Reports from the Annual Conference
Living, and thinking about it
At the Society’s Annual Conference, Daniel Kahneman reflected on the psychological science of well-being
It’s comforting to know that even Nobel Prize winners get nervous in front of a crowd. ‘I’m feeling a little intimidated’, said Professor Daniel Kahneman (Princeton University), opening the Annual Conference with his keynote presentation ‘Reflections on the science of well-being’. It’s also heartening to know that Nobel Prize winners sometimes get things wrong. Alongside data and theory, Kahneman discussed key moments when his thinking changed, explaining that ‘of all the questions I have worked on, there are few topics about which I’ve changed my mind so often’.
For example, a lukewarm correlation between income and happiness initially persuaded Kahneman that beyond a certain point, money stops making the world go round. ‘An embarrassing cognitive error’, he admits, and one that probably reflects our eagerness to believe that wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In fact, as economist Angus Deaton showed, money really does make us happy. We just need to apply the right statistical analysis to global data, making use of Weber’s law: for example, a $600 increase in salary would make a much bigger difference to someone in Togo than in Switzerland. So using log GDP produces a very high correlation between a country’s economic prosperity on the one hand, and ‘Ladder of Life’ scores of its citizens on the other. The Ladder of Life is a tool used to measure global life satisfaction. Respondents indicate ‘where they stand at this time’ on a 10-rung ladder, with the top rung representing the best possible life for them, and the bottom rung representing the worst.
Ladder of Life scores have been recorded for more than 140,000 people in 132 countries. Denmark currently tops the world happiness poll, with the average Dane scoring 8 out of 10. But although a country’s gross domestic product predicts some aspects of well-being, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Government corruption is a better predictor of ‘experienced happiness’, measured by asking how often participants found themselves smiling, frowning, feeling frustrated, in pain, and so on, during the previous day.
In Kahneman’s hybrid model of well-being, experienced happiness and global life satisfaction have asymmetric effects on one another, which explains why they are imperfectly correlated. Reflecting on our general happiness doesn’t affect what we experience day-to-day, but everyday money worries or concerns about our weight stick in memory and bias estimates of global life satisfaction. Referring to this effect as the ‘focusing illusion’, Kahneman concludes that ‘nothing in life matters quite as much as you think it does while you are thinking about it.’
For Kahneman, the path to true happiness is changing attention, not the positive psychology focus of engagement and meaning. ‘ “Meaning” is thoughts about living, it is not living’, he said, expertly drawing another distinction that had people thinking and talking for the rest of the conference. Now that’s what you expect from a Nobel Prize winner. SH
Going global for net gains
It is estimated that 96 per cent of published studies in developmental psychology feature research that was carried out in industrialised countries; so how can developmental psychology be effectively deployed in a global context? In this compelling talk, Professor Christine Liddell (University of Ulster) argued that developmental psychology does have a key role to play in informing child-health programmes across the world.
Liddell provided the example of insecticide-treated bednets. In malarial zones, children’s risk of contracting the disease is significantly reduced if they sleep under one of these bednets. There have recently been large-scale programmes to distribute bednets as widely as possible, with around 150 million distributed worldwide so far. The ideal situation would be that everybody who receives a bednet would adhere to using it. If this were the case, it is estimated that one child’s life could be saved for every 10 nets distributed. However, the reality is that there is a low adherence to bednet use, with perhaps one child’s life saved per 180 nets distributed. This is still a great outcome, but we have to ask ourselves whether psychologists can play a role in raising adherence to the programme.
The model of choice for interventions such as the bednet scheme is the knowledge, attitudes, behaviour and practice (KABP) model of human behaviour. This operates under the assumption that mass education campaigns and social marketing aimed at improving people’s knowledge about disease and effective interventions will result in a positive change in attitudes and behaviour towards these interventions. However, Liddell argued that the KABP’s effectiveness is in fact limited; it turns out that a change in knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean a change in attitude, behaviour or practice.
