News and Media

Including stat reg consultations, event reports, Kasser and media news
February will bring the Society’s two formal responses to the two public consultations from the Health Professions Council (HPC) – one on standards of proficiency, and the other on threshold entry levels. The deadline is 8 February, and the final version of these responses will be posted on the Society’s website, via www.bps.org.uk/statreg.
News 

Stat reg consultations

February will bring the Society’s two formal responses to the two public consultations from the Health Professions Council (HPC) – one on standards of proficiency, and the other on threshold entry levels. The deadline is 8 February, and the final version of these responses will be posted on the Society’s website, via www.bps.org.uk/statreg. Pam Maras, Society President, said: ‘I must thank all the members and the various Boards, committees and groups who submitted comments on the draft responses to these consultations. It was essential to get member involvement on what were highly technical documents.’
The public consultation on the draft legislation – the Section 60 Order – that would bring practitioner psychologists under statutory regulation arrived as
the office closed for Christmas and New Year. A draft response has now been prepared and is available on the website.
There remain significant concerns about the proposal as written. ‘We do not believe that the government’s or the Society’s policy of properly protecting the public will be achieved,’ said Pam Maras. ‘There are just too many loopholes, even at this late stage in the process. Indeed, by failing to accept our policy of protecting the title psychologist, it will be perfectly possible and legal for anyone to call themselves a psychologist or use a new or unprotected adjectival title and practise. That will be confusing for the public and will not offer any certainty that the person they are using or consulting is properly qualified and regulated by law.’
There are positives in the consultation document, the principal one being the recognition of the Graduate Basis of Registration (GBR) as the entry requirement for postgraduate professional training (although this has to be written into the Section 60 Order in order to make it a legal requirement).
Pam Maras continued: ‘This is the key consultation document and again we need as much input as possible from the members.’ The deadline for member comments on the draft response is 22 February and the deadline for the Society to respond to the Department
of Health is 22 March. The final version will again be posted on the Society’s website.

How gas gets under your skin

During warfare, gas remains one of the most feared weapons. It inspires emotion out of all proportion to its ability to kill or wound. Now a thematic analysis of statements from gas-exposed war veterans suggests that they view the effects of chemical weapons as irreversible, potent and debilitating – in marked contrast to objective measures of their health. Reporting in the British Medical Journal (see tinyurl.com/yuhx4f) the authors describe how records from the First World War (when chemical weapons had become an integral part of the main combatants’ armoury) allowed them to explore the ideas and beliefs held by servicemen exposed to gas but not seriously incapacitated. To focus on the psychological effects of gassing, those who had severe disability were excluded. ‘We are reasonably certain that they suffered no longer ill-effects because of their long lives, but also because we have lots of follow-up data about their health,’ lead author Edgar Jones (Institute of Psychiatry) told The Psychologist.
Themes emerging from 228 statements from 60 veterans suggested that the veterans believed they had an enduring illness, that it had been caused by gas, and that it was severe enough to lead to a considerable loss of time from work. For many veterans the gas had become an integral element of themselves. In contrast with shrapnel, the chemical agent had no physical limits and no operation could remove it. Once absorbed, veterans believed that gas would continue to damage their health and rob them of the capacity to perform any form of work that required heavy breathing. Some deliberately sought employment out of doors to ensure a ready supply of fresh air.
The authors reject suggestions that the claims might be falsified or exaggerated, in order to gain a war pension. ‘Many claims were rejected for this reason so the accounts in the sample are those that withstood scrutiny over a protracted period.’
‘The conviction of having been gassed, whether accurate or not, had long-term deleterious effects on a person’s beliefs about illness and perceptions of health and wellbeing,’ write the authors. ‘Our analysis might also assist in understanding the otherwise baffling persistence of ill health experienced by some US and UK military personnel after their
deployment to the 1991 Gulf war.’js

 
What have you changed you mind about?

