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Blow football

Amidst the political fireworks in May, it was easy to miss a side skirmish triggered by the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a more dangerous Class B drug. According to Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick and a member of the independent UK Drug Policy Commission, ‘cannabis has become the football in a contest between evidence and passion’.

Dr John Marsden, of the National Addiction Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, is a chartered psychologist and member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. This body was asked by the Home Secretary to assess the medical and social scientific basis of the classification of cannabis, and the majority of members advised against reclassification. Marsden told us: ‘My personal opinion is that the classification system as it stands currently does not reflect an analysis of the sum of the risks and harms for health for each controlled substance. The decision by ministers to seek to reclassify cannabis reflects political pressures rather than what the available evidence is saying. But I can understand the reasoning and, in truth, the evidence to hand is very far from complete: we need to know a lot more about how people actually smoke strong forms of cannabis and the doses of THC received. But there’s little doubt in my mind that cannabis is a more psychologically risky drug than many have presupposed.’

In terms of the evidence on consumption, it appears that the Home Secretary’s comments on ‘binge smoking’ are based on a single study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy last year (see, which took its samples from cannabis coffee shops in Holland.

Professor Robin Murray, from the Institute of Psychiatry, told The Psychologist that there is general agreement (based on studies of samples seized by the police) that the average strength of the street drug has been ‘creeping up since the late 80s’, and is now maybe four times stronger than in the 1960s (not 20 times, as some newspapers have reported). But he added that there is still little evidence on smoking habits: ‘It appears that the more frequently you smoke, the more likely you are to smoke skunk. But do people who smoke skunk smoke as much of it?’

Why is there still such a lack of reliable evidence? ‘Because up until recently we thought it was a safe drug’, said Murray. ‘Look at the Lancet editorial in 1995, which gave cannabis a clean bill of health. It’s only since 2002 that a substantial body of longitudinal research has become available. There are now eight such studies showing that people who smoke have a higher risk of later developing psychosis. The best is the oldest – Andréasson et al.’s 1987 study of Swedish army conscripts [see]. But we still can’t say it’s a causal risk factor – there’s a lack of understanding over the mechanism. What’s needed now is experimental studies, not epidemiological. I think that will focus on the endocannabinoid system. It may well turn out that some people are just genetically relatively immune to cannabis.’ JS

Whispers in the shadows 

Psychologist Daniel Freeman (Institute of Psychiatry) and his collaborators have used virtual reality (VR) to provide the clearest demonstration yet that paranoid thoughts are more prevalent among the general population than previously realised.

A difficulty when investigating degrees of paranoia among research participants has been ensuring that everyone experiences an identical situation, especially considering how people’s own behaviour influences how others act towards them. The use of VR allowed Freeman’s team to compare participants’ responses to an identical situation.

Two hundred ‘healthy’ participants without a clinical diagnosis donned a headset that placed them inside a ‘virtual’ crowded tube train. The majority of participants responded in a neutral or positive way to the animated tube passengers, but around a third responded negatively, believing, for example, that another passenger wanted to intimidate them. ‘In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case,’ Freeman said.

However, The Psychologist put it to Dr Freeman that participants enrolled in a psychology study might well be biased towards expecting something out of the ordinary to happen, thus inducing hypervigilance. He told us: ‘The key point to remember is that, although everybody had the same experience, there were striking differences in interpretation, from very positive to very negative. This indicates that the interpretations were more to do with what a person brought to the situation than the VR situation itself. For example, participants who were worriers, and those with lower self-esteem were more likely to make paranoid judgements.’

The new findings, which are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (, come after a University of Manchester study, published last year that discovered from interviews that ‘healthy’ participants and patients with psychosis experience similar kinds of paranoid thoughts ( However, differences did emerge: the patients’ paranoia tended to be more outlandish and to be characterised by a lack of control. CJ

Level of gaming gore hits aggression

Hype surrounding the global release of the gangster-themed video game Grand Theft Auto IV has renewed the long-standing debate over whether violent games make players more aggressive. Now Christopher Barlett and colleagues have provided a fresh angle on the issue by specifically testing whether the amount of blood in a game makes any difference to its effects on aggression.

The researchers took advantage of the fact that the game Mortal Combat: Deadly Alliance allows players to select one of four blood levels, from none to maximum (in which copious amounts of blood spurts everywhere and gets trodden in by characters around the playing area). Of 74 students who played the Mortal Combat game for 15 minutes, those who played on the maximum blood level experienced larger increases in hostility after playing (as judged by their agreement with statements like ‘I feel furious’) and larger increases in arousal as measured by their heart rate, than did the players on the lower or zero blood levels.

