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financial crisis; birthday honours; educational neuroscience; Rhona Flin on Deepwater Horizon; nuggets from the Society’s Research Digest; and more

Psychology and the financial crisis

Two economists, a psychoanalyst and a former clinical psychologist gathered at a public panel discussion organised by London’s Freud Museum in July to discuss what psychology has to say about the global financial crisis. Introducing the event, the chair Professor Daniel Pick of Birkbeck, a historian of psychoanalysis, pointed out that the theme of psychology and money is hardly new: ‘John Maynard Keynes read Freud in the 1920s’, he said, ‘and was very interested in the links between money and sexuality.’

Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and a regular on BBC Radio 4, then opened proceedings by describing the systematic failures that led to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. Just like the global financial crisis, Harford said the oil rig explosion was an example of a complex system going wrong because of a catastrophic mix of greed, malfeasance and bad decision making. Crucially, as with the economy, he said there would have been people with the knowledge and awareness to prevent the disaster from occurring, if only they had spoken up.

Harford referred to the work of psychologist James Reason at Manchester University, who has argued that there are three categories of error – slips ‘like getting in the shower with socks on’ (which are quickly recognised and rectified); mistakes (when your mental picture of the world doesn’t accord with reality); and violations (when the correct procedure is deliberately not followed). ‘We can talk about greed and lax regulation but fundamentally the [world economy] is a complex system – things will go wrong,’ Harford said. ‘What matters is that someone will see that. But they might think it’s not worth their while mentioning it – we need to change the psychology of whistleblowing so they don’t take that view.’ Unfortunately he said we have a habit of treating such whistleblowers badly. Paul Moore, the Chief Risk Officer at HBOS, whistleblew their risky decision making but was promptly sacked.

For Will Hutton, executive vice-chair of the Work Foundation and author of the forthcoming Them and Us: Politics, Greed and Inequality – Why We Need a Fair Society, the global financial system came crumbling down because the world’s bankers ignored the centrality of fairness to human nature. ‘The paradox of capitalism is that fairness is its indispensible value,’ he said. ‘Even hunter-gatherers relied on sharing in case they came home with nothing and needed to rely on the catch made by others, but the culture of banking drifted so far from this.’

Hutton argued that ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall the world’s banking system has been run in greed-based fashion, with maximised incentives and proportionality thrown out of the window. ‘This was rooted in a mistaken view of human nature,’ he said, ‘but they got their comeuppance and the whole edifice came crashing to the ground.’ Hutton added that we’ve exhibited misplaced faith in the wisdom of the crowd (thus fuelling market bubbles); that we look for narratives, which are often false, to explain events; that we’re myopic; but that fortunately more and more economists are realising that their models based on rationality are wrong.

On a similar theme, Oliver James – a former clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza – claimed the rise of materialism was responsible for the doubled rates of mental illness in the UK relative to our European cousins. ‘Selfish capitalism, neo-liberal economics and Thatcherism led to a massive change in the values of the population,’ James argued. ‘There’s good science to show that this materialism is associated with more mental health problems. At the heart of the problem is this [mistaken] belief that greed is good.’ James went on to document the spiralling levels of household debt through the nineties and into the noughties – over £1400 billion by 2008. ‘The net effect on our psychology was the rise of shop-till-you-drop, credit-fuelled consumer junkies,’ he said.

Warming to his theme, James argued that ‘Labour created a personality disordered system’ of ‘arrested development, febrile emotions, narcissism… There’s a tendency for people at the top [of business, finance, etc.] in the UK to be personality disordered, to compensate for feelings of powerlessness’.

