Annual Conference 2005
In search of intelligent education
Ups and downs in bipolar disorderJulie Morgan reports on a talk from Professor Richard Bentall (University of Manchester).
Parliament and politics
Sandie Cleland reports on a symposium.
When you consider the impact of the government on our daily lives, it is perhaps surprising that psychologists show little professional interest in politics or politicians. This symposium redressed the balance via an insight into the potential of psychologists to have an impact on the political process, from selection of a politician, through the electoral process, to government.
Sharon Loivette and Helen Wilkin (with Jo Silvester, Goldsmiths College) presented an overview of the first competency-based selection process for political roles. Working with the Conservative Party, they identified the skills required in a political candidate (e.g. good communication skills, leadership and motivation) and worked these into an extensive assessment exercise. One of the most striking findings was that there were no gender differences in performance. Only 18 per cent of MPs are female – clearly this lack of female MPs is not because women cannot do the job. Despite this, Sarah Childs (Bristol University) found that female MPs feel their approach to politics is considered less legitimate and less effective than that of males.
The UK government is pushing towards e-voting, despite its being more expensive than ‘paper and pencil’ voting. In the 2004 US elections e-voting was used in less than 33 per cent of electoral districts; however, it accounted for more than 55
per cent of reported problems. Louise Ferguson (Digital Habitats) argued that there has been a shocking lack of research into the usability of e-voting systems. She suggested that psychologists working in human–computer interaction are well placed to address the usability problems.
Having passed the selection stage and voting process, what can a new MP expect from life in government? Ashley Weinberg (Salford University) found that new MPs suffer from elevated stress levels; 30 per cent of them experience high levels of psychological strain. Although stress levels do eventually decrease to normal levels, this remains worrying – do we want stressed people deciding whether our country goes to war? Parliamentary working practices do not help, and Parliament seems resistant to change. This is the case even with a high number of new MPs, as in the months following the 1997 election. Michael Rush (Exeter University) found that MPs are socialised into their role by their party and by the House of Commons itself. Richard Kwiatkowski (Cranfield University) identified a number of factors contributing to resistance to change (e.g. power of tradition), and suggested that psychologists could play an important part in improving working conditions for MPs.
These talks covered a broad range of topics; but the recurring theme was the role of psychologists in the political process. When a politician’s decision can affect the lives of millions, the importance of this role cannot be underestimated.
Knowing me, knowing you
Jon Sutton reports as Neil Macrae explores the social brain.
Is Britney Spears nothing more than a pop-up toaster? It might not be the first question you would expect social cognition researchers to address as they get their hands on expensive functional brain imaging equipment, but in this fascinating talk Professor Neil Macrae (University of Aberdeen) showed why it’s an important one.
Macrae ran through a wealth of converging evidence – behavioural, patient and imaging – investigating whether social cognition comes with ‘something extra’ in the brain. Thanks to 250,000 years of social and cultural evolution, we have species-unique cognitive skills in terms of our sense of self and others. But can this social competence be explained simply by the general cognitive processes involved in perception, language, memory and attention?
The first clues came from Elliot, a patient who damaged his orbito-frontal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex (MPC). He was fine on non-social tasks, but his life became a disaster through all kinds of bad decisions. So is this area the key to knowing about people?
Up popped Britney, to show that she caused activity in different areas of the brain from the toaster. Abstract person knowledge seemed to be represented in the superior temporal sulcus and the MPC – a ‘social cognition network’? The next experiment showed that the same areas were implicated in ‘theory of mind’ reasoning, allowing people to answer such questions as ‘Could Mary be sensitive?’ and ‘Could a kiwi be fickle?’
But does the MPC handle the processing of psychological states generally, not just for people? And does it deal with any kind of decision about people? To find out, Macrae used imaging while asking people questions about the psychological and physical characteristics of people and dogs. There was just as much MPC activation when thinking about the psychological characteristics of dogs as there was with people – a footprint of anthropomorphism perhaps?
Next up for the MPC was a role in successful recall. By going back and looking at the pattern of activation during encoding of items that were subsequently remembered, as opposed to forgotten, Macrae showed that our trusty friend the MPC was at work again. And in yet another experiment, the MPC was most active when making mental state judgements about a person the participant had judged as similar to themselves – support for the ‘simulation’ theory of how we put ourselves in others’ shoes.
Macrae concluded that some aspects of social cognition are subserved by unique mental processes: knowledge about mental agents, and the encoding of socially relevant information. Macrae suggested that the dorsal area of the MPC may be particularly important here. Some social-cognition processes may draw on self-referential thought, and this may involve the ventral area. More of this type of innovative, quality experimentation will surely go a long way towards solving the puzzle of the social brain.
‘Were you duped like Deirdre?’
Chris Askew on using soap operas to reach inaccessible groups.
