positive psychology; academia and applied; Strictly Come Dancing; pre-tertiary psychology education; scaring small children; and more

Positive need for social thinking
You reported on a presentation by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, emphasising that it can be taught in schools (‘Getting the measure of happiness’, November 2009). In recent years in the USA there has been a well-developed focus on positive psychology concerned with factors leading to well-being and positive individuals. A European Network for Positive Psychology, which promotes regular conferences and publications, has also been established (see The positive psychology programme is very praiseworthy, and is stimulating much-needed research in many countries. However, it focuses primarily on individual influences on well-being, such as individual strengths, the experience of positive emotion, resilience, meaningful activity and positive relationships. It is strongly influenced by the individualistic American culture.

The positive psychology programme could be greatly enhanced by the study of the influence of social institutions on behaviour and well-being (e.g. Jahoda, 1982). Prilleltensky and Prilleltensky (2007) argue from extensive studies in community psychology that wellness is achieved by the simultaneous and balanced satisfaction of personal, interpersonal and collective needs. Chapters in the edited book by Haworth and Hart (2007), which has its origins in a series of transdisciplinary seminars on well-being funded by grants from the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, also collectively show that:
I    Well-being is complex and multifaceted. It is considered a process as well as a state. It is a contested concept.
I    Interventions to enhance well-being may take different forms. They should be conducted at individual, community, and societal levels, ideally in concert. Interventions need to recognise diversity and socio-economic inequalities in society, and be concerned with the unintended as well as the intended consequences of action.

The substance of this letter is developed in an invited article on ‘Social Institutions and Well-being’ to be published in 2010 in the left-leaning publication RENEW aimed at policy makers and politicians, etc. It can be downloaded from the website or obtained by e-mailing me at [email protected].

John Haworth
Research Institute for Health and Social Change
Manchester Metropolitan University

Haworth, J.T. & Hart, G. (Eds.) (2007). Well-being: Individual, community and social perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jahoda, M. (1982). Employment and unemployment: A social psychological analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prilleltensky, I. & Prilleltensky, O. (2007). Webs of well-being: The interdependence of personal, relational, organizational and communal well-being. In J.T. Haworth & G. Hart (Eds.) Well-being: Individual, community and social perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Academia needs applied psychology
I read with interest Professor Jennifer Brown’s letter ‘The narrowing focus of UK psychology’ (October 2009). While I cannot comment specifically on her concerns regarding the marginalisation of forensic psychologists within academic psychology departments, I will comment on the plight of industrial/organisational (I/O) psychologists (occupational psychologists). Over the last decade or so I/O psychologists have been subject to similar discrimination, that is, a failure to recognise the value they add to psychology departments, and there has been a significant migration of I/O psychologists into university business schools.

Ironically, the business school’s have welcomed I/O psychologists with open arms because they bring such strong scientific rigour into their research and publications. Thus, it is easy to identify with Professor Brown’s critical concerns.

The paradox in all of this is that psychology is fundamentally an applied discipline (in clinical, health, forensic, educational, sports, coaching and organisational settings, and so forth) – if it isn’t, then why all the ‘fuss’ about HPC registration?

Giles St J Burch
Department of Management & International Business
University of Auckland, New Zealand


I was deeply saddened to read Jennifer Brown’s letter in the October issue of The Psychologist. Her reflections struck me on a personal level not only because Jennifer is a valued former colleague, but also because it chimed uncomfortably with my own experiences within academic psychology. Three years ago I chose to give up a lectureship in psychology due to the increasing marginalisation I felt as an applied psychologist within the discipline. It became increasingly clear to me that, despite publications in international, peer-reviewed journals and an international reputation within my own areas of interest (visual impairment and human navigation), my profile would not fit with the perceived expectations of the RAE panel. I know that I share this experience with many other applied psychologists who have found more satisfying and rewarding careers outside the mainstream psychology departments.

Psychology is rather unique among the sciences in its systematic neglect of its applied wings. Physics has its own separate applied discipline in the form of engineering. Chemistry and biology are likewise linked to respected applied disciplines, such as medicine.

Unlike the physical and biological sciences however, psychology has tended to glorify its ‘pure core’ and to marginalise and sneer at its applications, whether due to some misplaced ‘physics envy’ or to a lack of genuine interest in applying the discipline. However, a psychology that becomes ever more focused on its own theories and methods and that neglects or rejects those whose primary focus (like engineers) is to apply the theories and methods in the real world, is a only a half science.

