Annual Conference 2005 - More from Manchester

Adaptive thoughts – A penny for them?

Julie Morgan reports from the May Davidson Award Lecture.

AT some time or another we all experience repetitive thinking about upsetting events. Can this type of thinking ever be helpful, or will it always put us in a negative mood? This year’s winner of the May Davidson Award, Ed Watkins (University of Exeter), believes it’s not what we think but how we think that can affect our mood and the way we deal with our problems.
Persistently going over negative events tends to make us feel worse, and it’s this type of ruminative thinking which forms a core process in the onset and maintenance of depression and anxiety. Individuals may be caught in a loop of asking themselves, ‘Why did this happen to me? Why can’t I do anything right?’ This can lead to
a vicious cycle of ruminating in response to a negative mood, and a negative mood increasing the tendency to ruminate.
But it’s not all bad news. According to Watkins, in some circumstances ruminating can be a good way of working through and making sense of our problems, eventually making us feel better – hurray! But what determines whether rumination is adaptive or maladaptive? Watkins argues that there are two distinct styles of processing in rumination: abstract-evaluative thinking and concrete process-focused thinking.
The former refers to an analytical ‘why’ style of thought, whilst the latter focuses on the process of ‘how’ things happened. It’s this latter form of thinking that may hold the key to unlocking a more positive style of coping.
Watkins found that these two forms of thinking have differential effects on how well people solve social problems and on the speed of recovery from depressed mood. Training people to think about ‘how’ a particular event happened, and asking them to focus on answering questions such as ‘How can I deal with this and change my mood?’ can lead to better problem solving, faster recovery from depressed mood, and a decrease in the amount of time spent ruminating.
In terms of approaches to treatment, this style of thinking is much more beneficial to patients who are high ruminators. Coaching patients to shift away from the harmful effects of over-analysing and evaluating the causes and consequences of negative events, whilst relieving some of the symptoms of depression, could leave the patient asking one question: what will I do with all this extra time I have on my hands?

Attitudes to Islam

Paul Redford reports.

ALTHOUGH only recently appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary ‘Islamophobia’ has become an important political issue in the past few years. Adrian Brockett (York St John’s College) explored islamophobia through a study of the prevalence and content of attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs amongst young people from a number of schools and FE colleges around York.
Brockett found that there were small gender differences, with female students holding slightly more positive attitudes than male students. Knowing Muslims or Arabs personally also had an effect of increasing positive attitudes, providing support for the contact hypothesis. Changes in attitudes were also explored – although there was a small shift, the majority of students reported that events such as the September 11 attacks within the US had not influenced their attitudes towards Islam or Arabs. Further, attitudes such as the wearing of headscarves, knowledge of the British National Party and attitudes towards inter-ethnic marriage were also explored. Although some negative attitudes were demonstrated, on the whole young people reported attitudes that were tolerant and positive.
However, Brockett then examined whether students had witnessed religious victimisation, an indirect measure of attitudes. 17 per cent of young people reported having witnessed religious verbal victimisation outside of the school grounds and 8.4 per cent reported witnessing it within school grounds. This demonstrates that although the majority of attitudes were reasonably positive, rates of victimisation based on religion are high. This provides worrying indication that although reported attitudes were tolerant, religious intolerance is prevalent, particularly outside of school premises.

Social support and health

Katie Sowerby reports on a joint Division of Health Psychology and Social Psychology Section symposium.

