News and Media

childhood conduct; sleep-related automatism; prize-winning brains; reports from the Society’s student lectures and therapy in the NHS events; and much more

Is childhood the starting point for a life of crime?

Crime could be substantially reduced if more effort and resources were spent on alleviating or preventing childhood conduct problems. So argues a new report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH), The Chance of a Lifetime (

The report says that around 80 per cent of crime is committed by a minority of individuals who display mild to severe conduct problems in childhood and adolescence. Given that the risk factors for conduct disorder are well known and that there is good evidence that early interventions – including early parenting programmes – can help, the report argues that interventions should be made more widely available.
The report cites a raft of evidence to support its case, including longitudinal research conducted for SCMH earlier this year by
the psychologists Marcus Richards of the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing and Rosemary Abbott of the University of Cambridge ( Their tracking of three British cohorts born in 1946, 1958 and 1970 showed that people who exhibit severe conduct problems in adolescence are four times more likely to be arrested in adulthood and three times more likely to have a court conviction.

The report also cites the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, led by BPS member David Farrington of the University of Cambridge, which in 1961 began tracking the conviction patterns among 411 eight-year-old boys living in south London ( By the time they were aged 50, 41 per cent of the sample had received a criminal conviction. Crucially, however, just 7 per cent of the sample were responsible for over half of all convictions, with those first convicted at a younger age tending to have the most convictions and the longest criminal careers.

Dr Farrington’s research is also cited in relation to interventions designed to prevent future offending. A 2003 meta-analysis Farrington conducted with Brandon Welsh looked at 40 evaluation studies and found that on average the programmes reduced future offending by nearly a third (

Sainsbury Centre joint chief executive Sean Duggan said: ‘In the UK, just 1 per cent of the annual law and order budget would fund a comprehensive programme of pre-school support for up to one third of all children born each year. Early intervention of this kind will not just reduce the risk of future offending but give young children being born today the chance of a better life.’

A complicating issue, mentioned in the report, is that although children with severe conduct problems are responsible for a strikingly disproportionate percentage of crimes in adulthood, it still remains the case that the vast majority of crimes are committed by adults who as children displayed only moderate, ‘sub-clinical’ conduct problems. ‘A possible implication,’ the report says, ‘is that preventive efforts should apply across the full range of a risk factor rather than being concentrated on the clinically significant extremes.’

In a separate research report, adult proclivity for committing crime has been traced back to fear-based learning as a toddler. A longitudinal study in the American Journal of Psychiatry ( by Yu Gao and colleagues caught up with about 1800 Mauritian three-year-olds who’d had their fear response measured back in the 1970s. Researchers had observed  the children’s sweat response to a sound paired with a loud, unpleasant noise. By the time the cohort were aged 23, 137 had acquired a criminal record. Crucially, compared with their peers,  the offenders had shown a reduced fear response as toddlers. The authors said: ‘Poor fear conditioning early in life implicates amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex dysfunction and a lack of fear of socializing punishments in children who grow up to become criminals.’


Sleep-related automatism

When Briton Brian Thomas killed his wife by strangulation on holiday in 2008, he was asleep and not in control of his actions. In the official jargon, he had experienced a sleep-related automatism. That was the verdict of expert witnesses for the prosecution and defence in a trial that concluded in November. Consequently, the judge told Thomas that he bore no culpability for his wife’s death. Chartered Psychologist Dr Chris Idzikowski of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre acted as an expert witness for the defence and was responsible for conducting tests to find out whether Thomas had a sleepwalking disorder. He told The Psychologist that sleep disorder centres are getting better at identifying individuals who are likely to have sleepwalked but that difficulties can arise with infrequent sleepwalkers or dubious claims of sleepwalking.
Idzikowski explained that cases are examined on two levels – ‘(a) examining the detail of the alleged offence and whether it is compatible with other cases and (b) an examination of the individual to assess whether they are suffering from a sleepwalking disorder, or disorders associated with sleepwalking, and whether they have the ‘triggers’ for sleepwalking’. He also told us that apart from straightforward recordings, ‘procedures also now can include recording after sleep deprivation or acoustic provocation after sleep deprivation’.

This focus on noise triggers and sleep deprivation comes after a study published in 2008 showed that sleepwalkers are particularly prone to somnambulistic episodes when disturbed after a period of sleep deprivation. Mathieu Pilon and colleagues at the Centre d’Étude du Sommeil in Montreal tested 10 sleepwalkers and 10 controls and found that all the walkers, but none of the controls, sleepwalked when disturbed by a buzzer after 25 hours of prior sleep deprivation (Neurology;

However, Idzikowski added that research in this area is largely going through a consolidation and review stage rather than there being any recent breakthroughs in understanding. Indeed, the overall incidence of sleepwalking is still unknown.