Unlike Jennifer, I do not fear for the future of established applied professional roles such as clinical psychology and educational psychology (the profession in which I am currently training). As practice-based subdisciplines with established career structures outside mainstream academic psychology, they will continue to exist regardless of the vagaries of the RAE system. However, I do share her fears that short-sighted reactions to a biased RAE system will rob other academic disciplines of valuable psychological input. A psychology without its applied fields such as forensic, occupational and environmental is likely to become a sterile discipline whose impact would be severely limited.

Simon Ungar
London SW4

Empiricism under fire

Following the publication of our article ‘Firing pea-shooters at elephants’ (September 2009), we have received an overwhelmingly positive reaction for which we say thank you to all who showed interest. To date we are aware of only one dissenting voice in the form of a short letter to The Psychologist (‘In defence of empiricism’, November 2009). Leaving aside the fact that the letter’s author appears to be patently clueless as to the intellectual bases of our arguments, we were nevertheless heartened to see at least something by way of an attempt at debate.

We appreciate comments from those peers who have congratulated us for being ‘brave to tell the truth’, for writing that which was ‘long overdue and needed saying’, etc. However, we would also appreciate it if our article engendered rigorous, intellectually informed debate leading to sea changes in our discipline’s perceptions of science and psychology, and of the special relationships that exist between the two. The contingent implications such changes would have for research methodology and for effectively developing psychology as a scientific discipline are as far-reaching as they are essential to understand. Otherwise it will be a case of yet more of the stagnant same – with empiricism continuing to deliver ever more studies and virtually nil in terms of unified scientific growth.
The retention of the status quo is undoubtedly the easiest option, but not by any stretch of the imagination can it be viewed as being a credible one.

Julian Boon
University of Leicester
Lynsey Gozna
University of Surrey

Forum column: The real world
Psychologist readers who are fans of Strictly Come Dancing are hopefully finding some relief from the pressures of work in their weekly fix of dizzying drama and dazzling outfits. It would be nice if this provided a complete break from our professional activities, but alas (if our experience is anything to go by) this is never entirely possible. Every week we are confronted with the challenging task of trying to understand exactly (a) how the public voted and (b) why it voted the way it did. Infuriatingly too, the data on which to base this analysis are very limited: the judges’ scores are known (and usually quite predictable), but one can typically only infer who the public have not voted for by their presence in the dreaded dance-off.

Nevertheless, the data this provides is itself quite informative, and we think that at least three bodies of psychological literature can help to make sense of it. The first is work by the Australian psychologist Norm Feather into ‘the tall poppy syndrome’ and that of Cardiff Professor Russell Spears into the related phenomenon of Schadenfreude. In this regard, what is striking about early rounds of SCD is that the dance-off commonly contains at least one female celebrity with phenomenal dancing ability. Indeed, in recent series there have been critical points about half-way through in which – much to the distress of the judges – two of the best women (2007: Gabby Logan vs. Penny Lancaster; 2009: Zoe Lucker vs. Ali Bastian) have had to endure the unexpected trauma of head-to-head sudden death. In line with Feather’s and Spears’s work, what is clear from this is that the public has little sympathy for those who make them feel inferior. There are also reasons for suspecting that this may be especially true when the individuals in question are women.

Second, though, it is interesting to note that the shock of a leading competitor bowing out in this way often appears to be a trigger for a major reorientation of voting practices. In line with work by Columbia psychologist Tory Higgins on regulatory focus theory, it appears that prior to this point voters have typically had a ‘prevention focus’ in which their voting is determined primarily by who they want to save; however, after this there is more evidence of voters adopting a ‘promotion focus’ in which they start to vote for who they want to win. At this ‘tipping point’, the psychological profile of voters starts to change – people now vote to ensure that what they want to happen does, rather than what they don’t want to happen doesn’t.

Finally, third, there is often evidence of the ‘John Sergeant effect’ whereby a bad competitor is kept in precisely in order to ‘spite’ the judges who oppose themselves in their expertise to ‘ordinary people’. This is an illustration of ‘reactance’ – a term coined by University of Kansas professor Jack Brehm to refer to the tendency for people to resist injunctions by others (especially those in authority) as a means of demonstrating their capacity for free will. Thus insistence by the judges that viewers should vote only for the best dancers, impels them to do the very opposite. As we argue in some of our own recent work on leadership, what this clearly shows is that a person’s capacity to influence others depends not on how much they know but on how much others identify with them as ‘one of us’. Indeed, this tension between the judges’ knowledge and their limited power is skilfully manipulated by the BBC as part of the ongoing pantomime.

As with all research based on imperfect data, we make no claims about the validity of our analysis. Psychologically speaking, there is an awful lot going on here. It may be stretching it to suggest that every chapter of the psychology textbook takes a spin on the SCD dancefloor, but certainly there’s more going on than sequins and salsa.

