Including psychologists' role in national security, psychokinesis, educational psychology review, and reports from the British Association Festival of Science.

Controversy over psychologists' role in national security

The American Psychological Association (APA) has stood by its policy of allowing psychologists to act as interrogation consultants. Controversy over the issue had threatened to overshadow the organisation’s annual conference held in New Orleans in August. Together with over 1600 signatories to an online petition, the pressure group Psychologists for Social Responsibility called on the APA to state ‘immediately, clearly, and unequivocally that psychologists should not participate at this time in any way in national security or military interrogations’.
The dispute follows the APA’s publication last year of a presidential task force report that stated psychologists may act as consultants to interrogation and information-gathering so long as they adhere to strict ethical obligations – for example, they must report any instances of torture or degrading treatment, and are forbidden from mixing the roles of healthcare provider and interrogation consultant. The APA position contrasts with that of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association (see box), both of which have barred their members from direct involvement in interrogations.
The controversy was further inflamed by media revelations that six out of ten of the presidential task force members had ties to the military, with four having been involved either at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, or in Afghanistan. In response, the APA stood by its endorsement of the task force report, but reaffirmed its position against torture and abuse, and explicitly tied its ethical policy to the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
According to Dr Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics director, because psychologists are trained as experts in human behaviour, they can play a positive role by helping to protect against ‘behavioural drift’ on the part of the interrogators. ‘Behavioural
drift can occur in high-stress situations and involves a possible deviation from ethical behaviour. This role allows psychologists to protect the welfare of the detainee’, the organisation said in a press statement.
APA President Gerald P. Koocher added: ‘Our intention is to empower and encourage members to do everything they can to prevent violations of basic human rights – at Guantanamo Bay or anywhere else they may occur. It is not enough for us to express outrage or to codify acceptable practices. As psychologists, we must use every means at our disposal to prevent abuse and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment.’
The British Psychological Society’s Ethics Committee was due to discuss issues concerning psychology and national security in September. Meanwhile, British psychologists are bound by the Society’s code of ethics, a new version of which was published earlier this year.
Dr Richard Kwiatkowski, chair of the Society’s Ethics Committee, told us that unlike the APA, it was unusual for the Society to set out ethical guidelines on specific issues: ‘The BPS code says: “here are the basic principles, here are the values – now looking at these, is what you’re doing right?”. He continued: ‘We say in the code “Thinking is not optional…” , you have to think about your action and if you think you can justify it, go ahead, but if it is questionable, then go through the appropriate stages – talk to your peers, talk to your local ethics committee, contact the BPS, and talk through the issues… We are taking this matter seriously, we are in contact with the APA, and we are going to have discussions to decide whether we need to develop specific guidelines.’
Dr Martin Crawshaw, chair of the Society’s Professional Practice Board, said the controversy in America was clearly tied to the legal ambiguity of places like Guantanamo Bay. ‘If the prisoners shouldn’t be there in the first place, then they [psychologists] shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, but then that’s obviously a matter of some dispute in the American legal world,’ he said. ‘The closest equivalent in the UK probably involved the earlier detention of terror suspects at Belmarsh jail. I think for the individual person, whether they be a psychologist or whatever, how can they know what’s legal and what isn’t, if it’s being argued over by government ministers and judges and QCs?’.
However, Crawshaw added that the Society’s current position was clear: ‘Interrogation per se isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s perfectly proper for police, security services, customs and exercise to want to get to the bottom of possible wrong-doing and things by questioning people, interrogating them, there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. To an extent at least, psychological principles can be used to help law enforcement’.

BOX: The different positions on interrogation
‘Psychologists may serve in various national security-related roles, such as a consultant to an interrogation, in a manner that is consistent with the Ethics Code, and when doing so psychologists are mindful of factors unique to these roles and contexts that require special ethical consideration.’ – American Psychological Association
‘No psychiatrist should participate directly in the interrogation of a person held in custody by military or civilian investigative or law enforcement authorities, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Direct participation includes being present in the interrogation room, asking or suggesting questions, or advising authorities on the use of specific techniques of interrogation with particular detainees.’ – American Psychiatric Association
‘Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.’ – American Medical Association

THREE papers Jean Piaget was working on before his death in 1980 have been translated into English and published in New Ideas in Psychology (see They addressed the problem that was central to his annual project, which in 1979–80 was on Reason. In so doing, they develop the research programme sketched in his first book Recherche (1918).

