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nudging behaviour change; CFS/ME; inattentional blindness; national well-being; and more

Call for more behaviour expertise

The Lords Science and Technology Committee has questioned whether the UK government’s mechanisms for receiving and evaluating social science advice are ‘fit for purpose’ and has called for the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist.

The recommendations come in a new report Behaviour Change, which outlines the findings from a year-long inquiry into the evidence for non-regulatory ‘nudge-based’ and regulatory interventions for changing people’s behaviour. Nudges are premised on changing the environment and circumstances under which people make decisions, rather than on crude tax or reward measures. The principle was popularised in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The report also urges chief scientific advisers in government departments to liaise with leading behavioural scientists, especially since it was found that some departments currently have no behaviour change expertise. The Government Economic Service and the Government Social Research Service, which are currently responsible for disseminating social science advice and evidence to policy makers, were also criticised for being ineffectual.

The report concludes that there is not enough evidence showing how the science of persuasion and influence can be used in the real world to affect the behaviour of an entire population. Nudges and other behaviour change measures are unlikely to work in isolation, the report says. The government is urged to commission and fund more research into applied behaviour research. And specifically on the issue of obesity, the inquiry found the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal Network to be inadequate for dealing with the scale and seriousness of the problem. (The scheme involves the government working with businesses and other organisations to agree ‘pledges for action’ to improve public health.)

The Lords Science and Technology Committee chair, Baroness Neuberger, said: ‘Changing the behaviour of a population is likely to take time, perhaps a generation or more, and politicians usually look for quick win solutions. The government needs to be braver about mixing and matching policy measures, using both incentives and disincentives to bring about change. They must also get much better at evaluating the measures they put in place.

In order to help people live healthier and happier lives, we need to understand much more about what sorts of policies will have an effect on how people behave. And the best way to do this is through research, proper evaluation of policies and the provision of well-informed and independent scientific advice.’

The British Psychological Society was among several organisations that submitted evidence to the inquiry. The Chartered Psychologist and BPS Fellow Professor Charles Abraham acted as specialist adviser. And several psychologists were also invited to attend hearings, including: Professor Theresa Marteau, Professor Susan Michie, Professor Marie Johnston, and Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh.

See tinyurl.com/3v328nj for the report and further information

Christian Jarrett

Chronic consensus or controversy?

Experts from five continents have agreed upon on a new set of ‘International Consensus Criteria’ for myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME; also referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome or CFS), which they hope will improve clinical diagnosis and research into the condition.

Writing in the Journal of Internal Medicine in July (tinyurl.com/44tvs6v), the 25 co-authors said: ‘The primary goal of this consensus report is to establish a more selective set of clinical criteria that would identify patients who have neuroimmune exhaustion with a pathological low-threshold of fatigability and symptom flare in response to exertion. This will enable like patients to be diagnosed and enrolled in research studies internationally under a case definition that is acceptable to physicians and researchers around the world.’

The new criteria are the latest in a series of attempts to nail down the hallmarks of ME/CFS. For example, last year saw a revision to narrow down the Canadian Case Definition, originally published in 2003, which has proved popular with many researchers. Bruce Carruthers, a psychiatrist in private practice in Vancouver, who was lead author on those 2003 criteria is also co-editor of the new International Consensus Criteria.

A key departure from its forerunners by the new International Criteria is that symptoms and signs need not have been present for six months before a diagnosis can be made. ‘No other disease criteria require that diagnoses be withheld until after the patient has suffered with the affliction for six months,’ the authors said.

However, the cardinal symptom remains ‘Post-Exertional Neuroimmune Exhaustion’ – a profound loss of energy following exertion, and impaired recovery. Also, the patient must have at least one symptom in each of the following categories: neurocognitive impairments (e.g. pain); immune, gastro-intestinal and genito-urinary impairments (e.g. food sensitivities); and energy production/ transportation impairments (e.g. laboured breathing).

The new criteria also urge that the CFS label be dropped. ‘Using “fatigue” as a name of a disease gives it exclusive emphasis and has been the most confusing and misused criterion,’ argue Carruthers and his colleagues. ‘Fatigue in other conditions is usually proportional to effort or duration with a quick recovery, and will recur to the same extent with the same effort or duration that same or next day. The pathological low threshold of fatigability of ME described in the following criteria often occurs with minimal physical or mental exertion, and with reduced ability to undertake the same activity within the same or several days.’

Publication of the new diagnostic criteria coincided with reports by the BBC and elsewhere of a hate campaign being waged against scientists investigating the psychology of ME/CFS (tinyurl.com/43gdktg). Psychiatrist Simon Wessely at the Institute of Psychiatry said he’d been the target of intimidating letters, e-mails and phone calls. ‘Sadly some of the motivation seems to come from people who believe that any connection with psychiatry is tantamount to saying there is nothing wrong with you, go away, you’re not really ill,’ he told the BBC.