Liddell instead argued that Azjen’s theory of planned behaviour (TPB) may be a more effective framework to approach the problem of adherence to interventions. The TPB varies from the KABP in that it incorporates the roles of beliefs, subjective norms and perceived control into predicting the likelihood of people changing their behaviour. Liddell argued that beliefs and perceived control may be particularly crucial in a case such as bednet use. Limited levels of perceived control may impact on bednet use because of the difficulty of maintaining them; they are fragile, difficult to use and require considerable maintenance.
Liddell also argued that the KABP neglects to take into account people’s existing beliefs, and that these can be important when designing interventions. There is a tendency for people in the developed world to believe that traditional beliefs about illness in the developing world are a barrier to learning about the treatment of disease. However, Liddell presented some evidence that this is not the case; in fact, it appears that a belief in agency of any kind (whether supernatural or not) may make people more open to any causal taxonomy, biomedical or otherwise. Liddell argued that being informed by the TPB and actively incorporating existing beliefs, could result in more effective interventions. To return to the insecticide-treated bednets as an example, a relatively minor but potentially effective tactic could be to allow people the option of collecting bednets from their traditional healer. SC
Psychology as an international science
Presidents from national psychology associations across the world joined me, Pam Maras (as BPS President), and Mitchell Fleming (President of the Psychological Society of Ireland) for this roundtable discussion.
A number of recurring global and local themes emerged. For example, the large challenges to society of energy use, health and health disparities were outlined by Alan Kazdin (American Psychological Association) and others. Relatively local issues, such as standards of training in Europe were referred to by Roal Ulrichsen (European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations and Danish Psychological Association), who pointed to the EuroPsy diploma as a means of addressing disparities between different EU member countries. Adam Niemczynski (Polish Psychological Association) echoed these issues and described the rapid increase in psychology associations in Poland.
Training and standards were seen as important across the board. Amanda Gordon (Australian Psychological Society) noted an Australian internet leadership programme that made training accessible to psychologists working in remote areas. Relatedly, Saths Cooper (Psychological Society of South Africa) asked whether psychology was addressing majority concerns. He pointed out that in South Africa as in many countries’ universities, internships and placement sites tend to be urban, leaving rural areas largely unserved. He also said that large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America see psychology as an auxiliary subject, and that the feminisation of psychology leads (mostly male) policy makers to belittle psychology.
All of the presidents referred to the need to take account of changing geo-politics of conflict, poverty and health. Discussants agreed that whilst psychologists can provide evidence for human behaviour, we need to be aware of the limitations of psychology in relation to these big ideas. Advances in brain/neuroscience prompted discussion about the dualism of psychology, particularly in terms of the Euro-American knowledge base of science and practice, which it was suggested inevitably resulted in skewed patterns of publication exacerbated by the use of English as the language of psychology. It was agreed that psychology is increasingly seen as an evidence-based science from which psychologists are taking a much broader perspective than in the past to complex issues, leading to better formulations and more comprehensive interventions as well as an emphasis on positive mental health and ways of enhancing human potential.
Several participants focused on the issue of identity and possible fragmenting of the discipline. Alan Kazdin said that psychology needs to be more cohesive and build a stronger identity, even as a ‘hub science’ interested in anything from molecules to culture. Psychologists need training to meet world challenges, taking on board cultural, ethical and international perspectives.
The session concluded with general agreement on a need for psychology to identify of issues of concern to people, governments, policy makers and funders – not just to psychologists. This roundtable was the first of its kind held by the BPS and is part of a move towards extending our international partnerships, embedding international relations firmly within the governance structure with clear lines of reporting, representation and accountability. A working group will report in the summer on processes and systems for this. PM
ADHD and self-image
Children with ADHD think more poorly of themselves than those with more specific learning difficulties. In a study by Ger Scanlon and colleagues (National University of Ireland), all participants scored in the normal range on an explicit questionnaire measure of self-esteem. But a more implicit measure, in which children learned to associate their own names with positive (e.g. ‘accepted’, ‘popular’) and negative words (e.g. ‘faulty’, ‘useless’), showed that those with attention difficulties had a poorer self-image than children with dyslexia. SH
According to American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘if we encounter a person of rare intellect, we should ask them what books they read’. This symposium did just that, with an impressive assembled panel of developmental psychologists. Their own books have influenced the lives of children, but what influenced them?
