News

Funding for mental health; war trauma in Sri Lanka; dyslexia; bystander apathy; and more

Statutory regulation update
Two crucial consultation documents from the Health Professions Council have been released. The Society will be making a single coordinated response to each of these, but members may may also respond individually. The deadline for all responses is 8 February 2008.

Full details and links to the consultation documents via www.bps.org.uk/statreg.

 

Stress Watch

Psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are using an eWatch to measure participants ‘stress levels’ as they go about their daily lives. The device is the size of a large wristwatch and can sense sound, motion, ambient light, skin temperature and other factors. For five days, wearers will be prompted every 45 minutesto complete a short interview, including brief questions such as ‘Working hard?’ The study is part of a wider project looking at gene–environment interactions in the way people respond to stress.

 

Encyclopedic Knowledge

The highest-quality contributions to the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia are by anonymous writers making a one-off edit, rather than by registered users with a reputation to maintain. The finding appears to undermine a cynic’s interpretation of apparently altruistic deeds: that do-gooders are only out to enhance their own reputations. Denise Anthony and Sean Smith of Dartmouth College in America analysed contributions to the French and Dutch versions of Wikipedia, using the longevity of an edit as a measure of its quality. Among registered users, those who contributed more often tended to make higher-quality edits, while the reverse was true for anonymous contributors

 

More funds for mental health

‘We will build a ground-breaking psychological therapy service in England’ were the words of the Health Secretary Alan Johnson in October as he announced a major boost in funding for mental health services. Johnson said that an increase in funding, rising to £170 million by 2010/11, would allow the training of 3600 extra therapists and the treatment of an extra 900,000 people with depression and anxiety over the next three years.The announcement comes after the success of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) pilot projects in Doncaster and Newham, with which the Society has been closely involved. Professor Graham Turpin, one of the Society’s expert representatives on the IAPT reference group and director of the Professional Standards Unit of the Division of Clinical Psychology, told The Psychologist that the promise of increased funding is ‘exceedingly good news’. ‘Relatively speaking, mental health has always been underfunded in this and many other countries, so the announcement that they’re putting in relatively large sums of money is to be welcomed,’ he said.

But what does the government announcement mean for psychologists and where will all the new therapists come from? Writing in The Observer, the economist and government adviser Lord Layard said that ‘some of the trainees will be clinical psychologists, but the majority will be drawn from other mental-health professions, for example, nurses, social workers and counsellors taking a one-year training in CBT’.

Indeed, Professor Turpin told us the government has decided that after several years expanding the capacity for training clinical psychologists, it will not be necessary to increase the number of clinical training places still further.

‘It will be important for the Society to monitor this assumption in practice,’ he said.

Turpin also noted that two thirds of the promised extra funding for mental health will go into enhancing existing services, so that many newly qualified and existing psychologists will find themselves being employed as part of this. ‘These new CBT therapists shouldn’t threaten job prospects for psychologists,’ Turpin said. ‘There’s a real shortage of adequately trained therapists and because the government are investing so much money in these services, they will need everyone they can train.’

Moreover, Turpin explained that the extra funding will create a real opportunity for psychology because, as well as creating more CBT therapists, much of the training will be focused on the delivery of low-intensity interventions, such as supported self-help and brief CBT, of the kind delivered by graduate mental health workers or case managers. ‘Quite a lot of the graduate mental health worker programmes were delivered by psychology courses but others were delivered in nursing schools, so there’s a big opportunity for psychologists to lead the way in training psychology graduates to deliver low-intensity interventions,’ he said.

What about the accusation heard from some quarters that the government’s new interest in psychological treatments is a thinly disguised utilitarian agenda to get more people back to work? After all, the focus appears to be on brief, some would say superficial, treatments, and Lord Layard has repeatedly made the case that the new investment will be self-funding as the anxious and depressed are helped back to the workplace. ‘My response’, Professor Turpin told us, ‘is that at the moment many, if not the majority of people with anxiety or depression are simply offered medication.

If there’s an alternative to that then I think we as psychologists really need to support it.’

He continued: ‘Work is how we structure our lives, get our self-esteem and how we get money in our pocket. Many of the problems of people with long-term mental health problems are financial. Helping such people keep their jobs or to move into supported employment is a very important therapeutic step. And people like Layard have been very influential in driving this up the government’s agenda.’    CJ

In September, the Society published the Good Practice Guide on the Contribution of Applied Psychologists to Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (tinyurl.com/36hbzz).