This is Edge magazine’s question for 2008, put to leading thinkers around the world – including many psychologists. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says experimental results forced him to abandon his idea of an ‘aspirational treadmill’ – the notion that life satisfaction remains unchanged despite rising living standards, not because we aren’t happier, but because our expectations have risen. Simon Baron-Cohen says biological inequality, e.g. in vulnerability to disease, makes belief in equality ‘almost comical’ and has led him to give up equality as a guiding principle.
Susan Blackmore, an independent researcher, has changed her mind about the paranormal. Previously a practising believer, years of negative results transformed her into a sceptic. Marc Hauser at Harvard University has lost his faith in Darwinian explanations for certain aspects of human nature, such as language, morality and music. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) no longer believes in the likely existence of other intelligent civilisations in the universe: ‘We are the solitary point of light in a darkness without end.’ cj
See tinyurl.com/2h6gz2 for more.   

 

The paths from womb to gloom

The risk of people developing anxiety and depression can be traced back to events in the womb, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge. Ian Colman and colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry used data from from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development, involving 5362 people born in 1946. Based on psychiatric measures taken at five time points during the participants’ lives up until the age of 53, the researchers identified six distinct life-course trajectories.Forty-five per cent of the sample were virtually symptom-free throughout their lives, 33.6 per cent had persistent minor symptoms, 11.3 per cent had few symptoms in adolescence with minor symptoms in adulthood, 5.8 per cent had symptoms in adolescence but were well in adulthood, 2.9 per cent had few symptoms in adolescence but suffered severe symptoms in adulthood, and finally, 1.7 per cent had persistently severe symptoms throughout their lives. Colman’s group also found that the participants’ birth weight, and the age at which they first stood and walked, varied systematically according to which symptom trajectory they went on to experience. The heavier a participant was as a baby, and the earlier they walked, the less likely they were to show psychiatric symptoms later in their lives. The researchers said this could be because low birth weight and delayed developmental milestones are indicative of poor conditions in utero. Writing in Biological Psychiatry (tinyurl.com/yqmsvn) they said their findings added to the evidence suggesting ‘that adverse conditions in utero have significant implications for the neurodevelopment of the fetus and might permanently alter the stress response in a maladaptive manner, resulting in poor mental health across the life course’.
Could such a deterministic conclusion, if widely publicised, prove harmful to the motivation of people with anxiety and depression? Co-author Dr Tim Croudace told The Psychologist: ‘It would be beyond the data and certainly not our view to interpret these data as strong evidence for determinism that we believe is, anyway, an unhelpful concept. It implies a dichotomy between nature and nurture when most agree they work in tandem.
We are not led that way by these data, and we have to work harder to establish the connections between these
early life measurements and the patterns of mental health that we have revealed in this uniquely studied sample. Our finding is not an explanation, but an association, and we have to find out the links in
the complex causal chain.’
Dr Colman agreed, telling us that the data only show conditions in the womb may be one of many contributing factors to the constellation of causes of depression and anxiety. ‘There is an abundance of research that shows that numerous other factors, including stressful life events, genetics, and physical health are also important causes.’ cj

 