‘If night-staff at hotels are a guide,’ he said, ‘it’s possible that anyone who is tired, partially sleep-deprived and has had some alcohol, may be triggered into a sleepwalking episode (like going to the loo but walking out of the hotel room) – if these individuals are involved in an incident, we may not find any sleepwalking disorder.’ 

Well-being at work

Mental well-being in the workplace is the focus of the latest psychology-related guidance to be published by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Over 13,000,000 working days are lost annually because of work-related mental health issues, the guidance says, costing the UK economy over £28 billion.The recommendations given in the guidance, which was published in November, include: flexible working hours where possible; improved line management through supportive leadership styles providing feedback and motivation; routine monitoring of employee well-being; and a workplace culture that reduces the potential for mental health-related stigma. A number of psychologists helped produce the new guidance, including Professors Susan Michie, Cary Cooper, Ivan Robertson and Dr Peter Kelly.

Michie, who is at the BPS Centre for Outcomes Research and Effectiveness at University College London and member of the Public Health Interventions Advisory Committee at NICE, said: ‘Workplace mental well-being is important both for staff and the organisation’s productivity. Some of the key features relevant to all employers include the need to provide employees with the necessary levels of support, praise, control over their work and constructive feedback. The guidance also highlights the need for good communication between employees and their managers and the need to treat people as valued individuals.’

As well as providing recommendations for workplace practices, the new guidance also identifies a number of gaps in the existing evidence base. These include: a dearth of quality UK-based research on organisation-wide approaches that aim to improve employee well-being; a lack of validated measurements for recording employee well-being; and a lack of research on the potential costs and benefits of introducing organisation-wide measures for promoting employee well-being.

Publication of the new guidance coincided with the launch of a new website, aimed at stressed workers, produced by the national anti-stigma programme Time to Change (, and with an announcement by NHS employers of its Open Your Mind campaign, which aims to improve the working environment for NHS staff (

The NICE guidance is at


Don’t care too much for money

Psychological therapy is at least 32 times more cost-effective at increasing happiness than money (in press; Health Economics, Policy and Law). That’s the striking conclusion of Christopher Boyce at the University of Warwick and Alex Wood at the University of Manchester, after they compared longitudinal data on the effects of psychological therapy and various life events, including bereavement and lottery wins, on subjective well-being.

Citing data published in the BMJ (, the pair argue that cognitive behavioural therapy and non-directive counselling alleviate psychological distress by one and a half standard deviations,
at a cost of £800 over four months. The psychologists go on to say that to achieve this effect with money would require ‘somewhere in the region of £179,000 to £292,000 of extra income every year’ based on longitudinal data gathered from the British Household Survey, published recently by economists (e.g. see

Boyce and Wood further argue that this has relevance for the compensation awarded in tort law, whereby claimants are given money to compensate for the effects of traumas such as bereavements and injuries. ‘Currently monetary compensation seems to be unquestionably taken in law courts as the only way of helping an individual overcome psychological distress after a traumatic event,’ they write. ‘The values currently offered as compensation are arbitrary ... and, according to economists’ subjective well-being equations, should actually be much higher ... . Rather than giving individuals more income to cope with distress it seems sensible to consider other alternatives such as psychological therapy.’

Pain relief and pleasant pictures

Next time you’re due to undergo a painful procedure at the dentist, try packing a photo of your partner. Psychologists at the University of California have shown that people’s subjective experience of pain is reduced when they’re looking at a picture of a loved one (Psychological Science,

Sarah Master and colleagues recruited 25 women who’d been with their current boyfriend for at least six months. They then repeatedly applied 6-second-long thermal stimulations to the left forearm
of each woman. Crucially, the women’s ratings of discomfort were reduced when they were looking at a picture of their boyfriend or were holding his hand, compared with looking at a male stranger’s photo, holding a male stranger’s hand, holding a squeeze ball, or looking at a chair or cross-hair.

This apparent pain-relieving effect is not explicable merely in terms of distraction. Alongside the pain reports, the researchers also tested the participants’ reaction times to a series of beeps and found the women were just as quick to respond when looking at their boyfriend’s picture or holding his hand versus the other conditions. Master’s team surmised that the analgesic effect works by priming mental representations of being loved and supported.

‘These findings challenge the notion that the beneficial effects of social support come solely from supportive social interactions and suggest that simple reminders of loved ones may be sufficient to engender feelings of support,’ the researchers concluded.

