Including reality TV; ABA; psychology and nuclear weapons; environmental concerns; guest columns and much more

Entertainment, experiment, education… or just unethical?

On the British Psychological Society’s website is a very useful briefing paper entitled ‘Psychologists working within television: Ethical implications’. The guidance advises extra care when our profession is approached for involvement in reality television projects or anything involving children. The recent television series Boys and Girls Alone combined both of these aspects. This mini-series was commissioned by Channel 4 and made by Love Productions. Representatives from both companies have shifted their position over the exact nature of the programme they want to defend from legitimate accusations of irresponsible, and possibly abusive, treatment of children. On their website, Love Productions say that they ‘specialise in thought-provoking, entertaining television’. However, the producers prefer not to describe their programmes involving children (such as The Baby Borrowers) as entertainment. Consequently, they look towards compliance with the Ofcom guidance on protecting under-18s in programmes and not the legal obligations for protection of child performers.

The producers also describe Boys and Girls Alone as ‘a groundbreaking documentary series’. However, the end product that appears on the screen is far from any accurate depiction of childhood, given the elaborate set-up and manipulation of events. Some general discussion in the media has been that the programme works as a kind of ‘social experiment’. But would any research ethics committee ever pass this kind of proposal involving children, let alone if the plan was also to record and sell the cut-and-paste version for public viewing?

In their letter to The Times (16 February) the executive producers argued that their programme was ‘educational’: allegedly for the children, their parents and the audience. Yet any genuinely educational endeavour would address, ‘Is this the best way to support children to learn useful life skills or gain confidence?’ What if this project had been undertaken by a group of teachers, of family support workers or directly by parents themselves? Would the ‘educational’ justification be given credence? Parents should actively support and coach their offspring towards independence; it is called raising children. This responsibility is not fulfilled by handing over your son or daughter to a film crew, watching the children on CCTV and, in some instances on camera, laughing at their predicament. This serious failure of good judgement is not corrected by the borderline presence of other adults during filming and the veneer of respectability from two psychologists named on the credits as consultants.

Boys and Girls Alone is in my view an example of the reality-TV genre that now exploits children, who cannot give their informed consent. Parental agreement is a meaningless safeguard, when mothers and fathers are ready to give permission for their children’s personal feelings, poor choices over behaviour and emotional distress to become public property. Adults as parents may still be naive about the values and priorities that guide television production companies. However, psychologists cannot afford such credulity.
Jennie Lindon
People Consulting Ltd
London SW17 


ABA – entitled to a say?

Tommy MacKay states that he prefers to consider himself simply a ‘psychologist’ (Forum, February 2009), rejecting any more specialised label. This would be an admirable sentiment if only it corresponded to what is actually happening in the real world.

To call himself a ‘psychologist’ is virtually meaningless, because people who call themselves psychologists are so varied. By this I mean not simply to refer to the many specialist fields within psychology, whose practitioners hardly communicate with each other. More significant is the fact that widely varying, and often conflicting, approaches exist side by side. Are there any concepts or techniques that are accepted by all psychologists? Tommy MacKay presents himself as an expert in ABA, but does not mention that there is a specialist qualification, BCBA, Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Unlike the term ‘psychologist’, ‘BCBA’ tells me something relatively precise about the person wearing that label.

An American colleague has suggested to me that the disputes in psychology are so serious that he does not expect the American Psychological Association to survive for more than 20 years. After all there has already been one serious disruption, when what is now the Association for Psychological Science was founded 20 years ago. My impression is that most British psychologists don’t wish to recognise the divisions in their discipline. Although it may be uncomfortable for BPS members to acknowledge it, the lack of a coherent agreed core to psychology seems to me to call into question whether we are justified in calling ourselves a profession.

In the face of the multifaceted subject that is ‘psychology’, the British Psychological Society should show itself sensitive to the existence of conflicting viewpoints when acting as a body. In their reply to Mickey Keenan (Forum, January 2009) the Chairs of the Research Board and the Professional Practice Board acknowledged the existence of ‘strong differences of opinion’. If they knew that to be the case, why then did they not ensure that the holders of the crucially different positions were represented on the working party? Quite apart from the need to respect scientific debate, there is the ethical issue of ensuring that the best possible advice is available to those who need it.
Sandy Hobbs
University of the West of Scotland

Psychology and nuclear weapons

Last December, 100 international political, military, business and civic leaders launched a new movement called ‘Global Zero’, dedicated to achieving a nuclear weapons free world. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, has spoken recently on the urgency of this matter. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to five minutes to midnight. Yet the topic remains fairly absent from public discourse. Our lack of attention to this threatening situation and our behaviour in relation to it exhibits, in my view, many symptoms of psychopathology including denial, projection, splitting and paranoia.

