Conference reports

from the European Congress of Psychology and the Division of Counselling Psychology conference (download PDF for full set of reports)

Happy anniversary to EFPA!

This conference, in Istanbul in July, marked the 30th anniversary of the organisers, the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA). In a celebratory symposium, former President Ingrid Lunt was on hand to take the audience through three decades of change on the European platform.
Lunt described a shift from the narrow ‘professional’ focus (when there was an extra ‘P’ in the name) to the broader and integrated professional focus of EFPA, reflecting its commitment to a scientist-practitioner model. EFPA was now setting a quality standard through the EuroPsy initiative, Lunt said, and providing a model for other professional groups.
According to Lunt, the profession of psychology has become more ‘professionalised’, but there are external pressures that can threaten this progress. For example, the European Commission has begun a review of the implementation of the directive 2005/36, which aims to facilitate free movement of professionals. EFPA must contribute to this process.
Picking up the baton, current President Robert Roe had the tricky task of laying out a path to the next 30 years. Europe will have to find a new role in a global world, Roe said. Emerging economies will become strong economies. For example, Brazil has 180,000 psychologists, Roe said: soon, we will be reading their books.
Roe said that EFPA should work with three mottos: contributing to society, developing psychology and serving psychologists. Psychology needs to become more visible on a European and global stage, with a new style characterised by an outward orientation and readiness to serve society; a drive to encounter and collaborate; and an acceptance of responsibility for societal problems.
Jon Sutton

All-American science
Which actor is more American, Hugh Grant or Lucy Liu? For most people, the choice between famously British Hugh Grant or famously American Lucy Liu is an easy one. But what do our unconscious attitudes say?
Current President of the Association for Psychological Science, Mahzarin Banaji, addressed this question in a series of studies with Thierry Devos using the Implicit Association Test (see www.implicit.harvard.edu and tinyurl.com/3upluk8 for the stimuli). Response times suggested that white Europeans are seen as more American than Asian Americans are. ‘The participants laugh as they take the test,’ Banaji said, ‘but their fingers don’t follow that pattern.’ Similarly, African Americans are seen as less American than white Americans are, even when the test is conducted during the Olympics (a time at which white America tends to identify more with black Americans).
Banaji related this and other findings to Russell Spears’ view that ‘the perception of social objects (e.g. groups)…is in principle little different to categorisation and perception of other “physical” objects’. Wrong, said Banaji. The brain might actually use ‘different parts of neural real estate’ when we think about people different from ourselves, with more activity in the ventral region when the target is more similar to ourselves.
The Implicit Association Test is a great tool for predicting behaviour, Banaji said, outperforming explicit measures in various contexts – particularly those when social desirability is high (such as willingness to cut a budget, ratings of performance, etc.). Banaji even had an ‘IAT for monkeys’, using fruit and spiders in ‘consistent’ and ‘inconsistent’ trials – for example a member of their ingroup, and some tasty fruit; or an outgroup member and a nasty spider – and finding that the monkeys take longer to habituate in consistent trials.
Banaji closed with the suggestion that we should become a little bit more like economists or sociologists, and use our understanding of implicit attitudes and behaviour to effect behaviour change. For example, many European countries have an ‘opt out’ procedure for organ donation rather than the UK’s ‘opt in’; consequently these countries have close to 100 per cent rates of donation, compared with just 17 per cent in the UK. A simple policy difference, Banaji said, can massively shape our behaviour largely through our unconscious social cognition.
Jon Sutton