By the time the discussion was opened to the audience, James appeared to have thrown caution and sound argument to the wind. ‘I had the misfortune of studying a psychology degree,’ James lamented, ‘most of it is just rubbish and boring.’ Psychoanalysis – ‘both my parents were psychoanalysts’ – is way ahead of other psychological approaches, James boasted. ‘The care we receive in the early years is hugely consequential,’ he rightly noted, before adding: ‘the human genome project, perhaps with the exception of autism, has shown that there’s no evidence for mental illness being caused by genes.’ The intention was presumably to bolster his argument that selfish capitalism, not genes, are responsible for rising rates of mental illness. But James was now misinforming the public: as many readers will be aware, genes are hugely significant in mental illness, it’s just that many genes and the interactions between them are what’s important rather than there being a specific ‘gene for’ one particular condition or another.

Last to speak was the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. The problem, she said, was that when systems change, people hurt, and we’ve experience the most profound change since the 1970s away from social democracy to neo-liberalism. Money, she explained, is used by people as a badge of identity – a way to stratify and arrange ourselves. But finance is opaque, covered in star dust, conducted by people playing extremely complex games. ‘We are in huge confusion about what we want to be as a society – we’ve undergone a trauma that can’t be explained,’ she said.

‘What I see happening,’ Orbach went on, ‘is a person receives a large pay cheque. It’s so enormous, there’s no way to assimilate its meaning: it enchants, delights, terrifies. But there’s this incapacity to talk about its meaning and the only response is a drive to try to earn even more next year.’

The panel discussion was held at Conway Hall in London in advance of a three-day conference at Birkbeck College: ‘Psychoanalysis, Money and the Economy’, convened by the Freud Museum. 


Making better decisions

The Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (the RSA) published the second report in their ongoing Social Brain Project in June. Entitled Steer: Mastering our Behaviour Through Instinct, Environment and Reason and written by outgoing project director Matt Grist, the report discusses the potential benefits of informing people about the psychology of decision making, so as to help them make better decisions. ‘The very act of “thinking about thinking”, in which people develop an understanding of how brains and behaviours work, has the potential to empower people as part of a new model of active, 21st century citizenship,’ the report says.

At the heart of the new report is a qualitative study involving 24 people who were taught five principles of decision making over one or two workshops: ‘Habit is king’; ‘Go with your gut’; ‘When it’s difficult, just sit’; ‘When you feel swayed, step back and say so’; and ‘When you can’t trust yourself, ask others for help’.

Phenomenological analysis of the participants’ decision-making diaries, kept for two weeks, showed that they’d found the information about habit forming most useful – especially the idea that breaking old habits can be more effectively achieved by changing social and environmental circumstances, rather than simply relying on will power. ‘[W]hen people are informed about how their brains and behaviours work, they find this information interesting, useful in tackling immediate dilemmas and helpful for reflecting on the areas of their lives that they have found most problematic over time (e.g. quitting smoking),’ the report says.

Responsibility for the Social Brain Project has now passed to the RSA’s senior researcher Dr Jonathan Rowson. He told us the plan is to develop ‘an account of the kinds of psychosocial skill required to adapt to what [developmental psychologist] Robert Kegan calls our “hidden curriculum”, namely the implicit cognitive demands of adapting to 21st-century challenges like globalisation, environmental degradation and technological change. We intend to follow the pattern of Steer and track what happens when we share our account with interested parties…for instance police officers, teachers and social workers, depending on our theoretical emphasis.

‘Our basic position is that if “knowledge is power”, knowledge about how to change our behaviour might be particularly empowering,’ Rowson said. ‘So we are curious to see what happens when behavioural science is viewed as a public good.’

The RSA welcome the input of psychologists. You can get involved by being an early contributor to the RSA Social Brain Wiki ( and by giving feedback to relevant blog entries. ‘We plan to host expert seminars on various aspects of our project,’ Rowson said, ‘so please get in touch if you would like to contribute your expertise.’  

Access the Steer report:


Developing healthy, safe children

From primary-school age and upwards children should be given age-appropriate education about sex, relationships and alcohol, beginning with advice on the value of friendships and having respect for others. Education of this kind helps children make healthier and safer decisions and improves their school performance. That’s according to draft guidance published by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published in June, the final version of which is due in January 2011.