First up was Professor Barbara Tizard (Institute of Education), choosing books that reflect her longstanding interest in the individual in a social context. John Bowlby’s Maternal Care and Mental Health was described as ‘an anti-influence’, with Tizard clearly disagreeing with the book’s conclusions over the critical period for attachment and the exclusive role of the mother. Was the book written to get women, who had been liberated by wartime work, back into the home? Tizard noted dryly that Northern women had for generations been working in the mills, with no apparent North–South divide in psychopathy. However, Tizard noted the positives of Bowlby’s work: that he considerably revised his theories over the years, and they led to more humane children’s care while dealing a blow to orthodox psychoanalysis.
Tizard also chose Asylums by Erving Goffman, for the way it inspired her to apply his concept of controlling, dehumanising ‘total institutions’ to nurseries. Jerome Bruner, a ‘great welder of ideas’, got the thumbs up for The Culture of Education – ‘it reads like a voice from the past, but one I wish was heard more today’. Martin Bulmer’s Social Policy Research completed Tizard’s choices, for showing the importance of an ‘appeal to rationality in policy making’.
Professor Susan Golombok (City University) took centre stage next, choosing empirically based ‘books you can have confidence in’. She kicked off with Michael Rutter’s Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, which showed ‘how systematic research and careful consideration of empirical literature could really help to separate fact from myth – here, the myths of Bowlby, ‘the big bad wolf of psychology’. However, Golombok also chose Bowlby’s work, finding a ‘force and beauty’ to it. ‘It is important to read big books and not others’ accounts of them’, she said.
Golombok’s other choices reflected her interest in sex differences and feminism. Maccoby and Jacklin’s The Psychology of Sex Differences represented ‘a painstaking approach to analysing research’, and Money and Ehrhardt’s Man and Woman, Boy and Girl showed the intriguing mix of social and biological effects on gender role behaviour. Golombok’s final choice was in fact a magazine article, from Spare Rib in 1976. Its call from Action for Lesbian Parents for an independent psychologist to do research on lesbian parenting started Golombok on a path of research that she still follows. By coincidence, a newspaper article that very day reported that Ireland is unlikely to allow same-sex joint adoptive parents.
Professor Helen Haste (University of Bath) was absent through illness, but her choices were outlined, including a children’s book from 1937. Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street gave Haste an insight into a different social class world, and showed the importance of children as active creators of their own environment.
Finally Professor Michael Lamb (University of Cambridge), describing himself as an ‘accidental psychologist’, began his selections with Alan Payton’s Cry the Beloved Country, ‘an eloquent and moving account of the damage wrought by racism in South Africa’. Lamb grew up there, and used to bump into Payton on walks while there was a banning order restricting him from group meetings.
Lamb’s next choice was Paul Samuelson’s Economics, which ‘clearly explains the forest without getting lost in the trees’. Charnov and Orians’ Optimal Foraging Theory, a book never actually published but now available for download, got the nod for its ‘more adaptive and flexible view of human behaviour’. And finally that man Bowlby again, for Attachment and Loss: the ‘first multi-level analysis of behaviour’, and one ‘that psychology has seldom achieved in subsequent work’.
Perhaps that was the one cloud amongst plenty of silver lining in a fascinating session: where are the modern era books to influence the next generation? JS
This year’s winner of the Society’s Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity, Adrian Webster (Lambeth Hospital), works to improve the acceptability and accessibility of mental health care services for black and ethnic minority clients. ‘I am a white male’, began Webster, ‘and the fact that I work in this area arouses curiosity in many people… But inequalities are the responsibility of everyone.’