A WEALTH of research indicates the importance of social support for health, but like so many pieces of psychological research it tells us simply of an association between two factors rather than providing a more useful and colourful picture of the mechanisms and mediating factors that influence the association.
For example, knowing that a particular behaviour has benefits for health gives us
a useful awareness of a broad association. However, understanding the physiological mechanisms enables us to use the association advantageously. Additionally, to be fully effective in using this association we need to understand any mediating factors. Such a deep understanding enables us to tailor programmes or interventions to bring about change at an individual level. The joint symposium held by the Division of Health Psychology and the Social Psychology Section attempted to address
a number of these previously unanswered questions.
Andrew Steptoe (University College London) helped to clarify some of the psychobiological pathways linking social isolation and health. Following up on the Whitehall Study three years earlier, a subsample of individuals defined as being highly socially isolated (living alone, little or no contact with relatives and friends) was selected. Social isolation has previously been linked to cardiovascular disease and premature mortality; however through this investigation Steptoe and colleagues demonstrated the specific biological processes that linked social isolation and the negative impact on health.
For instance, changes in the typical pattern of cortisol levels (nicknamed the ‘stress hormone’) were recognised in socially isolated individuals. Although
all individuals display a cortisol waking response (higher levels of cortisol in the morning), it seems that this response is heightened, and the decline is slower,
in socially isolated individuals. Also of interest was the finding that over a three-year period socially isolated individuals showed an increase in systolic blood pressure whilst other individuals showed no change (or in some cases a decrease). Surprisingly, these results remained even when adjusted for age, gender, socio-economic status, smoking and body mass.
So we have a little more insight into the psychobiological mechanisms that link social support and health. But life is never that simple, and, thankfully, David Sheffield (Staffordshire University) stepped up to explain some of the factors mediating the relationship. Drawing on a number of laboratory-based studies, he argued that such factors were crucial to develop both the ecological validity of research and our ability to develop effective interventions.
A few findings seemed to make intuitive sense – active support is of greater benefit than passive, evaluative support is less helpful than non-threatening or non-evaluative support, and friends tend to be better supporters than strangers. It may have been harder to predict, however, that emotional support reduced systolic blood pressure in women, and that instrumental
or practical support had the same effect in adolescent boys. There was no effect of either in adolescent girls. Additionally, women benefited from the support of either sex, whilst men supported by men actually displayed increased blood pressure.
 Most important (although somewhat unsurprising!) was the finding that perceptions of support were at least as significant as actual support. Picking up on this theme, Nancy Pistrang (University College London) used a variety of health-related contexts (such as transition to parenthood and diagnosis of breast cancer) to further understand the nature of the interaction between the individual and their helper. The idiographic approach she employed using stimulated recall enabled detailed moment-by-moment accounts regarding perceived intention and meaning of support from both parts of the dyad. Taken in association with Kevin McKee’s (University of Sheffield) thorough demonstration that carers and caregivers actually perceive problems differently, it seems that the relationship between social support and health is far from being
a simple one. It, like most psychological phenomena, requires an understanding
at all levels in order for it to be fully utilised by researchers and applied psychologists.

In brief

Humour and laughter are associated with increased lecturer effectiveness, claims recent research from Australia. Lynleigh Cleve and Angus McLachlan (University of Ballarat) video-taped 19 university lecturers to see how much humour they used, and asked their students to evaluate them. On average lecturers used 7.5 instances of humour during every 50-minute lecture. It seemed that the more humour the lecturers used, the more the students found their lectures interesting.
Ecstasy users may have experienced low parental warmth; similarly children raised in households that they perceive as neglectful are at particular risk from using the recreational drug. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University found that regular Ecstasy users scored significantly lower than non-users on questionnaire ratings of parenting style.
Psychologists who use online personality tests should be cautious with their results. New research from Tom Buchanan at the University of Westminster indicates that web-based questionnaires are not comparable to their traditional pencil-and-paper equivalents. Comparisons of the two showed that depression scores were higher in online tests, a finding that should be considered when using online tests in applied settings.
Patrick Leman (Royal Holloway University of London) explored how ethnicity and gender influence children’s conversations when choosing a playmate. In mixed ethnic groups, white girls justified their choice of playmate more in terms of appearance (for example, ‘she is prettier’) whereas Asian girls justified their choices more in terms of personality (for example, ‘she seems friendly’). In same ethnic groups, black girls used more affiliation than white girls when discussing preferences – they explained friendship choice in terms of belonging to the same ethnic group.    
A bout of intense exercise can reduce the symptoms of panic disorder. Researchers
at Newcastle’s Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies Centre found that people affected with the disorder felt feelings of positive engagement, revitalisation, and tranquillity following just a single period of acute exercise. This non-pharmacological treatment may be a useful short-term strategy for people with panic disorder to self-regulate their feelings.

Listening to asylum seekers

Fatima P. Covacha reports.