Essay prize winners
The Changing Faces’ annual essay prize, on the subject ‘Coping with Disfigurement’, has been won by two university students.

Ben Baker, a medical student at the University of Nottingham, examined the unique challenges for adolescents with disfigurements and the interventions that may help their everyday living. Charles Gallaher, from University College London Medical School, looked at psychosocial mechanisms of coping with visible difference.The prizes were awarded to the students at the Appearance Matters 4 conference in Bristol, organised by the psychology-led Centre for Appearance Research. Read the essays at

The Higher Education Academy Psychology Network’s annual student essay award has been won by Louise Murray, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. This year's question was 'How, and why, should psychology staff provide feedback on your academic performance?'. James Donnelly, a second-year psychology student at Southampton Solent University, and Society member Laura Jebb, a first-year psychology student at the University of Salford, were very close runners-up.
 Read the essays at

Psychology at the Science Museum
In June the Science Museum unveiled its new ‘Who Am I? gallery. The exhibits explore the science of who you are through intriguing objects, provocative artworks and hands-on exhibits. There has been significant input from the British Psychological Society’s Curator of Psychology, and concepts explored include identity, personality, memory, consciousness, emotions and relationships.

In October a temporary exhibition will open celebrating psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge and as a treatment, and marking the centenary of the foundation of the International Psychoanalytical Association.   For links to ‘Who Am I?’ and more, visit and click on the Science Museum logo.

Research ethics website
A new ESRC-funded website for social science researchers, developed by a team at the Institute of Education, aims to help researchers to find their way through the regulations and procedures that can apply to social science research, from grant applications to ethics review and beyond. 

OBEs for psychologists

Three psychologists were recognised in the latest round of Queen’s Birthday Honours, published in June, and The Psychologist congratulates them all.

Dr Elizabeth Howells, Head of Primary Care and Health Psychology for Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, was appointed OBE for services to mental health care in Wiltshire. Dr Howells told us: ‘I am absolutely amazed I have been given this honour but realise that is actually an award for the service I happen to lead. I hope it will continue to raise the profile of the service.

‘I am most proud of the fact that we have maintained a no-wait service in Swindon for 17 years. This started as a small service but has now grown to cover the whole of Wiltshire. This is due to using the LIFT (least intervention first time) within a stepped-care model. We were the first stepped-care service for mental health in the country and back in the nineties it was often a fight to get acceptance. We are probably still the only one with no wait and no exclusion criteria apart from active psychosis and active, imminent, serious suicide risk – these referrals are directed straight to secondary services.’

Howells says she and her colleagues, to whom she says she is indebted for the pleasure and praise her OBE will bring, continue to fight for more widespread use of the LIFT model, and for IAPTs to adopt a more primary/community type approach in line with New Horizons. ‘For many services there is a danger of slipping back into a secondary care model delivered in primary care,’ she says.

Howells and her team would also like to see more use of psychoeducational courses both to assist with current problems and prevent future distress, and to that end her service has already started a stepped-care approach to health-related problems. ‘I would also like to add that most of the ideas came from Professor Jim Orford, the great proponent of community psychology.’

Dr Rachel Perkins was appointed OBE for services to mental health. Dr Perkins is Director of Quality Assurance and User Experience for South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. ‘I am really flattered to have been awarded an OBE,’ she said. ‘However, I think it is important to make clear that I could not have done the things that I have in my career were it not for all the talented and committed people with whom I have had the privilege to work over the years.

‘For the last 30 years, both in my day job and outside, I have been committed to improving the lives and life chances of people with a mental health condition – especially those facing more serious challenges. Initially I was heavily involved in closing the old, remote asylums and establishing community services. Now we face the challenge of moving beyond “care in the community” to ensuring that people with mental health conditions have the same rights and opportunities that all citizens have a right to expect. In this context I have done a great deal of work looking at the development of recovery-focused practice and self-directed support.’