The hallmark of Webster’s approach has been to consult with diverse local communities about their needs and desires, and tailor treatments accordingly. Webster contrasted his bottom-up approach, where the goal is ‘winning hearts’, with the top-down approach of the last two decades, where practitioners merely follow government initiatives. This can lead to practitioners merely ‘ticking boxes’ and viewing guidelines as obstacles to their ‘real work’. Using a more nuanced and tailored approach can benefit everyone – practitioners as well as clients. AM
Making a sociodrama out of a crisis
‘Okay folks. See that chair? Imagine it’s the BPS conference. Where are you in relation to the conference this week? Go and stand there.’ Ron Wiener (MPV/SAM) dumps a chair in the middle of Conference Room 1, and eyes us expectantly. Has he lost the plot? Why no, he’s just facilitating ‘An introduction to sociodrama and action methods’. He is ably assisted here by Marc Adams (Marc Adams Associates), an occupational psychologist who specialises in helping organisations deal with issues of equality and diversity. The ‘chair’ exercise was one of several workshop activities enthusiastically tackled by a group of delegates on the final morning of the conference.
Sociodrama was developed by Jacob Moreno (1889–1974), a Viennese psychiatrist associated with role theory, group psychotherapy, and sociometry. Used worldwide to develop creativity and productivity, sociodrama encourages participants to the think about the ways in which the various components of a social system might impact on one another. For example, a group of managers might enact a thorny employment issue, with different members taking on not only the roles of the protagonists in that situation, but also the unseen pressures and unspoken voices that might be affecting their behaviours. Speaking aloud thoughts and beliefs that are usually hidden helps to bring tensions and difficulties to the surface, so that they can be explored safely in a group. Ultimately, the aim is to help teams and organisations solve problems and develop greater interpersonal understanding.
Back to the ‘BPS chair’. Having arranged ourselves around it like planets orbiting the sun, Ron asks each of us why we’re standing where we’re standing. Anything to say to the chair-cum-conference-organisers? Comments include ‘This conference is dry and boring!’, ‘Why all the experimental psychology?’ and ‘It’s so clique-y. I’d like to get more involved but I don’t know how’.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the sociodrama kicks in for real. One of our group really is a member of the BPS Conference Committee, and she responds to the comments with admirable composure. The group listens respectfully, and some express an interest in helping to organise future events. Suddenly we see the power of the participatory workshop format. Instead of ‘Death by PowerPoint’, we have actually experienced sociodrama in action. The group agrees that the hands-on, learning-by-doing approach has been like a breath of fresh air. Here’s hoping for more of this kind of thing at the next year’s conference in Brighton. SH
Big deal or no deal
The lights dim. Background music swells to a menacing crescendo. Tension in the studio is almost palpable as an old-fashioned telephone rings... TV game show Deal or No Deal is a pleasant enough way to kill 45 minutes before dinner, but can it tell us anything interesting about the psychology of decision making?
For those with more discerning tastes in early-evening entertainment, here’s a quick run-down of the show. Deal or No Deal is a game based entirely on luck, in which every player is a winner. Contestants choose one sealed box from 22 at the start of the game, with each box containing a cash prize between 1p and £250,000. The 21 unselected boxes are opened one-by-one, and after every three boxes, a mysterious ‘Banker’ phones to offer the contestant a cash settlement. They can accept the Banker’s offer, or gamble that the value of their box is higher and keep playing. Even if the contestant ‘deals’, the game continues to its bitter end, with the contents of all 22 boxes (plus the Banker’s hypothetical deals) being revealed along the way. This little trick helps the game fill an appointed slot in the schedule, and cranks up the tension as contestants find out exactly what they could have won.
Professor Peter Ayton and Meri Pesola (City University) gave blow-by-blow descriptions of a show to 115 internet participants, who were asked to rate how happy each of 10 contestants would feel at the end of their game. Unsurprisingly, perceived happiness was strongly linked to how much money the contestant actually won. But this effect was mediated by the events of the game. For example, contestants who dealt too late (walking away with a lower amount than had previously been offered) were rated as less happy than those who dealt too soon (where they accepted a prize lower than a subsequent ‘offer’).
Ayton speculated that this is because events of the past are more concrete and psychologically real than those of the hypothetical future. ‘Dealt too late’ contestants know for sure that they could have gone home with a bigger prize. Those who dealt too soon can convince themselves that a subsequent offer might not have come about if they’d played the game differently. sh
Who do you think you are?