 

Psychologists and novelists behaving badly

Scientific optimism met a darker perspective in October as Professor Uta Frith of UCL asked ‘Are people good or bad?’ Frith was chairing a meeting of the Two Cultures, ‘Behaving Badly’, held jointly by the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature.

Representing science were Professor Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry, an expert in the developmental origins of antisocial behaviour, and Dr James Blair of the National Institute of Mental Health in America, an expert on psychopathy. They were joined by the novelists Fay Weldon, a moral satirist whose works include Wicked Women, and John Banville, author of the Man-Booker prize-winning The Sea, and other works including Book of Evidence, a tale narrated by the fictional murderer Freddie Montgomery.

Professor Moffitt opened proceedings by describing her work with the 1000 people born in Dunedin between 1972 and 1973, ‘the most in-depth studied 1000 people in the world’. This has shown that suffering maltreatment in childhood increases a person’s likelihood of committing violence in adulthood, but only if they have a certain version of the MAO-A gene. The finding has now been replicated in a sample of British twins from deprived backgrounds. It’s a classic example of a gene–environment interaction of the kind seen in other fields – for example, certain genes are linked to heart disease, but only in people who eat a high-fat diet.

Hannibal Lecter would not have fulfilled the criteria for psychopathy, according to Dr Blair, whose work has shown that the most ‘stunning’ thing about psychopathsis not their antisocial behaviour – it is emotional problems, blunting their reaction to other people’s distress. Brain scans have demonstrated that, when presented with frightened faces, this rare subset of offenders exhibit reduced activity in their amygdalae, a key brain structure involved in emotions.

Both the psychologists’ findings offer hope for early intervention in preventing bad behaviour – for example, maltreated children could be tested to see which version of the MAO-A gene they have, so that tailored help could be targeted at those at risk of future offending. Blair said treatment for other emotional disorders gave him hope that psychopaths could be made more emotionally responsive.

However, the promise of a sunnier future dimmed as John Banville began sharing his grittier perspective: ‘When I was researching Body of Evidence’ he said, ‘I asked myself “Is it wrong to kill people?” Forget the grieving widow and the orphaned children, just “Is it wrong?” From a rational perspective, I couldn’t see that it was wrong.’ Banville believes we all too easily forget our animal natures and, pointing to examples like the Nazi concentration camp guards, he finds the readiness of apparently ordinary people to commit heinous atrocities truly frightening.

But Dr Blair stood by his more optimistic view of humanity. He isn’t aware of the Nazi selection procedures, he said, but there is a history of regimes selecting people who are less emotionally responsive to fulfil roles like torturer or guard. Moffitt added that aggression can be a choice for those who are interested in it. ‘People like that will seek out jobs like prison guard,’ she said, ‘it’s not always imposed.’

Fay Weldon too added a more positive tone to proceedings. What about turning things on their head, she asked, and looking for a justice gene, which could be more useful for the person and for society. ‘While politicians are tending to emphasise more and more that it’s nurture that is important,’ she observed, ‘the labs seem to be pointing more towards nature.’ But with all this talk of genes and environments, one audience member asked, where does that leave free will? The short answer, said Blair, ‘is that we don’t have an answer.’    CJ

Watch the webcast: tinyurl.com/2zw5gw.

 

New mental health resource on NHS Choices

The new NHS Choices online service for patients, www.nhs.uk, launched in October with a series of articles and guides for people suffering from mental health problems.

The site is written and prepared by mental health experts, including psychologists, from the Department of Health and mental health organisations. One of those involved, Professor Graham Turpin (University of Sheffield), told The Psychologist: ‘This is a very helpful site for the public which provides basic health information, and also signposts to services, and also more sophisticated self-help and charity websites. It should be stressed, however, that the research evidence indicates that self-help alone is usually not sufficient for those with psychological difficulties such as depression but should ideally be provided in conjunction with support from a health professional.’

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘In recent years, health-related material on the internet and sites on mental illness have burgeoned, and the NHS has established this site as a way of making sure that there is a single resource that healthcare professionals can refer their patients to for advice.’    JS

 

Sensitivity to biological motion

It has become the received wisdom in vision research that humans have a special sensitivity for biological motion. Indeed, many papers in the field begin with unequivocal statements like: ‘Human perception of biological movement is amazingly robust’ (tinyurl.com/26ouhq). But according to Eric Hiris of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, there is in fact nothing special about our sensitivity to the motion of living things.

