Psychology and national security; superstition and belief; qualitative research; book reviews; and more
Psychology, ethics and national security Burton and Kagan (‘Psychologists and torture: More than a question of interrogation’, August 2007) raise some important issues with respect to the relationship between psychology, national defence and security and indeed society more generally. They place their own views very clearly on the British map of social and political attitudes towards defence and security. I applaud this as an initiative and would encourage the British psychological community to help populate this map. Hopefully, we can develop a balanced, ethical framework for the way in which psychological science can best be used to support the defence and security of our society while upholding human rights and drawing on human responsibilities.

Psychology, ethics and national security

Burton and Kagan (‘Psychologists and torture: More than a question of interrogation’, August 2007) raise some important issues with respect to the relationship between psychology, national defence and security and indeed society more generally. They place their own views very clearly on the British map of social and political attitudes towards defence and security. I applaud this as an initiative and would encourage the British psychological community to help populate this map. Hopefully, we can develop a balanced, ethical framework for the way in which psychological science can best be used to support the defence and security of our society while upholding human rights and drawing on human responsibilities.My own contribution to the map of attitudes would be to oppose Burton and Kagan’s suggestion that psychologists should have nothing to do with national defence and security. There is a world of difference between torture, misuse of power and other unethical behaviour and legitimate, democratically controlled defence and security activities. I for one am grateful to live in a society that has organisations of people, such as the police and the military, that are prepared both to protect our democratically evolved society and also to be subject to our democratically derived constraints and controls. The many highly ethical, conscientious and socially responsible people who work in these services deserve our help and support.Granted, democracy is not the only regime that can have validity. But our society has adopted it and it remains our way of trying to be civilised. The British Psychology Society can use democratic principles to:
(a) draw together the healthy range of attitudes that exist in our free-thinking society and provide a non-political framework reflecting our society’s current views; this will of course be subject to change over time and would need to be maintained; and
(b) derive a set of principles by which psychologists can work with this framework to openly carry out work related to defence and security in a socially responsible way.

None of this means that individual psychologists should not promote their own views and try and change the attitude of others in an open democratic way.
I believe that within the BPS there has been an underrepresentation of psychology in defence and security. Both these areas are increasingly psychological in nature, particularly in terms of trying to counter threats and manage violent situations. While I agree with Burton and Kagan that there are some fundamental ethical principles that should be abided by, I also think that there are some fundamental ethical reasons why psychology should be used in a controlled way to help with our very difficult security and defence problems. Bringing it out in the open and letting psychologists (as opposed to non-psychologists) discuss how psychology can be used is the best way to control it and get the best from it.

(These views are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defence Academy or Cranfield University.)
Karen Carr
Director, Centre for Human Systems
Cranfield University
Defence Academy of the United Kingdom


Superstition and belief

Following a brilliant series of books advocating evolutionary theory, and one lambasting religion, Dawkins decided to take on superstition. The manner in which this was done on Channel 4 in a programme entitled Enemies of Reason, though entertaining, was hardly illuminating. I share Dawkins’ concern at the spread of the irrational; but his strategy of clobbering the various practitioners of the occult with logic and science in order to make them look silly, is not likely to be effective. Moreover, he lumped together indiscriminately quite different types of belief into the catch-all category of ‘superstition’.

At one point Skinner’s ‘superstitious’ pigeons were mentioned, and Dawkins rightly said that this also applies to humans, as has been experimentally demonstrated (e.g. Ono, 1987). What he failed to say was that this kind of conditioning accounts for the origin of individual superstitions, when people reinstate an arbitrary accompaniment of previous success (e.g footballers sticking to a ‘lucky’ jersey). Such actions can be done without awareness, and most of us (perhaps even Dawkins) are apt to be superstitious in that sense.
What are usually known as superstitions are beliefs acquired from the social environment, such as the use of protective charms or avoidances like not opening an umbrella inside. Such beliefs tend to flourish under conditions where the outcome is uncertain, as in risky occupations or situations, thereby providing people with an (illusory) sense of control. Many people only half-believe, yet act on the principle of Pascal’s wager – better do it just in case.

