Plunging into some fascinating topics

Jon Sutton reports from Psychology4Students 2015, held in Sheffield in November; and Ella Rhodes reports from the London event held in early December.

The day began, as the best student-focused events do, with a promise to explain why psychology is the best job you can possibly do. Dr Fiona Fylan (Brainbox Research) outlined a problem of real significance – the thousands of people dying on British roads each year – and then turned to a perhaps unlikely source for answers, in health psychology.

To this young audience, driving means freedom, independence. Yet unlike just about any career stretching out before them, driving comes with no CPD. Cars change, highways change, yet Dr Fylan says ‘nobody does anything about it’. Driver and rider education is focused on basic vehicle control; the test doesn’t consider the context of driving, the impact of personal characteristics, etc. Fylan explained that health psychologists can identify target behaviours, review the literature, identify population subgroups, define theoretical models and understand barriers, and then design evaluate interventions. Her Integrated Driver Model considers the norms, attitudes, self-identity and biases that can increase risk on the roads. Then Fylan described the different types of speeding driver identified in her Department for Transport report, ranging from ‘Sleepy’ (didn’t know they were speeding) through ‘Grumpy’ (more positive attitudes to speeding) to ‘Happy’ (often the younger drivers, who actively enjoy taking risks and breaking rules). An intervention Fylan ran with a focus on 20mph zones successfully challenged attitudes, gave insight and even led to drivers becoming advocates for better behaviour. Unusually, there was a particularly positive impact on male drivers.

Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti (University of Reading) took to the stage with an overhead pleading ‘“Like” me’, which was followed by the standard academic colon and a promise to look at ‘the role of imitation and reward in understanding social cognition and autism.’ Dr Chakrabarti’s career began with genes and molecules, and he reassured the audience ‘we do see the light at different points in our life’.

The word ‘like’, according to Chakrabarti, presents an interesting case: It can refer to both a rewarding stimulus (e.g. ‘I like chocolate) and a case of imitation (e.g. ‘I will talk like you’). These two processes of imitation and reward are intricately linked from very early on in human development. Early interactions between caregiver and infant use reciprocal imitation that strengthens to bond between the two, arguably through increasing their mutual reward value. As adults, we tend to prefer those who imitate us more, and imitate those who we prefer more. Chakrabarti went on to discuss the behavioural, psychophysiological and neuroimaging studies that led his lab to develop this theoretical model linking imitation and reward. For example, he found that genetic variation in the cannabinoid receptor CNR1 (involved in reward processing) modulates reward response, gaze duration (to happy faces) and trait empathy.

Chakrabarti ended with emerging evidence that atypical coupling between imitation and reward might provide a vital clue to understanding some of the key features of autism, and he had a take-home message for the audience of budding psychologists: ‘Never trust one experiment or one technique.’

Before lunch, Professor Susan Golombok (Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge) revisited her talk from this year’s BPS Annual Conference on parents and children in new family forms – including lesbian and gay parents, assisted reproduction and surrogacy. Her optimistic conclusion, that children are most likely to flourish in warm, supportive, stable families, whatever their structure, is one that is well worth repeating.

Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) began his talk with a call to ‘spread the word, spread expertise, talk to each other’ via his Speakezee website. Hood is a passionate science communicator, and his most recent book is an attempt to solve a conundrum: that the human brain has actually shrunk in size over the past 20,000 years.

Hood turned to Charles Darwin for answers, and his prediction that ‘psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation’. The brain apparently lost around a tennis ball of volume around the end of the last Ice Age, when humans experienced a change in environment and lifestyle and began to domesticate. Brains shrink in domesticated animals too, and Hood’s theory is that changes in testosterone and metabolic processes are behind this.

YouTube videos (always a winner) illustrated Professor Hood’s point that a lot of development is parents teaching their children the skills that they need to have to be accepted in the tribe. Demonstrations of ‘baby morality plays’ (Kiley Hamlin) and prosocial toddlers (Felix Warneken) drew plenty of ‘awws’ from the crowd, but Hood jokingly warned: ‘They’re Machiavellian… they’re not promiscuously social, they’re just trying to find out who the good guys are.’

Hood concluded with a view on our ‘brave new social world’: he says that self and identity are being challenged by a new ability to communicate across time and space in our modern networked world. ‘We’re becoming preoccupied by the validation of others.’

Closing the day was Dr Nicholas Blagden (Nottingham Trent University), with a call for the assembled students to engage critically with whether we can rehabilitate sex offenders. Dr Blagden vividly described the unsettling nature of work with this highest-risk, highest-need group. After an assessment, he may think ‘I could imagine going for a beer with this guy in a different context – what does that actually say about me?’ Anyone working in the area needs to learn to separate the person from the act, and realise that sex offenders are actually the most diverse of offending groups. By and large, sex offenders actually have a low base rate of reoffending, regardless of treatment, but Blagden’s work aims to get this even lower by focusing on dynamic risk factors such as impulsivity and poor problem solving. The ‘Core Programme’ considers healthy sexual functioning (masturbating a dozen times a day is not ideal), and how offenders often promote children’s relationships and emotions to adult status (‘she was my affair’). Interestingly, Blagden says those that deny their offending are actually less  likely to recidivate: ‘A lot of time and effort goes into getting offenders to take responsibility, but it’s not actually related to reoffending.’