Event report

Simon Bignell (University of Derby) reports from the Society's London Lectures at Kensington Town Hall.
Happy nuns, flies' eyes, football shirts and embarrassed children were just some of the ingredients at the Society's annual London Lectures this year. Psychology students heard top names from biological, developmental, positive, social, perceptual and clinical psychology review contemporary research from across their areas. Multiple perspectives are critical for a complete understanding of psychology and it is rare for such a variety of perspectives to come together. This year, for the first time, there were also career talks and a question and answer panel for the audience of psychology students.
The London Lectures are always guaranteed to produce gems of psychological knowledge. For example, did you know that happy nuns live longer? Angela Clow (University of Westminster) described how stress and happiness affect health. One study, conducted in convents, showed that the positive written accounts of nuns at age 22 years predicted how long they lived. The happy nuns lived about six years longer.
In another talk students heard that as adults we adapt our words, behaviour and appearance to make desired impressions on others.
At around the age of seven to eight years children begin to shape the way they are viewed by others and show a shift from coordinated play to wanting group acceptance. But how does this attention to our 'self-presentation' first develop? One study used embarrassment as an indicator of whether children understood the perspectives of others and showed that younger children do have the capacity to manipulate the way others view them. According to Robin Banerjee (Sussex University), the feeling that you are accepted by a group is central. Children want to be viewed as cool, smart and interesting. And some children are desperate to fit in, but when they find that this doesn't happen they may crave material goods to repair their peer status.
From the field of social psychology Mark Levine (Lancaster University) described his 'bystander effect' research in which group identity influences whether people will help someone in a rival team's football shirt. It is well known that we are more likely to help those whose 'group' we personally identify with, but new research shows this can be a positive influence if the boundaries of the group are more inclusive – for instance all football fans rather than just a favourite team.
From social to biological psychology, and a complete change of topic gave students a glimpse of the perceptual processes of cognition. In the same way that a fly's eyes process information our own eyes cannot distinguish a series of static images from movement. Johannes Zanker (University of London) explained that motion perception is critical to us but needs to be computed by the 'ancient neural machinery' that has been optimised by evolution. He explained how perceptual illusions can help us understand how the human brain deals with the extraordinary richness and complexity of visual information.
Finishing with positive psychology, Stephen Joseph (Nottingham University) explained how traumatic events can lead to personal growth. Although the majority of us will experience at least one traumatic event in our lifetime, women are about twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress with persistent re-experiencing of
the event, avoidance and increased arousal, such as irritability and outbursts of anger. However, in new research a large number of people reported that the traumatic event was the springboard for growth and positive life change. For example, a person may say that they feel wiser, more able to live in the present moment, and now value their family and friends more.

 

Welsh institute


The collaborating universities of Cardiff, Bangor and Swansea have formed a new Welsh Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience following an award of £5.17 million from the Welsh Assembly. The new Institute will draw together 246 academics and research staff who together have attracted more than £11 million worth of grants over the last three years. Professor Dylan Jones, Head of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, said: ‘It has been gratifying to see the willingness of the Welsh Assembly to support through the WICN collaborative venture already strong departments in order that they can compete effectively in their research with the very best in the world.’
www.wicn.ac.uk


Autism Fever clue

The behaviour of children with autism spectrum disorder improves when they have a fever, according to researchers who say the observation could provide clues to the biological mechanisms underlying autism (tinyurl.com/2x3x44). Laura Curran and colleagues discerned from parental behaviour reports that 30 children with autism spectrum disorder showed improved scores on irritability, hyperactivity, stereotypy and inappropriate speech when they had a fever compared with afterwards. Improvements were mostly independent of illness severity, suggesting the behavioural changes were related to the biological action of the fever rather than the children just feeling unwell.


CAMHS review

The government has announced a review of child and adolescent mental health services in England, chaired by Jo Davidson, Chief Officer at Gloucestershire County Council. A focus will be early intervention and the role
of mainstream services like schools and nurseries.

 

Kasser calls for ‘Revolution of values’