However, Perkins says it is her work establishing programmes to help people with mental health problems get back to work that she is most proud of. ‘It seems to me that the right to contribute to the community in which we live – and be recognised and rewarded for that contribution – is one of the most important rights of all. What I treasure most is the memories of all the people – many of whom thought they would never work again – who have successfully gained employment and made a success of their careers with the support of the programmes I have initiated.’ Dr Emma Barrett of the Ministry of Defence was also appointed OBE. 

Talking therapies

Psychological therapies will continue to be rolled out across the NHS in the coming year, the government has announced.

Visiting a psychological therapies service in Berkshire West, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley pledged £70 million funding and said: ‘Our Coalition Programme set out our intention to ensure greater access to talking therapies. We want to offer long-term solutions to people with mental health problems and psychological therapies do that.’ Lansley promised to broaden the geographical coverage of services and also the range of therapies available, saying that ‘this will help us to deliver more choice and give people better access to the right psychological support’.

Care Services Minister Paul Burstow said: ‘It is early days for the programme, but we know we need to do more to increase the number of trained therapists and reduce waiting times. It means that by 2011, we will have trained over 3600 therapists, with services up and running in every part of the country.’

John Hanna, Policy Unit Director for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology, said: ‘The Society is delighted to receive the news that the new coalition government will continue to fund the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme for the coming year. We hope, during this parliamentary term, that this vital invest-to-save endeavour of delivering evidence-based psychological therapies to people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety can be extended to all who would benefit from similar improved access, in concordance with Mind’s widely endorsed “We Need to Talk” campaign. Access to evidence-based psychological therapies remains extremely variable across conditions and regions, leaving many people in recurrent states of psychological distress, with their potential to contribute to society unfulfilled. Providing full access to NICE-recommended treatments in mental health will alleviate distress and, in the longer term, enhance national productivity.’ js

Dealing with self–harm

Many people who harm themselves are failing to receive the help they need because of a ‘patchy’ provision of services across the UK and a lack of supervision and training of NHS staff, according to a new report.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) surveyed over 1500 of its members for Self-harm, suicide and risk (available from Less than half the respondents felt that they or their team had sufficient training to undertake assessments of people who had harmed themselves. Many respondents reported that junior doctors and other inexperienced health professionals are left – often at night – to assess and manage the complex and potentially life-threatening situations of people who have harmed themselves or attempted suicide. The survey suggests the situation is particularly bad in accident and emergency departments.

Lord John Alderdice, who chaired the working group which produced the report, said: ‘Overall the evidence painted a worrying picture of standards of care in UK hospitals. This situation is unacceptable by any reasonable standard. Lives may be at stake. Well-being certainly is.’ A key recommendation of the report is therefore that NHS services, particular in A&E, should be managed in a way which ensures people who have self-harmed or attempted suicide have proper access to care and treatment by fully-trained clinical staff, and that the NICE guideline on self harm is implemented.

Professor Rory O’Connor, who represented the British Psychological Society on the Working Group, told The Psychologist: ‘This is an important and timely report which not only calls for a proper public health strategy to include self-harm but also emphasises the continued importance of national suicide prevention strategies, especially at this time of economic turbulence. In addition, it also highlights the urgent need for more funding for research on self-harm and a better understanding of why people self-harm and attempt suicide.’ js

Deepwater Horizon and beyond
Rhona Flin, Professor of Applied Psychology, Industrial Psychology Research Centre, University of Aberdeen