PRELIMINARY research suggests a strong link between volunteering and the recovery of people who experience mental illness, a new independent study reveals.
The ongoing research undertaken by the Institute of Psychiatry, found that 85 per cent of participants independently surveyed in the Capital Volunteering project reported positive outcomes from getting involved, despite the underlying isolation experienced by many within the community.
A SINGLE, 45-minute educational session can help improve GPs’ beliefs about schizophrenia, a Turkish study has found (Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences). For example, before the session, 25 per cent of 54 GPs agreed with the statement ‘schizophrenia patients are untrustworthy’, whereas three months after the session, only 15 per cent of them did. The intervention also increased the proportion of GPs, from 35 to 45 per cent, who believed patients with schizophrenia can be treated.
A BRITISH Psychological Society College of Fellows event will be held on 3 October, at the Society’s London office in Tabernacle Street. The topic is Promoting Mental Health and Well-being in Communities: Psychological Perspectives. Contact [email protected] for information and to register.

The ESRC Placement Fellows Scheme allows social science researchers to spend time in a ‘partner organisation’ to undertake policy-relevant research and to upgrade the research skills of partner organisation employees. Possible partner organisations include the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government. Placements would be for a minimum of three to four months and would normally be taken up by early-mid-career researchers. The closing date for applications is 19 October 2006.
- For further details see the ESRC website or contact Lesley Lilley, Senior Policy Manager on 01793 413 033.

The Wellcome Trust is piloting a new initiative Masterclasses in Clinical Neuroscience within its neuroscience and mental health stream. Funding is available to create and host masterclasses, focused on a particular disease in partnership with a UK-based learned society. Masterclasses should focus on major challenges in a disease field and also discuss tangible solutions that have the ultimate aim of improving health. Participants of all levels of seniority should be involved in the masterclass. The closing date for applications is 1 December 2006.
- For further details see the Wellcome Trust website

The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation is running its annual scholarship scheme. The scholarships offer a 19-month programme of language study, work placement and homestay in Japan. They provide young, talented UK citizens with strong leadership potential, the opportunity to acquire Japanese language skills and access expertise and knowledge relevant to their career goals. Applicants should be between 21 and 35, hold British citizenship and be graduates with strong degrees in any subject. They also need to show clear career objectives and a commitment to furthering UK-Japan links. No previous experience of Japan or Japanese is necessary. The closing date is 7 December 2006.
- For further details see the Foundation’s website

The MRC’s Career Development Awards provide up to five years of support for outstanding postdoctoral researchers who wish to consolidate their research skills and make the transition from postdoctoral research trainee to proven independent investigator. Current MRC planning priorities for training/capacity building include: clinical neurology, dementia, stroke and mental health research. Applicants should have a least three years’ postdoctoral experience and ideally no more than six, although such applications may be considered. A funded Postdoctoral Award in partnership with the Multiple Sclerosis Society is also available. The closing date for applications is 19 January 2007.
- For further details see

The EPSRC is offering Senior Media Fellowships to enable leading researchers to devote time to developing a high media profile. Fellows would be expected to act as high-profile ‘champions’ with the specific aims of explaining and interpreting advances in their field in ways which are accessible to the general public, convey the excitement and value of research to society and debate issues for society arising from their research area. The closing date for applications is 8 November 2006.
- For further details see

For a list of current funding opportunities go to
Funding bodies should e-mail news to Elizabeth Beech on [email protected] for possible inclusion.

When is a significant effect meaningless?