A psychological perspectiveon the stance of the politicians in power, who insist that we must have these weapons despite all the pressure and arguments against their position, is also of interest.Perhaps a reader out there has some expertise in this area and might consider writing an article for The Psychologist on it?
Jim McCluskey

I have been reading the March edition of The Psychologist and I have a complaint to make regarding advertising from certain organisations. I noticed on page 275 of this edition that the Atomic Weapons Establishment had placed a full-page advert for occupational psychologists. I am disappointed that the Atomic Weapons Establishment have been allowed to advertise in such a prestigious magazine. This is an organisation describing itself as being ‘uniquely responsible for maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent’, who in effect create atomic weapons designed to annihilate on an unprecedented level, diverting valuable public funds into private business for the destruction of one another.

I believe in the value of science and the furthering of research, but for furthering understanding, support and acceptance. I see adverts from such an organisations as against the fundamental principles of psychology.
I would be interested to hear what colleagues across the UK think about this issue.
Alex Sim
Sutton & Merton Psychological Therapies in Primary Care

Paul Redford, Chair of the Psychologist Policy Committee, replies: The Psychologist Policy Committee has considered the issue of defence and armed forces advertising in the past, and the view was clear and unanimous: that these are legal employers of psychologists, there is no disciplinary issue involved in working for them and the adverts do not contravene our advertising code of practice (see Therefore to turn them away as advertisers would be unfair and discriminatory. However, we will discuss the issue raised here at our next policy meeting.

Environmental concerns

We read with interest the recent contributions on the role of psychology in climate change. One topic that deserves further attention is social norms. Social norms refer to what individuals believe
to be the behaviour of people at large. Importantly, many social norms do not accurately reflect behaviour. Instead, people consistently perceive themselves to be ‘better’ than others. In the environmental case, individuals might wrongly believe that they are already doing more than their fair share. The result is that they fail to act further.
The upside is that rapid and significant changes in behaviour can be brought about by changing the perceived norm. Psychological research has shown, for example, that domestic energy use can be reduced simply by providing accurate information about the energy consumption of other households (e.g. see Schultz et al., 2007). This approach holds tremendous promise for promoting changes in environmental behaviours, and can be applied at local or global scales.
However, it also highlights the care with which attempts to promote pro-environmental behaviour change must be undertaken. If social norms are not dealt with, then they might curtail the success of other interventions. And campaigns that aim to encourage recycling or energy conservation must be designed carefully to suggest that these behaviours are not the exception, but must instead focus on setting transparently high norms.
John McAlaney
University of Bradford
Markus Bindemann
University of Glasgow

Schultz, P.W. et al. (2007). The constructive, destructive and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18, 429–434.


I was very interested to read about the contribution of psychology to climate change in February’s Psychologist. Adapting to our changing climate and providing stewardship for our environment are aspects of human behaviour that are surely going to become of increasing importance as the century progresses.

On a related matter I am surprised never to have seen any articles by psychologists on litter behaviour, despite this topic appearing regularly in the correspondence columns of newspapers and conservation and outdoor pursuits magazines. Whilst litter can to some extent be controlled in cities by the provision of litter bins and in some places litter wardens, it is a much harder problem to control in country areas. If we are ever going to manage this problem in the countryside we need to know what makes people likely to engage in littering behaviour.

Why do people go in our countryside and then leave their rubbish often in the prettiest places? Why do people when they see fly-tipping sites then regard such places as public refuse dumps? Why do some dog owners pick up their dog’s excrement, put it in small, brightly coloured, plastic bags and decorate nearby trees and bushes with them?

These are all questions relating to human behaviour, and so if there are any psychologists out there working on this topic, I would be grateful if they could consider submitting an article to The Psychologist.
Bob Walley
Edenhall Hospital
East Lothian


