Letters

what the BPS is, and isn’t; helping applied psychology bloom; strategy and rioting; Anders Breivik; cameras in court; digital tourists; null results; and more

BPS is not the Opposition

Hard on the heels of Dave Harper and his 98 colleagues (Letters, July 2011) comes Professor Jim Orford (Letters, October 2011). Harper et al. appear to confuse debate with political activism, while Orford’s assertion proposes that the Society take a clear stand on big policy issues, citing ‘privatisation by stealth of the NHS’, a typically simplistic statement so beloved of political activists and the media.Somewhere in the midst of this invective is lost the vital difference between the provision of health services free at the point of delivery, and privatisation, by stealth or otherwise. Why is it that any attempt at reform of what is often inefficient and ineffective service provision frequently triggers waves of emotive, and often ill-informed rhetoric, aimed at stifling any change. While reforms, and yes, cuts too, may be the work of the devil, the fact remains that they are part of a legitimate economic strategy being adopted by a legitimate government. Debate them by all means, but to suggest that the Society should take a stance purporting to reflect the views of the membership is arrant nonsense.
Strange as it might seem there is no evidence that the majority of members feel the same as Harper et al., or Professor Orford. ‘Nearly half a million people marching in opposition’ would hardly satisfy even the most liberally minded statistician as being a majority view of the population at large, let alone the broad church that is the BPS. Furthermore, phrases such as ‘de facto privatisation’, ‘creeping marketisation of the NHS’ and ‘the continuation of neo-liberal policy frameworks’ do rather suggest that Harper et al. are less interested in debating issues than in, as they themselves say, ‘putting pressure on the government to change its course’. This is the work of the opposition parties, not the British Psychological Society.
That the BPS has a role to play is a view with which I heartily concur. There are many ways in which our profession can contribute to the quality of life in the current environment. Helping individuals and groups cope with the psychological stress of the economic crisis; working with organisations in finding creative ways of maintaining high levels of capability despite a reduction in resources; working to reframe the paradigm that oversimplifies the nature of the correlation between funding and effectiveness; researching the impact on the NHS and the reasons behind the huge volume of missed appointments by patients and ways of mitigating this; undertaking additional pro bono work to aid deserving causes; finding new ways of accelerating learning and retraining to enhance employability; and perhaps most of all, helping our colleagues and ourselves to develop the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same time, while still retaining the ability to function; these are just some of the ways we can add value. Encouraging the Society to grandstand on our behalf is not a noble aim.

Neville Osrin
University of Exeter

The Society is a Registered Charity

Jim Orford (Letters, October 2011) agrees with Dave Harper and others (Letters, July 2011), who ‘call for the Society to take a clear stand on those big public policy issues of the day that threaten to have profound psychological effects’. In particular, he asks: ‘Does the Society stand for the social solidarity of which the NHS is such an outstanding example, or does it stand for the commercialisation of psychology, in support of the psychopreneurs?’My answer is, no, it does not. It does not and cannot stand for either position. The Society operates under its Royal Charter, which states its aims precisely as: ‘to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied and especially to promote the efficiency and usefulness of Members of the Society by setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge’. It may be that a majority of members agree with Jim Orford and Dave Harper, but even if they were unanimous, which is unlikely, the position would be outside the Charter, in my view.
Further, the Society is a Registered Charity. As I understand it, its aims must fall within 13 purposes prescribed by the Charities Act 2006. And a Registered Charity cannot have some aims that are charitable and some that are not. A Charity can engage in campaigning and political activity, but only where these are such as to support the Charity’s purposes. I do not see how campaigning for (or against) the National Health Service, for example, can be said to advance the Society’s aims as in the Charter.
The Society does not ‘hide behind’ the argument that it must avoid taking a political position. It cannot do so. The issue has been raised periodically within the Society. What the writers of both the present letters seem to want is a different sort of organisation. There are many that can and do espouse political causes, or they are of course free to form their own. Personally I very much hope that members who share their views will not feel they must abandon the Society because it is not the body to take the sort of action they desire.

John Radford
Emeritus Professor of Psychology
University of East London

Helping applied psychology bloom

We do not yet know whether 2011 will go down in the history of applied psychology as the year in which psychologists took control of their destiny. All we do know is that an almost ‘perfect storm’ seems to be gathering around us:

- as more and more under-qualified and unregistered practitioners claim to offer psychological services, there is a reduction in the quality of services to the public and an erosion of the professional status of applied psychologists.
- a challenge is made to the credibility of psychologists, shown by a lack of interest in what applied psychologists can really do
- there is a loss of prestige for psychologists as others take over work that they have done in the past.

