The humble experts

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from the student stream of the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference, in Nottingham last week.

The final day of the Annual Conference brought the student stream, always overflowing with quality keynotes and meandering careers.

First up was Professor Carolyn Mair, happily admitting ‘my CV’s all over the place’, having had ‘many previous lives’ and working in ‘a lot of different fields, before and after studying psychology’. Mair is ‘a psychologist working in fashion’: not a fashion psychologist, because many who describe themselves as that have no background in the subject, and no focus on the application of an evidence-base. Having been a ‘bad student’ at school, Mair worked as a portrait artist, graphic designer, window dresser and more. She realised that psychology was pinning all these things together, in the way people came to engage with what she had created. Her work is now in an industry ‘that needs psychologists to go in and change it’: to empower and educate consumers of fashion, to work with the industry to ‘be more sustainable and respect their consumers more’. We’re seeing some changes, but Mair feels they’re largely tokenistic, and that psychology can continue to inform strong ‘anti anti-ageing’ and ableism agendas.

Next up was Dr Dan O’Hare, Educational psychologist for Gloucestershire County Council. He introduced us to ‘Mina’, a pupil who had her sights set on pursuing a life in sport but who regularly trashed her classroom. Hers was a multi-faceted story, and she had meaningful stuff to add to what was being said about her. How best to draw this out? O’Hare emphasised that ‘we’re not there to tell teachers what to do’: the expert model doesn’t work with them. Instead, it’s about consultation, bringing knowledge about the process of change, and how every child is so different in every context. Reflecting on questions such as ‘When did it feel like Mina was going to trash the classroom but didn’t?’ allows educational psychologists to work across the individual, group and organisation, seeing people as the experts of their own lives. In this case, Mina’s Dad’s idea to do art with her was a positive step, as was understanding the views that teachers had of Mina, and how they linked with behaviour policy.

Julie Hulme (Keele University: ‘There’s lots to know about Stoke!’) charted her journey from mature student, ‘low on confidence and experiencing an identity crisis’, to a successful career using psychology to research the higher education classroom. After a final year project on barn owl conservation (I never did get to ask how this connected), Hulme experienced her epiphany when she recognised that there were ‘lots of students, like me, who had potential but lacked the skills or confidence to go to or succeed at university.’ Her u-turn pointed her at researching teaching. ‘I started to think about undergraduate feedback as a communication process, a dialogue.’ Students now lead her research, playing an active part as participants. ‘I can do it all by getting students involved: trusting them, scaffolding them, everyone wins. My students inspire my research, shape it, form it.’

Perfectly pitched at a student audience, Roger Bretherton (University of Lincoln) considered character strengths and careers. Now an intriguingly titled ‘Principle Lecturer for Enterprise’, Bretherton worked in the NHS for ten years before swapping to academia. He outlined how psychologists can take difficult and complex presentations of people and ‘humanise’ them, asking: ‘What’s the golden grain in this situation? What’s missing?’ Bretherton now aims to create an international conversation on celebrated character virtues, such as knowledge, courage, temperance, transcendence, humanity, justice. Such strengths are interconnected, and Bretherton talked of Barbara Frederickson’s ‘broaden and build’ ideas, and love as the relational expression of all the other positive emotions. He also considered the ‘shadow’ that lies behind some of these good things: how can we prime strengths to ensure they don’t tip over into a negative?  

Which brings us neatly to Dee Anand, current chair of the Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology, wrapping up the day with ‘criminal careers with career criminals’. Forensic psychology may appear to some to be on the ropes, Anand admitted. The nature of pejorative representation in mainstream media, the seeping of poor representation into culture, creates barriers for practitioners to understand, help and change. But as a forensic psychologist, ‘you have to believe in that potential’, Anand argued. ‘Otherwise what’s the point in what you’re doing?’ But what do we mean by change, risk, in a forensic context? Clinical psychologists might be talking about the risk of deterioration, risk to mental wellbeing. Forensic psychologists are considering that, but also risk of harm to self and others, and risk of reoffending. High profile disagreements over these factors can lead to the public seeing psychologists as ‘touchy-feely woolly left wing liberal softies, easily hoodwinked’. Anand, though, always comes back to Winston Churchill’s view that we should judge a society by how it treats their criminals. Sure, risk is a challenging dynamic to communicate to the public, but we must avoid the risk of playing to a court of public opinion. We need to unpick risk with proper science, adding context and moving towards ‘risk explanation’. Here, Anand borrows liberally from clinical ideas of formulation and the rise of the ‘Power Threat Meaning’ framework – ask not what is wrong with you, ask what has happened to you, how did it affect you, what sense did you make of it, what did you do to survive? 

Echoing themes from throughout this student stream, Anand called on the next generation to ‘flatten the hierarchy’, abandoning the idea that they could forge a career as the all-seeing, all-knowing expert. ‘We’re only two decisions away from being on the other side of that table,’ he reminded.

- Find more coverage from the Annual Conference on our website; look out for further reports in the coming weeks, and in the June and July print editions.

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