News and Media

fingerprints; Royal Society funding report; Milgram replication; politics and progress; behavioural economics; nuggets from the Research Digest; and Cary Cooper on his recent involvement in a media storm

Psychologists to clear up messy fingerprints

Two cognitive psychologists are part of a University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) team commissioned by the US National Institute of Justice to investigate the reliability of fingerprint analysis.

The new investigation was commissioned after a National Academy of Sciences report last year, which concluded that nearly all forensic methods, from ballistics to fingerprint analysis, lacked a scientifically sound evidence base.

TV crime dramas and Hollywood thrillers have for years given the impression that fingerprint evidence is objective and easily interpreted. However, research by psychologists has shown the reality is far messier.

In studies conducted in 2006, for example, Dr Itiel Dror – one of the members of the new UCLA investigation – and his colleagues, who are now at Bournemouth University, showed how easily context could influence the judgement of fingerprint experts (e.g. http://bit.ly/dr8StC).

Dror presented dozens of fingerprints to experts who in the past had declared them confidently as matches. Now the prints were presented within a varietyof contexts that suggested they were not a match (e.g. the suspect had an alibi, another suspect confessed to the crime, etc). With these background contexts, many experts reached different conclusions from before.

Another study published last year by John Vokey at the University of Lethbridge in Canada bemoaned the lack of research into fingerprint experts’ accuracy (http://bit.ly/aIxuD5). As a starting point, Vokey’s team tested the ability of naive undergrads to match up prints. The students performed significantly better than if they’d just been guessing, but accuracy was found to vary by digit (prints from the little finger were particularly awkward) and, less surprisingly, accuracy also dropped when matching up prints from within sets having less variability.

Dr Dror, who’s now at UCL and Cognitive Consultants International, told us that psychology remains central to fingerprinting, even with the increasing use of computer algorithms. ‘In fact, the use of these algorithms introduces biases and psychological issues that did not exist before,’ he said. ‘The computerised systems will not replace the human experts (as seen in TV CSI) as humans are very flexible and can perform pattern matching that is way beyond the current and foreseeable future ability of computers.’

Dror and his colleagues will be working with fingerprint experts from the US as well as several other countries, including the UK, as part of the new investigation. ‘I have been working with them for over five years, and some examiners and agencies are very open and want to help, however, others are very resistant to change,’ he said.Will findings from the UCLA investigation inform future policy
here in the UK as well as the USA? ‘That’s a very interesting question,’ Dror told us. ‘The UK used to be leading in forensics, but has been in total denial about the psychological and cognitive issue, and in particular to issues of bias. I find it frustrating that the US National Academy of Sciences report refers repeatedly to my work and findings, that several US agencies are funding me in a number of projects, but here in the UK, there is a bit of “putting their head in the sand” on all these matters.’

‘I would say that cognitive psychology has a lot to contribute to forensic decision making,’ Dror added. ‘There has been some reluctance to take on board the science, but now the US and other countries are opening up and welcoming the research, and are changing and improving their provisions.’

The investigation is due to complete in 2013 and is headed by Jennifer Mnookin, Professor in UCLA’s School of Law. ‘By the end of this research project,’ she said, ‘we aim to have developed a scientific metric for assessing difficulty that could allow us to take a given pair of fingerprints and associate it with a potential error rate.’ As well as Itiel Dror, the other psychologist on the investigation team is UCLA Professor Phil Kellman. 

Science and psychology under threat 

A Royal Society report, with input from the British Psychological Society, has warned that the UK risks losing its pre-eminence in world science if funding is not protected from cuts.

Entitled The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity, the report argues that our universities – currently ranked second in the world behind the USA – have risen to the challenge of exploiting the economic potential of research findings, with patents granted to UK universities having increased by 136 per cent between 2000 and 2008. However, with the US, France and Germany all increasing their science budgets as a way to climb out of recession, and with the stature of science in India and China ever-growing, the UK is in danger of getting left behind.

Lord Waldegrave, a former science minister and advisory group member for the report said: ‘Science is one of the jewels in our crown but it yields its dividends over decades. Investment in science cannot be turned on and off on a political whim – we must have a long-term investment.’

The report’s six key recommendations are: for science and innovation to be put at the heart of the country’s long-term economic strategy; to prioritise investment in excellent people; to strengthen the government’s use of science; reinforce the UK’s position as a hub for global science; to better align science with global challenges; and to revitalise science and maths education.

Dr Emily Holmes, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at Oxford University was on the report’s advisory group, which also counted five Nobel Laureates among its members. She told us that psychology has a huge opportunity to be at the forefront of contemporary developments and issues in science and that the British Psychological Society’s activities align closely with many of the report’s recommendations.