Steve Reicher is at the University of St Andrews. Alex Haslam is at the University of Exeter. Share your views on this and other ‘real world’ psychological issues – e-mail [email protected].

Studying psychology – stirring up the hornet’s nest 
I applaud Marc Smith’s letter ‘Take A-level psychology seriously’ (November 2009). I am currently a psychology teacher/lecturer who works in three different sectors (School/FE/HE) and am only too aware of the problems with coherent progression of psychology from A-level through to degree level.

It’s time for the Society to wake up and form a proper strategy to nurture psychology from pre-tertiary through to undergraduate level. I have myself heard academics gleefully stating with glazed over eyes to psychology undergraduates: ‘If anyone has done A-level psychology, forget all you have learned.’ Also, their argument is if you put in the hurdle of A-level psychology as a prerequisite to studying psychology, it excludes students who have not (some strange kind of argument for a discipline seeking full scientific recognition!). The current system allows students to begin study without any basic knowledge, such as who was Freud or Piaget, and carefully masks the time-bomb lovingly known as statistics. Then if you look at the structure of a BPS-accredited degree, it could be argued that the first year is wasted, teaching what they should already know, and the third year is still offering ‘introduction to’ modules.

The way forward is for the Society’s Psychology Education Board (PEB) to get more involved with the A-level examination boards and advise on what should be taught; then adjust the first year of BPS-accredited degrees to take into account what students have already studied and make A-level psychology a prerequisite for BPS-accredited degree-level study.
So, Marc Smith, thank you for stirring up the hornets’ nest again. I also note that there currently is a vacancy on PEB. You should apply and tackle this problem from within. I would be more than happy to be a signatory on your nomination.

Andy McCarthy
Kent College, Canterbury College, Canterbury Christ Church University

Dr Richard Latto, Chair of the Psychology Education Board, and Phil Banyard, Chair of the Standing Committee on Pre-tertiary Education, comment: Marc Smith and Andy McCarthy are right to raise the issue again about the reluctance of some university departments to accept the prior learning of their students. A large proportion of psychology undergraduates start their studies having already completed two or more years’ study of the subject. They have a reasonable expectation that their undergraduate course will build on their A-level studies rather than dismiss them or pretend that they never happened.

The Society has worked hard to defend the academic credibility of A-level psychology, particularly when it has been disparaged by other science subjects or had its rigour questioned following publication of results. The Society and the Association for the Teaching of Psychology (ATP) are working together to influence curriculum designers at both school and HE levels so that we can work towards an integrated curriculum for psychology, ensuring that A-level students leave school with a consistent and coherent body of psychological knowledge and skills that is acknowledged by HEIs when they plan their programmes. The examination boards have representation on our Standing Committee for Pre-tertiary Education, which also, like the PEB itself, has representatives from across the pre-tertiary sector and the ATP, and we liaise with them as much as possible.

Over the past year, we have held roundtable discussions at the Society’s and ATP’s annual conferences and will continue to lobby departments on this issue. In 2010 we will again hold discussions at the two conferences in an attempt to move the debate on. All contributions are welcome to this debate, especially suggestions for how we can better integrate A-level and undergraduate curricula. At the roundtable on promoting links between pre-tertiary and HE psychology at the Annual Conference this year we found some excellent examples of good practice in HEIs in relation to recognising and distinguishing those with psychology A-level, and the Society looks to promote this wherever possible. Our accreditation procedures are about achieving appropriate learning outcomes and having the resources to successfully deliver them, but the Society is not in a position to tell departments how this should be achieved.

The Society has also successfully campaigned for the Training and Development Agency for Schools to introduce funded places for psychology graduates to train as secondary teachers, a development it sees as essential for the future development of psychology in schools.

The Society has always welcomed the success of pre-tertiary level psychology and we do our utmost to reward and celebrate excellence, with both the annual A-level and Scottish Highers Award and the Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award, which is open to all levels and last year was awarded to Dorothy Coombs for her contributions within the pre-tertiary sector.


Savings to pass on?
I have recently paid the £120 fee to the HPC for registration as a Practitioner Psychologist. Given that the regulatory function has been taken away from the BPS, we will be getting ‘less for our money’ from the BPS. Can I expect a proportionate reduction in the BPS membership fee, for this and subsequent years?

Emma Haddleton
Crediton, Devon

Reply from Society President, Sue Gardner: Having paid the registration fee to the Health Professions Council (HPC) myself, I am very aware that applied psychologists are now paying more to belong to various organisations. The Society has cut its costs and reviewed its operations to increase its cost-effectiveness and to keep its subscription levels as competitive as possible. Indeed, the subscriptions have not increased over the past few years and are in line with other prestigious professional organisations. The cost of self-regulation exceeded the revenue from the practising certificates so we have yet to benefit from this change in our activities.