On 20 April 2010 there was a blow-out and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and created the worst oil spill ever experienced by the USA. A major investigation and congressional hearing are now under way in an attempt to discover the cause of the accident and to evaluate the adequacy of the response. As our American colleagues are now discussing at, what contribution might psychology make to our understanding of this type of oil industry accident?
Industrial psychologists have been studying worker well-being and safety in the UK and Norwegian sectors of the European offshore oil and gas industry since the mid-1980s (see Flin & Slaven, 1996; Hellesøy, 1985). The North Sea platforms and rigs operate in remote, hostile locations, on top of hazardous oil and gas wells containing high-pressure hydrocarbons. Each installation is crewed by a hundred or more technical and support staff, working 12-hour shifts, typically on a 14- to 21-day offshore rotation, with no rest days during the offshore period. In a rare journalistic account of this workplace, Alvarez (1986) wrote: ‘The oil installations are strange in the same way as the awkward, seemingly patched together contraptions NASA puts into orbit are strange. And the jobs in turn, are so complex that, to the outsider, the ingenuity required to do them seems like magic.’
This unusual industry was not easy to access for psychological research 25 years ago. The problem was not just the remote locations or the need to undertake helicopter underwater survival training before travelling offshore. In the UK, the main barrier was the lack of interest from the oil companies in having their workforce studied, especially on psychosocial topics. The early exploration and production phase had been characterised by extremely innovative engineering successes to find the subsea hydrocarbons and to design the huge platforms that would extract them. The solving of technical challenges was the priority and of course, the industry was almost entirely staffed by engineers. Although there were some early studies examining occupational stress (Sutherland & Cooper, 1986; Sutherland & Flin, 1989), the human element in offshore operations did not seem to be high on the research agenda. This was not peculiar to the North Sea. House (1985), a Canadian researcher, wrote: ‘Worldwide, there have been few systematic investigations of the offshore oil industry and its impact upon oil workers and their families. The dearth of empirical material has not been due to the lack of interest by researchers, nor even primarily, by a lack of available funding. Rather, the main cause has been the successful resistance of the offshore petroleum industry to have itself investigated and the reluctance of most governments that it be studied against its will.’
Then everything changed. In July 1988 the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea, situated 120 miles from the Scottish coast, suffered an explosion and fire, killing 165 of the crew, plus two rescuers. This was one of Britain’s worst industrial disasters and a large-scale public inquiry ensued. A primary cause of the accident was a failure to transfer essential information about a pump between the day shift and the night shift. Unfortunately the emergency response on Piper Alpha platform and its adjacent platforms was problematic, leading to questions about the competence of the offshore managers to take command in a crisis. Underlying factors influencing both the safety management and the command of the emergency were linked to an organisational culture in the operating company that appeared to prioritise production more than safety. None of these deficiencies was going to be remedied by engineering solutions.
Lord Cullen’s influential report (1990) made 106 recommendations, for regulation, management, technical operations and procedures. It was clear that a greater understanding of human behaviour would have to be factored in to many aspects of the new safety management documents that the oil companies were busy writing. Suddenly there were requests for psychological input. We became involved in two research projects funded by the newly created Offshore Safety Division of the Health and Safety Executive, both addressing problems identified in Lord Cullen’s report into the disaster.
The first project was to examine the selection, training and competence assessment of the offshore installation managers who were in charge of these platforms and rigs, with particular reference to their ability to take command in an emergency. This necessitated visits to organisations such as military, emergency services, airlines and NASA to learn how they selected, trained and assessed the competence of their incident commanders. Despite domain differences, they all sought similar characteristics and skill sets. Much use was made of both high-fidelity simulation to discover who had the ‘right stuff’ to take command in stressful, risky situations. What they looked for was leadership, stress resistance and the ability to take autocratic decisions rapidly in uncertain conditions. Beyond those attributes, they were not concerned with a particular personality profile but wanted commanders with awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses (Flin & Slaven, 1995).