Those students who played the game with blood also showed higher levels of aggression, compared with those who played without blood, as indicated by their greater use of their character’s weapon in the game, which they’d been told would inflict more damage on their opponents.

A second experiment with 31 students showed that playing Mortal Combat on the maximum blood level, as compared with the no blood level, activated more aggression related thoughts, as measured by participants’ choice of how to complete ambiguous word stems like KI-- (e.g. KILL vs. KISS).

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (see, the researchers say that ‘The violence, plus the high amount of blood, primes more aggressive thoughts in memory compared with just playing the violent game without the blood.’ cj

Misplaced blame for bulimia?

The French parliament has tabled a bill that will ban the glamorisation of extreme thinness. Any media that are deemed to have put people’s health at risk by advocating thinness look set for up to two years in prison or a €30,000 fine.

The development, seen widely as an attempt to clamp down on so-called ‘pro-ana’ websites (see News, February 2007), comes weeks after a voluntary charter was signed by the French fashion industry agreeing not to promote extreme thinness. It also follows the 2007 ban by Spanish authorities of ultra-thin catwalk models.

Psychologist David Giles at the University of Winchester believes the French authorities are making a mistake. He has conducted research on pro-ana websites and is sceptical about the degree of danger they pose, telling us that one or two highly publicised cases doesn’t provide sufficient evidence that the sites themselves constitute a serious health risk.

‘The research to date suggests that the sight of lots of thin models can possibly add to the pressure a vulnerable teenage girl feels to lose weight,’ Giles said. ‘But whether they can be held directly accountable for anorexia or bulimia is another matter. All we can say is that the media is a broad contributor, but each separate case has a different origin – often the family. Many people in treatment for anorexia aren’t particularly attracted to thin celebrities at all.’

Giles also doubts the likely effectiveness of an online ban. ‘You’d need Stasi-level scrutiny for it to work. This would be out of all proportion to the actual health risk,’ he said. CJ

An evening of scepticism

The country’s leading parapsychologists paid tribute to James Randi at London’s Conway Hall in April during a rare visit by the celebrated magician-sceptic to these shores. What parapsychology and the sceptic movement share is the application of rational thinking and scientific testing to the claims of self-professed psychics, and to the anomalous experiences reported by the general population. Indeed, Randi is probably most famous for his long-standing offer of a million dollar reward to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions.

‘I remember reading James Alcock’s book Parapsychology: Science or Magic? in the 1980s,’ said the evening’s first speaker, Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘It altered the course of my life and made me a sceptic. I remember there were lots of mentions in there of James Randi, who emulated the so-called psychic abilities of Uri Geller using magic tricks.’ ‘It’s a great time to be a sceptic in the UK,’ French continued. This event sold out within days, the prize-winning Skeptics in the Pub group is growing from strength to strength, and there are a spiralling number of related interest groups, including Skepchicks and UK Brights. ‘Anomalistic psychology is also found in a growing number psychology degree programmes and is a great way to teach critical thinking,’ French said.

Later, the medic and ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre took the stage, explaining how James Randi had taught him that when it comes to unusual phenomena, it is the real story that can be so much more beautiful and interesting than the false account.

‘Consider the placebo effect,’ Goldacre said. ‘It’s relatively unexplored and it’s about so much more than the power of a sugar pill – it’s about our expectations.’ Research has shown that four sugar pills are more effective than two for treating gastric ulcers; saltwater injections are more powerful than sugar pills; and pink sugar pills are more effective as a stimulant than green ones. Even placebo pacemakers can be effective!

But Goldacre said he had also learned that we can never win: ‘The dark powers are too strong, well-organised and funded.’ Early in the 20th century the American medic and charlatan Albert Abrams marketed his ‘oscilloclast’ box, which he claimed could treat all known diseases. It turned out the box contained nothing more than a few pointless electronic wires. Fast forward to last year and the BBC broadcast a serious news item about a ‘bioresonance’ treatment for stopping smoking – it was essentially Abram’s machine reborn. ‘So we’ll never beat them,’ Goldacre concluded, ‘but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a lot of fun trying.’

The evening also saw the return of independent psychologist and writer Sue Blackmore to the sceptics’ fold, having taken time off to pursue other projects. Blackmore told how an evening of drug taking at university in 1970 led to an out-of-body experience during which she looked down on Oxford for hours. ‘After this, I was determined to prove scientists wrong,’ she said. ‘I set about becoming a parapsychologist and conducting experiments to prove the paranormal exists.’

