Students

Psychology, common sense and juries; and in praise of sandwich years
An appeal against intuition BACK in my early days as a fresher, I often encountered the accusation ‘You’re doing a doss course. It’s not a science – everyone knows about psychology’. I’m not sure whether I was more worried that I might be the only human who didn’t know everything about psychology, or by my quick realisation that most people in fact remain oblivious to what psychology actually is. However, while psychologists’ work and study is based upon the principle that we know relatively little about human behaviour, the law does not agree.

An appeal against intuition

BACK in my early days as a fresher, I often encountered the accusation ‘You’re doing a doss course. It’s not a science – everyone knows about psychology’. I’m not sure whether I was more worried that I might be the only human who didn’t know everything about psychology, or by my quick realisation that most people in fact remain oblivious to what psychology actually is. However, while psychologists’ work and study is based upon the principle that we know relatively little about human behaviour, the law does not agree.Over 30 years ago, the English Court of Appeal ruled in the case of R v. Turner that psychological and psychiatric experts’ testimony is inadmissible in the courtroom, unless it pertains to abnormal behaviour. Explicit in this decision was the reasoning that has become labelled as the transparency assumption, that legal decision makers, including jurors, are fully able to understand the workings of ‘normal’, non-pathological human behaviour, since it is within their everyday experience. To allow expert testimony on non-pathological behaviour is therefore considered an invasion of a jury’s province to reach their own unbiased decision.
Each year, thousands of students around the country, and indeed around the world, enrol in psychology courses with a keen interest in learning of the mechanisms underlying human behaviour – that which, according to the word of the law, is intuitively understood by every human who engages in normal behaviour routinely and habitually. As members of this strange discipline that persists in the study of the intuitively known, we psychologists are compelled to ask, why do we bother? The straightforward answer is, of course, that the transparency assumption is a myth. Like all good myths, however, this one has survived in spite of its own absurdity, having put down roots in the discursive foundations of our legal system.
To this day, judges have been guided by the Turner rule; consequently, the role of the academic psychologist as expert witness has been minor in comparison to other countries, such as the United States. While many studies developing from the work of Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues (e.g. Deffenbacher & Loftus, 1982) have suggested that the general population has poor understanding of the normal workings of memory, it is still regarded by some as a giant and dangerous leap to infer from theoretical research to the courtroom (Loftus, 1993). It is of concern that so much research can be written off as ‘common sense’.
Psychology has evolved from its philosophical antecedents to become a constantly visible facet of our lives, but it seems it has yet to prove its worth. As with so many mythological beings, psychology must attack the transparency assumption at its heart if it is to be slain. It is therefore compelling to convey non-intuitive findings from research more enthusiastically than their intuitive counterparts. If some clever academic designed an experiment to examine what humans understand about their own behaviour, and discovered that the participants did in fact possess complete comprehension of everything their species did, would the academic be less likely to publish the ‘intuitive’ results?
Despite the Turner rule, this misconceived legal relic, psychology as a discipline has nothing to prove. We can infer from the omnipresence of psychology in our society alone that what we are doing is worthwhile, and that we are truly contributing to the understanding of something which would otherwise be equivocal. Psychology students undertaking research projects should, I think, be defiant in the face of allusions to intuition. Whether your results are in line with what Average Joe might expect, or the complete opposite, it need not matter – what psychologists seem more prepared than most to admit is that Average Joe doesn’t know everything. We should not, therefore, be deterred from investigating everyday behaviour by the threat that it might be superfluous – ‘normal’ behaviour is as elusive as abnormal behaviour, and psychologists should continue to treat it as such in the face of opinion to the contrary. 
Perhaps a willing psychology student might design their undergraduate research study to settle this old score: A representative sample of legal scholars, when given a single month’s contributions to psychological literature to read, are asked afterwards whether they could honestly claim to have learnt nothing from it. Of course, there would be methodological problems with this procedure – firstly, we have yet to reach perfection in the lie-detection research corpus; secondly, the findings of such a study would inevitably be common sense, and therefore unworthy of our attention.

Robert Nash is a postgraduate at the University of Warwick. E-mail: [email protected].

Editor’s note: See also the article in this issue by Tom Stafford, on p.94.

References
Deffenbacher, K.A. & Loftus, E.F. (1982). Do jurors share a common understanding concerning eyewitness behavior? Law and Human Behavior, 6(1), 15–30.
Loftus, E.F. (1993). Psychologists in the eyewitness world. American Psychologist, 48(5), 550–552.

