Suspect cultural messages
We are writing in response to the BPS collaboration with Top Santé magazine, which was launched last month (News, April 2007). As highlighted in the article, we concur with the aims and responsibilities of the BPS and are in agreement that psychology needs to be engaging with the public. Further, we agree that we should be developing, promoting and applying psychology for the good of the readers and the public in general. However, our concern is that reinforcing contemporary constructions of gender is not the best way to achieve those aims, and thus have concerns about this particular venture with Top Santé. The BPS insists that psychology is not a political discipline and that as a governing body it intends to retain objectivity, neutrality and impartiality. However, we are concerned that our name has been attached to sources of highly suspect cultural messages that reinforce dominant notions of feminine identity, such as innate emotionality (p.12) and concern with weight and appearance (p.5, p.21). There is also a prominent discourse of stress running throughout (p.2, p.3, p.8–9, p.10–11), which reinforces notions of psychological (and physiological) pathology in women.
The magazine does not consider the gendered nature of these constructs and its relation to social inequities. Solutions are instead offered within an individualising discourse, such as ‘retail therapy’ (p.13) and self-pampering (p.3, p.17, p.21), or through seeking professional advice (p.9, p.17, p.21, p.24). The magazine itself constructs female subjectivity as heterosexual and elitist (suggesting, for example, that a past accomplishment might be ‘snogging the sexiest guy at university’ (p.3) and, going by the images alone, undoubtedly white and able-bodied. While this may be the way that some women (and men) have experienced their lives, it is important to open up interpretations and possibilities more widely and to question the nature of those constructions.
While we have focused on gendered examples here, given that that is a primary concern of the Psychology of Women Section (POWS) and also the focus of the magazine, our central point is that psychology should be questioning and highlighting the ways in which human experience (that is, for men and women, for adults and children, etc.) is structured and constrained, rather than capitulating to contemporary societal characterisations. POWS suggests that the role of psychology and science is to look again at how humans see, understand and construct the world and should not be buying into its apparent stereotypical forms. A useful example of where this might take us is already in evidence in another news item in the same edition of The Psychologist which discussed the destructive power of sexualised images for young girls. Effectively, this piece argued that we need to rethink, challenge, re-envision the ways in which women are represented in society so that we can see how such contexts influence them psychologically.
If one of the aims of science is to encourage independent and critical thinking, then we do not think that this aim is being achieved in the Top Santé publication.
Psychology of Women Section Committee
Boredom and psychological malaise
In her response to February’s article ‘The boredom boom’ (Letters, April 2007), Marion Martin rightly asserts that it remains unclear whether the incidence of boredom is increasing. While it is certainly true that there is no substantial evidence about the rising incidence, it is generally believed that boredom is a widespread offspring of our automated society. The significance of boredom and its consequences has unfortunately not been adequately subjected to research. Nevertheless, many philosophers and psychologists have highlighted the serious problems surrounding boredom.
Schopenhauer regards pain and boredom as the two enemies of human happiness; Heidegger says that the crises of modern life is caused by ‘forgetfulness of existence and triviality of everyday life’; Kierkegaard thinks that ‘boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself’; and Bertrand Russell is of the opinion that at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of boredom. Russell also insists that it is one of the chief rivals of happiness. In The Conquest of Happiness he writes: ‘Boredom as a factor in human behaviour has received, in my opinion, far less, attention than it deserves’ (Russell, 1996).
Colin Wilson, author of A Criminal History of Mankind, asserts that boredom is the cause of many sexual crimes and even murders. According to him, the criminal becomes bored with the monotony, meaninglessness and futility of life (Wilson, 1973). He also proposes the idea that boredom creates a chain of negative reaction which heightens the boredom until it becomes intolerable. It may then precipitates loss of pleasure in life. He goes further and mentions Graham Greene’s condition of extreme boredom and depression during which the author felt that his life had sunk deep into a meaningless world, subsequently played Russian roulette and contemplated suicide (Wilson, 1973).
There is a very close relationship between boredom and happiness as one cannot be happy if feeling bored. The majority of books on happiness discuss boredom as a cause of unhappiness (Worell, 2006).
When something interests us and occupy our full attention, the act of focusing results in making boredom disappear or at least minimising it. Bored or miserable people do not put enough mental energy into their acts, they do not concentrate. The cure for boredom is making sufficient mental effort in putting meaning into what we do and not allowing our wills to become passive. Based on his experiences in concentration camps, Victor Frankl later advocated the immense importance of having goals and meaning in life. He was of the view that mental illness begins when people do not have a sense of ‘something to look forward to’ (Frankl, 1984).
It seems extremely plausible that meaning stimulates us whereas boredom has a crippling effect on our wills and may very well make us vulnerable to mental illness.
Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Washington Square Press.
Russell, B. (1996).The conquest of happiness. New York: Liveright.
Wilson, C. (1973). New pathways in psychology. London: Victor Gollancz.
Worell, J. (2006). Seeking happiness: An elusive goal. PsycCritiques, 51(47).