Years later, having tested telepathy in adults and children and even twins, after exploring the Ganzfeld technique, and after testing Tarot reading and dream prediction, Blackmore had uncovered not one iota of evidence to suggest that the paranormal exists. She became a ‘rentasceptic’, with her expert comments often appearing in the press, but the price was mountains of venomous hate mail, and seven or eight years ago Blackmore decided to hang up her parapsychologist’s hat. ‘But I’m delighted to be back,’ she told the capacity crowd.

The evening closed with a talk from James Randi himself, who announced that his million dollar challenge will be withdrawn in just under two years because ‘it’s just too much trouble to administer.’ Has anyone come close to winning the prize? ‘That’s like asking Are you pregnant?’ Randi said. ‘You either are or you aren’t.’

Randi said he was astonished that in the 21st century people still believe in ‘gods and demons’ and that the USA is effectively ‘living under a theocracy’. Randi showed a video of the Evangelist Peter Popoff, whom he had exposed many years ago as a fraud (Popoff’s wife relayed the personal information of audience members to him via a hearing aid). Yet despite being caught out, Popoff has bounced back, earning 10 million dollars more last year than in the year he was exposed. ‘They’re unsinkable rubber ducks,’ Randi said. ‘They all are – it’s shameful.’ CJ

[email protected]

Your e-mail address could be more revealing than you realise. When psychologists in Germany asked 100 students to rate the personalities of the owners of hundreds of e-mail addresses, it turned out that for five out of six personality traits, their judgements were better than would be expected by chance. The students’ ratings were compared with the e-mail address owners’ self-ratings of their own personalities. Accuracy was highest for Openness, intermediate for Conscientiousness and Narcissism and low for Agreeableness and Neuroticism, while ratings for Extraversion were completely off the mark.

Given their accuracy, the students must have been basing their judgments on cues inherent in the e-mail addresses. Indeed, to take two examples, it transpired that Conscientiousness was determined from the quantity of dots and characters in an address, and the lack of digits, while Narcissism was detected from the salaciousness or vanity revealed in the addresses.

Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality Mitja Back (e-mail [email protected]) and colleagues at the University of Leipzig said: ‘In light of the extreme narrowness of information and the complex processes involved in making accurate judgments, the mere existence of above chance-level accuracy in personality judgements based on e-mail addresses is remarkable.’ CJ

Service slammed

A new research report published by the pro-Applied Behavioural Analysis charity PEAT has slammed the lack of service provision in Northern Ireland for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents. In particular, the report calls for all children diagnosed with ASD to be offered early intensive behavioural intervention for as long as necessary.

The report’s lead author, psychologist Dr Mickey Keenan, from the University of Ulster, said: ‘There are deficiencies in the formation of parent/professional partnerships; prolonged waiting times for diagnosis and the issuing of Special Educational Needs Statements and the absence of a coherent view on science-based policy and practice.’ The report, based on questionnaire measures and group discussions with parents and professionals and compiled by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, and PEAT, is available at CJ

- See letters, this issue.


Tom Stewart, a chartered psychologist and Associate Fellow of the BPS, has been appointed as President of the Ergonomics Society.

Tom explained: ‘I want us to work closely with other professional groups interested in how people use computer technology to encourage an ergonomics approach to usability. In this way we can try and make sure that technology improves our lives and reduces stress rather than contributing to it.’

Autism Postnote

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which informs both Houses of Parliament, has published a briefing note on autism – see It describes autism and autism research, and considers policy approaches.

Early career prize

The Economic and Social Research Council in partnership with the Young Foundation has opened the call for the Michael Young Prize 2009. If your research has the potential to impact on society, you could win up to £6000 for help with disseminating your research. The prize is open to those in the first five years of their research career. Applications close on 1 July – see

Open and shut

The University of Cumbria, in association with Neuro Partners Limited, has announced it is to open a £5 million treatment centre for acquired brain injury. The facility, based in Carlisle, will provide psychological services, together with occupational and speech therapy to help the rehabilitation of people who have suffered brain injury. Meanwhile, despite the efforts of local campaigners, the Henderson Hospital in Surrey – recognised internationally for its services for people with personality disorders – closed in April owing to a lack of referrals.