 

Sun, sea and…
sandwich years

TO many psychology undergraduates struggling to contend with the real stresses of balancing exams, lectures and work, the very notion of going overseas for a year as part of their degree may seem like a joke. However, here at Aston University we have been spearheading an approach to encourage students to travel abroad as part of their sandwich year. At the moment there are only a handful of universities that incorporate a sandwich year as part of their programmes, but this number is very rapidly increasing. Bearing in mind the fact that your degree course may not offer a sandwich year, you can still gain overseas work experience that contributes to your ‘graduate employability’. And the two questions that students who yearn to travel as part of their degree want answers to are ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’.Work experience is of immense professional value and influences your future career path. Going overseas can increase this employment value tenfold. For example, working as a clinical assistant in Singapore, Malaysia or Australia clearly demonstrates that you not only have the requisite work experience to become a clinical psychologist, but also the all important life experience. Having to deal with differences in attitudes, cultures and even languages with various clients can only be an experience worth having. Returning back to the UK with these enhanced graduate qualities will impress most employers. Overseas work experience directly broadens your cultural horizons; and given that health services need to adapt to multicultural client groups, such experience is clearly valuable to the aspiring clinical psychologist.
There are a lot of advantages in carrying out a placement year, for example, as a medical assistant in the Malay jungle, that can be brought back to enhance your career prospects to make you stand out in the crowd of graduates that enter the employment market each year. The old adage that travel broadens the mind certainly holds true here. The shifting emphasis for graduate employment is moving more towards balancing life experience with degree grade. This is reflected in turn by a shifting attitude in the degree programmes towards providing such valuable experience (see tinyurl.com/y6gce3). Thus the opportunities provided by taking a placement year need to be seriously considered.
Currently, the University of Sussex and University of Bath, as well as Aston, offer sandwich years as part of the psychology degree course. This does not mean that if you are not a student at one of these institutions you wont have the opportunity to work overseas as part of your degree. Far from it, in fact any undergraduate can (and should) gain overseas work experience during their degree. The Association for Sandwich Training & Education (ASET) makes a very clear and compelling case for the value of work experience on their website (www.asetonline.org). More importantly the site includes a collection of blogs from students who have gained overseas work experience as well as those students who have stayed in the UK. By reading these blogs one can quickly grasp the advantages (as well as any potential difficulties) to gaining overseas work experience.
In addition to this the ever-growing burden of student debt force many graduates straight into work, making the chances of visiting an overseas country, to an extent where you can actually discover the culture and get to live with the inhabitants of that country, really quite slim for the first years of your professional life. Enjoying this overseas opportunity as part of your degree will allow you to maximise your graduate potential whilst having a chance of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure all before entering the job market!
Those students who undertake work experience also become highly career-focused. Skills learnt during the experience have direct relevance to the world of work, so much so that it creates a phenomenon known as ‘exit velocity’ a focused drive to return to the world of work such that the final year of studies is completed with a highly studious attitude. Those students who take part in overseas work experience return to the final years of their courses with a profound form of exit velocity where they are so determined to return to work that they simply fail to fail.
If you are thinking of enjoying a year abroad as part of your studies how would you pay for your travels? The first place to start is your own university. Your personal tutor or placement support officer should have knowledge of the various funding schemes which you can approach for support. Departmental funds are varied but they do exist. Some universities have dedicated placement support offices that will have access to funds to support sandwich years. In addition to this your potential supervisor at the host site should also be approached for advice on financial support. For example, if you wanted to carry out your sandwich year in the jungle on Barro Colorado island near Panama you would be able to apply for a Smithsonian research studentship which will cover flights and accommodation for the period of your placement, simply leaving you to source funds for recreation.
Organisations such as the National Association for Student Employment Services (NASES; see www.work-experience.org) or the National Council for Work Experience (www.nases.org.uk) have access to superb information regarding various forms of financial support on their respective websites and should also be consulted as early as possible.
The points raised above all converge on the fact that opportunities to travel overseas for your placement year not only provide you with a unique set of ‘employability skills’ but also ensure that you have an experience of a lifetime as part of your studies.

Rowena Yeats is an undergraduate at Aston University and is currently on a placement at the National University of Singapore and Harvard University and Carl Senior is also based at Aston University.

Postgraduate opportunities
The PsyPAG Annual Conference will be held at London South Bank University, 18–20 July. Come and present your research in a friendly environment. Open to all Psychology Postgraduates. Bursaries available. Please see www.psypag.co.uk for further details, or contact [email protected].
Bursaries are also available to help postgraduate students to attend domestic and international conferences. Applications from presenters of papers and posters are preferred. For an application and further information, please see www.psypag.co.uk/bursaries or e-mail [email protected]. Next deadline 10 May.

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