All this plus the loss of public sector posts, the dearth of opportunities for strong leadership, and the unfulfilled desire of applied psychologists to crystallise a strategy and bring it to life, make the future highly ambiguous, uncertain, even frightening.
But some of us take a resilient view. We see the opportunity to breathe life back into applied psychology services, to make them buzz with excitement, motivation and pride. We see the future as opportunity time, the opportunity for applied psychologists to show their abilities to make a difference to people’s lives.
We see society, business, education as opportunities to demonstrate the power of applied psychology for the benefit of all. We see applied psychology as the dog that wags the tail of those lacking this expertise.
The Health and Social Care Bill has now passed the House of Commons. It will soon be debated by the House of Lords but they are not expected to change it much. The government is already implementing many of the changes in anticipation of the final legislation, which has been presented as the most radical reform of the NHS since it was created. The changes include a new balance between competition and integration in health care and an increase in choice between services provided by ‘Any Qualified Provider’. Psychological therapies in primary health care is one of the first services to be exposed to the new regime.
The current pattern of many psychologists working independently of the public services, primarily for themselves or for small psychology companies or national rehabilitation agencies, does not provide a basis for bids by psychologists for the contracts that will be offered by the new commissioning agencies. It is vital that we create an infrastructure that permits psychologists to bid for and lead psychological services, offering professional standards of competence and conduct as an alternative to businesses led purely by the opportunity to make quick profits.
We believe that Centres for Psychological Health, Wellbeing and Performance will provide the appropriate infrastructure, offering a balance between independence and cooperation as service-providing businesses.
Clinical psychology enjoyed healthy growth in the 20th century, as did the other domains of applied psychology. Things have moved on. The 21st century can be the time for improving everyone’s access to the benefits of applied psychology services.
Contribute your ideas and energy (see tinyurl.com/4yzkf3q). Together let us bring 100 flowerings of applied psychology into bloom.

Derek Mowbray
Winchcombe, Gloucestershire
Bernard Kat

Laughing at yourself

Your Digest piece reporting research on people laughing at themselves (September 2011) ignored the fact C.W. Valentine in his magisterial The Normal Child saw many examples of this. So did I in my PhD on the development of laughter, part of which is in my book The Development of Play. I found instances of children from the age of three laughing at themselves when they had made mistakes, saying Oops! and then repeating the action.
There is also no reason to suppose that laughing at a distorted image of oneself is quite the same as laughing when you make a slip, Freudian or otherwise.

David Cohen
London

Strategy and rioting

We read the discussions of the recent UK riots in The Psychologist (October) with interest. One thing that we feel is still missing is an analysis of the strategic value of rioting for rioters. We understand that riots embody a number of different behaviours, and therefore are potentially complex and conflicted events, but if policy makers and commentators were to pull each element out and take this perspective we believe it would establish a useful framework. In effect, some order of functionalism needs to be employed in order to make sense of the proximate detail (Scott-Phillips et al., 2011). For example, we might want to investigate the strategic advantages associated with violence and coalitional aggression.
The Guardian provided a systematic analysis of data on poverty, both in terms of the deprivation of the areas in which riots occurred and in terms of the deprivation of the areas from which rioters came. This has been briefly analysed by Alex Singleton, a human geographer at the University of Liverpool, who has noted that 90 per cent of the rioters were males and 73 per cent were under 25. Moreover, 66 per cent came from deprived areas and 41 per cent were from the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the UK. It would seem that the kinds of inequality related to sharp differences in health (Marmot, 2010) are also related to rioting. In unequal societies people at the bottom live shorter, more stressed and less healthy lives (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010).
Daly and Wilson (1988) argued that people are willing to use violence (and even kill) over issues they care most about: violence is not always pathological but facultative and strategic. In evolutionary terms, such a facultative strategy will only stabilise if it has a net positive effect on average lifetime inclusive fitness. As violence is potentially very costly the evolved psychology associated with it will be sensitive to this, and therefore perceived trade-offs must be extreme for it to arise. Being at the bottom of the heap in an unequal society may establish such a function – there is little to lose and everything to gain. It may also encourage other forms of future discounting, including earlier reproduction, and one would generally predict a faster life history in such neighbourhoods (Nettle et al., 2010). Wilson and Daly (1997) later analysed homicide rates and teenage pregnancy showing a clear relationship between poverty and greater risk of violent death and higher rates of teenage pregnancy. One would predict gains in individual status and access to key resources, including reproductive resources, to be high among strategic targets. One would further predict that the local operational sex ratio would cause variation in such behaviour, if it were skewed in either direction, as this would heighten male competition and aggression (see Hudson & den Boer, 2002, for an analysis of international security in this vein).
Coalitional aggression differs from individual aggression, but a similar framework can be applied. Wrangham (1999) has defended the ‘chimpanzee violence hypothesis’ in order to explain the emergence of coalitional aggression in our ancestral past. Adult male chimpanzees engage in group raids and skirmishes across territorial borders, a crucial aspect of which is the low-cost nature of attacks for the aggressors. For example, three male chimps will attack a single male from another group. Two adults will easily disable the lone chimpanzee whilst the third kills him. The fitness benefit of this cooperative behaviour is the reduction of males in neighbouring groups in turn affecting their sex ratio, in favour of unmated females. This behaviour is in part a result of a fission-fusion social structure where chimpanzees can be on their own part of the time, or in groups of varying sizes. Group size is a positive function of the availability of fruit, as greater quantities of fruit can sustain more individuals. If a neighbouring group has smaller parties the costs of raiding are significantly lowered for larger groups, who maintain a monopoly on fruit patches and acquire extra reproductive resource in this way. Tooby and Cosmides (1988) have pointed out that such cooperative aggression requires a great deal of social cognition and is a significant evolutionary transition.
Recent rioting involved coalitional aggression, which was socially organised, and looting. Resources were taken, and possibly social hierarchies were established among core groups of young men. Of interest to policy makers will be the tipping point – what made the trade-off attractive, why was the risk considered a manageable cost for these individuals?
A large part of that analysis will be taken up with issues of inequality, but we should not lose track of the strategic social cognition, not least because this has a positive side too, as male willingness to cooperate in this way could be differently harnessed. Van Vugt et al. (2007) have shown that men behave more cooperatively in economic games under an outgroup threat. They are clearly disposed to cooperate to defend mutual interests, but those interests could be tied to improving the local community by imaginative policy makers.