Chartered psychologist and BPS fellow Dr Ellen Goudsmit has ME and researches the condition. She had first-hand experience of the animosity that often confronts scientists working in the field – including two complaints made about her to the BPS and a court case, which she won. But she says it’s not just a reaction against a psychological interpretation of the illness. ‘All those who have harassed and threatened me during the past ten years have known that I was a patient and were well aware of my criticisms of psychiatric theories about ME,’ she says. ‘However, patients had become increasingly angry at the way the medical world had trivialised the illness and hyped the benefits of psychiatric interventions like CBT,’ she explained, ‘and that created a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and abusive e-mails.’

Goudsmit herself became a target after challenging factual errors in posts on the internet. ‘Those responsible are a small group, most don’t have ME themselves, but they’ve alienated a lot of experienced experts who didn’t want to risk being in the firing line and retired. In my view, the real victims of the conspiracy theorists have been people with ME.’

Christian Jarrett

Mind elsewhere

The notion that we can look, yet not see, because our attention is directed elsewhere, is well-established in psychology. Known as ‘inattentional blindness’, the phenomenon may explain why, one winter night in 1995, Boston police officer Kenny Conley ran straight past the brutal beating of an undercover officer by his colleagues. Colney was in pursuit of a suspect and claimed not to have seen the fight, but he wasn’t believed and was convicted of perjury (later cleared on a technicality).

Now Christopher Chabris at Union College, New York and his colleagues – the same team behind the famous invisible gorilla experiment – have tested the plausibility of Colney’s claim by recruiting dozens of participants and having them chase a researcher across campus whilst concurrently tasked with counting the number of times the researcher touched his head. At night, just seven of 20 participants (35 per cent) noticed a noisy fight involving three people that took place eight metres off the path. This proportion grew to 56 per cent in the day, but dropped back to 42 per cent (also in the day) when the counting task was made more demanding. ‘These results demonstrate that under real-world conditions approximating those experienced by Kenny Conley, people can fail to notice a nearby fight,’ Chabris and his colleagues said (Perception: tinyurl.com/6zwqbb9).

Christian Jarrett

Rosalind Franklin Medal

Psychologist and BPS member Professor Francesca Happé has been awarded this year’s Rosalind Franklin Medal by the Royal Society for her outstanding contribution to science. The medal is of silver gilt and is accompanied by a grant of £30,000, part of which is to be used to help raise the profile of women in science. Happé, who’s based at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, will also be invited to give an award lecture at the Royal Society. Professor Happé conducts research into autism and Asperger’s syndrome and is a previous winner of the British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal, which recognises outstanding early career psychology research.

Happé told The Psychologist: ‘I’m really delighted and honoured to have received this award. One of the privileges of my job is to work with and mentor exceptional female scientists. My own supervisor, Uta Frith, made clear that being a scientist is quite compatible with being a mother. Bringing up my three children alongside my research career has been a challenge – women often feel they are failing in both arenas – but I have been tremendously lucky in my colleagues and work environment.’ 

The award will support Happé’s proposed Rosalind Franklin project; to create a series of small picture books for primary-school children, telling the story of real women scientists in a lively and engaging way.

Christian Jarrett

What matters to people… national results in

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published the results of its nationwide investigation into what matters to people for their well-being. The project was launched last year after the UK government requested that the ONS start measuring the nation’s well-being alongside traditional economic measures such as GDP.

From Nov 2010 to April this year, the ONS surveyed 5401 people, asking them to indicate, from a set list of items, what mattered to them. This part of the programme is focused on what the ONS termed ‘objective well-being’. Results here showed that 89 per cent agreed that health was important; the same proportion recognised relationships; 86 per cent ticked job satisfaction or economic security; and 73 per cent highlighted the importance of the environment.

Based on feedback, the ONS drafted a second modified version of the questionnaire. A further 2206 respondents recorded similar answers although relationships was now the most highly selected item.

Other questions were: ‘What should measures of national well-being be used for?’ and ‘How should measures of national well-being be presented?’ Further open-ended feedback on what matters to people was gathered at 175 events at which the ONS spoke to over 7000 people. Their comments can be accessed at tinyurl.com/3vgqpam (pdf). The report cautions that ‘It was not a statistical exercise and so the findings are not necessarily representative of the UK population as a whole.’

National Statistician Jil Matheson said: ‘This not just about holding a debate, it is about finding robust ways to measure how society is doing, to complement GDP and other measures of economic growth. As we work up measures of national well-being and progress, we will continue to share our ideas. It is essential that the set of measures of well-being is relevant and well based in what matters to people, both as individuals and for the UK as a whole.’

For the measurement of subjective well-being, or how people feel, new documents published by the ONS reveal they’ve drawn largely on recommendations made by the economists Paul Dolan and Lord Richard Layard (both at LSE), Robert Metcalfe (at the University of Oxford), and the psychologist Felicia Huppert (Cambridge University). Further psychological input came from Peter Kinderman, Chair of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology, and Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, both of whom were members of the Measuring National Well-being Technical Advisory Group; and from Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning psychologist, who was on the Measuring National Well-being Advisory Forum.