The article by Alex Spence, Nick Pidgeon and David Uzzell (‘Climate change – Psychology’s contribution’, February 2009), while in many respects of great interest, begins with some assertions which scientists should be more cautious about.
The IPCC is not a body of climate scientists – only about 20 per cent of the policy makers and scientists who work with the IPCC can be classified as such. They do not develop predictions, but instead use computer models to develop scenarios, just one of which appears to be the one most commonly referred to. The final reports are authored not by scientists but by political appointees or administrators who have a responsibility for public policy.
When these authors say ‘climate change is no longer a contested issue’ they appear to be suggesting both that the fact that the climate is changing and that the causes of climate change are no longer contested. They would be wrong with respect to the causes of climate change. Over 650 scientists are ‘signed up’ as being sceptical about the dominant ‘man made’ thesis, including many who used to be IPCC scientists. Given that this article then focuses on individual and community-based behavioural change, it is disconcerting that attention is not also played to how we inhibit ‘groupthink’ about climate change and how we restore an understanding of science as the art of evidence-based disputing and discovery.
One key psychological task with respect to this issue is to encourage people to look at evidence in a critical way. I would encourage all psychologists to go beyond the media reporting of this issue (especially in the UK) and start to use the critical scientific skills to look at how a particular dominant view of climate change policy and required behavioural responses comes to dominate public policy, despite the evidence.
Stephen Murgatroyd PhD FBPsS


Climate change raises an important set of research and public policy questions which as psychologists we are well placed to contribute to. Interestingly though, I thought that the recent articles in The Psychologist missed discussion of an important factor in the climate change debate. Population growth got only the very briefest mention in the first article. Yet it is clearly very important in any consideration of the factors leading to climate change.
Most countries of the world continue to have rising populations including some of those with the largest carbon footprints per person.
In this context some interesting questions for psychological research would include: To what extent are families planned? How do people make decisions about family size? and To what extent are people making a connection between their personal decisions about family size and the effect of that decision on the environment?
Research from the Marie Stopes Foundation suggests that one in three pregnancies worldwide are not planned.
If it is the case that few people think about climate change and dwindling world resources when they plan their families, then arguably a lot of work is needed in raising awareness. We live in a finite world, so increased population means increased demands on finite resources as well increased CO2 emissions. The factor of population growth is often ignored in debates on green issues and this in itself would be
a further topic worth exploring.
Chris MacAndrew
Cheltenham Community Learning Disability Team
Delancey Hospital

I want to thank your contributors for an excellent issue on the role of psychologists in the climate change debate. Alexa, Nick and David really put the issue on the map when they state: ‘Climate change is a global phenomenon, a complex product of our energy use, unsustainable consumption, population growth and ecological changes, such as deforestation. No one will remain unaffected.’

In the light of this, I would like to encourage members to join a campaign to make our voices heard as health and mental health professionals. See for more details.
Hilde Rapp
Centre for International Peacebuilding

Dyslexia – spelling it out

I am sorry to learn in The Psychologist (Forum, March 2009) that one of your correspondents was ‘scandalised’ by my recent appearance on BBC Breakfast News. However, I should like to comment upon his perception of the message that I sought to communicate.
1.    I did not side with the MP who said that reading disability was purely the product of poor teaching. Indeed, I said quite the opposite, remarking that this was a fatuous proposition that demonstrated a poor grasp of the issues.
2.    I did not argue that ‘Dyslexia does not exist’ despite being pressed to do so during the interview. Rather, I queried the usefulness of this construct for describing a subgroup of those with literacy difficulties.
3.    I did not criticise the BPS in the way that was suggested. However, I did point out that the BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology working party definition of dyslexia was so broad that it included the great majority of those who presented with reading difficulties of one kind or another. I have no problems with this, of course. Rather, my critique related to the utility of this definition for identifying a supposedly smaller dyslexic population.
4.    I was more than happy to acknowledge the genetic basis of reading disability for many individuals but this, in itself, does not validate the widespread use of the construct of dyslexia to describe a wide-ranging menu of symptoms and conditions.
In disputes, a common tactic is to seek to find a way to isolate, intellectually or socially, one’s antagonist from one’s peers. The attempt to suggest that I was critical of the BPS was a manipulative device that does not stand serious scrutiny of my words or position. The use of the phrase ‘described as a professor of educational psychology’ reflects an ad hominem approach that is, in my opinion, inappropriate in a professional organ such as The Psychologist.

I would suggest that rather than firing off ill-informed letters to The Psychologist, it might be wise if this particular correspondent were to take rather more trouble to listen to what is being said. If he would like to contact me, I should be delighted to send him a recently published paper (Elliott & Gibbs, 2008) that might help to clarify any further misunderstandings.
J.G. Elliott
School of Education
Durham University

Elliott, J.G. & Gibbs, S. (2008). Does dyslexia exist? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3–4), 475–491.

From CTA to a mind/brain paradigm

As a frequent user of cognitive task analysis (CTA) in the context of military procurement, I was very interested in the ‘Methods’ article by Julie Gore and Claire McAndrew (‘Accessing expert cognition’, March 2009), and pleased to see this area of applied psychology get an airing in a forum dominated by the clinical and educational subdisciplines.As the authors indicate, CTA tends to be used in cognitively complex real-world settings for some practical purpose. However, I would like to advocate its use more generally in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. This is because, although we tend to use the term ‘task’ rather casually, it is an epistemologically very important concept.