Employment prospects for clinical psychologists…
When I reviewed clinical psychology services in 1989 (MAS, 1989) and provided options for the development of health psychology services I defined the purpose as ‘to improve, either directly or indirectly, the standard and quality of life of people who are served by and provide health services, and to alleviate disability, through the application of appropriate psychological theories’. Since that time the significance of organisations in the causes of mental distress and stress has been more clearly understood. The NHS has levels of absence from work and staff turnover comparable with some of the least well performing organisations in the country, much of it due to stress.
It is a puzzle why clinical psychologists have not explored their contribution to the economy by demonstrating their ability to prevent and reduce stress, and enhance mental well-being at work. The stress epidemic is now costing the country £billions and the NHS between £300m and £400m per annum (source: NHS Employers). The skills required to change organisation culture by focusing on stress prevention behaviours and approaches are those which MAS level 3 psychologists possess. The business case for their continued employment is clear.
Management Advisory Service (1989). Review of clinical psychology services. Cheltenham: Author.
…and for psychology graduates
Psychology is booming, we are told. It is the third most popular A-level subject: but the numbers getting an ‘A’ are below the national average. Psychology graduates are pouring out of the universities; but, according to a 2004 Graduate Prospects survey, one in three of them are not in work six months after graduating.
I believe that an assumption that psychology is easy, fuelled by ‘soft’ media coverage, has led people to apply for psychology courses without a proper understanding of what the discipline is, what is involved in its study, or the interest needed to spend countless days and nights researching for assignments. It does not seem too drastic to suggest a link between these factors and the employability of psychology graduates.
If any readers out there agree that there is a problem, what do you think needs to be done to resolve it? I think that a first step in making psychology graduates more employable is to target employers. In my first job interview, I mentioned studying psychology and my interviewer looked like they’d been slapped in the face with a trout. The psychological community should act to inform employers of the benefits of employing psychologically informed personnel – such as better management, enhanced productivity, numeracy and critical thinking.
The last of these skills is key in my view. As scientists, knowledge of scientific methodology and critical thinking and evaluating skills are vital. In fact, I would suggest that universities introduce an exam to assess critical thinking. Law has the National Admissions Test for Law; Medicine has the Biomedical Admissions Test. Is it time for the Psychology Critical Thinking Admissions Test?
University of Lincoln
Conduct – Learning from experience
We are two members of the Society who have been involved in the conduct panels that investigate complex complaints made to the Society. We write to draw members’ attention to one area where we feel that the Society’s conduct procedures could be improved, and we hope to begin a constructive dialogue which can develop to contribute to the advancement of learning for and within the Society.
Conduct panels are appointed where the Investigatory Committee decides the issues presented by a complaint are complex or specific and that further professional expertise and knowledge is needed to investigate them. Conduct panel members give their time voluntarily and offer advice on professional practice, rather than legal advice.
We have been involved in a large number of different panels and find, after due reflection and discussion, that it is possible to reach a consensus of opinion as to whether there is a case of misconduct to answer. This view is then fed back to the Investigatory Committee who then reach a decision about how to proceed.
However, some cases are less than clear-cut, and occasionally the panel may agree that, while there is insufficient information to conclude there is evidence of professional misconduct, aspects of poor practice nevertheless are in evidence. Typically these can relate to the style and manner of professional communication, the contractual basis for a piece of work, supervision and continuing professional development.
At present there is no formal mechanism for communicating the panel’s concerns either to the individual member, whose practice has been subject to complaint, or to the Society at large. We think this is a great pity and a waste of some very rich and potentially helpful learning material.
We hope that following this letter other members may join this debate on whether the conduct procedures should also aim to provide professional practice advice and support to members and an explanation of where things may have gone wrong to the complainants; and how the learning that we gain from the conduct procedures should be fed back to the profession to improve our professional practice as psychologists.
Names and addresses supplied
Society President Pam Maras replies: I believe that it is important and timely for members to debate the purpose of the conduct procedures and how learning from those procedures could benefit the Society as a whole. If members wish to add any comments to this debate, I would welcome contributions to the Letters page, or write to me c/o the Regulatory Affairs Team ([email protected]).
Brain Awareness Week
Brain Awareness Week is an international effort to raise public awareness of brain research, and is held annually in mid-March (see www.dana.org/brainweek).
On Thursday 15 March the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the UCL Institute of Child Health hosted a free evening of public lectures in association with Brain Awareness Week, entitled ‘Autism and the Brain’. The evening was phenomenally oversubscribed for our 250-capacity lecture theatre, and attracted a varied audience including individuals with autism, friends and family members, autism care professionals, and interested members of the public as well as academics and clinicians.
Professor Tony Charman spoke first about the epidemiology and etiology of autism. He explained that the recent so-called ‘autism epidemic’ is probably due to enhanced rigour in research as well as a rise in public awareness, although other explanations cannot be ruled out. He emphasised the heterogeneity of autism spectrum disorders, and called for more research and more services for individuals with autism and their families and carers.
Ros Blackburn then gave a thought-provoking and insightful talk about her experience living with autism. She sees autism as a predominantly social difficulty, and spoke about how she has to work out social ‘rules’ using logical strategies – with occasionally disastrous or distressing consequences. She suggested that this difficulty with socialising should be addressed by the provision of explicit, step-by-step training for individuals with autism, since such people cannot learn how to do it ‘instinctively’. Throughout, Ms Blackburn emphasised the important role played by her caring and supportive family and carers in allowing her to cope with her autism.
