Pro-anorexia websites; gifted children; bullying report; Division of Clinical Psychology annual conference; and more
Pro-anorexia websites; gifted children; bullying report; Division of Clinical Psychology annual conference; and more

Row over pro-anorexia websites

Eating disorder support groups hit the airwaves and newspapers in January to warn against the dangers of pro-anorexia websites, many of which feature starvation tips and celebratory images of emaciated anorexics. Steve Bloomfield, a spokesman for the Eating Disorders Association (EDA), told the Radio 4 Today programme that, given that one in five anorexia sufferers who resist treatment will die prematurely, ‘pro-Ana’ sites were ‘literally killing people’ by dissuading them from seeking appropriate treatment. Meanwhile, health authorities in Madrid set a precedent by moving to ban a pro-Ana website that was offering a diploma to the girl who consumed the fewest calories over a set period.
But anorexia sufferers hit back, claiming pro-Ana sites stopped them feeling so alone.
Dr David Giles, a research tutor on the doctorate in clinical psychology at Lancaster University who has studied pro-anorexia sites, said it was ‘undoubtedly true’ that pro-Ana sites were of value to sufferers. ‘If you’re the only person that you know of at school with anorexia, having this desire not to eat and to lose ridiculous amounts of weight, then clearly you’re not going to get any positive support from friends and family, in the sense that everyone’s going to be trying to work out how to get you eating again, and how to get you to see how what you’re doing is silly. To be able to bypass all that and go straight to a community of people who have the exact same ideas about food and weight as you is like a godsend. It’s easy to see how appealing it is – these sites provide anorexia sufferers with a group identity that makes them feel good about themselves.’
On its website, the EDA recognises the futility of attempting to ban or close down pro-Ana websites – most are hosted overseas, and when one internet service provider closes a site down, it will usually resurface with a different provider a short while later. Rather, Bloomfield told the BBC: ‘It’s about reaching them [people with anorexia] and making sure they have access to good information… there’s a place for education in terms of helping people understand out there on the internet there is good and useful information, but also people who don’t have their best interests at heart.’
But Giles told us more education probably isn’t the answer. ‘Part of the glamour of the pro-Ana community is that it is anti-authoritarian. There’s a general distrust of professionals of any sort, teachers and clinicians, so I don’t see any educational intervention being of any value; if anything, it would simply generate more publicity for pro-Ana sites, as the media outcry has already done.’ Giles said the only practical solution was at the level of the family; concerned parents could simply unplug the internet.    CJ

NEW YEAR HONOURS  PSYCHOLOGISTS received honours in the New Year list. Emeritus Professor Margaret Clark (University of Birmingham) received an OBE 'for services to early years education'. Mrs Isobel Morris, who retires this month from her post as Director for Southwark Adult Mental Health Services at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, received her OBE ‘for services to mental healthcare’.

AFTER a successful first year of collaboration, the Blackheath Brain Injury Rehabilitation Centre and Neurodisability Service has presented Goldsmiths, University of London with £20,000 to continue the project. The funding will enable Goldsmiths to develop a programme of clinical research at the Blackheath Centre and will enhance its one-year MSc in Cognitive and Clinical  Neuroscience.

Visual developments

INVESTIGATION of a congenitally blind woman whose sight was restored at the age of 12 has challenged established ideas concerning the way vision develops in childhood.
Seminal research by Hubel and Weisel, largely on animals, suggested successful vision was dependent on the visual cortex being exposed to incoming visual information during a ‘critical period’ of early development. The implication was that treatments to restore sight in people who were blind during this critical period would be futile. But now Yuri Ostrovsky at MIT and colleagues have tested a 34-year-old Indian woman, SRD, and their findings suggest a rethink about visual development is needed.
SRD was born with cataracts that blinded her, and until the age of 12 she never ventured outside alone, and was unable to orientate towards other people unless they spoke or made a sound. Aged 12, an operation restored sight to her left eye. In 2003, when SRD was 34, Ostrovsky and colleagues compared SRD’s form and face perception to one Indian control participant and three Americans. There were some differences from the controls – for example, SRD relied on head orientation rather than eye position to judge a person’s gaze direction – but overall her performance on the tasks was high.
‘Our results suggest that the visual cortex retains its plasticity even across several years of highly compromised visual experience,’ the researchers concluded. ‘From a societal perspective, our results provide an argument for treatments of late-stage blindness,’ they added in their report published in Psychological Science (see The study forms part of Project Prakash (, which aims to find children in India born blind, to test them, and where possible treat them.     CJ