The mind/brain is designed, not for processing information (as mainstream cognitive psychology and neuropsychology would have us believe), but for helping us get by in the world – that is to conduct tasks within it. It is through this endeavour that knowledge structures are developed that are geared up for the world the organism finds itself in. The implication for cognitive psychology and neuropsychology is that one will find it difficult understanding how the mind/brain works without some clear idea as to what it is trying to do.

The current laboratory-based paradigm deals with tasks merely as intuitions derived from the manipulation of the task environment provided by the experimental procedures. Also, because it uses simple tasks where expertise is not tapped, it tends not to reveal the importance of knowledge. CTA forces one to make task components explicit and therefore open to public scrutiny and test, and when used in conjunction with real-world tasks, it reveals the importance of knowledge structures and how they get configured to serve the needs of the task.

Gary Klein (to whom Gore and McAndrew make reference) played an important role in demonstrating how expert decision makers rely heavily, not on explicit analytic processes (which mainstream cognitive psychology focused on), but on sophisticated suites of knowledge structures (templates in his terminology) – see, for example, Salas and Klein (2001).

I am currently using CTA and Klein’s ideas to develop a theory of vision and its underlying neural substrate, based on an analysis of conscious function, and have made some modest but potentially significant progress (Campion, 2009).

The approach suggests that the need to conduct tasks is built into the fundamental architecture of the mind/brain and that it consists of three core knowledge-based components, namely a what-I-can-do-in-the-world system, a what-I-need-to-do-in-the-world system and a how-I-can-do-what-I-need-to-do-in-the-world system. Such an architecture is incompatible with an information-processing conception of the mind/brain and sits more comfortably with a Piagetian one.
John Campion
Liphook, Hants

Campion, J. (2009). Consciousness: Paradigm for a science of mind and brain with special reference to vision. Manuscript in preparation.
Salas, E. & Klein, G. (Eds.) (2001). Linking expertise and naturalistic decision making. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Not amused

Women have often been vilified as prudish or humourless for failing to find any humour in jokes or stories that rely on the depiction of women as objects for men’s sexual gratification. Even so, we could find nothing remotely funny in Andy Field’s use of a study of men’s responses to lap dancers as a way of bringing ‘some humour into the lecture theatre’ for his statistics teaching (‘Can humour make students love statistics?’, March 2009). There may well be methodological points to be made and positive feedback received; we suspect, however, that some students would have strong reservations about the use of the material in this context but be reticent about speaking out. Given the frequent depiction of woman’s status as sex objects for men as socially normal or even natural, others may struggle to find a language to articulate their misgivings.

Power is a central issue here, particularly the power dynamics that support a male lecturer in presenting such research (to a presumably mainly female statistics class), which allow him to define it as involving humour and enable him to feel that it is ‘easy to present in a light-hearted way’. Field’s account shows no awareness of these processes; instead, he depicts humour and ease of presentation as somehow intrinsic to the research itself.

That The Psychologist should not only accept Field’s account as unproblematic but give it special prominence and a snappy, male-centred headline (‘Bringing lap dancers to the lecture theatre’) will leave many women feeling, not for the first time, that their discipline has a very long way to go before they are truly part of it.
Mary Boyle
Pippa Dell
School of Psychology
University of East London

Explaining love for the abuser

I read Sallie Baxendale’s ‘The psychology of “O”’ (March 2009) with interest. Sallie writes that Dominique Aury, the author of L’Histoire d’O, ‘inadvertently created a superb literary case study of cognitive dissonance’. There is an alternative psychological explanation for the main character’s behaviour.In 1986 I found myself interviewing 15-year-old Mexican girls/women in Tucson (Arizona) who were about to go through the ‘Quinceañera’ as part of some field work
I was doing. The ceremony is in some respects a typical pubescent rite of passage in that it marks the transition to marriageability for these young women.