Time to escape from prison
Not every psychologist ends a talk by offering to pose for photos and hug members of the audience. Not every psychologist is Philip Zimbardo. Yes, of that prison study. But Zimbardo’s keynote focus here was his current area of research, time perception. After the 40th anniversary of the prison study is celebrated at Stanford University this summer, he hopes it will be time to finally move on.
The paradox Zimbardo presented is that our ‘time orientation’ has a powerful influence on our decisions and life outcomes without us being aware of it. Children who were tempted with an immediate treat or two treats later on, in Mischel’s classic study, were followed up 14 years later. Those who had been able to delay gratification were more confident and had achieved higher SAT scores, compared with those who had succumbed to temptation. Whether a person was more oriented towards the present or the future at age of four had long-term impact.
Zimbardo identified six time perspectives: past-positive, past-negative, present-hedonistic, present-fatalistic, future life-goal oriented and future-transcendental (focused upon life after mortal death). A growing body of research is reporting high correlations between people’s time-orientation and a range of factors, such as personality traits, self-esteem, happiness and risk-taking. Drawing upon Levine’s ‘geography of time’, Zimbardo even argued that time perspective influences national destinies. Why do northern Italians want to split from their southern counterparts? Because people in the south do indeed have a different attitude to work; they have been found to be present-hedonistic.
Understanding time-orientations can be harnessed to influence personal destinies for the better. Richard Sword is developing a form of psychotherapy for PTSD sufferers, coaching them to adopt a more helpful mix of time-perceptions. So what’s the temporal recipe for success? A large helping of past-positive, a big spoonful of present-hedonistic and a dash of future-orientation.
This was the media personality deluxe version of a keynote from a man used to communicating complex topics in an accessible way. Science was woven into a multimedia-rich narrative, and this was the talk of the conference in one way or another. It’s been suggested recently that psychology in the UK needs a Brian Cox. Dare I suggest we need a Philip Zimbardo?
Alana James

Predicting collapse
‘When an earthquake occurs not all buildings collapse, they are constructed differently.’ Professor Nuray Karanci (Middle East Technical University, Turkey) used this analogy to argue that not all people require psychological treatment following trauma or disaster. Karanci argued the importance of knowing the difference between disasters and trauma before implementing psychological intervention. A disaster is a situation or event that overwhelms local capacity, and in 2010 Europe accounted for 18.2 per cent of the 385 disasters that occurred across the world. A traumatic event, on the other hand, is something a person experiences or witnesses that causes actual or threatened death or serious injury and invokes a sense of helplessness. According to Karanci 55–90 per cent of individuals experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, with males and young people being more at risk. Karanci highlighted that it is normal to experience some distress following a disaster or traumatic event, yet only 5–30 per cent of individuals develop a serious disorder. She argued that there is too much focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and a lack of concentration on the disruption that trauma and disaster can have upon social networks. According to Karanci it is essential to establish a functioning community to foster individual well-being. Recovery should start immediately, be based upon evidenced intervention strategies that are ecologically and culturally stable, be available everywhere for everyone (including emergency workers), and be given by professionals and trained non-psychologists who are aware of local and cultural approaches.
Shelley McKeown

The complexity of war
We see the destructiveness of political conflict and war on our screens day after day. But what impact does this have upon young people in its midst? Despite the obvious destructiveness of war, the research actually finds weak or no evidence of an impact on problematic functioning. That was the message from Brian Barber (University of Tennessee, Knoxville).
Barber pointed to a number of problems with the research in this area, including a focus on exposure to violence and on individual psychopathology, failing to take into account the actual youth perspective, and a lack of long-term study. He maintained that we ignore the extreme complexity of war, including its widespread economic, educational, social, cultural and political impact. ‘The degree of meaning that youth can or cannot attach to conflict is vital,’ Barber said, referring to his interviews with Bosnian youths who did not even know who the enemy was when shelling started. He contrasted this with the Palestinian experience, where youths felt they were in the ‘vanguard of resistance’ and could tie events to ‘identity relevant meaning systems’ – historical, cultural, political and related to their own place in society.
As a result, the young people that Barber spoke to in Gaza were functioning well, with narratives packed with feelings of contribution, achievement, ambition and social cohesion. In Sarajevo they were deeply troubled, with narratives reflecting fear, anger and hopelessness.
Barber’s current project aims to assess long-term well-being via an ‘event history-resource model’. War disturbs access to key resources: will this be a better predictor of well-being than is violence exposure?
Jon Sutton

