches his students more than just psychology. The professor's 37 years of research at AU have been spent challenging conventional claims, and in his classes he introduces this style of thinking to his students. Instead of "show me the money," Silberberg's mantra is "show me the data."

"I spend my time trying to figure out whether I believe what I'm hearing," Silberberg says. This approach has led him to do research in many different fields of psychology and even other disciplines. "I just say, 'Hey, that interests me,' and I go do it," says Silberberg.

That interest is often sparked when he sees alternate explanations for phenomena that have been attributed to a particular theory. One of his recent studies, for example, questions popular conceptions about addiction. Silberberg used rats to test the reinforcing power of cocaine versus food. He found that cocaine was a much weaker reinforcer than food, rebutting the claim that addictive substances provide more powerful reinforcement than nonaddictive substances.

In a different experiment that tested the existence of empathy in rats, Silberberg placed a mother and daughter rat in opposite sides of a box divided by a clear plastic partition. One rat was given much more food than it could possibly eat on its own, while the other rat had very little. Silberberg watched to see whether the "rich" mother rat would display empathy by pushing a few pieces of food under the partition to her "poor" daughter. Unfortunately for the daughter rat, the answer was no, rats do not show empathy.

Silberberg's research and way of viewing the world also color the classes he teaches. It is uncommon to hear laughter in an 8:30 a.m. class, but students in Silberberg's Behavior Principles course can expect just that. Lectures on Pavlovian conditioning and operant theory are interspersed with stories about the amazing abilities of animals, like pigeons trained through reinforcement to guide missiles. Silberberg says, "I'm really most of all into having fun."

His advice to students—both inside and outside the classroom—is this: "Whenever you're told something, ask the person how they know it's true."

Adapted from "Show Him the Data: Professor Alan Silberberg," by Kathryn Thornborough, Catalyst, Spring 2009.