This is perhaps because admitting offences often leads to a loss of network and status, and people are more likely to offend if they are isolated. This leads Blagden to conclude that community engagement is key, and this is ‘a difficult message to sell’. He referred to efforts in Germany with Project Dunkelfeld, and his own charity Safer Living Foundation. In ‘Circles of Support’, groups of four to six volunteers befriend a high-risk sex offender being released from prison into the community. To end the day, there could be no better illustration of the deep, dark and endlessly fascinating ocean that so many of these psychology students could end up plunging into.

So on to the Psychology4Students London event, where hundreds of A-level and undergraduate psychology students gathered at the Friends House in Euston Road for another day of wide-ranging talks – and even a little dancing. Peter Lovatt (University of Hertfordshire), better known in the media as ‘Dr Dance’, got the students (and fellow speakers) moving in several dance routines – all in the name of science. A professional dancer turned academic, Dr Lovatt explained his love of dance had come from a reading difficulty at school which left him labelled as ‘stupid’.

He led the audience through a simple dance sequence then told the them to improvise their own dance using the movements they had learned. He explained that different types of dance, structured and improvised, result in improved performance in solving different kinds of mental problems; the former is useful in convergent problem solving, where we use several mental steps to reach an answer, while the latter encourages better performance on divergent or creative thinking tasks.

Lovatt also pointed to some of his research where he asked people to come to a club where researchers measured women’s levels of fertility, based on the point they were at in their menstrual cycle, and the men’s testosterone levels. The participants were taken to an area where they could be filmed dancing individually. Those men with high testosterone levels were rated as more attractive by females, but also moved in a very particular way. In their dance they used most parts of their body, doing different movements with each; they also vary the speed and rhythm of their movements rather than sticking to the song, and they look around to see what other dancers are doing and incorporate some of their movements into their own routines. Women with high fertility also were rated as more attractive based on their dance styles – these women mainly moved their hips while those with lower fertility moved their other limbs, drawing attention away from the hips.

Sophie Holmes, lead clinical psychologist for the Sussex NHS Partnership Trust, then gave a fascinating talk about people who have difficulties with hoarding. She explained that it now has its own diagnostic criteria, after long being thought to be related to OCD. The new diagnosis, she said, has led to some tension: while some do not believe it is useful to have the label, the diagnostic criteria have led to more awareness of the problem as well as increased research interest.

Holmes explained the differences between being an avid collector and a person with hoarding difficulties – while hoarding starts around the age of 10 to 13, people who collect certain things tend to be older. Also collections are often neat and categorised, while someone who hoards will probably not be aware of the exact items they own. There has been a suggestion, Holmes said, that there may be a link between autism spectrum disorders and hoarding problems, but one disorder it differs from is OCD. She went on to outline some of the potential causes, including an over-attachment to objects, low self-esteem and earlier trauma, or that it may indicate an expression of anxiety.

The myths and realities of being a criminal profiler were covered in an entertaining talk by Dr Julian Boon (University of Leicester), who explained the working processes and the need for a sharp eye for detail. He also outlined some of the personality traits that may lead people down an either positive or negative path through life; being empathetic, caring and warm would lead to the former, while a necrophilous streak, a need for control and self-interest would lead to the latter.

The former presenter of BBC Breakfast Sian Williams, who has also recently completed a psychology MSc focusing on trauma in journalists, took to the stage to rapturous applause. She explained that over her 30-year career in broadcast journalism she had witnessed many extraordinarily traumatic scenes, including in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake and the Asian tsunami in 2004. Williams said there was something about the exploitative nature of journalism, using people’s stories when they were at their most vulnerable, that had often played in the back of her mind. She explained that an interview with police officer David Rathband, who was shot and blinded by Raoul Moat and later took his own life, made her want to address this. ‘I realised it was my responsibility to get trained to understand how people’s minds work while they are in trauma to help in some way.’

Williams trained as a trauma assessor at the BBC and began her MSc, during which she sent a survey to journalists to ask about their experiences of trauma. In the 140 responses she received, many journalists spoke of being unprepared for the mental strain covering certain events may place on them, and the culture of newsrooms may dissuade those journalists from speaking up about their experiences. Williams showed interviews with foreign affairs correspondent Caroline Hawley and Stuart Hughes, who lost his leg after stepping on a landmine in Iraq. She concluded: ‘We can learn from people who have been through trauma, if we acknowledge things openly it will benefit us.’

Finally, Dr Richard Stephens (Keele University) gave a chuckle-inducing talk on the effects of swearing on pain. His research has shown that swearing during a cold pressor experiment has analgesic effects. His work also revealed those people who swear regularly lack the pain-reliving effects that swearing affords less potty-mouthed individuals. So concluded a day that was all gain, no pain; the large audience spilled out into the London evening and a world of opportunities ahead of them.  

For more from the speakers at this year’s events, see our special digital edition.

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