‘Psychology can be used to tackle contemporary problems from health to climate change and is also ideally placed to deal with interdisciplinary issues, working both on exciting blue skies discoveries and translation of research to potential applications,’ Holmes said. Regarding the second recommendation about investment in people, Holmes told us that there is more we could do to sustain first-class careers in psychological science, and that psychology is well placed to consider how best to support science careers, for example through mentoring schemes involving retired psychologists and by tackling issues such as the need for flexible working
for male and female researchers.

‘Psychology runs a danger of lagging behind other sciences unless it looks outwards and rises to the challenges ahead,’ she said. ‘The Society should be at the forefront of that.

In its submission, the Society emphasised that psychology is central to a successful knowledge-based economy and underpins science-based technologies, including IT and health care. 

To read the report and the British Psychological Society’s submission, see: http://royalsociety.org/the-scientific-century

Game of death

A game-show adaptation of Milgram’s classic obedience experiments was broadcast on prime-time French TV in March, showing once again the apparent willingness of most ordinary people to inflict harm on an innocent victim.

The state-owned channel France 2 invited participants to take part in what they thought was a game show pilot. Eighty participants were encouraged by a female TV host to apply ever-stronger electric shocks to another contestant (played by an actor) whenever he answer quiz questions incorrectly.

The French psychologist Jean-Léon Beauvois was involved in the programme. He told us that the aim was not just to replicate Milgram but to see if a television presenter is imbued with enough authority to cause people to commit immoral acts.

The study had several conditions including telling the participants that the show either was or wasn’t going to be broadcast; a ‘social support’ condition in which the production assistant (actually a research confederate) rushed out and asked that the game be stopped because it was too immoral; and a ‘presenter withdrawal’ condition in which the TV host left after the 80-volt level. The key finding was that more participants went all the way when the host stayed, thus suggesting it was her authority which drove the participants’ obedience.

‘To our knowledge, this is the first time Milgram’s procedure has been carefully replicated in a social field where science was not the source of legitimacy for the agent of authority,’ Beauvois and his colleague Dominique Oberle said. ‘The striking thing here is that the obedience rates in the two contexts were equivalent, despite how different they were in setting, purpose and potency when it comes to affecting people’s daily lives.’

A major obstacle to many researchers in the UK investigating Milgram’s classic paradigm is ethical approval – how was this new study able to pass this hurdle? ‘Up to today, in France, the ethical approval is obligatory for biomedical research but not for behavioural social experimental research,’ Beauvois and Oberle said. 

In brief

A resource developed by speech and language therapists and psychologists at the University of Stirling has won an award for enhancing self-care and independent living.

The Advancing Healthcare Awards recognise and reward projects and professionals that lead innovative healthcare practice and make a real difference to patients’ lives. They seek to celebrate patient empowerment with the healthcare professional in an enabling, facilitating role.

‘To See Ourselves As Others See Us’ is a resource that was developed by Morag Place, Joan Murphy and Alex Gillespie as part of an ESRC-funded research project into the impact of aphasia on close relationships. It is designed to facilitate discussion between people who have difficulty communicating and their families, allowing individuals to reflect on any aspect of their lives and to compare their views. The package includes a Talking Mats book, a mat, a set of communication symbols, a booklet and a DVD showing the Talking Mats framework being used as a tool for comparing perspectives.

Morag Place said ‘We are thrilled to win this award. Without this tool, people who have difficulty communicating are at risk of having their views either overlooked or assumed. Clients who have already used the resource comment that it is a non-threatening way to discuss sensitive issues which might otherwise result in conflict.’ 


Society member and University of East London (UEL) academic Dr Jonathan Passmore has won the 2010 Associationfor Coaching ‘Influencing’ award for his contribution to the coaching profession.

The Chief Executive of the Association for Coaching, Katherine Tulpa, said: ‘Dr Passmore has made a significant contribution through his writing and research to the development of our understanding of coaching and in sharing best practice.’

Dr Passmore said: ‘I’m delighted to win this award. UEL is building itself an international reputation with its work in coaching in organisations, education and driving.’

Politics and progress

Long-term, psychology-based interventions are facing tough times as political parties campaign and tighten purse strings. New reports on the government’s Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) and Sure Start programmes look set to fuel the debate over ‘value for money’. But does the desire for a ‘fast win’, particularly around election time, risk derailing slow but steady scientific progress?