The romance of groups
Do groups facilitate or inhibit creativity? This seemingly simple question was the springboard for a fascinating talk from Paul Paulus (University of Texas), who has spent his career looking at the potential of creativity in groups.
Despite shelves full of books on the tremendous power of teamwork, Paulus said there is a mismatch between this enthusiasm and the modest evidence for team effectiveness. He pointed to a raft of difficulties in doing this type of work. It’s difficult to tap actual team interaction in real-world contexts, due to restrictions on access, time and resources. Requests to do experimental studies are often met with organisational resistance, and it can be hard to obtain sensitive objective measures when dealing with areas such as innovation in technology.
Yes, Paulus said, there is consistent research to support the West team climate model: participative safety, support for innovation, a task orientation on ‘excellence’ and a vision involving clear and valued objectives all appear to lead to innovation. Who would suggest the opposite? Plenty of people, it turns out. This work on the ‘dark side of innovation’ shows, for example, that moderate levels of conflict can enhance innovation; that teams with diversity in expertise may perform poorly; and (in a 2008 study by Eisenbeiss) that the most innovative team was the one with a low ‘climate for excellence’ and low transformational leadership!
A further issue, Paulus explained, is that almost all studies in the area use self-report measures. We’re not illuminating the innovation and creativity, we’re only casting a dim light on people’s perceptions of that process.
Luckily, Paulus did have paths out of the gloom. Sharing ideas, especially verbally in groups, can lead to groupthink and the blocking of new perspectives. Paulus suggested electronic brainstorming, instructions, a focus on one topic, brief breaks and more as techniques for dealing with these issues. Perhaps most interestingly, he suggested taking time out after a group session for ‘solitary ideation’, to allow for the generation of more creative ideas. How many times do we do that? he asked. Do we tend to just plough on to the next meeting or task with no attempt to consolidate and build on what we just did?
Paulus ended with the provocative thought that there is ‘not a single study to show that a team talking to each other is more creative or innovative than a team that doesn’t interact’. His experimental study of team innovation in a high tech company in Israel addressed this. Workers were asked to produce ideas about how to make teams more effective, either in a group then alone or alone followed by in a group. The ‘group then alone’ condition generated 57 per cent more ideas than the ‘alone then group’ condition, and they also recognised this, rating their own performance more favourably.
Paulus called for a ‘romance’ between group creativity and team innovation research, saying that it is clear what is needed. Let’s hope that the challenges of working with organisations – difficulties of limited access and time, a suspicion of experimental research, and resistance to change – don’t nip that romance in the bud.
Jon Sutton

Orchids and dandelions
Tiger Woods and Barack Obama have been described as ‘Indigo children’, a label introduced in the 1970s by Nancy Ann Tappe to describe ‘special’ children. This, said Marinus van IJzendoorn in his keynote address, is a pseudoscientific term with little evidence to back it up.
A similar concept, described in Elaine Aron’s bestselling book The Highly Sensitive Child may carry a little more scientific weight, IJzendoorn suggested, but is still more pop science than neuroscience. Nevertheless, IJzendoorn thinks ‘there is a corner of truth’ in these notions so heavily popularised in the media. A better approach, he suggests, is the attractive metaphor proposed by Boyce and Ellis of ‘orchids’ and ‘dandelions’. Dandelion children are those that will thrive regardless of their environment, whereas orchid children are more dependent on how they are cared for.
The conventional nature–nurture perspective held that susceptibility + bad environment leads to a doubly bad outcome. However, the more recent theory of differential susceptibility suggests that while susceptibility + bad environment does lead to a doubly bad outcome, susceptibility + good environment actually leads to a doubly good outcome. In other words, in a nurtured environment these children seem to fare better than those who are not susceptible.
This was neatly demonstrated by Jay Belsky in 2005; four-year-olds were shown a mildly distressing clip from a children’s film while their skin conductance was measured via GSR. Those who were judged to have a highly fearful temperament but who had a good home environment showed particularly low levels of physiological arousal, but those highly fearful children who were being reared in a less positive home environment showed particularly high levels of physiological arousal. This, IJzendoorn argued, suggests a potential evolutionary advantage, but only when the individual is well nurtured.
The genetic basis of this appears to centre around variants of the DRD4 gene, which codes for D4 dopamine receptors. IJzendoorn and others have carried out studies that suggest that the ‘long variant’, specifically the 7-repeat version of the DRD4 gene, predicts this susceptible ‘orchid’ temperament. For example, where there are unresolved parental issues or maternal insensitivity, a child with the DRD4(7+) gene will be particularly likely to show disorganised patterns of attachment. However a child with the same genetic make-up in a stable home environment will show particularly healthy patterns of attachment. Many other studies have supported this work with the DRD4(7+) gene now linked to a range of psychological traits and disorders. The mechanism is thought to relate to the sensitivity of dopamine reward systems: those with the gene may have a less efficient reward system and require more positive and immediate feedback.
More recently, work has focused on the other side of the susceptibility coin.
A fascinating study looked at donating behaviour in 91 twin pairs of seven-year-olds. The children were given tasks to ‘earn’ money, were shown a video clip that promoted UNICEF and then asked if they would donate some of the money they had earned. No genetic component on its own explained differential donating behaviour. However, when the gene–environment interaction was examined there were significant effects. Specifically, DRD4(7+) children who were insecurely attached showed a decrease in donations compared to children without this gene, while there was an increase in donations amongst those DRD4(7+) children who were securely attached.
IJzendoorn is now looking at ways to apply this research to real-world problems. His team have developed a video feedback intervention to promote positive parenting by teaching parents to recognise and respond appropriately to an infant or child’s emotions. This programme was used in 157 at-risk children, and they found that carriers of the DRD4(7+) gene were the most responsive to the intervention behaviourally and also showed the greatest reductions in the stress hormone cortisol. A similar effect has been found in an educational intervention carried out earlier this year by Kogel. Here an intelligent computerised tutoring system led to significant long-lasting improvements on children with the DRD4(7+) gene but had no effect on those without the gene.
Similar effects are seen in adults who carry this gene. A particularly interesting finding, published by James Fowler in the Journal of Politics last year, showed that friendships moderate an association between DRD4(7+) and political ideology. Carriers with fewer friends tend to show more conservative political views than those without the gene, whereas carriers who have more friends are particularly liberal in their views.
Catherine Loveday