Out now in BPS?Journals

Jon Sutton selects from this month’s offerings

- According to Leyen’s ‘infrahumanisation hypothesis’, some uniquely human emotions, such as shame and guilt (secondary emotions), are reserved for the ingroup, whilst other emotions that are not uniquely human and shared with animals, such as anger and pleasure (primary emotions), are attributed to in- and outgroups alike.
A study by John Martin and colleagues at the University of Dundee explored children’s ability to forecast the intensity and duration of such emotions experienced by in- and outgroup members.
Ratings of primary and secondary emotions forecast for national football teams (Scotland, ingroup and England, outgroup) for both a loss and a win were recorded. As predicted by the infrahumanisation hypothesis, forecasts for the intensity of secondary emotions experienced by the ingroup were significantly greater overall than those of primary emotions; while, for the outgroup, the intensity ratings for both emotion types were not significantly different. Importantly, this effect did not differ between age groups. (BJDP)

- It is often thought that interviewers are prone to bias when they are hiring, tending to simply give the job to the applicant they like as a person. However, a study led by Maria Garcia (University of Texas) found that performance expectations (e.g. ‘How likely is it that this applicant will work to implement new ideas?’) but not liking had a direct effect on perceptions of fit with the role and organisation.
In addition, interviewers did not appear to be basing similarity judgments on demographic variables. The authors say that ‘interviewers seem to be more rational than previous literature suggests.’ (JOOP)

- Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) as an adjunct to medication has been shown to improve symptom management in patients with schizophrenia. However, little is understood about the value of CBT for people who are not prescribed antipsychotic medication. Now Thomas Christodoulides (Tyne and Wear Mental Health NHS Trust) has reported a case series design with three participants receiving CBT but not prescribed antipsychotic medication during active treatment. The three patients improved on outcome measures of psychopathology, depression, or negative symptoms, some to a clinically significant degree. The authors conclude that CBT may be a valuable alternative to medication in treating symptoms of schizophrenia. (PAPTRAP)

- A study by Katherine Myant and Joanne Williams (University of Edinburgh) shows how an easy-to-administer intervention can teach young children about illness concepts. The authors say that the findings show children are capable of understanding detailed explanations of specific illnesses and that this may be a more effective way of explaining chronic childhood illnesses than providing basic facts that practitioners may believe are commensurate with children’s level of understanding. (BJEP)

- In a study of inmates in two British prisons, Gordon Hodson (Brock University, Ontario) looked at social dominance orientation – seeing a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world where hierarchies are vital. Those high in social dominance orientation exhibited significantly less ingroup bias when experiencing increased contact with out-group members if they perceived favourable, institutionally supported contact conditions, or when personally experiencing more pleasant interactions with outgroup members. Those low in social dominance orientation were less affected by the conditions of contact. (BJSP)


An ESRC Seminar Series on Reading Comprehension: Linking Theory and Practice

Lisa Henderson (University of York) and Hannah Pimperton (University of Oxford) report on an ESRC seminar series on reading comprehension.

PLEASE NOTE: This is the full version of the edited report which appeared in print.

Although in the majority of children word reading and reading comprehension are correlated skills, in some children the two abilities dissociate and specific deficits in either reading accuracy or reading comprehension can be observed. Children with specific word decoding deficits (i.e. children with developmental dyslexia) have been the subject of a great deal of research, but much less research focus has been directed at children with the converse problem of specific deficits in understanding what they read. This is despite the fact that around 10% of primary school-aged children show this specific deficit in reading comprehension (Nation & Snowling, 1997), leading them to be termed ‘poor comprehenders’.
Problems with reading comprehension will become particularly prominent when a child moves from the stage of learning to read to that of reading to learn; a deficit in understanding written text will clearly have detrimental effects on a child’s general educational performance, as well as impacting on their ability to enjoy reading as a pastime. However, compared with word reading, much less is known about the development of reading comprehension in children and as a result, evidence-based teaching strategies in this area are limited.
This article summarises key themes from a series of seminars that aimed to provide a forum where researchers and professionals from the field of reading and language could come together and consider how research on the development of reading comprehension might best inform educational practice. Oral and poster presentations from international experts and early career researchers embraced a range of methodologies. Stimulating group discussions offered a unique opportunity for teachers, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists, researchers, policy makers, and students from the UK, Europe and North America to voice their opinions on current knowledge and teaching of reading comprehension.

