From openings to the power of music

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society's Psychology4Students event.

Hundreds of A-level students had their minds opened to the breadth of psychology as a discipline at the British Psychological Society’s annual Psychology4Students event held at London’s Kia Oval.

Beginning proceedings, appropriately, was Professor of Social Interaction Elizabeth Stokoe (Loughborough University) with how the first 10 seconds of a conversation can be incredibly telling. Through a few recorded conversations, she showed that the absence of the usual ‘how are you’ pleasantries of early interactions can tell us much about where a conversation might be heading. When two women opened a conversation with ‘Shellie?’… ‘Debbie?’, the audience just knew instinctively that this exchange was about to take a turn for the worse.

Stokoe is an advocate of studying real conversations and interactions, arguing that such verbal exchanges are in fact highly systematic and ripe for study. In simulated conversations people don’t tend to speak in the same way: police officers being trained in interviewing techniques sound radically different compared to officers carrying out actual interviews. In real police interviews the stakes are so much higher and this obviously changes the content of a conversation or interview entirely. Stokoe said it was wrong to base assumptions on simulated conversations such as these.  

Listening in to people phoning services such as vets, local councils and even window companies reveals the different types of conversation starters we use when building requests. If we are unsure of what services are available we may say: ‘hello, would it be possible to…’, compared to calling a vets: ‘I need to bring the cat in.’ Stokoe and her colleagues analysed 3,000 phone calls to different GP surgeries, and it emerged that a few simple conversational tweaks can make the process far less stressful and as a result improve ratings in the National GP Survey. Illustrating this was a jarring call in which a man was told point blank no appointment was available on his requested day, and then no alternative was offered. The confusion and frustration in his voice was there for all to hear. Stokoe advised that patients should always be offered an alternative time, and once the appointment is made it should be confirmed back to them. Similar principles applied to students phoning university clearing can again ensure smoother progress along the ‘conversational racetrack’.

What do Donald Trump and ISIS have in common? This was the question posed by Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews) in a captivating talk covering the history of leadership studies and toxic leaders. One of the main things Trump and ISIS share is their styles of leadership – both portray themselves as the embodiment of America and Islam respectively, punishing and decrying any of those against them as enemies of the entire group itself. In his final campaign advertisement Trump laid out his view of America, that ‘the people’ face an enemy comprising external enemies and the internal establishment. Enemies of Trump are presented as enemies of the people. Reicher said that in the online ISIS magazine Dabiq, the world is also divided into two camps, Muslims and non-Muslims, which are presented as inherently incompatible. Enemies of Isis are portrayed as playing into the hands of the West, whether they are Muslim or not. Reicher said both Isis and Trump pedal a politics of hope: Dabiq, for example, has more photos depicting community and acceptance than it does death and destruction, albeit in a completely distorted way.

In a wonderful real-time display of a democracy, Dr Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) opened his talk on the psychology of politicians with a referendum on which tie he should wear – a jazzy red Christmas number won by a landslide. He argued that psychology did not do enough to influence world leaders and politicians, despite having much to offer. Weinberg pointed to the enormous amounts of stress MPs deal with and a slowly growing acceptance that politicians struggle with their mental health.

Magicians have been baffling audiences since Roman times, and perhaps before, and psychologist-conjurer Dr Gustav Kuhn (Goldsmiths University of London) has drawn on the startling illusions of magic to uncover more about human perception. He said the experience of magic results in a conflict between what we think is possible and things we’ve experienced before, and psychologists are growing more interested in what mechanisms lead us to believe impossible things. After some brilliant live demonstrations Kuhn said the key to magic was in exploiting the many limitations of human awareness. While we believe we have a full and coherent perception of the world, the truth is much stranger: our eyes have only small areas of high acuity, our peripheral vision nears black and white, we move our eyes three times per second and during these saccades become effectively blind for one tenth of every second. Kuhn said our feeling of being fully aware of the world around us is an illusion.

In eye tracking experiments scientists have revealed that where people look during a trick has little effect on what they actually see – someone may be looking directly at the solution to a trick (i.e. a magician keeping a coin hidden in her palm) but miss it entirely. Kuhn said this had implications for things like driving: while hands-free kits are legal, Kuhn said processes such as this reveal that while our mental attention is distracted we can miss things happening in front of our eyes. In an illusion Kuhn threw a ball into the air twice keeping it in his palm on the third throw – but a good proportion of the audience ‘saw’ the ball disappear in mid-air. Kuhn explained that to live in our dynamic world, where our brains take some time to process what is going on, our constant need to predict the future results in us ‘seeing’ things which aren’t really there. As humans, Kuhn said, we have a choice: we can grow enormous heads that allow for bigger brains to process all of the information in the world around us, or we can use these mental shortcuts and estimates to process the most important information. He said the reason magic works is that we are so often completely unaware of our own cognitive limitations.

It’s part of weddings, funerals, football games, films, exercise, lonely walks… we use it to calm down, get excited and cry to… it’s music. In her captivating talk, Professor Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) explored why music has such overwhelming power for most people. She explained that music has demonstrable effects on behaviour. Very young babies in hospitals require less pain medication when they listen to music; sad music makes us spend more money in shops; music can affect eating speed, the type of wine we buy and even whether we’ll give a stranger our number. Animals also respond to music; dogs react in an excited way to rock music and calm down to classical, the milk yields of cows increase with faster music, wounds in rats take twice as long to heal when listening to aggressive music, and chickens have a particular penchant for Pink Floyd. After an excellent video of a parrot dancing to Gangnam Style Loveday explained music has measurable biological effects on humans: a study of homeless men who sang together in a choir showed reduced stress and higher immunity with each session. Opiates in the brain also play a role: if the effects of opiates are blocked people experience no pleasure when listening to music. The ‘chill’ effect, the shiver down the spine people experience when hearing particular pieces of music, is also evident in brain scans, changes in body temperature and respiration. It’s even found in chickens.

But what is it about music that makes it so powerful? Loveday said humans are innately sensitive to changes in pitch, timbre and rhythm in people’s voices. Our ability to socially connect with people depends so much on our ability to read the musical content of language. Memory is also key. Music helps to tie us to specific autobiographical memories, and our memories of music seem very robust – we need only hear the opening few notes of some songs to recognise them. Loveday said some of the power in some music was in challenging expectations. Just as a good joke will build a sense of what is to come and violate it, music draws on this technique too – building to unexpected changes in pitch or volume. 

- See also our reports from the Nottingham event, and Psychology4Graduates.

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