There are several issues for members to consider. Firstly, some psychologists have said that they won’t or don’t have to register with the HPC. This means that their clients or those around them will have to make complaints to, or seek redress from, these individuals directly. Given the growing public awareness of regulation and a generally more litigious society, there are risks to reputation and finance in this stance. 

Secondly, some say that they do have to register, particularly those in statutory authorities or who want to use a specific title, but they don’t have to renew their membership of the Society. This is understandable but may be premature and short-sighted. The HPC aims to protect the public. It does not help, support, advise, develop, train or set standards for psychologists. If you want to contribute to bringing psychology to society, to share ideas, to pool energy, to develop the discipline, to continue learning and to work for psychology with other psychologists then you need to be a member of the British Psychological Society.


What the HPC won’t do… the BPS will
I read with interest the letters from Hugo Pound (‘HPC – any business case?’) and Graham Rawlinson (‘What will they do?’) in the October and November 2009 editions of The Psychologist respectively. Both refer to the notion that the Health Professions Council (HPC) should be doing something for psychology or psychologists in return for the £120 fee that they require for registration.

This seems a typical misconception of the role of HPC that may be shared by many psychologists. It is not the role or purpose of HPC to do anything for psychology or psychologists. They do not promote, advance or promulgate psychological knowledge or practice, nor do they serve the interests of psychologists other than by allowing them to demonstrate that they meet certain standards in their training and in the services they offer. It is clear from the reply quoted in the Pound letter that HPC has a single purpose, which is to set and maintain standards that provide protection for the public who seek psychological services.

If Psychologists wish to see an organisation that has at its core the promotion, advancement and promulgation of psychology, then they need look no further than British Psychological Society. If we have a powerful regulator ‘policing’ psychologists, then it is surely in our interests to support a powerful professional body to represent us more widely.

I would therefore strongly encourage any Registered Psychologist to ensure that they maintain BPS membership and play an active role in carrying forward the Society’s aims.

Ray Miller
Royal Edinburgh Hospital

Room to talk about ‘big brother’
I am consistently surprised to see in the pages of The Psychologist that our profession has so much to say about Big Brother and reality TV and yet has not commented on ‘big brother’ in terms of recent waves of social regulation, surveillance and the many ways in which the state assumes responsibility for interaction between adults and children. Surely we have much to add to the debate from social and clinical psychological theory and research – for example, perceptions of responsibility, patterns of abuse, effective child protection, social perceptions of trust, fear, risk, etc.

There has been much talk of what the Society can do for the profession, how individual faculties and the Division of Clinical Psychology might best serve us, and how we should engage with the media. I think we do have important things to say, and in some situations have a responsibility to say them. Where are the informative articles that might influence the policy makers or the commissioned articles by researchers we know might be able to explain the possible implications of increasingly restrictive regulation in all aspects of our lives? I would like to see more substantial debate around social, education and health policy in the pages of The Psychologist (the IAPT Marzillier and Hall articles in May 2009 came closest to this).

The American Psychological Association has not been afraid to engage directly with and challenge the policy makers. It is consulted and respected as a result. We must surely dare to be bolder and enter the political fray if we are to be recognised as an organisation of substance. The Psychologist can no longer afford to talk just to the profession, it must communicate the value (yes, and limitations) of psychology to a wider audience, and encourage ‘big brother’ to talk to us.

Lynne Hipkin

Editor’s note: I share your desire for more substantial debate around social, education and health policy in our pages. Our next issue is a special on social inclusion. Those working in relevant areas are always welcome to contact me on [email protected] with their suggestions, or see the advice at

Cycle killer – qu’est-ce que c’est?
In response to Steve Jefferis’s letter (‘Press releases…’, November 2009), Fiona Jones states that abstracts for papers accepted for conferences are openly available public documents. However, while the abstracts may well be available to journalists in hard copy at the time of the conference, my understanding is that not all end up on the Society’s website, and certainly not immediately after the conference.

I decided to look more deeply into the background of the research articles referred to by Kisane Prutton in the Media section of the same edition. I was reassured to see that reporting of the research by Carolien Martijn (body satisfaction and smiling), Amelia Hollywood (why diet drugs work) and Tony Cassidy (faith healing) was consistent with what was put out in the BPS press releases. In Flat Earth News Nick Davies summarises research from Cardiff University to the effect that 70 per cent of press stories are wholly or partially rewritten from press releases, and this seems to be case when looking at this small sample of research articles. It highlights the importance of well-written press releases (the central theme of Kisane Prutton’s article); the over-worked journalist may well use the entire press release verbatim and unchecked!