American psychologist Tim Kasser unleashed an evidence-based attack on Western materialism in December. Speaking at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce in London, Kasser echoed the words of Martin Luther King, calling for a revolution of values, a shift from a thing-centred to a person-centred society.Our slide into materialism has reached new lows, Kasser said, especially in America. Advertising is everywhere, even on Florida children’s report card envelopes, promising free McDonald’s Happy Meals for good grades. Fifty-two out of 100 of the world’s largest economic organisations are corporations, not nations. How did President Bush seek to inspire his nation after 9/11? He said: ‘We can’t let the terrorists succeed in their objective of frightening us to the point where we don’t conduct business or people don’t shop.’
But according to Kasser, Associate Professor of Psychology at Knox College, numerous studies show this focus on material wealth carries psychological, social and ecological costs. Materialistic people, from children to pensioners, are less satisfied with life, lack vitality, and suffer more anxiety, depression and addiction problems. Materialistic values make people more antisocial, less empathic, more competitive and less cooperative. Indeed, in 2006, psychologist Kathleen Vohs showed that the mere thought of money made people behave more selfishly. Materialistic people also have larger ecological footprints and tend to care less about the environment.
So what’s the answer? Kasser said studies of over 1800 students across 15 nations have led to the ‘circumplex model’ of human values, showing that people who endorse so-called extrinsic values like popularity and financial success, tend not to prioritise intrinsic values like personal growth and community feeling, and vice versa (see tinyurl.com/3ypnfa). ‘So the solution is actually quite simple,’ Kasser said, ‘the antidote to materialism can be found in intrinsic values.’
According to Kasser, we should champion the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’ – down-shifting, finding inner richness while choosing to work, earn and consume less. One study of 200 people who’d chosen voluntary simplicity showed they were happier and more ecologically responsible than 200 typical Americans, even though they earned an average of 60 per cent less. Statistical analysis revealed their greater happiness was entirely explained by their endorsement of intrinsic values.
Another approach is to alert people to the rewards
of time affluence. A study in press with the Journal of Business Ethics found that 145 people with more time on their hands showed greater subjective well-being thanks largely to the opportunity to engage in intrinsic pursuits. ‘Yet when I ask people in America how they are,’ Kasser said, ‘the number one answer is “I’m busy”.’
In fact, the citizens of the world’s ultimate materialist nation now work 160 hours a year more on average than they did 30 years ago. They average about nine weeks a year more than Europeans, which equates to an extra year of work every six years. There’s no mandatory maternity cover in America, no holiday or overtime laws. All this leaves Americans time-poor, with little room for personal interests, family or the community.
While the GDP (how much money is turned over) of America, the UK and other developed nations has soared over the last 50 years, genuine progress in terms of happiness and well-being has flatlined. But still we continue to measure the progress of nations using GDP. ‘We need a revolution of values,’ Kasser concluded. ‘Our current approach is leading to unhappiness, destroying social connections and harming the environment.’ cj

Q&A with Tim Kasser

Q. Has happiness flatlined while GDP has risen because our greater comfort and luxury allows us more time and energy to worry?
A. It seems unlikely – time affluence does not seem to have increased in the USA or UK alongside GDP. My sense is that happiness has flatlined due to three interlocking phenomena. Firstly, happiness is partially determined by our relative standing to our peers, so happiness will not rise much if everyone’s income is increasing. Secondly, once a nation has reached a certain level of economic development, the determinants of happiness shift from things money can buy (i.e. shelter, clean water) to things money can’t buy (i.e. good relationships, self-esteem); increases in GDP won’t increase happiness, because GDP is irrelevant to those determinants of happiness. Finally, it seems that increases in GDP are also associated with increases in some social ills (like inequality, divorce rates, consumerism, ecological problems) that work against the happiness that GDP increases could perhaps bring.

Q. Is there a problem with measuring subjective happiness in that each individual will interpret the meaning of happiness in their own way, and will be influenced by the context they live in?
A. Materialism has been associated not only with low ‘happiness’ but also with a host of other personal well-being indicators (including depression, anxiety, physical symptoms, positive and negative affect, narcissism, etc.). Also, we have always striven to use the most psychometrically sound methods of measuring happiness that are available. So while I agree that people might interpret happiness in different ways and are influenced by the context in which they live, I understand this as error variance that would, if anything, make it more difficult to find the underlying negative correlation between materialism and well-being that keeps turning up in study after study.