Thomas E. DickinsChris Pawson
University of East LondonRobert Spencer
Brunel University

References

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. New York: Alan de Gruyter.
Hudson, V.M. & den Boer, A. (2002). A surplus of men, a deficit of peace: Security and sex ratios in Asia’s largest states. International Security, 26, 5–38.
Marmot, M. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives: The Marmot Review. London: The Marmot Review.
Nettle, D., Coall, D.A. & Dickins, T.E. (2010). Birthweight and paternal involvement affect the likelihood of teenage motherhood: Evidence from the British National Child Development Study. American Journal of Human Biology, 22, 172–179.
Scott-Phillips, T., Dickins, T.E. & West, S.A. (2011). Evolutionary theory and the ultimate/proximate distinction in the human behavioural sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 38–47
Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1988). The evolution of war and its cognitive foundations. Institute for Evolutionary Studies Technical Report 88-1.
Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D. & Janssen, D.J. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition. Psychological Science, 18, 19–23
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wilson, M. & Daly, M. (1997). Life expectancy, economic inequality, homicide and reproductive timing in Chicago boroughs. British Medical Journal, 314, 1271–1274.
Wrangham, R.W. (1999.) Evolution of coalitionary killing. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 42, 1–30.

Violence in the transgender home

What do we really know about ‘transgender domestic violence’? When the term is entered into a search engine of any web browser, a person will be inundated with information from a wide variety of community-based resources which address the issue of domestic violence within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (or LGBT) community within the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the bulk of the information concerning domestic violence specifically within the trans-identified community is often interspersed with information about domestic violence within the gay, lesbian and bisexual community as well. So, a person in a domestic violence relationship may have a hard time finding any information that pertains to their unique situation.
The problem with our lack of societal understanding of domestic violence within the trans-identified community stems from the fact that many people do not realise that sexual orientation and gender identity are two fundamentally disparate constructs. This makes a certain degree of sense; after all, a person who is trans-identified may not consider themselves to be gay, lesbian or bisexual (and vice versa). Furthermore, a trans-identified person in a romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex may not consider their relationship to be any different from a traditional heterosexual couple. Thus a trans-identified person in a domestic violence situation may not feel that community resources offered by an LGBT centre to be applicable to them or able to meet their needs during this difficult time.
So, what is to be done in order to best address domestic violence within the trans-identified population? One thing that psychologists can do is to conduct empirical research focusing solely on this phenomenon. That way we would have a better understanding of what transgender domestic violence is, what types of abuse are used against victims, how are trans-identified domestic violence victims different from trans-identified offenders, and what types of treatment can be best used to address this issue.
While we may not have a clear understanding of what trans-identified domestic violence is, we do have a firm understanding of what domestic violence is and the overall damage it can do to those individuals in these relationships. Given the current attention that trans-identified people have recently received in the mass media, we now have an opportunity to discuss issues impacting the trans-identified community and how these can be ethically and effectively addressed. Hopefully, more empirical research into the problem of transgender/transsexual domestic violence will ensure that all victims, no matter who they are, will get the treatment they need.