To test our ability to detect different kinds of motion, researchers use point light displays – for human movement, imagine a tiny white LED positioned on several joints of someone walking in the pitch dark. In sensitivity tests, the recognition of this movement is made harder by the introduction of other irrelevant, randomly moving, lights or dots in the dark.

The problem, according to Hiris is that, unlike non-biological motion, such displays of biological motion inevitably also contain ‘form’ information, from the spatial layout of the target dots. Crucially, when Hiris compared participants ‘sensitivity to biological motion’ (a person walking on a treadmill) with non-biological motion (rotational and translational motion) that was presented in the form of a triangle or square, he found the detection advantage for biological motion disappeared.

‘The data here show that adding form to non-biological motion increases detection performance so that it is similar to biological motion,’ Hiris concluded in the open-access Journal of Vision (tinyurl.com/38dzzd).

Whilst it is true we are able to extract a wealth of information from biological motion, including ‘information about sex, emotion, identity and intentions’, Hiris said that ‘these results indicate onlythat humans are particularly sensitive to the information within biological motion displays, not that humans are necessarily particularly sensitive (in terms of detection) to biological motion compared to non-biological motion’.

Hiris added this made sense from an evolutionary perspective. ‘Even threatening biological motion displays – for example, an approaching angry point-light ‘attacker’ – might have their match in non-biological motion displays – for example, an object moving on a collision course with the observer,’ he said.     CJ

 

War trauma in Sri Lanka

Years of civil war in Sri Lanka have caused more collective trauma than the 2004 tsunami, according to Daya Somasundaram, visiting research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Adelaide.

Civil war between the minority Tamil society in Sri Lanka and the majority Sinhala broke out in 1983, mostly affecting the North and East of the country. In 2004, after a period of lengthy ceasefire, the island was struck by the Asian Tsunami, which affected over 200,000 people, again particularly in the North.

The effect of trauma on individuals is well documented but Somasundaram focused instead on effects at the family and community level. While working on the ground as a relief worker, Somasundaram collected qualitative data using participant observation, in-depth case studies, key informant interviews and focus group discussions.

Somasundaram observed how war had led to widespread mistrust, suspicion, silence, brutalisation, deterioration in morals and values, poor leadership, dependency, passiveness and despair. Writing in the open-access International Journal of Mental Health Systems (tinyurl.com/2zyd9u), he said ways of thinking had become ‘restrictive, petty, mundane, rigid, fixed on survival and self-interest’. Regarding the brutalisation of society, drawings, dreams and poetry showed how society’s collective consciousness had become ‘saturated with death’. With no hope for the future and with the ubiquity of guns and war equipment, youths had formed into violent groups and criminal gangs.

Whether induced by war or natural disaster, it is only by recognising the phenomenon of collective trauma, according to Somasundaram, that effective interventions can be deployed to ease suffering. Crucial to this approach, he said, is: raising general awareness of what has happened and where help can be sought; training grass roots workers in basic mental health skills; encouraging traditional practices, such as rituals and ceremonies and culturally appropriate relaxation methods; and keeping families together wherever possible, for example by making special efforts to keep orphans with their near relations. ‘Community-level approaches empower the community to look after their own problems,’ Somasundaram said.     CJ

 

Phonological deficit ‘cause’ of dyslexia questioned

All the focus on phonology is leading to a circular logic that is undermining dyslexia research. That’s according to a pair of Scandinavian psychologists, Per Henning Uppstad and Finn Egil Tønnessen, who say that dyslexia researchers tend to treat the notion of a phonological deficit – a specific problem processing the sounds of speech – as both a symptom and a cause of dyslexia.

The main evidence for the importance of phonology comes from studies showing a correlation between awareness of sound segments and reading performance. But writing in the journal Dyslexia (tinyurl.com/2kx4mp), Uppstad and Tønnessen said: ‘What tends to happen is that “phonological tests” are conducted on pre-school children. Later on, when the same children have entered school, they are given reading tasks which focus primarily on the “phonological part” of reading. No wonder that the correlation is high!’

Uppstad and Tønnessen favour Paula Tallal’s less mainstream auditive-deficit hypothesis, on the basis that it can at least be falsified. This approach argues that children with ‘language-learning’ difficulties (including dyslexia) have a perceptual problem rather than a primarily linguistic or cognitive deficit. However, Uppstad and Tønnessen argue that the auditive-deficit too has flaws – for example, many observers have claimed that a characteristic trait of dyslexics is their fairly normal ability to understand speech.