Stopping workers going postal

POSTAL workers have a notoriously hard time of it, but now there is some good news for Royal Mail. A two-year controlled study of early post-trauma interventions has provided evidence to support their organisational trauma management programmes.
The study involved over 800 employees identified as having experienced a potentially traumatic event – including dog attacks, road accidents, armed robberies, hostage situations and ram raids. Two trauma management procedures were assessed: crisis management (to ensure that employees are offered appropriate support in dealing with the practicalities of the incident), and ‘support post-trauma intervention’ or SPoT (giving the employee an opportunity to talk about what happened to them, with an emphasis on the facts and events rather than on thoughts and emotions).
The results showed that ‘high ratings of support received on the day of the incident and attending a SPoT meeting are both significantly associated with high perceived organisational support’, which had a subsequent impact upon symptoms and sickness absence levels.
Noreen Tehrani introduced the trauma care programme into the Post Office around 14 years ago, and is now a member of the British Psychological Society’s Working Party on Disaster, Crisis and Trauma. She told us that ‘the results challenge the views of some researchers and academics – for example in your report of the Royal Institution debate in the September issue – who believe that debriefing following a trauma does not work and should be abandoned’.
However, the study did acknowledge that in a second pathway model ‘there is also slight evidence that attendance at a SPoT meeting is associated with slightly higher symptom levels and absence’. It concludes that ‘in this sample, the benefits of attending a SPoT meeting outweigh any negatives. However, the possibility of these dual processes at work does raise important questions about which aspects of support could be associated with symptom reduction and which with increased symptoms.’
The study involved the British Occupational Health Research Foundation, University of Sheffield, Institute of Work Psychology and Institute of Employment Studies and is available from     JS

EDITOR'S NOTE: The report authors dispute this interpretation of their findings, and a letter of clarification is being prepared for the April edition.

New bullying report published

PEER support programmes, also known as befriending schemes or buddying, in which children are encouraged to turn to each other for help when bullied, are endorsed in a new report, Bullying Today, published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.Psychologist Helen Cowie, Director of the UK Observatory for the Promotion of Non-Violence, was among the contributors to the report. She told us the strongest evidence in favour of peer support is that it enhances the self-esteem and confidence of peer supporters, quite a number of whom are former victims, and that it also creates a support group for bullying victims and other children. ‘The presence of a peer support system in a school seems to improve the school climate, so that people perceive that it becomes a friendlier place in which to be, and people are open to talking through issues, rather than keeping them inside themselves,’ Professor Cowie said.
However, she also told us that despite this positive effect, there was, to date, no evidence showing that such schemes actually reduce bullying. ‘If we could prove that it actually does reduce bullying, rather than just giving an impression that it does, then that would be a very useful piece of research,’ she said. To that end, Cowie and her colleagues at the University of Surrey are currently analysing survey data collected from four schools in Suffolk. Their task is complicated by different schools running different schemes, by peer support often being only one of several interventions intended to reduce bullying, and by the way research tends to heighten people’s awareness of bullying, so that it can often appear to rise after research starts.
Peer support schemes are already widespread, but Professor Cowie hopes they will be introduced in every school if it can be demonstrated that they actually reduce bullying. ‘I hope people take the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendations seriously and do something about them, including psychologists – by doing rigorous and objective research to back up this initiative,’ she said.
The report also makes many other recommendations – including calling on schools to conduct annual surveys of pupils’ experiences of bullying, and requesting that providers of IT products and services work together to help combat cyber bullying.     CJ
For more information see

