Taking A-level psychology seriously; in defence of empiricism; and much more

Take A-level psychology seriously

As a teacher of A-level psychology I was thrilled to read in the October issue of The Psychologist that A-level psychology is now the fourth most popular A-level with over 52,000 students sitting exams in 2009. It is a pity, therefore, that universities remain reluctant to introduce it as a prerequisite for study at degree level. In my own experience, I feel that this is primarily due to a lack of knowledge regarding the scope and rigour of psychology A-level leading to some confusion over what is actually taught.

With several exam boards offering slightly different content, and teachers (who are often teaching outside their subject specialism) choosing topics to suit both their own strengths and their students interests, it is no wonder that  A-level psychology has developed a less than favourable reputation with academic psychology. However, the A-level content is vast, ranging from psychological approaches, cognitive functioning and controversial issues to relationships, forensic and health psychology, as well as research methods, statistics and data analysis. It therefore provides an excellent foundation for undergraduate study.

The general view suggests that A-level psychology is in some way not appropriate for undergraduate study because it gives students the wrong impression about the discipline, and that maths and biology are more appropriate alternatives. As a chartered member of the Society I find such suggestions deeply insulting as I, and many other psychology teachers, strive to debunk the myths surrounding the subject the moment students walk through the door (which accounts for a large early drop-out rate). By the time students sit their final exams they are (on the whole) thinking and acting like scientific psychologists and arguing with their biology teachers that ‘psychology is a science’.

Isn’t it about time that university psychology departments began to pay a little more attention to the content of A-level psychology rather than continuing to rely on unsubstantiated beliefs about what A-level psychology is (and is not)? Perhaps some kind of dialogue between A-level teachers and academic departments could help to resolve some of the divisions that appear to exist between them and lead to greater cooperation between pre-tertiary and undergraduate psychology.
Marc Smith
Guiseley School

Editor’s note: We tackled this issue in the October 2007 issue, available online, and plan to do so again.

In defence of empiricism

When psychologists quote Einstein, Franklin and cite the Large Hadron Collider project as ‘good science’ for psychology to emulate with lines like ‘This requires the removal of the padlock on the “too-difficult-to-do” drawer, a great deal of thinking and theoretical work, and rigorous testing of the contingent theory thereafter’, I really despair and not just for the poor use of language.

Julian Boon and Lynsey Gozna (‘Firing pea-shooters at elephants’, September 2009) appear to bemoan the lack of a broad general theory for psychology underpinning all that we do, and attribute this to the fact that we are empiricists. When I read this I had to check the front cover just to make sure that I had not had accidentally delivered to my house one of my neighbour’s subscriptions.

Grand theories, à la Hall, Skinner, etc. are passé, not just for the social sciences but for the sciences in general. The world has become too complicated to allow for simple reductionist generalisations. Elegant though they may have been, they no longer serve a purpose. More importantly, what this gratuitous and frankly bizarre criticism of empiricism is doing embedded in an article on forensic psychology I do not understand. The substance of their ‘bespoke’ theory as they grandly label it, seems to be contained in an illegible diagram, and in support they cite manuscripts ‘in preparation’, ‘submitted’ or presented at conferences.

Not up to your usual standard I’m afraid.    
Stephane Duckett
Royal Free Hospital, London

Clinical terminology
Following recent correspondence on the use of clinical terminology in The Psychologist, the Psychologist Policy Committee discussed this issue at its 25 September meeting. The committee decided that the policy will change in editorial content to adopt the form ‘with a diagnosis of [psychiatric condition]’ to reflect the dominant usage in clinical psychology; and that authors of other matter (features, etc.) will be advised that this is the preferred style.
Jon Sutton
Managing Editor

Press releases…

Interesting to read Ceri Parsons’ piece (‘Provocative reporting’, September 2009) putting the BPS PR team’s side of the story in the recent spat between the BPS, the Daily Telegraph and Ben Goldacre of The Guardian’s ‘Bad science’ column, regarding the reporting of a piece of research investigating men’s attitudes towards coercing women into sex. Clearly the villains of the story are the Daily Telegraph, and the staggering irresponsibility and incompetence in their reporting of this research is hard to stomach. However, I note that Parsons makes no response to the central criticism of the BPS PR team in Goldacre’s argument: the practice of writing press releases about as-yet-unpublished research. Goldacre’s argument, as I understand it, is that this is a questionable practice because when media reports emerge based on the press release, readers cannot then access the research to find out the facts for themselves; in addition, such research won’t yet have been through the process of peer review. This seems to be a valid criticism to me. I would have more faith in the PR team’s integrity, loudly proclaimed in Parsons’ piece, if they engaged with the meaningful content of Goldacre’s argument.Steve Jefferis
Newcastle upon Tyne