Coincidentally a separate team of researchers at the University of Montreal have just published the results of their investigation into what’s going on in the brain when emotions modulate a person’s experience of pain (PNAS; Mathieu Roy and colleagues scanned the brains of 13 participants receiving mild electric shocks whilst simultaneously looking at pleasant, unpleasant or neutral pictures. The researchers also recorded muscle activity in the leg that received the shock. This was so they could tease apart neural activity associated with the different aspects to emotional pain modulation, part of which has to do with interpretation and context and a further aspect that has to do with the brain modulating incoming pain signals arriving from the spine.

As expected, pain perception was greater when participants looked at unpleasant pictures, such as mutilations, versus neutral pictures, such as household objects. Similarly, pain was reduced when looking at pleasant pictures, such as of erotic couples.

Regarding neural correlates, a key finding was that activity in the insula – a brain region known to be involved in representing bodily states – covaried with changes to pain perception brought about by the sight of the different pictures. This suggests the insula is involved in providing the emotional context within which a pain is felt. By contrast, activity in the thalamus (the brain’s relay station), the amygdala (involved in emotional learning) and several prefrontal areas, were involved in ‘top-down’ modulation of the incoming pain signal, as revealed by effects on the muscle reflex in the leg. Roy’s team also conducted connectivity analyses, which revealed a further raft of regions also involved in the emotional modulation of pain, including prefrontal, temporal and brain stem structures.

‘Altogether,’ the researchers concluded, ‘the multiplicity of mechanisms underlying the emotional modulation of pain is reflective of the strong interrelations between pain and emotion, and emphasises the powerful effects that emotions can have on pain.’


Book prize
A book about the experience of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease has won the inaugural £25,000 Wellcome Trust book prize. Living with Nancy – A Journey into Alzheimer’s (Short Books) by Andrea Gillies beat a shortlist of five others: Illness: The Art of Living by Havi Carel; Tormented Hope, a book about hypochondriasis by Brian Dillon; Intuition, a novel by Allegra Goodman; Three Letter Plague, by Johnny Steinberg; and the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. The winner was announced at a ceremony in November. Jo Brand, comedienne and former psychiatric nurse, was chair of the judging panel. She said: ‘Andrea Gillies’ account of living with Alzheimer’s is the perfect fusion of narrative with enough memorable science not to choke you. It’s a fantastic book – down to earth and darkly comic in places. The judges found it compelling.’

The ME Association have appointed Dr Ellen Goudsmit, a BPS Fellow, as a consultant on psychological issues. Ellen is a registered health psychologist and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of East London with a background in medical and psychological research. She introduced the concept of psychologisation (emphasis on psychological factors where there is little or no evidence to justify it) and devised the strategy of pacing for ME.

Online impact

The online publisher Public Library of Science has started to include online usage data with published articles (see Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing, said: ‘We at PLoS feel that there is much to be gained from assessing research articles on their own merits rather than on the basis of the journal (and its impact factor) where the work happens to be published. With the advent of online publishing and a burgeoning array of third parties providing information on scholarly articles, it has finally become feasible to provide meaningful article-level metrics and indicators for readers.’
The metrics include how many times the article has been viewed, cited, covered in the media, bookmarked, blogged and more. Writing on BMJ Group Blogs, PLoS Board Member Richard Smith said: ‘Slowly but surely these metrics will become much superior to using the impact factor of the journal in which an article is published as
a surrogate for the impact of the article itself…the metrics give a real time and much broader measure of the influence of an article. Increasingly governments and research funders are interested not just in the number of times an article is cited in other publications (an incestuous and self-serving measure) but on the impact they have in the real world, the changes they lead to.’


Prize-winning brains

The husband and wife team of Uta and Chris Frith, at UCL and Aarhus University, Denmark, has been awarded the 2009 European Latsis Prize, worth 100,000 Swiss Francs (approx £60,000) for their contribution to understanding the human mind and brain. The prize is awarded by the European Science Foundation and focuses on a different field each year, with the official 2009 category being ‘The Human Brain – The Human Mind’.

Uta, who is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, said: ‘I think we are a prime example of the benefits of the kind of interpersonal and cross-cultural cooperation that we are now studying explicitly with our Danish colleagues at Aarhus University. We have always discussed each other’s research, and more recently our constant hidden collaboration has become visible to others as we now tend to publish together.’