It is of course much more than this in that it is steeped in a long and rich cultural history. However, it was not without its critics, particularly the local clergy, who decried its ruinous financial commitment on the part of families within the barrios who could ill afford it.
As such it was enormously stressful for the young women concerned. They wanted to get it right and do well. The interviews were fascinating in that they revealed two marked aspect to the whole process. The first had to do with the high levels of stress involved and the second with the euphoria experienced upon completion. The significance with this last rested with the attributions made which invariably had a semi-mystical quality to them ranging from the warmth of family and communal ties to the power of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

I went from this to read the field notes of over a hundred pubescent rites of passage to confirm this basic pattern using a semi-structured methodology (Duckett, 1988). Drawing from the work of Tom Shipley on opponent process theory (Solomon & Corbit, 1974) and addiction, I argued that the violence/stress of the ceremonies was not arbitrary but an essential part to harnessing an opponent process reaction and that the subsequent ‘high’ would be interpreted by the social cues provided (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

I believe the above model accounts for the apparent silence of Aury’s protagonist at the start of the process of abuse and also for her statement that she loves her abuser at the end. Cognitive dissonance I do not believe applies in situations where the subject feels their life is under threat or their world could potentially crumble if they don’t get through it all. It assumes a level of rational power that the heightened emotions of being subjected to continued abuse simply derails. To feel that your life is under continual threat precludes rational thought or thought of any kind. It is in this respect that it robs us of our dignity and our humanity in some instances. Secondly, this model offers a substantive explanation for the mechanism of what Aronson and Mills (1959) describe. It may also help explain Stockholm syndrome and Pavlov’s ultra-paradoxical that he was never able to make sense of.

Stephane Duckett
Royal Free Hospital

Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177–181.
Duckett, S. (1988). An opponent-process account of pubescent rites of passage. PhD dissertation. Temple University.
Solomon, R. & Corbit, J. (1974). An opponent-process theory of motivation: 1. Temporal dynamics of affect. Psychological Review, 81(2), 119–145.
Schachter, S. & Singer, J. (1962) Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional states. Psychological Review, 69, 379–399.

Unfriendly formats

Over my 13 years of studying psychology, and being physically disabled, I have become increasingly frustrated with two aspects of formatting in journal articles. Certain articles have become so annoying to read I have been forced to avoid the journals in question. I have cerebral palsy and cannot use my hands and have some involuntary movements. This means that I have to rely on a personal assistant to turn pages while reading. I have found that certain journals use a referencing system with numbers, for example, ‘previous research has shown memory declines with age1,2,8,12’. As one can imagine asking your personal assistant to repeatedly turn to the reference section while you are in the middle of reading
a paragraph is frustrating and distracting. I have also spoken to friends and colleagues who have visual impairments and they find it extremely difficult to identify the numbers in the text.

The APA guidelines, which we all are supposed to abide by can raise an equal level of difficulty when it comes to reading tables. I cannot understand why we have outlawed lines between each row in tables. If one could imagine being unable to use a finger or a ruler to guide your vision and have involuntary movements at the same time one can see how frustrating it can be. Once again I can vouch for people with visual impairments and the difficulties that they have with this type of formatting when the tables are relatively large. I would like to implore the APA and journals that use this formatting to use a more user-friendly format. Regarding the references, it is relatively hassle free to skim over names in brackets and continue reading the sentence. Also by adding the names and dates it is significantly easier to cross-reference in one’s own mind. Formatting tables with lines between rows and columns would also be easier when using computer programs such as Word. I feel that this is an issue that disabled people have simply put up with without complaining; perhaps it is time to make articles more accessible to under-represented groups.
Nick Almond
Leeds Memory Group
Institute of Psychological Sciences
University of Leeds


No catastrophic events 

Having received the 2008 Annual Report with March’s Psychologist after a heavy day of delivering some training,
I sat down with a mug of tea and found myself browsing through it, reserving The Psychologist to read when less tired. When I came to the ‘Abridged Financial Information’, I started a rather mindless game of ‘spot the trends’ and found something quite striking.
While the global financial crisis of recent months might well explain a large part of the losses made by the Society in 2008, I am puzzled by the figures given for expenditure and income relating to Conferences and Events. If the figures are correct, the BPS increased spending on this activity by 63 per cent on 2007 to £976,000 in 2008, but gained a profit of only £147,000. As the profit for 2007 appears to have been £930,000 for an outlay of £597,000, the performance of the Society’s Conferences and Events in 2008 seems to have suffered some catastrophic impact.
Is it me reading the figures wrong, is it a typo, or is there some other explanation of the numbers given?
Sandie Hobley
Sutton Coldfield

Russell Hobbs, BPS Finance Director, replies: These figures are correct and there is no typographical error. The abridged accounts are consolidated and include all the member network conferences as well as the main Society ones. During the year the number of member network events was reduced and this affected the overall income, because inevitably fixed costs remained.

The main Society conference in 2008 was in Dublin and part of the increased expenditure was the problem with the sterling/euro exchange rate, which worked against the Society and made the conference more expensive than had been originally projected.

However, the figures in the  accounts are also affected by an anomaly arising from the early receipt of income for events in 2008, which resulted in overstatement of income for 2007 and understatement of

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