‘Who do you think you are?’ That was the response Jill Arnold (Nottingham Trent University) received on saying she wanted to study psychology, and it also informed her talk here. According to Arnold, we rarely step back and look at who we are. Receiving the Society’s Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology, she called on the audience to re-examine their sense of professional identity as multifunctional psychologists.
Encouraging reflective practice, Arnold called on teachers of psychology to challenge and change their students, or risk losing the psychological community that we have now. Inquiry is and should be unsettling, she said – students sometimes say ‘please don’t make me think’, but that’s exactly what must be done, enabling the student to own and engage with the material.
Arnold also encouraged teachers to retain their curiosity. Even after a career teaching psychology across the board, she says she is always learning, and would like to sit in on her colleagues’ teaching modules!
According to Arnold, another challenge is for women: to stay true to their values in a system riven with sexism and racism. A shocking example from a Hans Eysenck lecture, which led to Arnold walking out, illustrated her point.
It was a bold and individual talk, and perhaps that was Arnold’s main point: we must be bold enough for reflection. JS
Fit for life?
Have you ever started going to the gym and given up after a while? Well, you won’t be alone, as around 80 per cent of people give up on exercise programmes within one year. This might mean many new customers for the local gym but the problem of inactivity has serious health consequences and financial implications. The World Health Organization estimates that 60 per cent of people are inactive, and suggest that just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise on most days is all that is needed to maintain a healthy heart.
On the path to fitness, people often seek help from specialists such as personal trainers. Dr Chris Shields (Acadia University, Canada) looked at self-regulation and the perception of other’s beliefs in one’s own efficacy over a 10-week cardiac rehabilitation programme. He found that the degree to which we feel confident in our instructor’s competency is important, but this may ultimately lead to dependence on them and reduce self-reliance, which is critical for long-term positive outcomes.
Similarly, Dr Kathleen Martin-Ginis and her colleagues at McMaster University in Canada examined the effects of self-regulatory depletion in relation to exercise motivation. They tested a model that could offer one explanation for the widespread lack of adherence to fitness programmes. ‘Baumeister’s limited strength model’ suggests that self-control is a finite, renewable cognitive resource that is drained when people try to regulate their emotions, thoughts or behaviours. They showed that people who are mentally exhausted after a complex thinking task are considerably less likely to intend to take part in exercise.
Ultimately, it seems the factors that predict exercise adherence are youth, higher self-efficacy, and less reliance on the trainer. The take home message might be that we should not expect to succeed in demanding exercise programmes if other areas of our lives are placing too much of a strain on us. A holistic approach to physical exercise could provide the greatest chance of achieving physical fitness goals. SB
Avoiding the auto pilot
Millions of pounds are spent in flat countries putting bends in motorways where they aren’t needed. They are just to activate the brain on long boring trips; otherwise, people just drive off them. Our brains rapidly habituate to frequent stimuli and cease to activate the neural processes associated with conscious attention; the result is ‘auto pilot’. Professor Ian Robertson (Trinity College, Dublin) has spent a career looking at the privileged role attention plays in our everyday lives, our thoughts, feelings, traits, goals, behaviour, and especially self-awareness. In Robertson’s words, just as it is possible to suddenly become aware of a smudge on a window that one is looking through, so it is possible to become aware of some facet of self – state, trait, goals or behaviour – in the midst of an activity.
By using fMRI brain imaging techniques, Robertson explained, we have come to find out more about the functional role that specific regions of the brain occupy. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the last area to develop in the human brain and the last to develop in evolution. It is the region activated in change blindness – ‘the basis of all magic’, says Robertson – the region responsible for sustained attention, and it is important in self-assessment. The neural processes of conscious attention are not fully developed until the early twenties: this could explain high car insurance premiums in young drivers!