By reporting a tiny but significant effect of ‘psychokinesis’ – the ability to influence physical matter using thought power alone – a meta-analysis of over 300 experiments has prompted a debate about just how small an effect has to be before it is deemed meaningless.
Writing in Psychological Bulletin, Holger Bosch, Fiona Steinkamp
and Emil Boller put spoon-bending and dodgy séances to one side and concentrated only on modern studies that tested people’s ability to use their mental will to influence the ratio of 1s and 0s produced by a random number generator. A conservative analysis of the combined data revealed a minuscule (a ‘proportion index’ of 0.500035; i.e. slightly more 1s than 0s), but significant (p<0.05) effect of participants’ intention on random number generator output.
The anomaly of three exceptionally large studies, all of which reported an effect in the opposite direction to participants’ intention, combined with a tendency for smaller studies to report more positive results, led Bosch and colleagues to declare the existence of psychokinesis ‘unproven’. However, their further conclusion that the observed psychokinesis effect would, if genuine, be of ‘fundamental importance’ provoked a robust response from commentators writing in the same journal.
‘The psychokinesis research synthesised by Bosch et al. is a particularly cogent example of a paradigm that seems virtually invulnerable to falsification,’ David Wilson and William Shadish wrote. ‘What effect size would be so small that psychokinesis researchers would agree to give up the hypothesis?’ they asked.
According to Wilson and Shadish, part of the problem lies with the principle of null hypothesis testing. In statistics, the null hypothesis is that there is
no effect, or no difference between two populations. But critics of null hypothesis testing argue that in real life, differences will always be found if you look hard enough, and that what matters is the size and nature of the difference. In psychokinesis research, wrote Wilson and Shadish, ‘it may always be plausible to argue that ever larger sample sizes may eventually have sufficient power to distinguish between the null and an effect’.
Using a hypothetical coin-tossing game, Wilson and Shadish calculated what difference the kind of psychokinesis effect sizes estimated by the meta-analysis would have in the real world. If a player won a pound for every head and lost a pound for every tail, using psychokinesis would leave the player just £48 up after hundreds of thousands of tosses, over two months of continuous play. ‘This is not of great fundamental importance,’ they concluded.
However, another commentator on the meta-analysis, Dr Dean Radin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, told The Psychologist that Wilson and Shadish were making a common mistake by confusing small effect size with immediate pragmatic importance. ‘The magnitude of the charge on the electron is extremely small, but after gaining an improved understanding of this minuscule charge we eventually powered the world,’ he said. ‘Similarly, the energy within a single atomic isotope undergoing radioactive decay is inconsequential. But
as we understood the processes underlying radiation we eventually ushered in the atomic age. Likewise, if there is indeed a mind–matter interaction then its eventual pragmatic consequences are probably far greater than electricity or atomic power.’
Co-author of the meta-analysis, Dr Fiona Steinkamp of Edinburgh University, agreed. ‘It is strange’, she told us, ‘that whenever people bring up this issue, they always use the example about how much money you could earn by using it, as if
that were the only criterion by which to judge its worth. I think if it could be demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that a true [psychokinesis] effect, however small, is possible, this could be of fundamental importance. Firstly, it would demonstrate that something is possible that we cannot currently explain and that may not be explicable with our current (lack of) knowledge. In addition, if such an effect, even small, were possible, it may be possible to influence events at a micro level, such as synapses in the brain or even at a quantum level. An effect at the quantum level would be very small but would still be important.’    CJ

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At the time of writing, The Psychologist is Google’s top search result for ‘psychologist’. See why at – if you haven’t visited lately you may be surprised. You will find:
- breaking news
- the current issue (for members only) in html and PDF forms
- a searchable, open access archive with 100 past issues to download and print (very     useful for teaching)
- information about how and why you should write for The Psychologist;
- how to reach 43,000 psychologists with your ad
- a link to the Society’s free Research Digest service at
- an online forum…
…and more. Take a look, and tell us what you think.

Review must be backed by action

Educational psychologists (EPs) have welcomed a report into the contribution they are making to the government’s Every Child Matters agenda – but they have raised concerns that the positive messages it carries may not be backed up with action by the government.
The comprehensive review of educational psychology services in England and Wales, compiled by researchers at the School of Education of Manchester University, was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills. It concluded that EPs contribute positively to all aspects of the Every Child Matters agenda, and that they work effectively in a multi-agency context.
The report also found that ‘EPs have been too heavily involved in statutory assessments and that this has prevented them from expanding their work into other areas where they can maximise the impact of their psychological skills and knowledge’. A significant proportion of stakeholders felt that an alternative provider might, in some circumstances, have been able to carry out some aspects of the work that an EP might presently carry out.
Dr Sandra Dunsmuir, Chair of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology of the British Psychological Society, said: ‘This report demonstrates how much educational psychology has to offer, but we are spread very thinly and face a national shortage of suitably qualified educational psychologists with more retiring than entering it as a career. In particular, there is an urgent need to establish a stable funded training route if the needs of vulnerable children are to be properly addressed.
‘It is perhaps ironic that this report is published just days after we find there are more than 3000 government press officers, yet the fact is there are only 2000 educational psychologists.We urge the government to examine this report carefully and to plan for investment in this service which is desperately understaffed and overstretched.’    JS
- To view the report see