Then there are within cultures broad and firmly entrenched belief systems, such as the sects ridiculed by Dawkins. Systems of this kind, for example that of witchcraft, have an internal coherence and also a certain logic, as shown by Evans-Pritchard (1937) in a classical work. I have talked to schoolchildren in Africa who had learnt and understood the transmission of malaria through anopheles. When asked why people are then accused of causing malaria through sorcery, the answer was: ‘Kofi and Kwaku were both bitten, but only Kwaku fell ill. So someone must have used evil means.’ Given the premises, the logic is sound. Dawkins is of course critical of all forms of religion, but as another distinguished biologist (Hinde 1999, p.4) commented: ‘Merely to point out inconsistencies, or to demonstrate that many religious beliefs are incompatible with modern scientific knowledge is, I suggest, unsatisfactory… ‘

In the programme Dawkins asserts that science and supernatural beliefs are diametric opposites, but that
is questionable. As Sir James Frazer noted a century ago, both seek lawful regularities or, as Bartlett would have it, meaningful patterns. Consideration of such common roots indicates that believers are not necessarily stupid or irrational. William Crookes, discoverer of thallium, was convinced of the truth of spiritualism. Dawkins (1993) himself has treated beliefs as indirect evolutionary products, and as such they are not easy to shift. It has long been thought that science education can eliminate superstitious beliefs.
I did a study in West Africa assessing the extent of such beliefs among science students in their first and final years, finding no significant difference (Jahoda, 1968); this was replicated with US students, with similar results. Whether education specifically directed at discrediting false beliefs might be more effective remains an open question.

In any case, education alone would be insufficient, since conditions in the wider society (e.g. advertising and media) are also involved.
Gustav Jahoda
University of Strathclyde

Dawkins, R. (1993). Viruses of the mind. London: British Humanist Association.
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1937). Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hinde, R.A. (1999). Why gods persist: A scientific approach to religion. London: Routledge.
Jahoda, G. (1968). Scientific training and the persistence of traditional beliefs among West African University students. Nature, 200, No. 5174, p.1356.
Ono, K. (1987). Superstitious behavior in humans. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 47, 261–271.


You can’t really believe that

My first reaction to the interview with Richard Dawkins’ self-appointed roadie (‘Alchemist or zombie?’, September, 2007) was: ‘Wow! That’s really cool!’ However, once my meme-induced psychosis had passed I realised that Blackmore’s assertions that memes are ‘a powerful evolutionary force using our brains to copy themselves’, as well as ‘eating up the resources of the planet’, deserved more sober consideration. In my undergraduate days my metaphysics professor might have asked someone like Blackmore: ‘Do you actually believe that what you are saying can in any sense be true?’ If they had replied: ‘Yes’, he would then have asked: ‘Then by your own definition, how can your statement have any meaning, and if it does, how could your belief that it is true be anything but false?’

Congratulations, then, to Blackmore, for reducing psychology’s central subject to a mere epiphenomenon! And roll over Plato, Descartes et al., those great thinkers who took the problem of the relationship between the brain and consciousness seriously, as we all did as undergraduates in the days when critical thinking was more actively encouraged than Blackmore’s joint-smoking.
Allan Dodds


Margaret Anne Packman (1954–2007)

Margaret grew up in southeast London and attended the first UK purpose-built comprehensive school, where she was head girl from 1971 to 1972. Margaret qualified as an optometrist in 1976 joining her father in practice before succeeding him as managing director in 1985 and subsequently extending the business to a further practice. Margaret’s work was all-consuming. In 1993 she was the National Chairman of the Association of Optometrists and was made an honorary member of the Council in 2003, serving on the General Optical Council from 1991 to 1996.

Margaret joined the BPS Professional Conduct Board (PCB) in 1993 and was Chair from 2003. In chairing hearings and appeals she always took great care to ensure that a psychologist obtained a fair hearing, whilst never losing sight of the importance of protecting the public from misconduct. Margaret provided advice and support to colleagues and staff and was always willing and available. Her wisdom and humour made difficult situations easier to handle, and her support was always unwavering. Margaret was a Trustee of the Society. Her contributions to Trustee meetings were always relevant, and she applied her considerable experience in a humorous and direct way; never undermining others but always getting to the point.
Margaret had a long association with the Rotary Club. She was the first lady Rotarian in Woolwich and a past President. She was involved in several trust and youth development schemes. Most recently she had become involved in a Youth Enterprise scheme, acting as business adviser to 16-year-old students, supporting and encouraging them in running a business.
Margaret moved back to the family home in 1999 to care for her mother, following the sad loss of her father. For the next five years Margaret shared in the daily lives of several families on the street. Margaret loved home and garden. She was a consummate hostess, cook and a keen gardener. She liked nothing better than to sit down on a summer evening or winter’s night with a good book and a glass of wine or to enjoy a G&T with friends. She loved the theatre, the ballet, the opera, music, and travel, having more holidays in the last few years than most people have in a lifetime. Margaret had an appetite for living that was hard to match.