Fiona Jones, Chair of the Press Committee, replies: For clarification,  the Society circulates press releases based on research from either peer-reviewed journals or conference presentations. The conference abstracts are subject to a selection process by the relevant organising committee. Abstracts for papers accepted for conferences are included in conference programmes.
As these are openly available public documents, the PR team works with authors and Divisional PR reps to help ensure research is communicated clearly. Otherwise there is the risk of even greater misunderstanding and misreporting. As Kisane Prutton mentions in this month’s Media page (p.920), engaging with the media helps raise awareness of our discipline

…and psychology in the press

As a psychologist interested in working closely with the media I was intrigued to see so much coverage in October’s edition of The Psychologist of how psychologists relate to the press. Phil Woods’s letter considered how the gender testing of Caster Semenya, the South African gold medal winning runner, had been covered with some degree of sensationalism in the press. Sophia Shaw raised concerns about how her research on the factors behind acquaintance rape had been misreported in the media. Sophia highlighted that reporters should ensure the accuracy of their writing and that they should consider the implications of their writing on wider society. In the Media page, Kairen Cullen reported on how working with the media can increase public understanding of psychology, but also raised the issue of how research can be misreported by the press.

In addition to completing the two media training courses offered by the BPS, I recently finished a Media Fellowship run by the British Science Association. These fellowships provide academics with the chance to work behind the scenes in media organisations and see the development of a story from an initial press release, through the writing and editorial stages before final publication. During my placement I had the chance to meet virtually every science correspondent working for the UK national papers. More often than not, it is the science correspondents who cover psychology-related stories.

My experiences of working with science journalists have given me enormous respect for them. Every journalist I met was intent on portraying the stories they covered in an accurate, detailed and informative way. It was not unusual to see the journalists huddled together after a press briefing comparing notes to ensure accuracy. I would echo Kairen Cullen’s statement that misreporting of psychological research, and other scientific stories, results from a lack of understanding on the part of the journalist. Or, to put it another way, the information has been poorly communicated to the journalists in question. Psychologists should realise that their research will often be of interest to the general public, and that it is their responsibility, as well as the press, to make sure that the message comes across clearly. A key part of this is to understand the pressures journalists are under, the deadlines they work to and their style of writing, which differences from academia in a number of ways. The BPS’s media training courses are an excellent way of developing these skills ( media). Alternatively, there are organisations such as the Science Media Centre (, which can help organise press briefings and provide excellent media training and support throughout dealings with the press. As science journalists hold the Science Media Centre in high regard, it also helps maximise media coverage of your research.

I concur with Sophia Shaw that, because of the real-world relevance of psychology, journalists must ensure the accuracy of their reporting. Although the Daily Telegraph has subsequently posted an apology for the coverage of her research, attributing it to an ‘editing error’, the damage has already been done and cannot be undone. It is important that journalists report research accurately, and that psychologists learn the best way of communicating with the media.
Mark Sergeant
Division of Psychology
Nottingham Trent University

European recognition

I was very pleased to see coverage of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) European Congress of Psychology in Oslo in the September issue. It was also good to see noted in the President’s column Dr Liz Campbell’s election as my replacement as EFPA Secretary General.

However, it’s also worth noting that three Society members received awards in Oslo for their long service to EFPA. Former Society President and Treasurer, Professor Geoff Lindsay stood down after more than 10 years as convenor of EFPA’s Standing Committee on Ethics, where he had led the creation and cross-Europe adoption of the Ethics Meta-code and was the lead author in the recently published Ethics for European Psychologists. Professor David Lane stood down as convenor of EFPA’s Standing Committee on Psychotherapy in which role he led the development of the EuroPsy Register of Specialist Expertise in Psychotherapy. Former Society President, Professor Ingrid Lunt was awarded the inaugural EFPA Presidential Award for her outstanding service to European psychology, and especially for her work in coordinating the development and implementation of EuroPsy.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that in addition to Dr Liz Campbell serving as Secretary General, there are also two other members of the Society who remain convenors of EFPA Standing Committees: Professor Dave Bartram (Tests & Testing) and Professor Nigel Foreman (Scientific Affairs).
Richard Freeman
EFPA Secretary General (2001–2009)

The two of me
Being in the habit of keeping up to date with both The Psychologist and New Scientist, with its fondness for all things quantum, leads me to the notion of Quantum Psychology. In this it becomes possible to perceive oneself both as a great thinker and a feckless nobody, comfortably and at the same time. I wonder whether I am unique or is this a well-known aspect of the postmodern mediated zeitgeist?
Jonathan Rowles
Psi Delta Limited

Alternatives to classical psychometrics

September’s article by Jacob Hirsh ‘Choosing the right tools to find the right people’ provides a timely reminder of the state of psychometric testing. Rather than indicating how effective it is, it gave a clear picture of how more than 100 years of psychometric development has failed to deliver.