A 35-year-old Serbian doctor, well respected in her community, runs a children’s clinic. She is asked to join the local political party, which she does. Some time later, the opposing party asks her to leave the local party and even though she wants to, she is pressurised into staying. One day three men walk into her clinic, shoot a number of people and demand that she leave her community, otherwise she and her daughter will be killed. Both flee to the UK. A Kurdish farmer has lived a life of harassment and abuse, both verbal and physical. He is only 25 years old and tells how he already been detained five times and held where he hears others like him being tortured. He too has fled to the UK.
These two accounts represent those of over 100,000 people who sought asylum
in the UK in 2002/3, explained Craig McNulty (The City Practice, London). And as asylum remains a hot political issue, drawing tons of attention and spurring prominent debate, what, or who, is an asylum seeker? According to Simon Goodman (University of Manchester), depending on the category used, asylum seekers are either seen as deserving or undeserving of sympathy and support. Goodman analysed data from the public sphere, such as newspapers, political debates, interviews and election publications, and identified three ways in which asylum seekers are recognised. Firstly, asylum seekers are distinguished from ‘economic migrant’ and seen as either legitimate, or, more usually, not. Secondly, both categories (asylum seekers and economic migrant) are joined together. Thirdly, the above two categories are used interchangeably. As a result, more often than not, asylum seekers are doubted and treated with contempt.
The symposium ‘Clinical, legal and ethical issues in the assessment and treatment of asylum seekers in the UK’ presented another picture. Asylum seekers are often people who have suffered serious levels of physical and psychological harm, such as from persecution, torture, war, oppression, violence, loss and bereavement. The legal system is therefore increasingly seeking the advice of clinical psychologists working in a therapeutic setting. Clinicians are asked to produce reports about the extent to which symptoms of psychological distress are consistent with biographical accounts, together with recommendations for treatment and intervention. And according to Jake Bowley (Haven Project, Pennine Care NHS Trust, Rochdale), clinicians too are becoming increasingly pressurised. As McNulty highlighted, clinicians often have to work through interpreters, assessments are brief and resources limited. Sarah Woodhouse (Birnberg, Pierce and Partners, London) further confirmed that recent changes to the structure of immigration appeals has meant that reports have to be written in a very tight timeframe and for low pay.
Carmen Kearney (Asylum Aid), in discussing the impact of the appeals process on asylum seekers’ mental health, summarised the new appeals structure with these simple words: ‘Say it all, say it now, say it quickly.’ Where the old system, characterised by excessive delay, led to frustration, hopelessness and depression, the new system, in its attempt to speed up the process, has given lawyers and clinicians inadequate time to prepare their cases and reports. Asylum seekers also have less opportunity to be linked to therapy and in some cases are even likely to get no access to a lawyer. As Woodhouse further highlighted, asylum seekers are also faced with a ‘culture of disbelief’: small discrepancies are magnified and most accounts are not taken seriously and deemed inherently implausible.
Bowley did manage to offer a number of strategies and rules of thumb. Firstly, he emphasised that anyone working with this client group can adopt a helping role, something that is indeed universal. Secondly, cultural and linguistic differences can be overcome by adopting a ‘coping with adversity model’ and a phased model of recovery (Herman, 1997, Trauma and Recovery). Thirdly, in writing psychological reports, clinicians need to remain objective.
The message from this symposium was loud and clear – the legal system needs to be explicit in its instructions as to what it expects from clinicians. Psychologists need to adjust their own practices in order to help the legal process. One way of doing this has been their call for mandatory training so that they understand the legal system. Let’s hope their voice, together with the voices of the asylum seekers themselves, is heard.

Confident and Persuasive

Simon Bignell went to find out whether confident communicators
are more persuasive.

EVER heard of an unconfident world leader, salesperson or estate agent? Well that’s probably because confidence is the key to persuasion, according to new research by Briony Pulford and colleagues at the University of Leicester. They have shown that people tend to use judgements about how confident someone is about an issue as a guide to how reliable the information is. This ‘confidence heuristic’ allows us to make snap decisions when we do not have time to think or lack the knowledge to come to reasoned decisions.
They tested whether judgements about the reliability of what a person has to say relate to the confidence with which they say it. Using a ‘Police and Suspects’ game they gave pairs of participants
an array of photographs each and asked them to decide together which one most looked like a police ‘suspect’ E-fit. They were not allowed to see each other’s E-fits and had two minutes to discuss which photograph to choose. If they both agreed on which photo was the best likeness to the suspect then they each received a cash reward, but if they disagreed they both got nothing. What they didn’t know was that one of them received a very good E-fit likeness to one of the photographs and the other
a very poor likeness.
On most of the trials the pairs managed to reach agreement and so got the cash reward. The person with the better E-fit was much more likely to persuade the one with the poorer likeness to agree to the correct photograph. In other words, the most persuasive was nearly always the person who was the most confident that they had the better likeness. A key finding was that men who have less of a need to think things through were much more persuasive. However, some of the people involved did not fit neatly into this pattern and managed to be persuasive even when they lacked good evidence.
In short, confident communicators are much more persuasive, part of the communication we project to others is the confidence we hold about issues and in this way confidence acts as a reliable cue to the validity of information. However, history has taught us to be cautious of trusting those who seem the most confident of their beliefs.