Q. What about the concept of the hedonic treadmill, our tendency to habituate to new levels of pleasure and comfort? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with material aspirations per se, it is just that our expectations for happiness have risen, and will always to continue to do so?
A. If you are correct, then that is even further evidence that capitalistic, consumer society is aimed in the wrong direction, for it will not be able to fulfil our needs and will destroy a good deal of the environment in a vain attempt to do so, making it more difficult for future generations and other species to have a good life.


Q. You said we should learn to work and consume less, but there’s a body of literature that shows how beneficial work can be for people’s self-esteem, sense of purpose and their social lives.
A. I did not argue that people should not engage
in creative work; I said that the evidence suggests that if they worked less than now, then they would have more opportunity to engage in intrinsically oriented activities that increase well-being and in ecologically responsible behaviours that help sustain the environment.

Q. Related to that, there’s evidence showing that people of lower socio-economic status (SES) suffer from more anxiety and depression – how does that tally with your research showing that people with materialistic values suffer from more mental illness? Perhaps the problem is not with materialism itself, rather with being materialistic but failing to find financial and employment success?
A. It is easy to think that wealthier people are more materialistic because they have more resources with which to enact this value, but actually people from lower SES strata tend to be more materialistic. In terms of this being an explanation for why materialism fails to satisfy, I’d say two things. First, the research is quite mixed: most studies say that SES doesn’t matter, one says that materialism is worse for poorer people, and one piece of data I’ve seen suggests materialism is worse for the well-being of wealthier people. Second, even if you are correct that the problem is that low well-being is caused by poor materialistic people ‘failing to find financial and employment success’, then we must ask the question why we have a cultural and economic system that reserves ‘success’ for the few and is making it increasingly unlikely that poorer people will be able to attain that success.

Q. Isn’t it people’s hunger for more that underlies drive and ambition, values which ultimately lead to technological and social breakthroughs?
A. I’m unwilling to accept that ‘the hunger for more’ is driven solely by self-interested desires unleashed in a competitive marketplace; certainly people came up with all kinds of interesting technological and social breakthroughs long before capitalism became institutionalised in the way it is, and certainly they have done so in other cultures that did not organise economic life in this way. The idea that ‘without this system there would be no creative breakthroughs’ is, to me, a good example of how neo-liberal capitalistic ideology can become internalised and lead us to believe that we must have this system or no other. Further, I’d note that to conclude that the human creative tendency is only spurred by the desire for money is certainly at odds with the large amount of data showing how external rewards tend to undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity.
 

Domestic violence and children

Interventions to tackle parental conflict and its effects on children tend to focus on ‘positive parenting’. But they may be underplaying an important factor – the child’s perceptions of the relationship, and whether they are to blame for the arguments.
That’s the message from a study by Gordon Harold and colleagues at Cardiff University, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The researchers followed a sample of 230 UK schoolchildren (age 11–13 years), and linked parent and child reports of inter-parental conflict at Time 1 to children’s perceptions of negative parent–child relations, appraisals of self-blame for marital conflict and teacher reports of children’s aggressive behaviour at Time 2, and finally children’s academic performance at Time 3 (Key Stage 3 English, Maths, Science scores). Support was found for the role of children’s self-blaming attributions for parents’ marital arguments, not negative parenting behaviour, as a mechanism through which variation in their academic attainment is explained.
‘This was a community sample,’ Harold told us, ‘but
we have since replicated these findings in terms of emotional and behavioural problems among a group of children identified as having witnessed domestic violence. While treating family relationship effects on children is important, treating children’s perceptions of family relationships may be even more important when it comes to long-term academic success and psychological well-being, particularly in family contexts marked by high levels of inter-parental conflict.’ js