The article touches misleadingly on the issue of shared common variance – an issue that has caused the classical approach to have such a low level of impact. It also suggests that HR professionals and senior managers question the value of psychometrics because they are not ‘deeply familiar with the academic literature’. Surely, it is more to do with the low levels of demonstrated validity and low validity of the validation process itself that means effectiveness never makes it above their perceptual threshold.

Maybe there is another hypothesis: that we are not listening either to the data, to our customers or our own intuition. How many of us have acted as assessors with a senior manager, have looked at the numbers and concluded that whilst the numbers are ‘good’ it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right? Invariably, that evidence doesn’t ‘fit’ into the measures we are using and is consequently ignored, even though all parties agree ‘it’s important’.

Our challenge to the profession is ‘Wake up and smell the coffee!’. Face the fact that classical approaches just do not work well enough. We need a significant paradigm shift, both in terms of what we measure – is IQ and personality really all there is to it? – and how we complete that measurement. In relation to what we measure, what can we as occupational psychologists learn from our colleagues working in clinical psychology or other areas of science? The field of neuroscience, for example, is very clear that human performance is modulated by our emotional state. When human beings become stressed, our ability to leverage our IQ drops – we become more ‘stupid’. Similarly, personality is merely a construct to measure preference – what really matters in performance terms are whether a person has the habit of choice to behave differently according to the situation. Introverts can behave in an extraverted way and vice versa. The formation of habits is a neurological and therefore emotional issue, not something that is governed by personality or intelligence.

Finally, if classic psychometrics has only got us so far surely we need another method? One suggestion is that we reintroduce content validity after it has been systematically discarded, over a hundred-year period, in pursuit of trait models. We need to make broader use of simulation. Why is it that we turn to simulations when people’s lives are at stake, and the need to predict job performance really has to be accurate (e.g. surgeons, airline pilots, HGV drivers)?

This letter could be seen as a rallying call – it is!
Chris Lewis
Aver Psychology
Rich Cook and John Cooper
JCA (Occupational Psychologists) Ltd
Barbara Busby


Literature as source of psychology

Congratulations to Frank Tallis for his enjoyable article linking psychotherapy to story telling (‘Psychotherapy and other stories’, October 2009). His claim that psychology proved immensely useful when it came to writing his novels can be paralleled by the claim that reading fiction is a good basis for working as a psychologist (see Marzillier, 2007).

Applied psychologists often want to assert that their work is scientific but the reality is more complex. What one learns from great novelists like George Eliot and exceptional short story writers such as Chekhov is a depth of understanding of the human condition. In working almost 40 years as a psychotherapist I came to realise that the capacity to understand people, the basis of all successful therapy, is as well served by literature as it is by science, indeed sometimes better served.

This is an unpalatable truth to many psychologists for whom science is something like a god. This is not to decry scientific psychology, which important in its own right. It is simply to acknowledge that a huge part of the work of applied psychologists, psychotherapists in particular, is not in any way scientific, however much it may be dressed up to be. It is time we grew up and recognised the plurality of psychology, that it is not all about science, and that psychologists can legitimately draw upon other sources of knowledge and wisdom when they seek to help their clients.
John Marzillier

Marzillier, J. (2007). What can clinical psychologists learn from reading novels? Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(3), 393–401.

What will they do?

The reminder from the BPS that I need to renew my ‘statutory registration with the HPC by the 31 October 2009’ brought into stark vision whether I am a member of a union, a professional body or an agency of the government.

I have now a choice whether to continue payments to both the BPS and HPC, or I drop Chartered Psychologist or I drop Educational Psychologist. As my work is facilitating creative ideas with groups of adults at work, it seems ridiculous that I should pay £120 to continue with the HPC; what will they do with the money? But the training and experience as an educational psychologist is informative to my clients, and am I not obliged to be informative?

The standards of accountability for CPD to continue to be registered as an Educational Psychologist are absolutely minimal: with that low level of need I cannot think the registration worth much anyway and it hardly justifies £120 to monitor.

I think the best challenge to the current situation is that unless your job depends on it, we should all fail to renew our registration and ask the BPS to act on our behalf to return us to a more professional registration of our titles where they are not health profession related.
Graham Rawlinson
Plaistow, West Sussex

Analysing vision
Chris Frith believes that ‘we live in exciting times’ in cognitive neuroscience (‘Making up the mind’, October 2009). This might be true with regard to the scale and richness of data spawned by new technologies, but if we have failed to go beyond the idea of perception as unconscious inference, then we live in very depressing times with regard to theory development, for there are many important ways in which vision is not like an inference.

First, vision gives us knowledge of the world that is true and, furthermore, demonstrably true. Perceptions are not ‘estimates’. If they were, we would be unable to move around in the world and manipulate objects in it with any degree of confidence. Truth here is to be understood in the same way that it should be understood in relation to mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983).