By March 2010, the government intended to have 3500 Sure Start Children’s Centres in place, catering for every community in England. That month saw the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee warn that rushing to judgement on the worth of the Centres would be catastrophic and could jeopardise one of the most innovative and ambitious initiatives of the last two decades. Barry Sheerman MP, Committee Chair, said: ‘Children’s Centres are designed to address some of the most entrenched aspects of disadvantage, but the majority have been in place for less than four years. Evaluations of their impact will therefore only be meaningful over the long term. Yielding to short-term financial pressure by reducing the number of Centres or pruning the range of services offered would be a mistake.’

In the committee’s report, psychologist Professor Edward Melhuish, Executive Director for the National Evaluation of Sure Start, speaks about the challenges of multimodal intervention and how Sure Start is tackling tough issues ‘in a manner rather different from almost any other intervention undertaken in the Western world’. He also cautions that it is clear from the research that only high-quality provision produces an effect. ‘If you are to fulfil the full ambitions of the Sure Start programme, there has to be more money. You cannot roll out 3500 Children’s Centres across the whole country at the level of funding that is currently being planned.’

As for the DSPD programme, a new report from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health criticises it for costing ‘some £60 million a year to detain just 350 people at a time despite a lack of clear evidence about its effectiveness in either improving health or reducing risk’. The evidence, says the report, suggests that it is now time for the DSPD programme to be phased out. ‘Reinvesting the DSPD Programme’s operational costs of £60 million per year in mainstream prison-based personality disorder interventions would have a substantial impact on the 70 per cent of prisoners who have a form of personality disorder.’

The DSPD programme’s own website admits that it ‘is still relatively new, and so far few people have completed treatment. Hence a full evaluation of the effects of treatment is some way into the future.’ But would radical changes now risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Writing in The Guardian, psychologist Kevin Howells (University of Nottingham), said: ‘Over the past five years a skilled workforce has been recruited, and expertise has begun to accumulate. Now is not the time to undo a forward-looking project, rather it is timely to improve it, iron out some wrinkles, and reinforce the commitment to therapy – to the likely benefit of the broader community and the patients themselves.’

Psychiatrist Peter Tyrer, who has an article ‘The successes and failures of the DSPD experiment’ in press with Medicine, Science and Law, told us: ‘There is a well-known mantra in medicine “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and so Kevin’s views are in tune with this. My view is that the DSPD programme with all its expensive bells and whistles is premature. There is no reason why we should not try and do more for people with severe personality disorder but as we have very limited evidence of efficacy of any treatment for personality disorder in general it seems the wrong way round to put almost all our resources into DSPD – almost certainly the most difficult of the personality disorder nuts to crack – particularly as the deprivation of liberty linked to the programme appears to be the prime mover.’

Others working on the ground appear to feel long-term psychological interventions need time to evolve. Dr Vikki Baker is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist seconded to Resettle, a pilot project funded nationally as a partnership between Criminal Justice and Health as part of the DSPD provision. The service is an innovative, multi-agency, community-based project working with personality disordered offenders on release from prison, and it has just received a commendation from the Butler Trust (an independent charity set up to celebrate, support and share good practice in UK correctional settings). Dr Baker told us that ‘Resettle is a relatively new service:
it became operational in May 2008. The NICE guidance on DSPD is fairly recent, and engagement with this population can be a real challenge. Given this, developing, testing and evaluating long-term interventions and cross-agency and multimodal approaches is a learning process which needs to continue for some time to come.’

Maintaining momentum in long-term interventions is also an issue. Referring to Sure Start, Professor Melhuish commented that ‘there doesn’t seem to be the drive that there was in the early years to do something revolutionary, or to do something that really affects the lives of people in an important way’. In times of political and economic uncertainty, this is perhaps the challenge for psychologists working in long-term social programmes: to learn lessons, adapt and survive.

 Mind Survey 

The mental health charity Mind has published new survey results which they argue show the urgent need for counselling and psychotherapy to be independently regulated. The UK government’s favoured option is for these professions to be regulated by the Health Professions Council – the same body that recently assumed responsibility for regulating practitioner psychologists – but terms have yet to be agreed.

Mind’s survey of 181 service users carried out between November 2009 and February 2010 found that one in five people were not satisfied with the service they received from their counsellor or psychotherapist, whilst 85 per cent wanted these professions regulated. Of those respondents who had made a formal complaint, 73 per cent were unsatisfied, with a third finding the process confusing and 65 per cent stating that the complaints procedure had not been independent.

Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, said: ‘Whilst regulation won’t end abuse, it will provide a mechanism to ensure a basic standard for therapists, provide a unified and unbiased channel for grievances and ensure that anyone struck off is legally barred from practising under the title of counsellor or psychotherapist again.

We would urge the next government to treat regulation as a priority in order to protect patients who are already in a vulnerable place.’ 