Theoretical, empirical and educational perspectives on reading comprehension
It is well accepted that learning to read is intimately connected to children’s underlying oral language skills. The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) captures the differential role of oral language skills in reading development, proposing that reading comprehension is the product of decoding and oral language comprehension. The development of decoding is heavily dependent on phonological skills, whereas the development of oral language comprehension is dependent upon non-phonological oral language skills including vocabulary, syntactic and pragmatic skills. Most research has focused on the vital role that phonological skills play in the development of reading.
In line with the simple view of reading, Charles Hulme [University of York] discussed evidence suggesting that non-phonological oral language skills (i.e. vocabulary, grammatical skills) and phonological skills have discrete foundations in typical development (e.g. Muter, Hulme, Snowling & Stevenson, 2004). In turn, they may require specific teaching, specifically training in phonological skills and letter knowledge should benefit decoding, while training in language (vocabulary and syntax) should benefit comprehension. Hulme illustrated this point with a recent randomised controlled trial that aimed to evaluate the efficacy of two early intervention programmes to promote skills that underlie reading development: a phonological with reading programme to foster decoding and an oral language programme to promote reading comprehension (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008). Reading with phonology training produced selective improvements in decoding while oral language training produced selective improvements in precursors to reading comprehension (vocabulary and syntactic skills). To advance instruction on reading comprehension, Carol Torgerson [University of York] highlighted the importance of rigorous systematic reviews to evaluate randomised controlled trials and summarise high quality reading comprehension intervention research.
Further evidence for the specificity of general oral language and phonological skills was provided from a behavioural-genetics perspective by Emma Hayiou-Thomas [University of York]. Hayious-Thomas reported preliminary data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) suggesting a different etiology of prediction for the influence broader language skills have on reading development versus the influence phonological skills have on reading development, where the latter has a greater genetic influence.
While the simple view of reading provides a useful framework for thinking about the foundations of reading comprehension, it does not encapsulate the multiple cognitive processes that interact to produce efficient comprehension. Indeed, “to fully understand reading comprehension would be to understand most of the fundamental problems in cognition” (Snowling & Hulme, 2005, p. 207). To inform instructional practice, it is important to know which of these processes are causally implicated in the development of reading comprehension and in specific comprehension impairments.
How can we explore causal links between comprehension sub-skills and progress in comprehension? Jane Oakhill [University of Sussex] discussed longitudinal studies, training studies and comprehension age match designs as evidence for causal links between high-level processes and poor reading comprehension. Using such methodology, Oakhill and colleagues have found that poor comprehenders perform significantly worse on inference making (i.e. integrating information within the text and integrating information outside of the text), comprehension monitoring (i.e. spotting obvious conflicts between pieces of information in a text), and understanding of story structure. Whether these skills are separable or whether they are part of a more general factor remains to be determined. One possibility is that these skills are governed by a reader’s standard for coherence, in other words, the extent to which a reader strives to obtain a clear and coherent model of the text (see Perfetti, Landi & Oakhill, 2005). An important avenue for future research will be to investigate whether these high-level skills are amenable to training, and whether such training would alleviate poor comprehension.
In a similar vein, Paul van den Broek [University of Minnesota] also emphasized the need to take account of the standards individual readers adopt against which to evaluate their own comprehension (see van den Broek & Gustafson, 1999). Off-line (i.e. assessing what people have in their mental representations after reading is complete) and on-line (i.e. assessing the activities during reading itself) methods, as well as neuroimaging techniques, were suggested as means to inform this issue.
Setting reading comprehension into a socio-developmental context, Colin Harrison [University of Nottingham] suggested that reading for meaning should be emphasised as an active and strategic process in school, promoting a triangular relationship between reader, author and text. Harrison proposed that decoding and comprehension should be taught in combination, so developing readers realise that the goal of decoding is to find meaning and appreciate the rewards that meaning can bring.

Language foundations of reading comprehension
Many poor comprehenders have been shown to have poor oral language compared to controls (Nation, Clarke, Marshall, & Durand, 2004). However, it has previously been difficult to establish the causality of this relationship; it could be that initial language weaknesses lead to difficulties in understanding text, or alternatively it might be that children who struggle with reading comprehension do not benefit from the support that reading provides to oral language development.
One way to elucidate the nature of the relationship is to carry out longitudinal studies of the same children over several years. Kate Nation [University of Oxford] reported findings which suggested that children who went on to develop problems with reading comprehension frequently had pre-existing oral language deficits; problems with spoken language seem to restrict the development of reading comprehension. However, this does not exclude the possibility that deficits in reading comprehension ability also have detrimental effects on oral language development. Indeed, it seems likely that from mid-childhood onwards these sets of skills develop in an iterative fashion, with improvements in one skill set leading to improvements in the other set and vice-versa. Thus children who have initial oral language weaknesses develop resultant problems with reading comprehension, which then in turn exacerbate their problems with spoken language development in a ‘poor-get-poorer’ cycle.
Given the association between specific reading comprehension difficulties and oral language weaknesses, the possibility that poor comprehenders simply have a form of language impairment presents itself. Indeed, Dorothy Bishop [University of Oxford] reported on children with specific language impairment (SLI) who showed exactly the same profile of reading performance as the classic poor comprehenders described previously, that is, they had below-average reading comprehension abilities despite go

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