Psychology, Society, and the public

Ella Rhodes reports from this year's Stories of Psychology event, held at Friend’s House in London and organised by the British Psychological Society’s History of Psychology Centre.

These days psychologists are a common sight on our TV screens, and regularly heard on the radio. But this hasn’t always been the case. In this year’s Stories of Psychology, researchers traced the distant, and more recent, past of psychology’s relationship with the media. 

Emeritus Professor Graham Davey (University of Sussex), a former British Psychological Society (BPS) President and editor of The Psychologist, posed a question: does the average person know what psychology is and what it has to offer? In his own attempts to engage the public with the subject, through a Psychology Today blog, Davey has run into some interesting hurdles.

In one post which outlined the psychological traits linked to the belief one has experienced alien abduction, which include sleep paralysis and fantasy-proneness, Davey received more than 100 comments such as: ‘totally dickish article. Can’t believe someone would write a piece as obnoxious as that in Psychology Today.’ What does this response tell us? Davey said people’s beliefs give their lives meaning and scientific explanations alone won’t change their minds. He also suggested that in the psychological realm, people may be more interested in solutions rather than explanations.

So how can we take psychology to the public and help them understand both what psychology is and what it offers? Davey pointed to public lectures, blogs and books as some useful means of public engagement. However, he also suggested that to spread the word around psychology, and its usefulness, we should also focus on convincing policy-makers of the value of the subject.

Since the early 1980s Honourary Professor Peter Bull (University of York and University of Salford) has been using microanalysis to explore politicians’ means of avoiding questions in broadcast interviews and Prime Minister’s Questions (or ‘equivocating’), their methods of inviting applause and the rate at which they reply to questions. Understandably his work has drawn great interest from the media, ever since Bull’s first study – on Arthur Scargill’s use of rhetorical devices, namely three-part lists and contrasts within sentences, to invite applause at a 1983 Labour rally in Bradford. Unfortunately Bull found himself misquoted in one newspaper comparing Scargill to Adolf Hitler when, in fact, he had responded to the question of whether they could be compared with ‘I’d never thought of making that comparison’.

In later work on broadcast political interviews Bull looked at Margaret Thatcher’s rate of being interrupted by interviewers. Psychologist Geoff Beattie had done similar work suggesting Thatcher was interrupted more frequently as she gave off misleading signals that she had finished talking. Bull took another look at this using broadcast interviews from the 1987 general election – comparing how often Thatcher and then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock were interrupted.

Thanks to broadcast regulations at the time both candidates had to be interviewed for the same period, and by the same interviewer, and Bull found no significant difference in the rate of interruptions by the interviewer. After presenting this work at the BPS Annual Conference in 1988, Bull was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and was later contacted to give tips for interviewing Thatcher to Michael Buerk. His more recent work has seen him examining Theresa May’s reply-rate to questions in interviews and during Prime Minister’s Questions which, in her first term across 23 PMQs, was 11 per cent in answer to Jeremy Corbyn. His work on Theresa May featured on the front page of The Telegraph – just a few weeks before she resigned (though Bull claims no responsibility for this).

Archivist for the Society, Claire Jackson, covered 100 years of the Society’s history in 30 minutes, including some of the key names and early decisions which had an impact on the BPS slowly deciding whether or not it should actively share psychology with the public. The first 10 members of the BPS, formed in 1901, came from backgrounds as diverse as philosophy, anthropology, religion, physiology and education. Their initial aim was to advance psychological research and had initially strict criteria for those allowed to join – they had to be teachers in the subject or have published psychological work of ‘recognised value’.

The Society also struggled with using the very word ‘psychology’ – the Royal College of Psychiatrists was then the Medico-Psychological Association, and even mediums and spiritualists described themselves as psychologists. During this early period the Society was rather insular… its executive council rejected a suggestion that notices of its meetings should be circulated to other learned societies. Membership numbers also struggled in part thanks to the lack of teachers of psychology and psychology journals. By 1918 the number of members was just 98.

In 1919 Charles Myers proposed membership be opened to those with an interest in psychology, with specialist sections for industry (or occupational) psychology, medical psychology and educational psychology. Membership grew to 631 by 1920. Around this time the Society began springing up in the press, including a report of a man who lost his memory after being knocked out at Ypres and later had his memory restored through hypnotism. However, by and large, the Society did not make any concerted effort to bring psychology to the general public. 

Jackson moved on to some of the key individuals, one a psychologist and two non-psychologists, in developing the public face of the Society. The first of these was Thomas Pear, a protégé of Charles Myers, one of the earliest psychology graduates in the UK and author of Shell Shock and its Lessons.

In a 1924 experiment Pear worked with the BBC to broadcast nine voices reading the same Dickens passage and asked listeners to write in with their ideas of what those people looked like – almost 4,000 listeners did so. Jackson said that unlike many of his colleagues in the Society, Pear believed it was important to share psychology with the public. He made more than 140 radio appearances between 1924 and 1968.

The second influential early psychologist was a friend of Pear, Frederick Laws, a journalist, BPS member and arts, radio and literary critic for the News Chronicle. He wrote to George Orwell at the BBC proposing six talks by psychologists, wrote the book Radio and the Public, and along with Pear presented a report on coverage of psychology in the press and on the radio to the BPS Council in 1946. However, the Society maintained its closed attitude to the press.

In 1948 Laws became the first editor of the Society’s members’ magazine the Quarterly Bulletin. He published a follow-up survey of public relations and psychology in its second issue, looking at media coverage of psychology from 1947 to 1948. Despite this work by Pear and Laws it wasn’t until 1956 that the press and public relations committee suggested the Society should have a press officer, press launches of reports, a permanent or standing press committee and an official archivist. The only proposals agreed were for the appointment of an honorary archivist and drawing up a psychology booklist for librarians.

Jackson’s final ‘influencer’ was Stephen White – a public relations professional who joined in 1985 as the BPS Director of Information. This appointment saw the beginning of a more proactive and polished approach to publicity including regular press releases, the creation of a database of members who would comment to the press, media training for members and in 1988 the launch of The Psychologist in place of the Quarterly Bulletin. White died suddenly in 2010; the National Union of Journalists named an award in his honour, for those who show the best communication and reporting of science in a non-science context.

A panel discussion on interacting with the media as psychologists drew the day to a close, featuring the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, Claudia Hammond, and Senior Lecturer Dr Daniel Jolley (Northumbria University), with questions by Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology Dr Sharon Coen (University of Salford). They shared several nuggets of wisdom in working with the media – Hammond pointed out that interview preparation is key, including asking journalists how an interview will be used and through what medium. Jolley said he sticks to speaking about his area of expertise, and asks for journalists’ questions prior to an interview.

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