It transpired that very little was documented about these processes and the collated information became a book called Sitting in the Hot Seat (Flin, 1996). This also discussed the available psychological evidence on key skills relating to situation assessment, decision making, leadership and stress management. Classical decision research had minimal relevance for these high-pressure domains where life-saving decisions had to be made in minutes. But the emerging science of naturalistic decision making, where psychologists were studying fire fighters, military commanders and airline pilots (Zsambok & Klein, 1997), offered an ecological validity that could be applied to the offshore domain. The oil industry introduced simulator training and assessment for the offshore managers, which enabled studies of their decision making that confirmed the importance of practice in quickly assessing a situation with little time for considering options (Flin, Slaven et al., 1996).
Following Lord Cullen’s report, the oil companies were required to produce safety cases for each installation, showing the regulator that the hazards had been identified, risks quantified and measures put in place for risk control. There was a flurry of activity across the industry to conduct quantitative risk assessments. But what also had to be taken into account was how the workforce perceived these risks, and this was the basis of our second project. Collaborating with Norwegian psychologist, Torbjørn Rundmo from Trondheim University, Kathryn Mearns and I began to design risk perception questionnaires for the offshore workforce (Flin, Mearns et al., 1996). What became apparent was that workers were in fact aware of the hazards. What we needed to explain was why they actually took risks. What was driving unsafe behaviours? Our risk-perception questionnaires evolved into safety-climate surveys which showed that managers and supervisors were key influences on the patterns of behaviour that were accepted at the worksites (Mearns et al., 2001). Risk perceptions were important, but motivational factors and expectancies were also playing a powerful role in workplace safety. Several studies of supervisors and site managers ensued, showing that transformational leadership styles could be linked to safer behaviours on both oil platforms and oil tankers. 
But it was not only the site managers who influenced safety. The offshore workforce knew all too well that site managers were directed by more senior managers onshore. There was a degree of scepticism as to the safety priorities of the top managers. This was found across companies, but in one of them, the CEO of exploration and production was sufficiently concerned to trigger a programme of work to develop an upward appraisal tool for senior managers to be assessed on their safety commitment by the managers who reported to them. Confidential reports were provided to each manager showing the contrast between self and upward ratings, then aggregated data were presented to groups of managers so that areas where they were not demonstrating safety commitment to subordinates could be addressed (Bryden et al., 2006). This approach was subsequently extended to hundreds of managers across the company’s international sites and the rating tool, ‘Seeing Yourself as Others See You’ is now available on the web ( Other psychologists, such as James Reason and Dianne Parker from Manchester University with Patrick Hudson from Leiden University, also developed safety tools for the oil industry (see Hudson, 2007), several of which are on this website.
Currently the Energy Institute is sponsoring research by one of our PhD students, Isabella Roger (2010), who is endeavouring to identify the leadership behaviours of strategic managers that influence organisational safety. As anyone who watched the questioning of BP CEO, Tony Hayward at the congressional hearing into the Deepwater Horizon disaster will realise, it is not only the behaviour of the oil industry workers that is about to be scrutinised in the months to come. And this time it will be lawyers doing the investigation rather than psychologists.


Alvarez, A. (1986). Offshore: A North Sea journey. London: Sceptre.
Bryden, R., Flin, R., Vuijk, M. et al. (2006). Holding up the leadership mirror then changing the reflection. In Proceedings of the 8th SPE Conference on Health, Safety and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Abu Dhabi, April. Richardson, TX: Society of Petroleum Engineers.
Cullen, D. (1990). The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster. Vols. I & II. London: HMSO.
Flin, R. (1996). Sitting in the hot seat. Leaders and teams for critical incident management. Chichester: Wiley.
Flin, R., Mearns, K., Gordon, R. & Fleming, M. (1996). Risk perceptions by offshore workers on UK oil and gas platforms. Safety Science, 22, 131–145.
Flin, R. & Slaven, G. (1995). Identifying the right stuff. Selecting and training on-scene commanders. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 3, 113–123.
Flin, R. & Slaven, G. (Eds.) (1996). Managing the offshore installation workforce. Tulsa, OK: PennWell.
Flin, R., Slaven. G. & Stewart, K. (1996). Emergency decision making in the offshore oil industry. Human Factors, 38, 262–277.
Hellesøy, O. (1985). Work environment Statfjord Field. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

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