To proponents of the phonological deficit hypothesis, Uppstad and Tønnessen concluded with two central challenges: Can the hypothesis be formulated in such a way that it can be falsified? And which empirical findings could falsify the hypothesis?    CJ

 

Anti-bullying initiative

OVER a thousand children across Europe are taking part in trials of an interactive computer-based role-playing game called ‘Fear Not!’, designed to help prevent bullying. The research is being conducted by members of Kaleidoscope (www.noe-kaleidoscope.org), a pan-European research network on technology-enhanced learning. The children play the part of invisible friend to a victimised character, exploring possible solutions and coping strategies. The advice they give influences the actions taken by the victim. ‘This 3-D interactive virtual environment provides a safe haven for individual children, where they witness bullying scenarios without being directly involved,’ said Rui Figueiredo, one of the researchers involved.CJ

 

Research Funding News

Living With Environmental Change is a cross-discipline initiative involving the NERC, EPSRC, ESRC and BBSRC that plans to boost research into issues surrounding climate change. The programme will run from 2007 to 2017. The budget has not been finalised and specific funding opportunities are yet to emerge. Funding will be via existing funding programmes and new activities. Living with Environmental Change will fund research to provide the knowledge needed by the public, government and business to make informed choices about how to adapt and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Further details: www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/lwec/The National Institute for Health Research is offering a new Fellowship Scheme. Four levels of fellowship are available: 

  • Research Training Fellowship – three years full-time funding to undertakea PhD. A research training programme is provided.
  • Post-doctoral Fellowship – a first level postdoctoral fellowship offering three years full-time funding for potential researchers who do not, as yet, have sufficient experience to be fully independent. Applicants should have obtained their research doctorate or have submitted their thesis for PhD.
  • Career Development Fellowship – a second level postdoctoral fellowship for individuals who have had significant and successful post-doctoral experience. At the completion of the fellowship it is anticipated that candidates will be independent researchers. Three years full-time funding is available.
  • Senior Research Fellowship – five years of funding to undertake a programme of research. This is aimed at outstanding individuals who are currently independent researchers and can demonstrate the potential to become academic and research leaders within the duration of the award.

The closing date for applications for all fellowships is 8 January 2008.

Further details: www.nccrcd.nhs.uk/nihrfellow/index_html

The European Association of Experimental Social Psychology (EAESP) is offering two schemes to support early-career social psychologists. The Postgraduate and Postdoctorate Travel Grants provide support for short visits to conduct research, complete ongoing projects or undertake training elsewhere in the world. The postdoctoral ‘Seed Corn’ Research Grants provide support for preliminary research undertaken by new researchers in the immediate postdoctoral period. Applicants for both schemes must be EAESP members. The next closing date for applications is 30 December 2007. There are four application deadlines each year.

Further details: www.eaesp.org/activities/own/grants.htm#postdoctoral

The Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation provides Wingate Scholarships for individuals of exceptional talent who have interesting projects in a variety of fields, including psychology, and who are unlikely to obtain funding from the usual sources. Independent research projects, doctoral and postdoctoral studies and field work are amongst the areas funded. Original and cross-disciplinary projects are of particular interest. There is no upper age limit and applications from mature candidates and those from non-traditional backgrounds are welcomed. The closing date for applications is 1 February 2008.

Further details: www.wingatescholarships.org.uk/overview.php

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

 

Bystander apathy case – Urban myth?

No doubt, you’ve all heard of the bystander effect and the real-life case of Kitty Genovese, murdered in front of 38 witnesses who did nothing to help. But now Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and colleagues, writing in American Psychologist, say the Kitty Genovese crime didn’t happen that way at all.

They aren’t questioning the principle of the bystander effect – indeed, the Genovese case inspired a rich, persuasive evidence base for the phenomenon whereby being in a group can dilute people’s sense of individual responsibility. Rather, Manning’s group are saying that the Genovese crime has become an urban myth thathas since biased social psychological research away from studying the beneficial effects that groups could potentially have on helping behaviour.

For instance, take the idea that there were 38 witnesses. After the Genovese court case, Assistant District Attorney Charles Skoller has been quoted as saying ‘we only found about half a dozen [witnesses] that saw what was going on, that we could use’. Moreover, there was an ambiguous context to the crime, with one witness saying Genovese and the man who later stabbed her were ‘standing close together, not fighting or anything’.