Second, there is no single fixed inference that may be drawn from a set of sense data; what we see is what we need to see for some particular task purpose, and any task purpose involves many different seeing components that are integrated by a tacitly held plan. This is traditionally called ‘attention’.

Third, this plan involves both conscious and unconscious components which reflect, respectively, the unskilled and skilled components of it; so the idea of perception generally as unconscious inference is a non-starter.

Fourth, there is a control element to perception which the idea of inference takes no account of. Control might be within the subject (as in searching for car keys); it might be external to the subject (as in being alerted to a car fuel warning light coming on); or it might be switchable between the two (as in the form of optokinetic nystagmus that occurs when looking out of a moving train window).

Where is the theory of vision that is able to take on board all of these important issues? No amount of brain activity data is going to help us, because these are analytic issues and not empirical ones.
John Campion

Johnson-Laird, P.N. (1983). Mental models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Leigh M. Clare (1949–2009)

It was with great sadness that we learned of the sudden and unexpected death of Dr Leigh Clare.

Leigh was brought up in Sydney, Australia and received her doctoral degree at Auckland University, New Zealand in 1985. She went on to qualify as a clinical psychologist in New Zealand, and in 1989 Leigh came to the UK and joined the NHS as a clinical psychologist in the North East Essex Mental Health Services in Colchester.

In December 1995 Leigh joined Surrey Hampshire Borders NHS Services as clinical lead for eating disorders. By 1996 Leigh had researched, planned and established Landsdown House, a multidisciplinary day- and outpatient service. Under her leadership the service continued to develop, grow and thrive in response to the many wider service changes and challenges it faced. Throughout her career, Leigh worked hard and successfully at raising the profile of eating disorder services, and she secured a purpose-built unit within Farnham Hospital and Centre for Health. The qualities that set Leigh apart include a combination of innovative thinking and pragmatism alongside extraordinary drive and focus and an uncompromising, passionate commitment to her profession and her role.

In her clinical work, she guided patients and staff alike with her empathic mission ‘to dislodge the Tyranny of the Eating Disorder’. Leigh believed in making change possible and succeeded in her vision to ‘provide hope, safety, support and high-quality treatment for local people with eating disorders’. She was also a greatly valued member of the NHS management team.

As Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Special Interest Group for Eating Disorders, her innovative thinking and precise research into the field of eating disorders informed publications which remain highly relevant to specialist service provision to date.

Leigh’s dedicated skill, her attention to detail and her inspiring, passionate vision for innovative service development is widely recognised. Those who worked with her will remember her personal and professional merits, as well as her elegant sense of style and her love of creative arts and music, all of which remain alive in our unit today. 
Alexia Fernholz
Surrey and Borders Partnership NHSFT Eating Disorder Services
with Katherine May

FORUM guest column: Beyond boundaries
Mentioning lap dancers in The Psychologist sparks a series of letters to the editor, but some actual biases raise not an eyebrow. On clinical psychology training courses, perhaps among the most competitive in psychology, males are not only the single most poorly represented demographic (about 15 per cent of trainees in comparison to half the population) but they are statistically less likely to get a place than females. 2005 was the last year in which the male minority was equally represented in applications and admissions. Since then, the selection bias against men has generally worsened, to the low point of 2008 where only about three quarters of the proportion of men who applied were accepted on a clinical programme. For psychology undergraduates, where four out of five are female, males are also less likely to acquire a place than females. This seems to be a problem in many places around the world, to the point where I’ve not yet heard of a country with an equal sex ratio, but it’s perhaps most striking in the UK where gender issues are often publicly debated in professional forums.

For example, we’ve recently had two prominent psychologists criticise an article in The Psychologist, suggesting that the discussion of a peer-review study on strippers in a research methods lecture ‘will leave many women feeling… that their discipline has a very long way to go before they are truly part of it’. We’ve also had the Psychology of Women Section write in to complain that a publication included in women’s magazine that addressed women’s issues, provided by the predominantly female BPS, didn’t fully represent the female experience.

These are indeed important issues, and it is only right that we should be debating them, but I’m just amazed at the fact that we aren’t similarly interested in redressing our own gender inequalities that manifest not as perceptions, portrayals or messages, but as a serious disparity in both the balance of the sexes and the likelihood of even being offered a route into the profession. A 2004 BPS report on ‘Widening access within undergraduate psychology’ found ethnic minority students were over-represented on degree courses compared to the UK population, yet it made seven direct recommendations for recruiting more BME students. The same report found massive gender inequalities and selection biases favouring females and made only two recommendations for recruiting more males, one of which was ‘more research is needed’. I think we need more equality in our equality.

Vaughan Bell is a clinical psychologist working in an NHS neurorehabilitation service. Share your views on this and similar cross-cultural, interdisciplinary or otherwise ‘boundary related’ issues – e-mail [email protected].

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