There are many things that she will be remembered for but everyone seems to marvel at her utterly positive, cheery and ‘can-do’ approach to everything she did. Margaret had the knack of making even serious things good fun. She was a product of an England that has long since disappeared, but she managed to retain the traditional values and manners of that era and carry them into the 21st century. She embraced the modern world with enthusiasm. She had computers, mobile phones, bluetooth attachments, personal organisers, iPods… you name it, Margaret had it, and she knew how to use it.

Margaret has been a wonderful colleague and servant of the BPS. She was a good person whose expertise, wisdom, humour and bonhomie will be missed throughout the Society and by her friends and family, to whom our thoughts and best wishes go.
Pam Maras


Social inequality and mental health

I was impressed with The Psychologist’s courageous July 2007 initiative on ‘Capitalism, control and unhappiness’ and thoroughly enjoyed all the articles published under that title (Oliver James, the Midland Psychology Group and Stephen Joseph). Considering how overwhelming the data is on the links between higher levels of inequality to more misery and social strife, it seems bizarre how rarely this matter receives rational debate in any journal or other media, and how scarce constructive suggestions for the way forward are, held back by the perennial ‘socialism does not work’ cliché. Baying at side issues seems to be an attempt to try to diminish the thrust of the key issues. It’s like watching a tsunami travel towards you and pointing out to your neighbour on the hotel terrace not to forget their sunglasses as they make their getaway.

I applaud James’ response (September) to Sik’s criticisms (August). Yes, the ‘old hat’ of capitalism has been recognised since Marx’s days and expressed very eloquently by him, but what is missing now in our current UK situation with its growing inequality is a serious discussion, similar to that Marx and Engels initiated, about changes that could achieve more equality by, for instance, joining in working groups with other professions to address key issues that impoverish us, such as the current tax laws, the monolithic role of the media, and the toxic influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Maybe we ought to study how other countries in Europe maintain much lower levels of mental illness and copy them. As Joseph points out ‘the profession of psychology …has a political agenda whether we like it or not’. It is a question of facing the tsunami of social misery that has been unleashed by those in power with a focus on the key issues, rather than sneering at those who bring these difficult questions to the forefront of our minds.
Greta F. Sykes
Institute of Education
London University


Membership for psychology graduates not in psychology careers

I have been a Graduate Member of the Society since October 2002. I originally joined after graduating from my BSc course with the intention of becoming a clinical psychologist, but difficulty in gaining an assistant position led me in a different direction and I am now enjoying a career in local government.

Over the last few years, I have been relatively happy to exchange my subscription fee for 12 copies of The Psychologist in order to keep up my knowledge of my degree subject as well as an interesting addition to my CV. However, the proposal to increase the fee to over £100 has led me to reconsider whether this entails sufficient value for money to justify my continued membership.

It does not seem appropriate for those who simply want to keep in touch with their degree subject to pay a fee on par with those working professionally in psychology and benefiting from the Society’s wider services.

In my view, the Society should either reduce the Graduate Member subscription to that of Affiliate or justify the proposed increase by doing more to involve psychology graduates working outside the discipline.
Joy Willshire

The Society’s Honorary Treasurer Ken Brown replies:
This suggestion comes at an appropriate time, when the Society needs to begin to plan for the structure of membership and the range of services it needs once statutory regulation has been introduced. We are considering this and a number of other ideas, and will be consulting the membership.


Qualitative research – The need for system

Mark Forshaw (‘Free qualitative research
from the shackles of method’, August 2007) takes issue with qualitative psychologists who advocate ‘rigour’ and ‘thoroughness’ in qualitative research. He echoes important arguments against ‘methodolatry’ (e.g. Chamberlain, 2000; Curt, 1994; Reicher, 2000) which,
to date, have failed to be fully taken on board within qualitative psychology.

