Inquiring Minds

By David Brooks Easy to print version
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In this issue:

Old and Cool
How to Listen
Combat Training

Old and Cool
Horseshoe crabs can tell us a lot about ecology

Every biologist and conservationist knows the importance of charismatic fauna: creatures like koalas or dolphins or blue-footed boobies that the public loves and showers with support. But who would have guessed that something as ungainly and weird as a horseshoe crab—an animal with 10 eyes and blood so unusual it is used to keep infection out of the drug supply—would join this select group?

"People love them," agrees Win Watson, who studied this ancient arthropod for his doctoral research three decades ago and has returned to them as a professor of zoology and biological sciences at UNH. "I think there's this sort of ancient look to them, like trilobites. They're the closest you're going to come to a dinosaur." He recently co-edited an issue of Current Zoology, which was devoted to horseshoe crab research, including four papers he co-authored on things like their pattern of travels around Great Bay and the chemicals females used to attract males.

While Watson is happy that his research subject draws admiring crowds at the New England Aquarium, he's even happier that it is providing a subject for a long-time goal: "to understand the behavior of an animal from neurons up to the environment." This isn't just scientific curiosity. The Audubon Society, realizing how important horseshoe crab eggs are as a food source for migrating birds, has become an advocate for halting the decline in their numbers. "There's a practical need to understand more about their ecology," says Watson. "They're a very visible beacon of fishery problems, like overharvesting. There's a sense that if we can't protect the horseshoe crab, what can we protect?" Horseshoe crabs, after all, aren't tasty, harmful or annoying, except when a beach is covered with thousands—or in the case of Delaware Bay, millions—of them in a springtime spawning soiree.

The crabs (which aren't really crabs; they're more like big sea spiders) are omnivorous scavengers, moving between tidal flats and deeper waters as they grow from fingernail size to dinner-plate size, a process that takes up to 11 molting cycles over five to 10 years, depending on the sex and region. Researchers have learned a lot about their habits in recent years with transmitters attached to their shells and aerial observation from cameras attached to model airplanes by UNH graduate student Wan-Jean Lee.

But plenty remains to be discovered. Watson is particularly interested in how a combination of internal and environmental cues influence their tide-related activity. Spawning, for example, peaks on the new and full moon. Watson would like to know exactly how they are influenced by their unusual eyes, some of which can detect ultraviolet light, by biological clocks in their brains and by their ability to detect change in water depth. Watson studies this last question by seeing how they react as he pumps water back and forth between the garbage cans in which they sit.

That low-budget experiment reflects an aspect of horseshoe crabs that endears them to researchers: They're easy to work with. They don't sting or bite, don't scurry off, and take it in stride when you drill holes to attach wires or glue transmitters to their shells. They've got a straightforward nervous system, with large neurons that are easy to analyze, and yet their behavior is complicated enough to provide valuable information.

And, of course, they're charismatic: "They look really old and cool," Watson says. "Intriguing, esoteric. They're just a wonderful species."

How to Listen
Whistle-blowers who are anonymous may be ignored

What a difference a word makes--or sometimes, just a prefix. An intriguing study co-authored by Jacob Rose, associate professor of accounting and finance, suggests that there might be big problems at the center of laws designed to improve the financial honesty of American business. And it all hinges on the prefix "non."

The study by Rose and James Hunton of Bentley College investigated how 83 experienced audit committee members (corporate directors who oversee a firm's financial reports) reacted when encountering reports of alleged malfeasance. "Literally the only change was that one scenario said that an allegation was 'received from a non-anonymous source' and the other said 'received from an anonymous source,'" says Rose.

A tiny change but a significant one. Audit committee members ignored warnings from anonymous sources but took them seriously from "nonanonymous" sources—even though they weren't told who the sources were. The effect was even more pronounced if the whistle-blowing concerned an issue that affected the committee member's reputation.

Rose says the study, published in the Journal of Management Studies, was prompted by "hallway talk" that the authors had heard during their years of work with corporate directors. "The effect was much stronger than what we anticipated," he says. It was also much stronger than the study participants anticipated: "A lot of them didn't realize what they had done until we told them, and they were quite shocked that the word 'non' completely changed the way participants chose to handle the allegation."

Aside from providing an intriguing window into the oddities of subconscious human behavior, the study casts doubt on the effectiveness of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which, in the wake of the Enron scandal, was designed to halt shenanigans at public companies. One of the act's main provisions requires firms to provide anonymous channels for whistleblowers as a way to keep everybody honest. "Anonymous whistle-blowing is currently our main defense against financial fraud, and it's what we all rely upon," says Rose. "There was this general assumption that now that we have anonymous hotlines, we're covered."

Since this study says we're not covered very well after all, an obvious conclusion is to create a completely separate independent body to receive and evaluate anonymous whistle-blowing allegations. The Dodd-Frank Reform Act, signed into law last summer, gives the Securities and Exchange Commission a bounty program designed to give whistle-blowers more incentives and provide them with alternatives for reporting allegations. As it turns out, this change serendipitously makes Rose's research even more timely.

Combat Training
Parents' reactions to sibling fights affect kids

If you have a sibling, chances are that the two of you fought somewhere between once per decade and once per hour. And while this is normal in most families, the reaction of parents can vary widely. Some parents seem to accept physical aggression during fights between their children--treating it as normal behavior and "good training for managing aggression in other relationships," says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies. "It's the attitude of 'Well, if he hits you, hit him back!'" Other parents may ignore their kids' fights, or intervene and coach them to negotiate.

A toughen-up attitude may seem like a good old-fashioned approach to parenting. But Tucker says the survey that she and Kerry Kazura, associate professor of family studies, conducted with 82 families of school-age children in New Hampshire indicates that a "sanctioning" response may be linked to children's mental and physical health.

The survey asked parents how often they had used three types of responses to their kids' fights in the previous four weeks—sanctioning, ignoring or coaching. While parenting surveys are common in the family studies field, this project had two novel aspects. One was asking whether parents sanctioned physical aggression during sibling conflict. There is anecdotal evidence, Tucker says, that some parents think sanctioning is the correct way to parent. "It seems to be unique to sibling relationships--we don't see parents encouraging [physical aggression] among friends," says Tucker.

The second unusual aspect of the survey was examining how parents' responses to sibling conflict were related to children's mental and physical well-being. In families where the parents sanctioned physical aggression, there was an association with poor physical health among first- and second-born children, including reactions such as vomiting, trouble sleeping and suffering from stomach aches. Parents who ignored siblings' fights also reported more often that their firstborns were depressed and had poor physical health. Using a coaching strategy, on the other hand, was associated with positive social behavior among first-born children.

In other words, the researchers found that a child-centered strategy that includes positive conflict resolution may be better for children's physical and mental health. That might seem blindingly obvious or counter to common sense, depending on your point of view, but Tucker says the question needs to be studied because of the number of parents who are comfortable with their children using physical aggression during fights. A goal of their work is to change the perception that sibling physical aggression is not harmful and should be considered normal, says Tucker. The way to do that, she says, is giving parents constructive strategies and methods for intervening in their children's fights. Educating parents, she says, might help children learn how to fight without blows. ~

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