Children with ADHD show marked deficits in sustained attention as well as impaired insight and arousal. These children fail to realise that they are making errors, and the more they fail, the greater the discrepancy between self-ratings and reality. There appear to be two systems in the brain relating to this: a conscious error system and an unconscious system. In children with ADHD, it is the conscious system that is impaired, often preventing the children from self-correcting.
In his keynote talk, Robertson outlined some approaches to modifying these states of deficient self-awareness, including mindfulness training, goal management training and arousal-modifying techniques. The good news is that techniques such as meditation can eliminate the age effects of sustained attention impairments. Most importantly, awareness of these factors can save lives. For example, by using a simple alert set at random intervals we are able to keep people attentive and from driving off the side of motorways during long uneventful trips. Because we are using external alerts, we do not need internal ones and so cognitive resources are freed up. SB
Mixed feelings about mixed methods
The rise of mixed-methods research – usually taken to mean the combining of qualitative and quantitative methodologies – has delighted Professor Alan Bryman, a sociologist at the University of Leicester who has been writing on the subject for more than 20 years. Indeed, Bryman’s review of papers published across five subject areas between 1994 and 2003, revealed a burgeoning enterprise: 232 mixed-methods studies, with three times as many published in 2003 relative to 1994. And yet Bryman is concerned.
The literature review, together with interviews Bryman conducted with researchers, shows that the majority of mixed-methods papers fail to integrate their qualitative and quantitative approaches. Bryman also fears that mixed methods are being seen mistakenly as a cynical fast-track to funding.
‘We need a greater emphasis on the writing of mixed methods,’ Bryman concluded, ‘not just the doing.’ He added that there was a need to reflect on exemplary mixed-methods papers, such as the 2004 study by University of East Anglia researchers into the UK foot and mouth crisis (tinyurl.com/2oeoyu). ‘They did a terrific job of bringing their research findings together,’ he said.
Earlier, Professor Paul Flowers of Glasgow Caledonian University showed how qualitative research can be used to enhance its quantitative cousin. His own qualitative research looking at safe-sex practices among gay men uncovered tales of self-sacrifice and love, which were a far cry from the dry theories of quantitative psychology, such as the theory of planned behaviour. In this way, qualitative research can highlight the episodic, developmental factors that longitudinal quantitative research has so far neglected. The immediate, emotional nature of qualitative research also gives a voice to research participants – a pertinent issue given contemporary policy moves towards giving greater recognition to the views of service users.
James Good at Durham University and Professor Steven Brown at Kent State University gave a guided tour of perhaps the ultimate mixed method – Q-methodology – which is still relatively unknown in the UK. Developed by William Stephenson in the early part of the 20th century, Q-methodology involves applying quantitative methods to the study of people’s subjective opinions. Participants are asked to arrange the views of others on a given topic, according to how closely they agree with them. Patterns of agreement across multiple participants can then be factor analysed, thus revealing key areas of disagreement or overlap in opinion. By looking for correlations between participants, based on their views, the technique represents an inverse of the more typical use of factor analysis, which is to seek correlations not between participants, but between variables across a sample of participants.
The Q-method can help untangle the knots of real-world disagreement. Brown gave the example of a study that looked at views on large carnivore conservation held by park rangers and environmentalists – rival groups who had actually faced each other in court (tinyurl.com/5545ve). The Q-method identified the key areas of dispute between the groups but also highlighted areas of common ground, helping pave the way towards reconciliation. CJ
Spotlight on autism
From the early days of autism research, studies have reported differences in attention. One idea is that autism involves a more focused spotlight of attention, with enhanced processing within the spotlight and reduced processing outside. Others propose that autism involves more general impairments of attention, with difficulties in disengaging and shifting.
Dr Chris Ashwin (University of Essex and University of Cambridge) asked people with autism to spot changes in pairs of pictures with a white screen ‘flicker’ presented briefly between them. The results revealed intact or even superior detection mechanisms in people with autism when changes occurred within the spotlight of attention. However, they were more likely to miss changes outside the focus of attention than non-autistic people were.
New work by Professor Peter Mitchell (University of Nottingham) suggested that high-functioning individuals with autism are often surprisingly attentive to some v
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