Suicide watch

Only a minority of people who think about committing suicide actually go ahead and make a suicide attempt. Is there something different about these people – some way, perhaps, to identify those people who are at most risk?
In a study in Psychological Medicine (see, Kate Fairweather and colleagues identified 522 people (aged between 20 and 44) from a massive community survey who said they had thought about taking their own life in the last year. Among these people, just under 10 per cent also reported that they had made an attempt on their life.
The researchers found those individuals who had actually attempted suicide, rather than just thinking about it, were more likely to have serious ill-health, to be unemployed and to have poor relationships with their friends and family. And these factors had a cumulative effect – a participant with two of these factors was three times more likely to have attempted suicide; someone with all three factors was 11 times
more likely to have made an attempt.
Surprisingly perhaps, rates of self-reported depression and anxiety were no greater among the suicide attempters than among those who only thought about suicide.
There were also gender- and age-specific associations. For example, among men only, those reporting high levels of ‘mastery’ (feeling in control of the forces affecting their lives) were 20 per cent less likely to attempt suicide. ‘…[T]he male role prescribes autonomy, self-confidence and being goal-orientated. Accordingly, males who believe they are lacking in these domains may feel socially marginalised or incompetent’, the researchers said.
Among people aged between 40 and 44, unemployment was a particular risk, increasing the likelihood of a suicide attempt nine-fold. Perhaps people in this age group were particularly dependent on their workplace for social support.
‘Contrary to the view that mental health differentiates suicide attempters from ideators…’, the researchers concluded, ‘…This [research] suggests that mental health professionals may be able to intervene in the progression of ideation into attempt if they identify recent instances of upsetting social interactions, diagnosis of a disabling physical illness or recent job losses.’    CJ

- This item is taken from the Society’s Research Digest, a free, fortnightly e-mail roundup of psychology research. To sign up and for more – including ‘awareness’ in persistent vegetative state, cognitive remediation of voice hearing in schizophrenia, and surprising links between moral and physical cleanliness – see

THE occasional curry could help stave off the mental decline associated with old age, according to a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Among 1010 people aged between 60 and 93 years, researchers at the National University of Singapore found those who reported eating curry occasionally, or very often, scored significantly better on the mini mental state exam than those who said they never ate curry. It’s thought curcumin, from the curry spice, turmeric, may help reduce beta-amyloid, a protein associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

YOUR husband or wife might be responsible for you living longer. In a Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health study, of nearly 67,000 people interviewed in 1989, 5876 (8.8 per cent) had died before 1997. Controlling for age, health and socioeconomic factors, a team at the University of California found the death rate among those who had never married was 58 per cent higher than among their married peers. Unmarried participants were at greater risk of death from murder infectious disease, accidents, cardiovascular disease, and suicide. The association was stronger among men.

SHARING their bed could dull men’s brains, according to a study presented at the Forum of European Neuroscience. Researchers at the University of Vienna compared the daytime mental performance of eight couples after they had either slept alone or together. Both men and women slept better alone, but the mental performance of men particularly suffered after a night with their partner and their stress hormones were more affected.

BA Festival of Science

Christian Jarrett reports from the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich.