Brian Tesch
Dover, New Hampshire, USA

Why no mention of Breivik?

On 22 July 2011 Anders Breivik set off a bomb in Oslo to paralyse the seat of government in a Western democracy. In cold blood he then proceeded to kill and injure more than 100 young political activists, many of whom would probably have become future leaders of a Norwegian political party and shapers of international dialogue.
These horrific actions touched us all. They also confronted Europe with a contemporaneous expression of its long legacy of violent right-wing nationalism now aggravated by infusions of fundamentalisms. Suppression of debate about these matters is not a viable option for shaping a more humane future.
I consider The Psychologist’s resounding silence about Oslo and Utøya in its September 2011 issue to be deplorable.
Contrast this silence with the ‘Comments special’ on the UK August riots in October 2011. Informative and authoritative as this latest issue is, I nevertheless feel deeply alarmed by the publication’s imbalances. It promotes parochialism at a time when imminent threats arise primarily from crises of global magnitude. The blinkered focus on ‘applied psychology’ further strengthens undercurrents that have transformed our inquisitive profession into one bound by proscriptions, suspicious of debate and intolerant of diversity. Consideration of how this deplorable state of affairs could arise warrants consideration at Board of Trustees and Representative Council level.

R.J. Ørner
University of Lincoln

Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor, replies

As with most membership publications, we are largely reliant on what is submitted. In this case, we received one piece, which was not suitable. By contrast, we received a lot of interest in writing about the riots, and there was also a lot of informed psychological comment out there which we could latch on to.
A lack of coverage should never be taken as comment on the gravity of a situation or event. Horrific things happen all over the world, but an appropriate psychological angle doesn’t always present itself. I have particularly found that to be the case with mass shootings and terrorism: it is generally not possible or appropriate to comment on the individual, and a broader focus often strays too far beyond the realms of psychology.

FORUM column – Survival guide

Suppose you run a study to compare two groups of children: say
a dyslexic group and a control group. Your favourite theory predicts a difference in auditory perception, but you find no difference between the groups. What to do? You may feel a further study is needed: perhaps there were floor or ceiling effects that masked true differences. Maybe you need more participants to detect a small effect. But what if you can’t find flaws in the study and decide to publish the result? You’re likely to hit problems. Quite simply, null results are much harder to publish than positive findings. In effect, you are telling the world ‘Here’s an interesting theory that could explain dyslexia, but it’s wrong.’ It’s not exactly an inspirational message, unless the theory is so prominent and well-accepted that the null finding is surprising. And if that is the case, then it’s unlikely that your single study is going to be convincing enough to topple the status quo. It has been recognised for years that this ‘file drawer problem’ leads to distortion of the research literature, creating an impression that positive results are far more robust than they really are (see Robert Rosenthal’s 1979 article in the Psychological Bulletin).
The medical profession has become aware of the issue and it’s now becoming common practice for clinical trials to be registered before a study commences, and for journals to undertake to publish the results of methodologically strong studies regardless of outcome. In the past couple of years, two early-intervention studies with null results have been published, on autism (Green et al., 2010: The Lancet, 375, 2152–2160) and late talkers (Wake et al., 2011: British Medical Journal, 343). Neither study creates a feel-good sensation: it’s disappointing that so much effort and good intentions failed to make a difference. But it’s important to know that, to avoid raising false hopes and wasting scarce resources on things that aren’t effective. Yet it’s unlikely that either study would have found space in a high-impact journal in the days before trial registration.
Advance registration of research is not a feasible option for most areas of psychology, so what steps can we take to reduce publication bias? Many years ago a wise journal editor told me that publication decisions should be based on evaluation of just the introduction and methods sections of a paper: if an interesting hypothesis had been identified, and the methods were appropriate, then the paper should be published, regardless of the results.
People often respond to this idea saying that it would just mean the literature would be full of boring stuff. But sometimes boring is important: minimally, publication of a null result may save some hapless graduate student from spending three years trying to demonstrate an effect that’s not there. Estimates of effect sizes
in meta-analyses are compromised if only positive findings get reported. More seriously, if we are talking about research with clinical implications, then overestimation of effects can lead to inappropriate interventions being adopted.
Things are slowly changing and it’s getting easier to publish null results. The advent of electronic journals has made a big difference because there is no longer such pressure on page space. The electronic journal PLOS One adopts a publication policy that is pretty close to that proposed by the wise editor: they state they will publish all papers that are technically sound. So, have you got null data from well-designed experiments languishing in that file drawer? Get your findings out there in the public domain. 

Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. Read the full version of this column at http://deevybee.blogspot.com. This column aims to prompt debate surrounding surviving and thriving in academia and research.

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