 
Animals do the most amazing things

The media’s interest in feats of animal cognition seemed insatiable during December as one comparative study after another made news around the world. The greatest excitement of all was triggered by researchers at the Primate Research Institute in Japan, who observed a chimpanzee outperforming humans on a visual working memory task. Other studies showed chimps are able to distract themselves from temptation, that monkeys use human-like anticipation when gripping objects, and that dogs can distinguish between visual categories (see box). All the attention lavished on these studies prompts the question of why people continue to be so enthralled by animal feats, and begs the question too of what theoretical importance the research has beyond being fun to marvel at. Dr Daniel Weiss of Pennsylvania State University, lead author on the monkey study, told us there was nothing new about our fascination with animal abilities. ‘Throughout history, philosophers such as Aristotle and Descartes, as well as  scientists, notably Darwin among many others, have obsessed over the nature ofthe differences between humans and nonhumans. Today we are in a unique position to advance the arguments with greater precision by making simultaneous advances in studying behaviour, neurobiology and genetics. I think a greater proportion of the population has come to terms with the fact that we share common ancestry with other primate species, but we have yet to nail down what it is that makes us uniquely human.’Weiss also explained the theoretical importance of comparative research: ‘The enterprise of comparative research is meant to determine areas of continuity in both psychological and cognitive mechanisms, as well as discovering the areas in which species’ abilities diverge. When we find cognitive similarities across species the challenge is really to determine whether the underlying representations are similar.
‘When differences emerge, we have to be extremely cautious in interpreting the data in order to ensure that we have posed the question to each species in a way that allows the full extent of their abilities to be expressed. If you look at these recent findings through the lens of natural selection, it is not surprising that we find that for some tasks, humans “outperform” other species, but, as Matsuzawa’s work (see box below) has demonstrated, in other domains other species “outperform” humans. Each species has evolved mechanisms that are meant to facilitate their survival under a particular set of environmental and social conditions. Some of these mechanisms may have a lengthy evolutionary history, others may be more recent adaptations.’ cj

The findings in brief

When numerals on a computer screen were quickly replaced by blank squares, with the task to touch the squares in the correct numerical order [for videos see tinyurl.com/38766f], nine humans beat the older of two chimps for accuracy, and both she and they showed deteriorating accuracy as presentation time reduced. However, chimp Ayumu’s accuracy was better than the humans’, and his performance did not diminish with reduced presentation time. Researchers Sana Inoue and Tetsuro Matsuzawa said this was a sign of ‘eidetic imagery’ – ‘the capability to retain an accurate detailed image of a complex scene or pattern’ – also observed in many young children before declining with age [tinyurl.com/2unmww].
Meanwhile at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta, researchers observed chimps deliberately distracting themselves from temptation [for video, see tinyurl.com/39ljst]. Four chimps were confronted by a jar that continued filling with sweets until they grabbed it. Theodore Evans and Michael Beran found that when toys were available, the chimps played with these and were able to resist grabbing the jar for longer than when there were no toys, so gaining more sweets. Yet if the sweet jar was visible but out of reach, the chimps didn’t play with the toys so much, showing that in the temptation condition, they really were using the toys to distract themselves [tinyurl.com/yug479].
Not to be left out, monkeys have also been seen showing off their skills. Daniel Weiss and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University found that cotton-top tamarins exhibit the same kind of anticipatory reaching behaviour as humans [tinyurl.com/2wp5lo]. For example, when reaching for an inverted glass containing a marshmallow, the tamarins grasped the glass with an unusual thumb-down grip, in anticipation of turning it the right way around. Tamarins do not use tools in the wild, so the study showed anticipatory motor planning is a necessary but not sufficient skill needed for tool use.
Finally, a study by Friederike Range and colleagues at the University of Vienna showed that four dogs were able to distinguish between pictures of dogs and pictures of landscapes, and then correctly classify new dogs on old landscapes [tinyurl.com/2jxwuq]. The observation suggests dogs were able to follow categorisation rules in the way humans do, rather than just rote learning by category all the images they had been shown before.

 
Drug money worries

The American Psychological Association has warned its members about the challenges that corporate funding can pose to their integrit

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