FUNDING NEWS

The Lifelong Health and Wellbeing (LLHW) is a major cross-funding council initiative supporting multidisciplinary research addressing factors that influence healthy ageing and well-being in later life. Two types of funding will be available: LLHW Research Grants of between £300k up to £2.5m over three to five years; and Pilot Studies for a maximum of two years. High-quality, innovative multidisciplinary applications are particularly welcome in the following areas:I    Mental health and well-being, including quality of life, preserving cognitive function and exploiting mental capital
I    Resilience for successful ageing: from cell
to society, including life course influences, markers for ageing and processes of ageing
I    Age-related conditions and interventions to promote independence in later life.
The call for applications for the third phase of the funding programme will be made in May
I    http://bit.ly/93AtGu0

The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science London offers postdoctoral Fellowships for Foreign Researchers. These fund short-term visits (1–12 months) for young pre- and postdoctoral researchers to conduct cooperative research with Japanese universities and institutions. Psychologists can apply within the social sciences subject area. The closing date is 1 June 2010.
I    www.jsps.org/funding/fellow_short.html

The Harold Wingate Foundation provides grants to charitable organisations. Grants are offered to support research on education and social exclusion. The level of funding available is usually between £10,000 and £3000. Closing dates in 2010 are 11 June, 10 September and 10 December.
I    www.wingatefoundation.org.uk/overview.php

The BUPA Foundation has a Seed Corn Fund to nurture new research ideas. Healthcare professionals involved in research and university-based researchers with an interest in health or social care are invited to apply. The Foundation gives a high priority to applications from young and new researchers who have not previously been funded. Areas of research interest of particular relevance to psychology are health information and communication, health at work, and the mental health of older people. The closing date is 31 July 2010.
I    http://bit.ly/csVamx 


Politics and progress

Long-term, psychology-based interventions are facing tough times as political parties campaign and tighten purse strings. New reports on the government’s Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) and Sure Start programmes look set to fuel the debate over ‘value for money’. But does the desire for a ‘fast win’, particularly around election time, risk derailing slow but steady scientific progress?

By March 2010, the government intended to have 3500 Sure Start Children’s Centres in place, catering for every community in England. That month saw the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee warn that rushing to judgement on the worth of the Centres would be catastrophic and could jeopardise one of the most innovative and ambitious initiatives of the last two decades. Barry Sheerman MP, Committee Chair, said: ‘Children’s Centres are designed to address some of the most entrenched aspects of disadvantage, but the majority have been in place for less than four years. Evaluations of their impact will therefore only be meaningful over the long term. Yielding to short-term financial pressure by reducing the number of Centres or pruning the range of services offered would be a mistake.’

In the committee’s report, psychologist Professor Edward Melhuish, Executive Director for the National Evaluation of Sure Start, speaks about the challenges of multimodal intervention and how Sure Start is tackling tough issues ‘in a manner rather different from almost any other intervention undertaken in the Western world’. He also cautions that it is clear from the research that only high-quality provision produces an effect. ‘If you are to fulfil the full ambitions of the Sure Start programme, there has to be more money. You cannot roll out 3500 Children’s Centres across the whole country at the level of funding that is currently being planned.’

As for the DSPD programme, a new report from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health criticises it for costing ‘some £60 million a year to detain just 350 people at a time despite a lack of clear evidence about its effectiveness in either improving health or reducing risk’. The evidence, says the report, suggests that it is now time for the DSPD programme to be phased out. ‘Reinvesting the DSPD Programme’s operational costs of £60 million per year in mainstream prison-based personality disorder interventions would have a substantial impact on the 70 per cent of prisoners who have a form of personality disorder.’

The DSPD programme’s own website admits that it ‘is still relatively new, and so far few people have completed treatment. Hence a full evaluation of the effects of treatment is some way into the future.’ But would radical changes now risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Writing in The Guardian, psychologist Kevin Howells (University of Nottingham), said: ‘Over the past five years a skilled workforce has been recruited, and expertise has begun to accumulate. Now is not the time to undo a forward-looking project, rather it is timely to improve it, iron out some wrinkles, and reinforce the commitment to therapy – to the likely benefit of the broader community and the patients themselves.’

Psychiatrist Peter Tyrer, who has an article ‘The successes and failures of the DSPD experiment’ in press with Medicine, Science and Law, told us: ‘There is a well-known mantra in medicine “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and so Kevin’s views are in tune with this. My view is that the DSPD programme with all its expensive bells and whistles is premature. There is no reason why we should not try and do more for people with severe personality disorder but as we have very limited evidence of efficacy of any treatment for personality disorder in general it seems the wrong way round to put almost all our resources into DSPD – almost certainly the most difficult of the personality disorder nuts to crack – particularly as the deprivation of liberty linked to the programme appears to be the prime mover.’