Uta believes that European collaboration is crucial for the future.
‘As a German living in England it is natural for me to think of myself as being European,’ she said. ‘There is a healthy amount of competition with our US colleagues, who tend to underestimate us. I think they would do this less if we built up more powerful European collaborations in science. I strongly benefited from being used to more than one language in my research on reading and spelling and this drove me towards cross-language studies of reading and dyslexia in a European context. I am very proud that a project sponsored by the EU resulted in a seminal study comparing dyslexia in Italy, France and the UK.’

Chris, a Society member and winner of the BPS Book Award 2008 for Making Up the Mind (see also the October issue of The Psychologist) said: ‘If I had not met Uta my research career would have been very different. It has been important to us that, until very recently, we have always worked in different institutions and in different topics. As a result my research has been fertilised by the different approaches and topics that engaged Uta.’

Announcing the award, the European Science Foundation said: ‘In the past decades knowledge about both the brain and mental activities has increased exponentially. Although both fields continue to generate research independently of the other, it is in the interdisciplinary investigation of the relationship between the functions of the brain and the activities of the mind, that groundbreaking research is taking place today.’

Looking to the future, Uta and Chris are continuing their research with their Danish colleagues into how minds interact. ‘We are developing simple tasks that involve interaction and can also be applied both in the scanning environment and in the study of disorders of interaction such as autism and schizophrenia,’ Chris said. Uta is particularly interested in how the social cognitive neuroscience research she conducts with Chris can be applied to education. She also continues to work with younger colleagues, striving to understand more fully the ‘causal chain of hazards that lead to autism from gene to brain to mind to behaviour’.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have launched the Energy and Communities Collaborative Venture, with £7.5 million available for interdisciplinary and international projects. The closing date for applications is 11 March 2010.

The Wellcome Trust has announced that they will be launching two new awards – Senior Investigator Awards for fully established world-class researchers and Investigator Awards to fund the best recently appointment researchers. More detailed information about the schemes is expected to be available in June 2010. Applications can be submitted from October 2010, and the first awards will be made in May 2011. As part of this change in funding focus it is expected that some of the Trust’s existing grant schemes will close. Project grants, programme grants, equipment grants, biomedical resources grants, technology development grants, University awards and Flexible Travel Awards will no longer be available. The last date that applications under these schemes will be accepted is July 2010.

The Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government is offering Doctoral Fellowships and Postdoctoral Fellowships in Health Services and Health of the Public Research. The Doctoral Fellowships give graduates the opportunity to work towards a PhD in an area of research relevant to the needs of NHSScotland.

The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) offers Regular Fellowships to prominent researchers and senior scholars from universities or institutes outside the Netherlands. Described as ‘a year to think’, a Fellowship gives an opportunity for researchers/scholars to devote themselves exclusively to their own academic projects for a ten-month period, either individually or as part of a research theme group. The next closing date is 1 March 2010.

Great British psychology for students

Tom Mitchell (University of Aberdeen) and Jon Sutton report from the Society’s Edinburgh and London Lectures

The Society’s Annual Student Lectures, in London and a more northerly venue, have become an important fixture in the calendar: a chance for psychologists to enthuse the next generation. This year’s events saw 120 students attend north of the border and 600 in the capital, to hear talks on love, music, addiction, and more.

The process of dating – online or otherwise – follows a specific framework, where individuals present themselves as  a product to ‘invest’ in. So said Dr Monica Whitty (Nottingham Trent University), who has been investigating which traits people advertise most in the dating environment.

Whitty described how people advertise gender-stereotyped assets
in order to display their best features; women have been found to promote their physical attributes (i.e. hair and eye colour) and men promote their socio-economic status (i.e. job type and car). People were also found to engage in ‘selective truth telling’, where they only advertised traits (such as weight in women) when it was socially desirable to the opposite sex.

Through interviews with dating site users, Whitty found that women spend time rewriting details in their profiles in an effort to ‘stand out from the crowd’, as they viewed themselves as being in competition with other users of the site. Men admitted in the interviews that they didn’t read the whole profiles of potential matches, instead sending out multiple mails in the hope of receiving a response. In the words of one male interviewee, ‘It’s a numbers game…you look at the picture, read the words and if it’s better than 50 per cent you send them a kiss’.  Given these gender differences and little white lies, can relationships started online really blossom? Whitty noted  that because of a certain level of visual anonymity in the online environment (as users select the type of pictures to display), people are more likely to reveal meaningful personal information in the initial part of a relationship, leading to potential partners getting to know each other better. This may also be more likely on dating sites that target specific religious or ethnic groups, where the common ground between users is increased. Overall, the ease with which online dating allows people to select potential matches, on a physical, intellectual and emotional level, may outweigh the unpredictability of other forms of face-to-face dating (e.g. speed-dating, blind-dating), resulting in an increased chance of a long-term relationship.