Based on this advice, the ONS compiled four experimental questions designed to tap evaluative, experience and eudemonic aspects of subject well-being: ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday? Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday? Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’ These questions were added to the ONS household surveys (completed by approximately 200,000 people) and its monthly opinions survey from April this year, with initial annual results due in July 2012. Later this year there are also plans to use the monthly opinions survey to test questions about people’s views of their community, including issues related to trust and belonging. The ONS is also looking at the way questions are delivered (e.g. interview vs. self-completion).

The Psychologist asked Emeritus Professor Peter Warr, a happiness researcher at Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology, what he thinks of the ONS well-being programme so far. He told us that ‘it’s definitely moving in the right direction. The so-called “national debate” about the sources of well-being (“what matters to you”) produced findings that won’t surprise psychologists working in this area, but the process of involving the public no doubt helped to increase awareness and may also have boosted commitment.’

Warr is pleased that the experimental measures of subjective well-being include personal meaningfulness, in addition to positive and negative feelings that are activated (‘happy’ and ‘anxious’), as well as a question about being merely ‘satisfied’. ‘But it’s puzzling,’ he said, ‘that different time-frames are used for different questions – “nowadays”, “yesterday” and an unspecified duration. That means that the items can’t properly be aggregated as well as treated separately.’

‘There’s always a problem that subsamples within a large group, as in “national” well-being, can differ widely between each other, so that an overall figure can’t represent every sub-group or region,’ he added. ‘Of course, that’s also the case for an economic index like GDP, which is nevertheless widely cited and discussed. And it’s far from clear how well-being scores can be used to adjust national policies, but it’s certainly worth trying. In terms of research and knowledge, the provision of nationwide data (linked to demographic and other variables) will be enormously valuable.’

For the full list of ONS well-being documents, see: www.ons.gov.uk/well-being. The NE of England Branch of the BPS is holding its annual conference on 21 October in York on the topic of Work, Life, Happiness and Deviance.

Christian Jarrett

For more cerebral Christmas TV

Psychology will be beamed into millions of homes this December with the announcement that Bruce Hood, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, is to present this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on the topic ‘Meet your brain’. The RI said Professor Hood ‘will explore how our brains work and just what makes us truly human.

He will explain how you create your own version of reality, what makes your brain decide what information to trust and what to ignore (without you even knowing!) and why you are programmed to read other people’s minds.’

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have run since 1825 and been televised since 1966. Hood follows in the footsteps of the eminent psychologists Frederic Bartlett (1948) and Richard Gregory (1967). This year’s lectures will be broadcast on BBC4 in late December.

Bruce Hood will feature in our ‘One on one’ section in the December issue. To suggest other suitable candidates, contact the editor on [email protected].

Christian Jarrett

Free e-books

OCR, the A-level exam board, has collaborated with the publishers OUP and Hodder Education to provide free e-books for A-level teachers and students from September this year. Interested parties will need to be an approved OCR centre to access the e-books.

See tinyurl.com/3cpvf4r for information.

Wiley Prize

The developmental psychologist Professor Michael Tomasello (Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center, Leipzig) is the recipient of this year’s Wiley Prize in Psychology, awarded by the British Academy in partnership with Wiley-Blackwell. The £5000 prize for ‘lifetime achievement by an outstanding international scholar’, is in recognition of Tomasello’s work identifying the unique cognitive and cultural processes that distinguish humans from their nearest primate relatives, the great apes.

UCL awaits Mayor

Plans for a new neuroscience research centre to be built at UCL have come a step closer following a vote of approval by the London Borough of Camden. The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre is a partnership between the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and scientists at the new facility will use state-of-the-art biological and behavioural techniques, supported by computational modelling, to investigate how brain circuits process information to create neural representations and guide behaviour. The centre is due to be completed in 2014 subject to referral to the Mayor.

Hauser resigns

Marc Hauser, the once-lauded animal cognition expert, has resigned his position as professor of psychology at Harvard University. His decision follows a year’s leave imposed on him after he was found guilty last autumn of scientific misconduct. That charge led to one of his papers being retracted, one corrected and one queried, due to missing data. A replication by Hauser and his colleague Justin Wood of that last paper was published earlier this year (tinyurl.com/5ul8b4r), but confusion remains over which findings from Hauser’s lab can be trusted and which are suspect. This is especially the case since Hauser was renowned for demonstrating in monkeys cognitive abilities previously considered by others to be unique to great apes.

Christian Jarrett

More news, including riot analysis

Other news is available online via the 'news' tab of www.thepsychologist.org.uk, including a report on a neurosciences and music conference by Cara Featherstone, and another view of the Division of Counselling Psychology Annual Conference (see p.646) from Helen Nicholas.

The Research Digest blog also has links to comment on the recent riots, collated as we went to press: see tinyurl.com/3fslf6l and follow @researchdigest, @BPSofficial and @psychmag.

 

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