Satisfaction guaranteed!
Our bias for the left-hand side of space could be distorting large-scale surveys. Past research has shown that when people are asked to bisect a horizontal line down the centre, most will cross the line too far to the left. This leftward bias is thought to stem from the right hemisphere – it plays a dominant role in allocating our attention and is also responsible for processing the left-hand side of space. It may also be related to a cultural tendency to read from left to right. Now Andrea Loftus and colleagues have reported this spatial bias could be distorting survey results.
The researchers presented two groups of students with the same questionnaire statements about their experience at university (e.g. ‘My course has been enjoyable’), except that one group answered using a five-item Likert scale that ranged left to right, from ‘definitely disagree’ to ‘definitely agree’, whereas the other group answered using a scale that ranged left to right across the page, from ‘definitely agree’ to ‘definitely disagree’. The positive questionnaire statements were the same as those used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in its survey of 250,000 students.
In the current study, the students’ natural bias for the left meant those answering using the Likert scale that started on the left with ‘definitely agree’, responded with that answer to 27 per cent more statements than did the other group of students – that is, their views came out as more positive. By contrast, those students who answered using the scale that began on the left with ‘definitely disagree’ responded more often with ‘mostly disagree’, meaning their views came out overall as more negative.
The observation has profound implications for surveys, such as that conducted by the HEFCE, that seek respondents’ agreement, or not, with consistently positive or negative statements, and which use the same Likert scale for answers throughout. The researchers said one solution in the future is for the Likert scale direction to be reversed for half of the survey sample.


Nicholls, M.E.R., Orr, C.A., Okubo, M. & Loftus, A. (2006). Satisfaction guaranteed. The effect of spatial biases on responses to Likert scales. Psychological Science, 17, 1027–1028. (

This originally appeared in the Research Digest, see

Government plans for gifted children criticised

A GOVERNMENT proposal to provide ‘gifted’ children with vouchers for extra tuition has received a mixed response from psychologists. The new plan, an extension of the government’s gifted and talented programme, is for vouchers to be issued to the brightest 10 per cent of children in each school, as identified by teachers, and for the children to ‘buy’ extra teaching of their choice, from Mandarin lessons to summer school places. But Dr Peter Congdon, a consultant educational psychologist specialising in giftedness, told us the government’s ‘piecemeal’ plan was a waste of time.
‘If you’re going to cater for the intellectually gifted, you’ve first got to decide what you mean by intellectually gifted and this was done back in the 1970s – an IQ of 130 an upwards – and it’s still accepted in educational psychology circles today,’ Congdon said.
‘Having established what you mean by intellectually gifted, you’ve then got to introduce into every area a proper identification approach,’ he said, explaining that educational psychologists were needed to interpret IQ test results, so as to take into account a child’s familial and cultural background. ‘If the government want to do this properly they’ve got to employ educational psychologists working with head teachers, and use a variety of ways of identifying these children, using IQ tests, class attainment tests and checklists… It can be done.’ Once identified, Congdon favours putting gifted children up a year at school, though he said there are many ways of helping such children meet their potential.
However, another expert, Society Fellow Professor Joan Freeman, told us she broadly welcomes the planned voucher scheme, especially the idea that children will be able to choose the extra tuition they receive. Her main concern is with the 10 per cent cut off point for allocating the vouchers. ‘I think those who want to take their interest further should be able to do so, and they should not be pre-selected by teachers. There are gifted children who don’t come to the teachers’ attention, perhaps because they are quiet or their face doesn’t fit, and we also know teachers are far more likely to pick boys over girls, because boys draw more attention to themselves.’
Freeman favours schemes like China’s enormous nationwide provision of ‘Children’s Palaces’. They’re essentially resource centres where children can go and do what they like for little or no money,’ she said. ‘But it’s not just a playground, the children take extra courses and the results show that, as with the Olympics, the Chinese really are leaders in this.’
Although there may be debate over the specific proposals, Freeman and Congdon were in a firm agreement that it’s right for the government to be focusing on the needs of gifted children. Professor Freeman told us: ‘In a way gifted children are special needs children, and if what the school is offering is not adequate then this [voucher scheme] could be a lifeline for such children, particularly those in poor circumstances.’
And with 30 per cent of secondary schools failing to refer children to the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, Freeman added there was clearly a need to persuade teachers of the importance of extra tuition for gifted children.
Dr Congdon added that it was a mistake for people to think that just because a child is gifted intellectually that means they don’t need extra help. ‘Economically, the intellectually gifted offer to society far more out of proportion to their numbers than any other group,’ he said. ‘We’re not saying they’re better or worse, what we’re saying is they’re different and have different needs, and if they’re not given the right sort of education then we’re going to miss out in the long run.    CJ

Mass hysteria or something more?