I enjoyed reading Mark’s article, especially since I share with him a strong dislike of the term ‘rigour’. In fact, I have often wondered why qualitative researchers endorse a concept which invokes ‘severity, strictness, harshness; (in pl) harsh measures or conditions; logical exactitude; strict enforcement of rules etc; austerity of life’ (Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1991). In my experience, qualitative research is anything but ‘rigorous’.

However, I would like, in turn, to take issue with Mark’s suggestion that since multiple interpretations exist and are equally valid, there is no need to concern ourselves with ‘method’. Mark proposes that ‘there is a worrying double-standard…: on the one hand we are turning our backs on “truth” but on the other we are working out methods to understand texts and prescribing how we should tackle understanding them’. In my view, there is no double standard or contradiction here.

Hermeneutics, the discipline concerned with the pursuit of understanding through interpretation, demonstrates that (and how) method is implicated in interpretation and understanding. Although hermeneutics may be described as art, ability, methodology and science (see Schmidt, 2006), all at the same time, the difference between methodical interpretation (e.g. via hermeneutics or via qualitative methods of analysis) and a simple reaction to a text (e.g. given expression in fictional journalism or a meditation or commentary) is that the former is based upon a systematic, cyclical process of critical reflection and challenge of the interpreter’s own emerging interpretations, whereas the latter is the product of the author’s unmediated associations and reactions.

Whilst both accounts may well be fascinating and insightful, they are the product of different processes. In order for the reader to interpret (and appreciate) the researcher’s interpretation, s/he needs to know as much as possible about the process by which it was generated. This is why we need ‘method sections’ in research reports. And this is why I disagree with Mark when he suggests that ‘[i]f we accept that the principal purpose of research is simply [sic!] to offer an interpretation of a text, then there is no need to follow methods which dictate thoroughness and a regimented path’.

Instead, I would argue that if interpretation means amplification of meaning (and that requires exploration and clarification of the many strands of meaning which constitute the phenomenon of interest), then the researcher is very much helped in their task by using systematic and theoretically informed reflection. The reader, in turn, is helped by having access to detailed information about the interpretative process.
Carla Willig
City University

Curt, B.C. (1994). Textuality and tectonics: Troubling social and psychological science. Buckingham: Open University Press. 
Chamberlain, K. (2000). Methodolatry and qualitative health research. Journal of Health Psychology, 5(3), 285–296.
Reicher, S. (2000). Against methodolatry: Some comments on Elliott, Fischer, and Rennie. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 39, 1–6.
Schmidt, L.K. (2006). Understanding hermeneutics. Stocksfield: Acumen.


‘We’ve tried everything’

My training as a clinical psychologist dated from a time when psychometric assessment was all. It was a truly generic training and, whatever its shortcomings, it taught me that there are few clinical problems that cannot be understood in psychologically rational terms. Observation, listening carefully, willingness to think outside the box and the need to exploit any legal and ethically acceptable means are needed to understand what is going on.Let me give an example of
a man in his early fifties who had served in the military all of his working life. He was given to sudden brief bouts of verbal anger, which were frightening to everybody who encountered him. The man was at a loss to account for himself, and said that ‘nothing helped and you won’t be able to do anything’.
I asked him to explain in detail what was happening. He said: ‘Suppose there is glass of water on the table, I reach out to pick it up, I can’t find it and then when I do it slips out of my hand as I lift it.’

While I was working a neuropsychologist in a large hospital with a neurosurgical and neurological service
I received many referrals from the consultant neurophysiologist. These were for people with epilepsy. At another time I worked with a consultant psychiatrist who had made a specialty of treating people with ferocious and usually periodic irritability. They often derived great benefit from anticonvulsant medication. A singular feature of people who have epilepsy is that they have no memory of their fits and that minority who have furores are directionless in their rage and have no control over those of their actions that are driven by epilepsy. They have no memory of their rages. It is against this background that I wondered whether the man was having furores in the absence of fits – whether the problem had an epileptic origin with an unusual presentation.

I asked if GP if he had ever tried anticonvulsant medication. I explained my thinking, and after the GP had a discussion with the neurologist who had been caring for the man, he was prescribed anticonvulsants. He never had the problem again.