The headline of this piece also accompanied an article in the Manchester Evening Post that Christine Kirkman (University of Bolton) used to recruit participants for research into the psychopathic personality. The article was a reference to a storyline in which Coronation Street character Deirdre Rashid was deceived and manipulated by the TV soap’s fictional psychopath, John Lindsay. Kirkman told the conference that many women contacted her with experiences similar to Deirdre’s after recognising similarities between their ex-partners and Lindsay. These correspondences were then used to build a picture of the psychopathic personality. The three main characteristics of the men were ‘superficial charm and good intelligence’, ‘pathological lying’ (reported by all the women!), and the ‘antisocial pursuit of power’. Kirkman argued that similar research in the past has almost exclusively used prisoners, whilst non-offenders have remained an ‘inaccessible group’. However, unidentified psychopathic individuals may cause a great deal of damage to other people’s lives. A poignant example was given by one of the women in the study who described how she was ‘punched through the glass doors of a large cabinet’.
In this unique exploratory study Kirkman has shown how TV soaps can be used to reach otherwise unreachable groups within society.
The age of acquisition
Padraic Monaghan reports on a vibrant area.
Counterintuitively, the objects, names and memories we first learn and store are easier to access and process than those learned much later and experienced more recently. This phenomenon is termed the ‘age of acquisition’ (AoA) effect, and it has attracted considerable interest over the last 30 years. Viv Moore (Goldsmiths College) and Catriona Morrison (University of Leeds) organised a symposium to bring together 18 talks by researchers from the UK, France and the US to discuss contemporary research on this topic.There has been much recent interest in the view that AoA provides insight into fundamental principles of the cognitive systems of storage and processing of stimuli. Providing a detailed exploration and explanation of such effects requires an effective description of the structure of the memory system itself, in particular the dynamic shaping of the system that takes place across time. Furthermore, AoA effects, if fundamental to cognition, may be observed across many fields of cognition, for a variety of stimulus types and tasks. Michael Lewis (Cardiff University) specified this intense interest in AoA effects, by identifying more than 350 papers published in the area in the last 30 years by 657 different researchers.
As chair and discussant, Ken Gilhooly (University of Paisley) identified three key themes from the talks in the symposium:
- Are AoA effects anything more than frequency effects? Events that were experienced earlier may be repeated more often than those that were experienced later. Patrick Bonin (Université de Blaise Pascal), Marc Brysbaert (Royal Holloway), Barbara Juhasz (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and Philip Smith (University of Reading) debated this issue, suggesting that AoA effects are distinct from frequency effects, but that the two may operate in tandem.
- How wide-ranging are AoA effects? AoA effects can be found across several languages (Ilhan Raman, University of Middlesex), in autobiographical memory (Catriona Morrison), in normal and dyslexic readers (Jamie Smith-Spark, Cancer Research UK) and for participants of various ages (Viv Moore). However, particular experience matters, with girls and boys learning words at very different ages (Elaine Funnell, Royal Holloway), and AoA effects may be greater for naming objects than actions (Jackie Masterson, University of Essex).
- How might AoA effects work? Andy Ellis and Padraic Monaghan (University of York) presented a computational model of reading indicating that early experience takes advantage of greater flexibility in representing information. Kevin Dent and Jon Catling (University of Birmingham) found that AoA effects seemed to be located in mappings between pictures, words, and meanings, rather than within the representations themselves. Furthermore, these AoA effects were greater for unpredictable or uncorrelated mappings, such as between pictures and names in contrast to between written and spoken forms of words.
The symposium highlighted the fruitful range of AoA research and pointed towards future directions in further specifying the mechanisms of early experience in cognitive processing, and expanding the search for AoA effects across different areas of psychology.
Expanding the mind
Christian Jarrett reports from a symposium ‘Theory of mind: Cross-cultural and transpersonal perspectives’.
If you’re a contemporary Western psychologist, then to you ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) probably refers to the inherent ability most of us have to think about and recognise the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. But speakers at this symposium were interested in what people think the human mind is, and how this varies around the world. So, for example, Jorge Ferrer (California Institute of Integral Studies), citing the book The Absent Body by Drew Leder, described how so many people in the West have become mentally detached from their bodies, living their lives entirely ‘in their heads’. To Ferrer, this is sad, because the mind is embodied and we should do everything we can – like Zen mediation or t’ai chi – to cultivate a fuller union between our mind and body.
Similarly, you might think the different emotions you experience – happiness, fear, and so on – are universal. But according to Anthony Marcel’s model (described by Michael Beaton in the former’s absence), our emotional experiences depend on the verbal, culturally defined categories we’ve learned, much as is found with colours and the ability to perceive certain vocal sounds. Consider accidie, the medieval English emotional concept lying somewhere between sloth and depression, or amae, recognised in Japanese as the comfort of others’ presence.