Segueing into why we find someone attractive, the next speaker stated that ‘Beauty is the greatest letter of recommendation’. Paul Gardner (University of St Andrews) showed that across cultures, attractiveness is expressed most readily through the face and its expressions. Studies have shown that people rate computer-generated composites – a combination of a number of average faces – as more attractive than a ‘real-world’ face. Gardner noted that attractiveness can also be influenced by environmental inputs, such as physical proximity (interpersonal attraction can increase as physical distance decreases) and context. This allowed Gardner to roll out a student favourite, ‘Love on a Bridge’. In this study, men rated a woman as more attractive when they met her on a suspended bridge rather than on solid ground, suggesting a misattribution of heightened arousal to an interpersonal factor.

Revisiting his talk from last year’s Manchester Lectures (see News, January 2009), Professor Charlie Lewis (Lancaster University) tackled big issues such as the very essence of humanity. He argued that the key skills we develop during childhood allow us to become effective communicators in later life. Communication is the bedrock of human development, and an essential element of this is ‘theory of mind’, the ability to understand the mental states of other people (i.e. their thoughts and feelings). The developmental shift in success in these tasks provides evidence for a genetically driven theory, where humans are programmed towards social interaction, and that competence in this ability becomes ‘unlocked’ as the child’s brain develops. Humans are embedded in a social framework, and it is the complexity of this social interaction that drives our development into successful ‘human’ communicators.

Offering a practical demonstration of the need for successful communication, Dr Carol Ireland (University of Central Lancashire) turned the spotlight on the role of the forensic psychologist in crisis negotiation. When such situations arise (e.g. hostage taking, threats of self-harm and use of barricades), they must be solved effectively to reduce the risk of potential harm to everyone involved. Ireland discussed the key role that psychology plays in advising the best strategies to adopt as crisis situations develop. Most incidents – 80 per cent – are resolved peacefully, leading to the arrest of the perpetrator and the safe release of hostages. However, if effective strategies are not in place there is an increased risk of harm; 75 per cent of casualties in hostage incidents arise from a disorganised rescue attempt.

Ireland noted that in a crisis situation, a person’s level of physical, emotional and psychological arousal increases, which makes them less rational in their responses. It is the goal of the psychologist to help establish an effective means of communication with the perpetrator, and engage calmly and rationally with their demands. The psychologist must be able to change the situation from ‘crisis’ to a more normal problem-solving exercise, by creating empathy and a ‘climate of compromise’ with the perpetrator. It is this (often verbal) interaction with the perpetrator, and the increased time in which the dialogue progresses, that provides the perpetrator the opportunity for more rational thinking.

Finally, Professor Adrian North (Heriot-Watt University) delivered a crowd-pleasing take on some of the issues in his Psychologist article last month, posing the question ‘is pop music bad for young people?’ North concluded that the evidence suggesting a link between music and deviance or self-harm was not conclusive, but neither did it suggest there’s nothing to worry about. He pointed in particular to a need for better parenting: many of the factors that mediate the link between music and deviance are linked to parenting (e.g. poor school performance, poor family relationships, poor parental monitoring, low self-esteem). Rather than demonising particular styles of music, adults could embrace music as a potential ‘early warning’ of later problems.

The London event kicked off with a qualitative study of spinal cord injury in rugby players, passionately presented by Dr Brett Smith (Loughborough University). For the last 10 years, Smith has ‘lived and breathed’ narrative theory, the stories that these people tell and how they shape their post-injury lives. He vividly described the ‘narrative wreckage’ that characterises the first stage: fragmentation, and a loss of the self and hope. There is a role for psychologists, Smith said, in helping the person move ‘from chaos to quest’, in facilitating post-traumatic growth via the building of resilience, personal and social competence, and support. Too often,  the injured are left to find out about ‘this different way of being’ themselves. Smith was wary about ‘restitution narratives’, which run the risk of leaving the person in ‘psychological limbo’ when the miracle cure doesn’t appear. But, he said, there are good days and bad days for the disabled, and psychologists can play a key role in that process by providing stories to draw upon.

Dr Pam Heaton (Goldsmiths, University of London) described some of her research with individuals who are gifted but also have intellectual and other disabilities. She showed how the Scot Richard Wawro, considered ‘moderately to severely retarded’  at the age of three, came to paint with ‘the precision of a mechanic and the vision of a poet’. Dispelling the myth that such savant abilities are all about memory, Heaton showed how Wawro wou

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