The repertoire of psychologists differs from that of other healthcare professionals, although there are areas of overlap. Assessment is generally not given the level of prestige it used to receive, even though there is the same need to understand the nature of problems before being able to do anything about them.
Do others have experience of difficult and unusual clinical problems that required off-the-wall detective work to understand? Please let us communicate with each other ([email protected]) so
a catalogue of, dare I say it, interesting cases can be compiled.
David J. Mulhall


Tall Tales in book reviews

The recent review of my edited book Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain (September) is entitled ‘In fMRI we trust’. But the book is not about fMRI, none of the authors is a neuroimager, some are in fact vociferous opponents of the overstatements often derived from the technique, and there are only four references to fMRI, in passim, in the 509 pages of the book. The reviewer seems to confuse behavioural, cognitive and experimental evidence (which we do support) with neuroimaging evidence which is not discussed at all in the volume. The reviewer offers as a counterargument to objective science and in support of subjectivity the following hypothetical example: ‘if a brain scan were to indicate that the “language” part of the brain was more active during the night, would we wake up children for a nocturnal vocabulary learning experience?’ Of course not, but who ever maintained that we should? The book is in fact meant to debunk such superficial claims, not to support them. Critical comments are really very welcome, as are the other positive comments from the reviewer, and I uphold and enjoy serious debates. However, misleading the readers is a different matter
and abiding with the idea that evidence equates with neuroimaging is a slippery slope for a community of psychologists.
Sergio Della Sala
University of Edinburgh


Voting rights

I have just received the latest issue of The Psychologist, and the time has arrived for nomination of the President and Elected Members of the Representative Council of the BPS. Also, in the ‘Society’ section the ‘Your Society Needs You’ box says that the vacancy for President 2009/10, Elected Members of the Representative Council and the Honorary Treasurer 2008/11 can be filled by ‘Any member of the Society’. This must be a mistake, as it should say ‘Any member of the Society who lives in the UK’. It is quite well known that those members who live outside the UK cannot vote even less apply for any of these post, as was pointed out in a previous issue (October 2006, p.589). Isn’t about time the Board of Trustees did something about this state of affairs?

Jorge AlvoeiroSantarem, Portugal

Society President Pam Maras replies: Although an application from an overseas member may raise practical issues around ensuring that an individual can properly represent the Society, there is no objection in principle.
In terms of overseas voting, the basic answer lies in improving online communication. We will be investing heavily in that aspect of our infrastructure during the next two to three years.



The University of Plymouth’s Human Factors Research Group is interested in the methods people use to communicate with each other and how best to contact them in times of emergency. Please take a look at our online questionnaire (tinyurl.com/2r7ypw).

Donna Reiddonna.[email protected]

If you have studied music psychology, we would be grateful for about 20 minutes of your time to fill in a questionnaire at tinyurl.com/2ppl3z.

Richard Parncutt Margit Painsi
University of Graz, Austria
Nicola Dibben
University of Sheffield

I Recently had an article published in the journal Medical Hypotheses (Vol. 69, Issue 1) concerning depression and the causal role of specific memory system degenerations.

Depressed people, as a result of their illness, often experience some difficulties with their memory. My hypothesis suggests a vice-versa; that it is a gradual impairment and ultimate failure of specific memory systems that may underpin the onset and continuation of a depressive illness.

In the piece, I note that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) often affects short-term memory adversely. However, in line with the hypothesis, perhaps successful ECT works by facilitating the repair and reactivation of particular memory systems. And what of Omega 3 fish oil, which has in some cases been observed to aid recovery of depression, and may also improve memory?

I would like to seek the views of the psychological community on this. Is there any research in this area? Do you have any advice as to what questions should be asked in order to test the hypothesis?

Anthony Frais[email protected]

Our CAMHS team is currently exploring ways in which to involve young people more in the service. I would be grateful to hear from other teams who have managed to involve service users in the planning and delivery of services. Trish J

[email protected]

I have a very large pile of printed out journal articles from various disciplines in psychology, including child health, social cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, emotion and social cognition. These are free to anyone who would like to collect them from Lichfield, near Birmingham. 

Helen Brett
[email protected]

The Mental Health Research Unit (Derby) has part-time voluntary Research Assistant posts available to people seeking clinical research experience. Contact:

Kirsten McEwanMental Health Research Unit
Kingsway Hospital, Derby
01332 623579
I am interested in hearing from forensic or clinical psychologists with experience of working with offenders with fire-setting behaviours, and the particular risk assessment materials they use.

Karine Greenacre
HMP Wayland
[email protected]

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