But then again, perhaps Westerners are not as reductionist as some might think. Analysing the beliefs of 250 undergraduates, Adam Zeman (University of Edinburgh) found an inherent contradiction: while 81 per cent thought consciousness depends on the brain, 67 per cent thought the mind and brain were separate and 70 per cent believed in spiritual life after death.
Isabel Clarke (Royal South Hants Hospital) said a broader view of the mind has clinical implications. Such thinking is already responsible for a ‘third wave’ of cognitive therapies, including the ‘mindfulness’ technique – simply noting, rather than being overtaken by, the internal dialogue that maintains the moment-by-moment experience of the self. Be warned, though, Clarke said she’s known cases of too much mindfulness leading to psychosis!
To Chris Sinha (University of Portsmouth), not only is the mind embodied, it is out there in things. ‘Language and artefacts are vehicles for the construction of virtual worlds’, he said. Just consider the cognition anchored in things like calendars and rulers, or how we describe ‘fictive motion’ in sentences like ‘the tunnel goes from Dover to Calais’ as we form a representation of the act of moving through the tunnel.
And according to Les Lancaster (Liverpool John Moores University), where neuroscience now treads, mystical thinking has already been. Take evidence for the ubiquity of illusion in our sense of agency and perception – the Koran described such ‘ego-less’ phenomena centuries ago: ‘When I [Allah] love my servant…
I become the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the feet with which he walks, the tongue with which he speaks.’
Frubbles and wibbles
Ilona Boniwell on the vocabulary of multiple relationships.
DO you know who are the metamours? Ethical sluts? What about frubbling? The paper ‘Constructing a new language of relationships for polyamory’ by Meg Barker (London South Bank University) and Ani Richie (Southampton Institute) was both character and vocabulary building. Ever imagined honestly and openly sharing your loved one with someone else? This is not about cheating or philandering, but about a relationship philosophy that ‘recognises people’s capacity to share and multiply their love in honest and consensual ways’. If upon hearing the word multiply, the notion of swinging springs to mind, don’t get confused – swinging is about recreational sex, whereas polyamory is about relationships.
Whilst everyone knows that relationships are not easy, sustaining multiple intimate relationships is potentially more gratifying but even harder. Not only because of the number of people involved, having to find time and energy, working out all the mechanics of who, where and how, but also because of the lack of language appropriate to this relationship philosophy. The paper, which was based on the analysis of texts and discourses of the members of polyamorous community on the web, discussed the invention of a new vocabulary that describes behaviour and experiences of ‘polys’.
Using our everyday language, how would you call ‘the other’, or the partner
of the person you are in a relationship with? Try this new word, ‘metamour’, for size. And how would you explain that you are a little bit jealous but this is not something to be taken very seriously? Saying: ‘I am feeling wibbly, I can use a few extra hugs’, means the person is really OK, but a little bit insecure. Feeling ‘frubbly’, on the other hand, refers to an experience unimaginable within the monogamous paradigm – the feeling of being happy about your partner’s other relationships.
If a social-constructionist approach is anything to go by, and cultural vocabularies really enable or constrain our experience of emotions, then a few years down the road we might find ourselves experiencing feelings we didn’t know existed and involved in relationships beyond our wildest monogamous dreams.
Christian Jarrett on efforts to improve the higher education experience of minority groups.
Most applied psychologists are white and female, yet government policy is for practitioners to match the demographics of the people they serve as closely as possible. Furthermore, by 2010 the government wants 50 per cent of the population to attend university, and is especially keen for more people from socially and economically excluded groups to graduate. In response, the Society published a report last year that included recommendations for how to widen access to psychology. This sounds good, but evidence is showing that completion rates are worryingly low among students from a minority background. That is, while steps are being taken to get more people from underrepresented groups to go to university, apparently little is being done to ensure the quality of their experience once they get there.
It’s in that context that speakers at the symposium ‘Widening participation and social exclusion’ presented evidence for what people from minority groups – including mature students, gay people, and people of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian origin – said about their experience of studying psychology. All the speakers were members of the University of Westminster’s Widening Participation Study Group.
Della Drees and colleagues surveyed 110 first-year psychology students at the start of the academic year and then again at the year’s end. A key finding was that while mature students reported being more satisfied overall with their psychology course compared with young students, they also showed a disproportionate drop in their satisfaction from the beginning of the year to the end. Mature students also expressed more financial concerns. Meanwhile, those students who were the first in their family to attend university expressed more academic ambition than other students.