STAFF at a specialist science college feared a gas leak in December when over 30 pupils and a teaching assistant were suddenly taken ill. It began when three children complained of feeling queasy during a class screening of a biology video. As more and more children started reporting similar symptoms, the emergency services were called and the South Yorkshire school was evacuated. However, no gas leak or other environmental cause was found, and of the 32 pupils taken to hospital, all were discharged after four hours. It seems the incident is the latest example of what’s known as mass hysteria.
Dr Markus Reuber, a consultant neurologist at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, told us he could think of several historical precedents for mass illnesses being related to ‘psychological factors’, including the unexplained illness that affected several young girls in Salem in 1692; and the British phenomenon of ‘railway spine’ in the 19th century (passengers reported feeling faint and suffering back pain – a psychological reaction that experts at the time said was due to the effect of 30 mph speeds on the human body).
However, Reuber cautioned that ‘mass illnesses’ and are not only caused by conscious or self-serving factors. ‘Sometimes large groups of people are exposed to distressing circumstances which would be considered sufficient to cause conditions like PTSD,’ he said, citing the example of shell-shock in the First World War.
One defining feature of mass hysteria is its ability to spread like a kind of psychological epidemic. According to Emeritus Professor of Sociology Erich Goode at the State University of New York, gullibility and suggestibility are often considered to be at the root of these ‘hysterical contagions’. He told The Psychologist that ‘mass psychogenic illness is a subset of a larger collective behaviour phenomenon: the collective delusion, in which large numbers of people believe something – often, the presence of a threat – to be true that is nonexistent… episodes often involve wildfire suggestibility and a rapid cycle, ending in the belief's dissipation’.     CJ

New-year optimism

THAT our civilisation will survive the coming climate catastrophe was psychologist Susan Blackmore’s answer to Edge magazine’s question for 2007: ‘What are you optimistic about and why?’ Simon Baron-Cohen, meanwhile, is buoyed by the rise in autism occurring in tandem with the digital revolution. ‘For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate’, he wrote. (See also Simon Baron-Cohen’s article on p.76.)Other psychologist contributors included Elizabeth Loftus, who is hopeful the authorities are beginning to recognise the danger of false memories, and Steven Pinker, who sees that violence has been in steady decline around the world and is optimistic that the trend will continue.    CJ
Edge magazine is free at

Humans can track scent like a dog

Bloodhounds are unlikely to be out of work just yet, but researchers have found humans can track a scent on the ground in the same way that dogs do. While humans are traditionally considered to have a poor sense of smell compared with many of their mammalian cousins, the new finding suggests such a reputation may be unfair.
Jess Porter and colleagues first observed that 21 out of 32 participants were able to track a 10 metre trail of chocolate essential oil through an open field using their sense of smell alone. By contrast, none of them were able to track the scent when their nostrils were taped up.
Moreover, it seems this latent ability is ripe for improvement through practice. In a second experiment the researchers asked four participants to practise tracking scents for three hours a day, for three days. Afterwards, the participants were more than twice as fast at tracking a scent, and they deviated less from the scent trail.  The researchers said such improvements needn’t end there: ‘Our sense of smell is less keen partly because we put less demand on it,’ Porter said. ‘But if people practice sniffing smells, they can get really good at it.’
Next, in a move that opponents of animal experimentation would surely approve of, the researchers used human participants to find out more about how animals track scents. They wanted to know if such tracking is done by comparing odour intensity across the two nostrils, in much the same way that sound is localised by comparing across the ears. Some have argued the nostrils are spaced to close together to be used in this way, but it’s been a difficult issue to research with even in the most well-behaved dogs objecting to their nostrils being blocked.
So 14 human participants attempted to track a scent either with one nostril taped, or with both nostrils clear. Accuracy dropped to 36 per cent with a taped nostril (compared with 66 per cent with both nostrils clear) and speed dropped by 26 per cent. Another experiment used a special device that combined airflow so that both nostrils received the same information, and this was again found to impair performance.
‘Here we find that mammals performing a scent-tracking task, freely able to move their nose and sample the olfactory environment in real time, reap added benefit from sampling via their two spatially offset nostrils,’ the researchers concluded.


Porter, J., Craven, B., Khan, R.M. et al. (2006). Mechanisms of scent tracking in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 27–29.

This originally appeared in the Research Digest, see

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The Nuffield Foundation has three project grant programmes in the area of social policy: Access to Justice – which includes improving access to the legal system and alternative forms of dispute resolution; Child Protection and Family Justice – with a focus on a range of topics including education of looked after children, contact following separation or divorce, and child witnesses; and Older People and Their Families – which includes funding for research into economic planning for later life, family solidarity/family obligations, and autonomy and decision making. There are two rounds of applications in 2007, outline submissions should be made by 28 March or 16 July, with final applications due on 14 May or 10 September.