Caring in the community

Fatima P. Covacha found out about two innovative projects involving educational psychologists.

IT’S always a pleasure to attend talks demonstrating how psychologists are out there making a real difference to people’s lives. Here were two prime examples.
In the first, Juliet Starbuck (West Sussex Youth Offending Team) and Vanessa Wood (West Sussex Educational Psychology Service) discussed the role of educational psychologists (EPs) working with community groups. Their project involved EPs in a youth offending team community initiative in West Sussex supported by the Children’s Fund. The community groups ranged from a breakfast club at a junior school to peer mediation schemes in junior and secondary schools. After initial meetings, the EPs and community groups decided that their main objective was the development of evaluative skills. The project used Fetterman’s empowerment model together with process consultation in the mould of Edgar Schein. Group communities kept ownership of their projects while developing their own skills, and these could be used in future programmes once the EPs had left.
Once the process of consultation was complete, feedback from the community groups was positive. They had developed sharper objectives, better criteria for evaluation and even a clearer understanding of the programmes they were running. The EPs were described as helpful and their services considered beneficial and vital.
Having brought EPs into the community, it was now the turn to bring Arsenal Football Club to Manchester. Kairen Cullen ([email protected] Educational Psychology Service) and Joyce Monroe (Surrey Educational Psychology Service) were also demonstrating the significant role that psychological theory and practice can play in successful community projects.
Cullen and Monroe developed a 12-week long pilot study run by an educational psychologist working in a secondary pupil referral unit and Arsenal Football Club’s ‘Sport in the Community’ programme. Their hypothesis was that both the student group and the unit as a whole would benefit from a regular, structured programme. After initial consultations with both the Arsenal programme and the pupil referral unit, weekly football sessions were planned, and at the end of the programme evaluation data collected – semi-structured interviews, observation sessions, examination of attendance and exclusion reports.
Results showed that staff morale improved, levels of collaboration increased between all involved, and individual students’ behaviour and attendance improved.

Human rights meeting

AT the inaugural BPS meeting on human rights, speakers discussed psychological perspectives on issues as diverse as torture, refugees, asylum and mental health legislation. Professor Peter Kinderman outlined the activities and policies of the BPS in this area, and he made it clear that the BPS has been very proactive, with published policies on topics ranging from gender recognition and same-gender relationships, through the establishment of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights, to mental health legislation and the mistreatment of people in Abu Ghraib. He suggested that human rights are understood by psychologists as those shared social rules that govern how people collectively pursue their basic human needs.
Dr Jim McManus outlines the legal background – the Human Rights Act 1998 – and placed special emphasis on the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. He suggested that the latter was particularly relevant to psychologists involved in social issues. Dr Nimisha Patel, who works with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, discussed the impact of human rights abuses in Britain and around the world, and proposed that psychologists take a public stand against such abuses. Finally, Dr Dave Harper discussed how psychological principles of human rights have informed the BPS discussions around the proposed changes to the Mental Health Act, and commented that, as psychologists become involved, they face professional and ethical challenges of their own.
The meeting included the formal publication of a declaration by the BPS condemning torture and all other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and further condemning the misuse of psychological knowledge and techniques in the design and enactment of torture (see The Psychologist, April 2005).
The afternoon ended with a plenary discussion about how the BPS might take matters forward. Everybody agreed that the issues were important to psychologists, that psychological perspectives could add to the debate and that the BPS should develop a programme of work in the area.
The meeting was told that the BPS hosts an e-mail discussion group for members and colleagues interested in psychology and human rights ([email protected]) and that the BPS has offered financial support for future meetings. There was general support for plans to hold a conference for psychologists and policy makers later in the year in London, and it was agreed that further discussion should take place on the e-mail discussion group.   

Report authors

Simon Bignell is at the University of Essex
Fatima Covacha is at the Open University
Julie Morgan is at the University of Sussex
Paul Redford is at University College Winchester
Kathryn Sowerby is at the University of Newcastle

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