Others working on the ground appear to feel long-term psychological interventions need time to evolve. Dr Vikki Baker is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist seconded to Resettle, a pilot project funded nationally as a partnership between Criminal Justice and Health as part of the DSPD provision. The service is an innovative, multi-agency, community-based project working with personality disordered offenders on release from prison, and it has just received a commendation from the Butler Trust (an independent charity set up to celebrate, support and share good practice in UK correctional settings). Dr Baker told us that ‘Resettle is a relatively new service:
it became operational in May 2008. The NICE guidance on DSPD is fairly recent, and engagement with this population can be a real challenge. Given this, developing, testing and evaluating long-term interventions and cross-agency and multimodal approaches is a learning process which needs to continue for some time to come.’

Maintaining momentum in long-term interventions is also an issue. Referring to Sure Start, Professor Melhuish commented that ‘there doesn’t seem to be the drive that there was in the early years to do something revolutionary, or to do something that really affects the lives of people in an important way’. In times of political and economic uncertainty, this is perhaps the challenge for psychologists working in long-term social programmes: to learn lessons, adapt and survive. js

Avoiding the next global crisis

The vagaries of human judgement played a central role in the events that led to the deepest global crisis for decades. Surely psychology can illuminate why things went so wrong and help provide guidance on how to stop such mistakes being repeated? To help find out, on 16 March the British Psychological Society and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) jointly held a free, public seminar on Behavioural Economics at the House of Commons.

Theresa Marteau, Professor of Health Psychology at Kings College, London, opened proceedings by providing an audacious 15-minute overview of the history of 20th century psychology. She explained how humans have two modes of thought – one is reflective and goal-driven, the other is automatic and impulsive. She said this helps explain our financial behaviour. Because of our limited mental resources, it is often the latter, ‘cognitive-lite’, system that underlies the decisions we make. This means our decisions are easily influenced by context and environmental factors. Governments seeking to change our behaviour waste billions on information campaigns that target the reflective system, Marteau said. Instead they should focus on manipulating contextual factors – altering decision defaults, restricting options and using incentives.

Stephen Lea, Professor of Psychology at the University of Exeter, recommended that the country’s debt could be reduced by targeting three psychological factors: materialism, the money illusion and myopia. Materialism is the belief that having more things will make you happier, yet Lea said people who believe this tend to be less happy than most. The money illusion is the tendency for people to feel twice as rich when inflation doubles the money they have in their pocket, when the reality is that they are no better off. Myopia, Lea explained, is ‘our comprehensive incompetence at thinking long-term’.

Psychology is a necessity for understanding economic behaviour, Lea concluded, not an optional extra.

Last up, David de Meza, Professor of Management at LSE, highlighted the role that unrealistic optimism has played in the global financial crisis. Most people overestimate their financial abilities, for example in relation to trading stocks. In fact, people with some financial knowledge are more likely to fall victim to scams than those without. One study highlighted by De Meza analysed all the trades made by 37,000 people from 1991 to 1997, finding that the more trades people made, the more money they tended to lose. Men were particularly prone to overconfidence, making 45 per cent more trades than women (Professor Marteau later joked that perhaps future economic crises could be averted by placing pessimistic women in positions of financial responsibility). De Meza believes the findings he reviewed suggest that the financial crisis was caused by unrealistic optimism, not bankers exploiting the promise of government bail outs.

Unfortunately, the event was tinged with sadness: POST chairman Ashok Kumar MP died on 15 March and psychologist Peter Cooper, chief executive of CRAM International, who was due to speak at the seminar, died in February. It was also regrettable that Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, had to withdraw from his role as Chair, due to commitments in the House.

I    See also the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology podcast [http://bit.ly/ch4ITU] and publication [http://bit.ly/
bJUFKn
] on the science of short-term thinking and delaying gratification.

 

Mind survey

The mental health charity Mind has published new survey results which they argue show the urgent need for counselling and psychotherapy to be independently regulated. The UK government’s favoured option is for these professions to be regulated by the Health Professions Council – the same body that recently assumed responsibility for regulating practitioner psychologists – but terms have yet to be agreed.

Mind’s survey of 181 service users carried out between November 2009 and February 2010 found that one in five people were not satisfied with the service they received from their counsellor or psychotherapist, whilst 85 per cent wanted these professions regulated. Of those respondents who had made a formal complaint, 73 per cent were unsatisfied, with a third finding the process confusing and 65 per cent stating that the complaints procedure had not been independent.

Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief execu

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