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The Medical Research Council wants to encourage high-quality research proposals that address key issues for chronic fatigue syndrome/ME research: case-definition, understanding symptomatology and new approaches to management. Investigator-initiated research proposals covering the spectrum of research into CFS/ME, from basic studies through to more applied health services research and interventions are welcomed. Applications are assessed in open competition across the MRC’s range of grant schemes.

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The Caledonian Research Foundation, through the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, annually awards up to three Postgraduate Scholarships to graduates with a first class honours degree from a Scottish university. Each is tenable for up to three years for research leading to a PhD degree in Scotland. There is no preference for particular subjects and awards are for £13,000 per academic year. Applications deadline: 15 March 2007. The Foundation also offers Personal Research Fellowships in the Biomedical Sciences, awarded to well-qualified young academic staff to enable them to pursue a three-year programme of research in a Scottish higher education or research institution. The research must be in the biological, biochemical, physical or clinical sciences related to medicine, normally carried out full-time. Applications deadline: 2 March 2007.

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Help the Aged has a series of schemes to fund research into ageing.PhD Studentship scheme – an excellent training in research, providing a generous stipend, university fees, expenses and travel. Research into Ageing Fellowships – an opportunity for postdoctoral scientists with at least three years postdoctoral experience o become independent researchers. Discipline Hopping Awards – available to established researchers (lecturer or above) who can demonstrate a strong track record in their own field, but who are not established in ageing research. Project grants – available up to £225,000 over three years to include the salary for a postdoctoral researcher and consumables. The deadline for all the above schemes is 1 May 2007.
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Caring about carers

THE needs of people caring for others with dementia are highlighted in new National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on dementia. The guidelines refer to these carers as ‘one of the most vulnerable groups of carers’ who ‘often have high levels of stress, feelings of guilt, depression and other psychological problems. They often ignore their own health needs in favour of those of the person for whom they care. They may become exhausted, have poor physical health and feel isolated.’The guidance states that assessment of psychological distress in carers should be ongoing, and that they should be offered interventions including individual or group psycho-education; peer support groups with other carers, matched according to the stage of dementia of the person being cared for; training courses on communication and problem solving; and cognitive behaviour therapy. The person with dementia should be involved where possible, and other family members should also be involved in meetings. Further research is urgently needed to gauge the cost-effectiveness of such interventions, the guidance adds.
People with dementia should also be assessed for depression and anxiety, and a range of interventions should be made available including reminiscence therapy, multisensory stimulation, animal-assisted therapy and exercise, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy.    CJ
For the full guidance, or a quick guide, see

Brain science writing prize

THE inaugural National Brain-Science Writing Prize for a ‘newspaper article about the brain’ was awarded to Rebecca Poole late last year, for an item about confabulation. She described research by psychologist Dr Steve Dewhurst of Lancaster University, showing how our expectations and prior knowledge of an event can cause false memories to be laid down at the point when we’re initially processing information ready for storage.The award for a ‘newspaper article by a scientist about their own work’ went to psychologist Dr Angelica Ronald of the Institute of Psychiatry.
Ronald described her research with 6000 pairs of twins showing that more than half the genes associated with autism, especially those relating to communication difficulties, are also involved in ADHD.
The competition is a joint initiative of the ‘Your amazing brain’ website, The European Dana Alliance for the Brain, and the British Neuroscience Association.    CJ
Read winning entries and runners-up:

Putting it into practice
The Division of Clinical Psychology Annual Conference was held on 13–15 December. Judith Spies (The Priory, Ticehurst), Christian Jarrett and Jon Sutton attended a day each.

THE Congress Centre in London played host to the Annual Conference of the Division of Clinical Psychology. Around 300 people attended to hear talks and participate in workshops on topics as diverse as domestic violence and dementia, psychosis and plastic surgery. What follows is just a small selection from an extremely informative and enjoyable few days.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise, so too does the bewildering range of ‘interventions’ on offer to parents, from special diets and vitamins to secretin injections, homeopathy, intensive behavioural therapy, and even swimming with dolphins. But speaking at one of the pre-conference workshops, Patricia Howlin, Professor of Clinical Child Psychology and Vice President of the National Autistic Society, said the majority of these lacked any supporting evidence. In fact some appeared to be harmful, with facilitated communication being condemned by the APA.
Despite this, nearl

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