Professor Uta Frith ended the evening by asking ‘Is every aspect of the social brain impaired in autism spectrum disorder?’ Her conclusion was a resounding ‘No’. While individuals such as Ms Blackburn may have difficulties in instinctively learning the rules governing social interactions, they are capable of learning about the social stereotypes which a given society will tend to propagate. For example, an individual with autism spectrum disorder will ‘know’ that people wearing smart suits but not people dressed shabbily might have ‘high’ status. An outstanding question for future research is how individuals with autism arrive at this knowledge, and how this sort of ability can be harnessed to help individuals with autism learn about social rules.
Question time after each talk was lively and varied. In light of this hugely successful evening, we would like to urge other members of the psychology community to host similar events for Brain Awareness Week in the future. Both researchers and the general public will benefit from the lively and informed dialogue which will ensue.
UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
Having just read the 20 March update on statutory regulation on the BPS website, I am concerned by something in the text that I was previously unaware of, namely Paragraph 4d of the ‘Trustees View’. This states that ‘a “psychologist” is defined as a person with Doctoral level qualifications/competences’.
This has far-reaching consequences for many practising psychologists. For instance, I am working towards chartership as an occupational psychologist, and as such have an MSc in Occupational Psychology. Does the Trustees’ statement mean that, post-chartership, I will not be considered to be a ‘psychologist’? If so, then I would suggest that the majority of chartered occupational psychologists will be in the same position! Or will they all be required to undertake further study/qualification to bring them up to doctoral level?
Obviously this will have a similar implication for other Divisions.
Society President Pam Maras replies: I would like to reassure all members that the Society is not suggesting that all regulated psychologists must hold a doctoral-level qualification. What we are talking about is demonstrating competence at D-level, which can be achieved by a number of routes – including, for example, an MSc plus appropriate postqualification experience. The Membership and Professional Training Board sets the standard for achieving chartered status at D-level now, so what the Trustees are proposing is that any regulator maintains these existing standards in order to provide good protection for the public.
I am a Psychology with Philosophy graduate from the University of Dundee, currently studying an MA in Visual and Creative Practice at Blackpool and the Fylde College. My dissertation will be the results of people’s reactions to my artwork and whether it is considered as mostly objective or subjective. If you would be interested in viewing my ideas and completing a short, informal questionnaire, please contact me.Deborah Marsden
I am looking for people who have grown up with a sibling who has a learning disability to take part in an interview about their experience to complete my doctoral thesis in clinical psychology. If you are between the ages of 18 and 25 and no longer live with your sibling, I would be interested to hear from you. Participants who complete their interview will have the chance of winning book tokens. If you are interested, please contact me.
Have you ever experienced physical contact with clients? Do you use ‘touch’ in your practice? I am exploring the phenomenon of touch within therapy. If you are interested in contributing to the knowledge base in this area, I would really like to hear your story. This research is for my MSc dissertation and would involve two unstructured interviews, lasting approx an hour, to be arranged at a time and place of your convenience.
[email protected] or 07789 694 792
Free to anyone willing to collect: The Psychologist magazines 1999–2006. Location: Colchester, Essex.
Conference – An enriching experience
Taking time out from a hectic work and study schedule is never easy. Justifying that time out is even more difficult. The opportunity to attend the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference was not to be missed. This year in York the event featured internationally recognised keynote specialist speakers. The range of specialist workshops and networking events made it very difficult to choose which to attend. The academic poster event gave psychologists the opportunity to share their innovative studies and promote knowledge of psychology across society. But I was terribly disappointed by the low numbers of delegates, as the future of our profession, let alone holding on to our generic title ‘psychologist’, is being battled out in Parliament. These difficult times call for collaborative support and proactive contributions in by which we can all seek support from one another. In order to meet the vision for the future, psychologists will for the foreseeable future remain on the battlefield and experience some painful criticisms. The Society has shown great strength in its dedication to taking the profession into a new dimension, and my point is that the Annual Conference allows psychologists the forum in which to bring together significant contributions from all psychological disciplines and celebrate professional progress. I was fortunate to have been at the Annual General Meeting, which welcomed President Pam Maras into office as Ray Miller’s successor. I would like to have seen a better attendance at this event in support of all the trustees and the work that goes on behind the scenes. The AGM opens up the window of opportunity for psychologists to express their feelings about the future of the profession. The Board of Trustees were readily waiting to answer questions but were hardly challenged.Psychologist resources were plentiful and for those of you that wanted to travel light – you would not have been able to resist all the freebie gifts including satchel, cups, highlighters, stylish pens, and even an umbrella to keep off those April showers.Make a date for next year as attending the Annual Conference can be an enriching experience. As psychologists, we should continue to value the wide range of psychological practice and research. I return from the conference inspired and refreshed and congratulate the BPS and the supporting North East Branch for representing British psychology as a professional body at its best.
Doctorate Trainee Professional Health Psychologist
Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
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