TEACHERS who instruct their pupils to sit on their hands and to face the front have got it all wrong, according to research presented by Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon (University of Stirling) and Karen Pine (University of Hertfordshire).
Confronted with a difficult question, a child’s wandering gaze is not a sign
that they’re daydreaming, but rather an indication that they’re thinking hard (see archive article at With so much visual information bombarding their brains, looking away can help them concentrate. But young children don’t do it enough. Whereas eight-year-olds spend 80 per cent of the time looking away when answering a hard question, five-year-olds only look away an average of 40 per cent of the time. And crucially, research has found that encouraging five-year-olds to look away more can improve their performance on challenging yet solvable questions.
Teachers need to be informed about this research. According to a study Doherty-Sneddon has in press, teachers said they interpret more gaze aversion as an indication of less understanding, less interest, and a sign that the child has given up thinking.
‘One thing that teachers and parents are terribly guilty of is jumping in too quickly and this can disrupt children’s learning’, Doherty-Sneddon said. ‘Gaze aversion provides a really useful cue to “think time” – knowing how long to give children to answer a question.’
Meanwhile, Karen Pine argued that young children’s hand gestures shouldn’t be dismissed as restless fidgeting, rather the movements help them ‘think, speak and learn’. Common sense suggests children gesture when they don’t know the words, or because they’re copying adults. But children gesture more as their vocabulary grows; their gestures are often unique; they gesture when alone; and even blind babies gesture in ways similar to sighted babies – all of which shows that children need neither a model nor an observer to gesture. ‘It’s not just interpersonal, gesture is an intrapersonal phenomenon,’ Pine said.
Pine’s research has shown that children’s gestures are several months ahead of their speech. She asked dozens of children to balance a bar on a fulcrum and to explain how they’d done it. Their verbal explanations would often be meaningless, but alongside their words, many of them employed two stereotypical gestures – a sweeping, horizontal movement conveying ‘length’ and an up-down movement conveying ‘weight’ – betraying a conceptual understanding beyond that revealed by their words. Indeed, following a short lesson on balance, those children who previously used these gestures were more likely to comprehend the principles of balance than were children who hadn’t used the gestures.
Pine has also completed research showing that gestures help children find
the words they’re looking for. She found children successfully named twice as
many pictures when they were free to gesture compared with when their hands were constrained by mittens velcroed to the table.
‘Kids should never be prevented from gesturing. Teachers telling kids to sit on their hands is the worse thing that they can do,’ Pine said. ‘Kids know more than they can tell. They have a second language – gestures – and we need to learn how to interpret it.’

Problem solving in theory and practice

THE brain’s strength is in fuzziness rather than logic, said Peter Naish (Open University), which is why we’re rather poor at puzzles like the infamous THOG problem (see figure). The THOG problem states that something is a THOG if it is either the correct shape (triangle vs. circle) or colour (red vs. green), but not both. If the first red triangle is a THOG, your task is to say which, if any, of the other shapes are also THOGS. The problem is easy to solve once it is recognised as what’s known in logic as an ‘exclusive or (XOR)’ problem, but most people find it difficult because these kinds of situation are rare in everyday life. ‘Presumably we haven’t evolved to solve these’ Naish said.
On a more applied level, in the interests of patient safety, Professor Dianne Parker (University of Manchester) has conducted interviews and focus groups to help improve problem solving and procedures in the NHS (see Last year 2159 patients died and 4529 were severely harmed because of avoidable mistakes by healthcare professionals. Yet simple standardisation could help reduce these incidents. For example, remarkably, the convention for whether the healthy or diseased breast is marked prior to a mastectomy currently varies from one hospital to the next. ‘Standardisation is resisted in healthcare as a threat to autonomy,’ Parker said.

Navigating the corridors of the mind

SEMANTIC dementia is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the front of the temporal lobes, gradually destroying a person’s knowledge of the world. Presenting this year’s BA Charles Darwin Award Lecture, Professor Matthew Lambon Ralph (University of Manchester) explained how careful testing of people with this disease allows neuropsychologists to ‘microscope in’ on the way concepts are represented in the mind.
Consider the errors patients with semantic dementia make when they’re asked to name pictures. A patient referred to as JL initially named common birds without any trouble, only misnaming rare birds. But six months later he was only able to name two common birds, and rather than misnaming rare birds, he now labelled them simply as ‘bird’. Another six months, and he labelled common birds as ‘bird’ and rarer birds as ‘cat’. Finally, in the last session, he referred to all the birds as ‘animal’, ‘dog’, ‘horse’ or even ‘vehicle’. The testing shows how the patient’s concepts ‘get fuzzy’ Lambon Ralph said.
The illness doesn’t only affect patients’ visual concepts, it also affects their knowledge of touch, tastes, sounds and smells, thus pointing to the front of the temporal lobes (the ‘temporal pole’) as the part of the brain that distils all verbal and non-verbal experience into general concepts. For example, semantic dementia patients can say whether two smells are the same or not, but are unable to identify even common pungent smells, such as garlic or vinegar.
Lambon Ralph’s latest experiment has used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to see what happens when the temporal pole is disrupted in healthy participants. TMS stimulates a small region of brain cells until they get so fatigued that they stop functioning, thus inducing a kind of temporary, ‘virtual’ lesion. After TMS applied to the temporal pole, healthy participants became about 10 per cent slower at saying which of three words (e.g. crayfish, bracelet, helmet) was most closely associated with a target word (e.g. lobster). But their performance on a numerical version of the same task was unaffected. The finding complements the patient work in demonstrating that the temporal pol

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