Ian Hodges said little is known about the experience of gay men in psychology. In an effort to find out, he and Carol Pearson have so far conducted semi-structured interviews with 20 gay male psychology students aged 21 to 45. Using grounded theory principles they found four emerging themes. Firstly, the men said they hadn’t gone into psychology with the expectation they would learn about sexual issues. Secondly, they reported feeling excluded. Some felt the curriculum was homophobic, and several thought that coverage of homosexual issues should be embedded in the curriculum rather than being ‘bolted on’. Thirdly, the students talked about their coping strategies – they said they had to be careful what they said about sexuality, and although they could
be ‘out’, it was not easy and they had to be selective about which other students and staff they were open with. Finally, the participants said their sexuality meant they had to clearly separate their personal and student lives. In response to these findings, Hodges said it was time psychology fully recognised homosexuality as a normal form of sexual expression, and that procedures and policies should be implemented that would enable more inclusive teaching and training.
What about the experience of gay women? Sue Smith and Carol Pearson have so far interviewed eight white lesbian psychology students from four universities. The women reported feeling positive about the effect of studying psychology on their career development and personal achievement, but they felt marginalised on their course. Fellow heterosexual female students expressed curiosity or homophobia, while discomfort among male members of staff was also apparent. Like the gay male students reported earlier, these participants also criticised the psychology curriculum, which they felt to be androcentric and heterocentric. One interviewee said: ‘I mean it is all so male dominated and you know, why are we as women and I as a lesbian listening to men lecture about age-old research that bears no relevance to anybody, let alone lesbians? I mean it really is quite insulting.’
Sanjay Jobanputra concluded the symposium by presenting a qualitative analysis of interviews with 14 black psychology students, five of Afro-Caribbean origin and nine originating from the Indian subcontinent. Most reported enjoying psychology, yet pain and shock at some of the material on the psychology course were also felt. This led the students to ‘disconnect’ from much of what they experienced. ‘The way things are taught, you would think all the psychologists in the world were white,’ one student said. Another added: ‘For instance, some magazines like The Psychologist magazine – that Rushton chap [known for his controversial work on racial differences] put an article in there. I really couldn’t understand why that was in there’.
Jobanputra concluded that too much emphasis was being placed on diversity, and not enough on inclusivity – how to treat people once they were at university.
Joanne Lawson reports from the M.B. Shapiro Award Lecture.
Turning theory into therapy is a perennial problem for clinical psychologists, and never more so than when the theory comes from non-clinical research. With that in mind, Chris Brewin’s talk gave an impressive and heartening vision of how mainstream academic psychology can inform therapeutic practice.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is widely and successfully used to treat a variety of psychological problems. The underlying philosophy is that we are rational beings, acting on the basis of our conscious thoughts and knowledge, and that changing those thoughts and knowledge can change our feelings and behaviour. Whether you agree with this or not, CBT undeniably works. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it? What Professor Brewin showed was that it doesn’t have to be broke to benefit from a little tinkering.
Firstly, we aren’t always rational. If rationality ruled our worlds, then no one would play the lottery. Secondly, mainstream psychology now recognises lots of different memory and knowledge systems, not all of which are open to introspection and manipulation. You may say you know how to ride a bike, but can you tell me how you ride a bike? Thirdly, if therapy is a re-educational process, changing our representations of ourselves and the world, how can we explain the frequency of patients’ relapse? Theoretical research on learning has increasingly concluded that learning new representations does not involve unlearning the old representations. Rather, old and new representations compete with one another. When patients relapse, it could be that old dysfunctional representations have received a boost in activation, or the new, more functional, representations may have been temporarily blocked.
Brewin proposed that CBT can be reformulated in line with these insights. The way we think about ourselves is influenced by much more than our verbalisable thoughts. Autobiographical memory and self-perception reside in images, hypothetical scenarios and vivid sensory memories of particular incidents as much as they reside in conscious knowledge about what has actually happened in our lives. Multiple memory systems and knowledge stores allow for the possibility of multiple self-representations. We may be familiar with having ‘ideal’ and ‘true’ selves; taking this further, Brewin mentioned the helpfulness of bringing out the concept of a ‘feared self’ when working with patients with obsessive compulsive disorder, who may fear a reckless and negligent version of themselves.
The notion of multiple competing memory systems means that therapy can focus on harnessing and activating helpful representations at the expense of unhelpful ones. Therapy can try to create strong links between these helpful representations and the current context so that they come to dominate one’s thinking. Brewin contrasted this ‘constructive’ approach to CBT to the traditional ‘rationalist’ approach – building up the internal opposition to unhelpful self-representations rather than trying to use rationality to defeat them.
Listening to Brewin’s exposition of these ideas was rather like watching a master surgeon at work: CBT was cut open; the underlying theoretical assumptions were taken out and reassessed in the light of current psychological theories; some bits were taken away and some were added; and finally CBT was sewn back together, hopefully to wake up fitter and stronger, and ready to get back to work.
In the child's best interest
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