The relationship cost-benefit analysis
Do you assess a relationship using a cost-benefit ratio, weighing up your own benefits and costs versus your partners benefits and costs? Panos Kordoutis (Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Greece) argues that this ‘equity theory’ can influence the longevity, stability and maintenance of a relationship, as well as feelings about the relationship, the partner and the self. A consequence of a partner’s equity is the effect on a relationship’s general, emotional and even physical satisfaction. This in turn influences whether partners will remain faithful in the relationship.
Kordoutis examined the effects of equity on satisfaction and infidelity in a study of 550 undergraduate students in Greece. From the sample 58 per cent answered the questions thinking about a relationship which lasted at least 20 months. Results showed that 45 per cent of participants claimed to be in an equitable relationship, 28 per cent in an over-benefited relationship and 27 per cent in an under-benefited relationship. Those in an equitable relationship were more satisfied generally, emotionally and physically. Sixty-six per cent of participants admitted to cheating on their partner. Those who were in an inequitable relationship and a relationship that lasted longer were more likely to be unfaithful.
Shelley McKeown

Well-being in graduate students
Graduate students need support to meet their psychological needs, according to research by Selda Koydemir (Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany) and Duygu Yumurtaci (Middle East Technical University, Turkey). Although graduate students must meet a range of challenges, such as handling a heavy workload whilst managing financial difficulties, little research has been done into their mental well-being.
A high prevalence of psychological distress was found in a sample of graduate students at universities in Turkey, with female students and younger students being amongst those facing the highest distress. The study indicates further research is needed into the contributing factors, but points to a need for higher education institutions to look after the mental well-being of their graduate students.
Alana James

The lubrication of animals
Horses can act ‘as a bridge to one’s instincts, passions, drives, longings and fears’ in short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy, according to Deza Kovacs from the Netherlands. He explained that the interaction between patient and horse may have psychodynamic qualities, which in the hands of an experienced therapist can provide a platform for correcting emotional experiences. A video example was shown of a patient asserting her authority by moving a reluctant horse out of the corner of a field, a potential metaphor for the patient reclaiming her own physical or emotional space. Kovacs’ group have used this therapy successfully in patients with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, showing significant long-lasting decreases in depression and improvements in psychological function.
This paper was part of a symposium convened by Birgit Stetina from Vienna: an overview of animal-assisted psychological work across Europe. Another fascinating and innovative example was provided by Marie-Jose Enders-Slegers who described the use of guide dogs in children with autistic spectrum disorders. In addition to offering practical benefits such as improved safety outside the home, for example crossing the road, Enders-Slegers’ team suggest that the relationship with the dog may provide a model for bonding with other humans, thus supporting emotional development. They have found qualitative increases in eye-contact, relaxation, empathy, self-esteem and cognitive performance.
From the same group of researchers came a second study that investigated the use of visiting dogs as ‘social lubricants’ for those with communication difficulties, leading to an increase in positive emotions as well as an improvement in human–human interactions. Possible mechanisms suggested were increases in oxytoci

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