However, when I looked into the ‘stir’ surrounding Peter Ayton’s paper on the increase in cycling accidents after 7/7 given at the recent Cognitive Psychology Division annual conference I was unable to find the abstract (or indeed any paper presented at that conference) on the Society’s website. I was therefore unable to verify much of what has been attributed to Peter Ayton. For example, he apparently said that ‘if you asked which killed more people in the last 10 years in London, international terrorism, or bicycles, the answer would definitely be bicycles’. Did he really say that bicycles killed more people than terrorists? Perhaps he said that cycling killed more people than terrorists, or perhaps he said something else entirely. How can I or anyone else who did not attend the conference know for sure?

Setting aside this quote, Peter Ayton’s research has been commented upon widely (largely in the cycling blogosphere) and much of that debate has occurred due to a lack of visibility of the assumptions within it. This seems to reinforce Ben Goldacre’s concern which Steve Jefferis wrote to reiterate; when the Society presents unpublished research to the media, how can the wider audience of that research review it for themselves? This situation seems ironic given Kisane Prutton’s assertion that ‘we can’t assume that our conference presentation or journal article fades quickly from the public eye. Thanks  to the internet, our work [is]...available indefinitely,  on demand and without our blessing’.

Deryck Thake


Parents in public 
Barbara Tizard’s article on Bowlby is timely (‘Looking back’, October 2009). There is much going on – or not – in parent–child interaction that still needs attention. It is also time to replicate my study of 1985 on parental behaviour in public; it can easily be replicated in many different places and is not about a few babies in orphanages but a widespread social phenomenon.

In 1985 I made three studies, in different places. I took a clipboard in public streets and recorded the interactions between couples for two minutes at a time. In two city areas, adult-adult couples tended to talk together, but adult-child couples tended to have no interaction unless the adult was keeping the child in order. The third area was middle-class suburban where the situation was different: mothers tended to fuss around their children; passers-by tended to be supportive.

Today my own studies are not reassuring. People will push their babies in strollers without any attention to them for up to half an hour at a time. Or they will respond to demands by effectively quieting the child with a dummy or food, stopping all attempts at language. Today in Australia the situation is becoming grimmer, with even a fashion to make sure that babies and toddlers cannot see or been seen, by covering the stroller over with a blanket. An American colleague writes of couples in supermarkets, with mom on her cell-phone.

It is tragic when young parents today have no chance to discover how to use their imagination and enjoy the stimulating company of real live children. Adults are unaware of how they are missing out on a great opportunity. It can be very useful for psychologists to remind them.

Valerie Yule
Mount Waverley
Victoria, Australia
Yule, V. (1985, 28 September). Why are parents tough on children? New Society, pp.444–446.

The invisible man 
Following up Vaughan Bell’s ‘Forum’ column in the November issue, I would argue that we now have a national shortage of male students entering psychology degree courses and further argue that urgent steps are needed to increase the numbers of male students. I am eager to empower the few male undergraduates that we have as much as much as possible. However, I was quite surprised to see that the standard careers posters the Society sends out to departments don’t do this: there is a male student in the educational psychologists poster (not a psychologist) and an asexual Top Gun-style pilot in the occupational psychologists poster, but no depictions of male psychologists. If any Society member has general male-focused inspirational material that I could use, please do get in touch.

Carl Senior
Programme Director for Undergraduate Psychology
Aston University


Forum column: Web chat
Should we strive to protect children from ever being scared? Or is conquering fear an essential part of growing up? North American bloggers and critics have been debating these questions energetically over the last couple of months, provoked by the US release of the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 picture book Where The Wild Things Are (which opens in the UK on 11 December).

The film tells the tale of Max’s spat with his mother and his subsequent fantasy journey to an island where he’s crowned king of the Wild Things. Shot on the cliffs of southern Australia, the film presents the eponymous creatures as nine-foot tall, brown-furred, horned and clawed with enormous round heads. According to David Denby in the New Yorker, the film runs into trouble because whereas the 10-sentence book was aimed at young children, the adaptation ‘has been designed for older children and adults, and the creatures... never stop talking. They have mysterious relations with one another – friendships, love affairs – and deep-seated grievances. In the book, the creatures are projections of Max’s imagination, but these beasts are all too real, and, appearances to the contrary, they aren’t wild things. They’re becalmed, even defeated.’

Parenting websites were quick to raise concerns. Writing on, for example, Betsy Brown Braun warned readers: ‘Before you hand pick your perfect se

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