Indeed, none of the witnesses reported actually seeing the stabbing. And whereas the myth states that none of the apartment residents overlooking the crime intervened, in fact the murderer felt compelled to abandon his first attack after one of the witnesses shouted at him. This led to the actual murder taking place inside a nearby building where none of the trial witnesses could see. And a sworn affidavit by a former NYPD police officer – at the time a 15-year-old witness – claims his father did make a phone call to the police (bearing in mind this was before any 911 system was in place).

‘By debunking the myth and reconsidering the stories that we present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping in emergency situations,’ the authors concluded.    CJ

 

A new angle on culture

The way we see ourselves in the world can affect how we answer ambiguous questions like: ‘Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now on?’

If you see yourself as moving through time, then you’re more likely to think the meeting will be on Friday. By contrast, if you see time as passing you by, you’re more likely to think the meeting has changed to Monday. Try it on your friends.

Now, in a study reported in Psychological Science (tinyurl.com/2wfv2n), Angela Leung and Dov Cohen have used ambiguous questions like this to test the contrasting perspectives of Asian Americans and European Americans.

For example, participants from these racial backgrounds were told about a scenario in which they had gone to meet a friend at a skyscraper, but as they were in the lift going up to the 94th floor, their friend was in another lift heading down to the reception.

Next, the participants were given a map showing the city ‘Jackson’. They were asked to mark the location of the city ‘Jamestown’, which they were told ambiguously was the next city ‘after’ Jackson on the north–south highway.

The idea is that participants who imagined the skyscraper story from their own perspective would mark Jamestown as the next city north of Jackson (because they’d imagined going up in the lift in the story), whereas participants who imagined the skyscraper story from their friend’s perspective would mark Jamestown as being south.

Taken together with other examples, the researchers found Asian Americans were more likely to adopt the perspective of their friend in these social scenarios rather than to adopt their own perspective. European Americans showed the opposite trend.

Leung and Cohen said this shows how our cultural values our embodied in the way we see ourselves in the world. Asian Americans who, they said, place value on ‘thinking how your actions will look to other people’ tend to visualise social situations from a third person ‘camera angle’. European Americans, by contrast, who endorse values like ‘knowing what you want’ tend to visualise situations from their own perspective.    CJ

 

Three and you’re in…

Whether it’s in the financial markets or on the football pitch, most people believe in streaks of luck – even though such runs are a natural part of any random sequence.

Now, in a study published in Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes (tinyurl.com/35eth5), Kurt Carlson and Suzanne Shu report that the key moment we perceive a streak as having occurred is after three repeats – what they call the ‘rule of three’. In other words, we don’t read meaning into a repeat of two, and we don’t read any additional meaning into streaks of more than three.

In one study, students were asked to decide how much fictional inheritance to invest in a stock. After hearing the stock had risen for one day or for two consecutive days, there was little increase in the amount they chose to invest. The largest jump in the students’ investment decision came after they learned the stock had risen for three consecutive days. By contrast, hearing that the stock had risen for four, five or even six consecutive days didn’t make any further impact on their decision making. Other support for the rule of three came from basketball data, and how streaks are discussed in sports journalism.

Carlson and Shu say the ‘rule of three’ has implications in real life. For example, ‘a savvy sports gambler (who is aware of the rule of three) might do well to bet against teams that have won three games in a row and bet for teams that have lost three games in a row,’ they said.    CJ

 

Managing social phobia

Self-help for social phobia, if augmented with just five group therapy sessions, can be as effectiveas over 20 hours of standard therapist-led group therapy. That’s according to Ronald Rapee and colleagues at Macquarie University Sydney (tinyurl.com/3yax8j) who say the finding shows promise for a less resource-intensive way of managing social phobia.

Two hundred and twenty-four participants with severe generalised social phobia were allocated to one of four conditions: pure self-help in the form of the book Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step by Step Guide, with instructions to work through the exercises; pure self-help augmented with five two-hour group therapy sessions; standard group treatment, consisting of 10 two-hour sessions; and a waiting list control.

Results for the pure self-help group were modest. At the end of treatment, fewer participants met the criteria for diagnosis compared with control, but some had relapsed by 24-week follow-up. Moreover, reductions in life interference from anxiety were no better than control. By contrast, augmented self-help showed marked and persistent improvements in symptom reduction and life interference that were as great as those produced by standard group therapy.     CJ

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