Behind the scenes of psychology

Jon Sutton reports from the British Psychological Society’s Psychology4Students 2017 event, held in Nottingham.

As it should be, this day was about inspiring the next generation of psychologists with stories, personal journeys to the heart of psychology, glimpses behind the scenes. And in the opening ‘not really a talk, more a demonstration of things I think are interesting’, from Phil Banyard on his Nottingham Trent University home turf, it was about (re)capturing a sense of wonder.

Banyard began with a promise that psychology deals with big questions. Who am I? Why do I think, feel and behave like this? And, in his own case, ‘“Where’s my exit?” – physically, mentally, emotionally, I need to know where my exit is.’ Thankfully Banyard is not exiting psychology just yet: in fact, he says that as he’s got older his sense of wonder has come back. If he’s not wondering about non-stick frying pans, he’s wondering about the gargoyles on medieval buildings in Europe. Where did the idea come from? Did people back then think they had seen them? A brilliant demonstration of ‘flashed face distortion’ suggests what lurks in the shadows of our visual systems can make ‘modern day gargoyles’ out of even the most attractive faces. Another demonstration showed how manipulating photos of our faces to mirror one side at a time can create composites with a very different feel. ‘Just play with psychology,’ Banyard concluded: ‘you can have a bit of fun with it.’ 

Stephen Gibson (York St John University) was up next, a fine example of how a footnote can become the whole story. For him, it was in Thomas Blass’s biography of Stanley Milgram, The Man Who Shocked the World. Across all his experiments, Blass had written, Milgram had a tape recorder running. His widow Alexandra had donated the tapes to the library at Yale. ‘If they’re gathering dust,’ Gibson thought, ‘maybe I could dust them off.’ It turned out that the tapes revealed a much more complex side to a well-known story. Milgram’s published work gives the impression that his ‘obedience’ studies were very standardised, through the use of six prods. Yet the tapes revealed staged consultation, additional deception, and language showing that this was no simple case of ‘following orders’. This is ‘the 50-year mistake’, Gibson says: Milgram’s studies do not show people obeying, they show people disobeying, arguing their way out of the experiment. ‘We need a revised definition of obedience,’ Gibson concluded, ‘one that doesn’t include that direct command. It’s more about submission to the requirements of an authority.’ Resisting the lure of authority himself, Gibson advised the audience to always question it, to ‘go behind the scenes’ of science.

After lunch, Alison Torn (Leeds Trinity University) turned to ‘Bricolage: my career as a quilt maker’: a ‘patchwork career’ of different elements. An aspiring musician as a child, Torn said she ‘never wanted to be a psychologist, lecturer, researcher, manager, administrator.’ Plagued by impostor syndrome, she still reminds herself ‘I do stuff. Not stuff that’s going to launch me onto the world stage, but still important stuff that is going to change lives.’ Her life ‘patches’ included not being afraid to take risks – she had trained as a schoolteacher, but ‘hated it, right from the word go’; to ‘fake it til you become it’, which she happily admits doing when applying for her Head of Department role; don’t be afraid to say yes (but not too often! Stay focused on your goals); have the courage to be imperfect; and, most of all, be kind to yourself.’ ‘I’m a social constructionist,’ Torn concluded. ‘As human beings we are works in progress. Your career will not be the linear trajectory you think it might be – it’s yours to write.’

Finally, Tom Muskett (Leeds Beckett University) recounted ‘a personal journey into the heart of critical psychology’. ‘It’s not just my job, it’s my whole life,’ he admitted. In common with other speakers, he advised ‘a step back from how psychology is typically done’, or at the very least an awareness of how we may be creating ‘a particular kind of psychology’. Muskett’s background is in speech and language therapy, which sparked an interest around using critical approaches to rethink diagnoses such as autism. ‘I wanted some boxes and arrows to make sense of something about autism’: in particular, its stereotyped or repetitive speech and idiosyncratic language. Does the ‘seemingly automatic retrieval of odd words in the fluent speech of many verbal autistic individuals’ reflect a ‘disorganised’ conceptual system? When Muskett started looking at videos of hundreds of hours of interactions, he ‘started noticing things’. There was lots of evidence of children using language unusually, but no evidence of that having interactional consequences. ‘What’s the problem here?’ asked Muskett. Is it with the child, or with the adult who doesn’t ask what it all means? ‘Boom: we’ve gone critical!’ This move away from individualism and universalism, and from a deficit-focus, has been a cornerstone of new approaches to physical and intellectual disability. Muskett showed how it can also lead to changes in the student experience: with inclusive, community-based approaches to teaching.

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