Feeling the future, or ‘pathological science’?
A respected social psychologist at Cornell University has published nine experiments in a prestigious journal of the American Psychological Association, apparently showing classic psychological phenomena working backwards in time (in press, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: www.dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf).
The field of parapsychology is infamous for its elaborate paradigms involving sliced ping-pong balls and cards with shapes. Daryl Bem did away with all that to create tests of psi (effects inexplicable according to current scientific knowledge) that could be easily replicated by any standard psychological laboratory.
Bem’s novel, but elegantly simple, approach was to take classic phenomena such as the mere exposure effect and priming, but rather than deploying the stimuli and then observing their effects, he turned things around, measuring students’ reactions and then deploying the stimuli – the primes, subliminal exposures, learning tasks, and so forth.
To take the last example, Bem showed that students’ memory was superior for words that they subsequently went on to learn more deeply, through typing them out. In relation to the mere exposure effect, female participants favoured images that later on were flashed subliminally multiple times (the conventional finding is for this subconscious exposure to come first and to increase participants’ subsequent liking of the stimuli). Across all nine experiments the mean effect size for the psi effects was 0.22 – this is small, but noteworthy given the nature of the results.
‘Claims of retroactive psychological effects have been around for many years in the parapsychological literature but have generally failed to attract the attention of psychologists, who typically are not aware of the contents of parapsychology journals,’ says Chris French, Professor of Anomalistic Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
‘If such effects are genuine, the implications are clearly tremendous, requiring not just a revision of neuroscience but arguably of physics
as well. Here at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU),
we have attempted several replications of such effects in the past, all without success.’
Bem’s work is notable for its methodological rigour – he used two types of randomisation process, one that fixes the sequence in advance in random order, and another that provides true randomisation on the fly. He also reported multiple simple statistical tests, so that readers can see that he hasn’t cherry-picked the approach that provides a significant outcome. He’s vaguer on explanations for the results, invoking quantum-based theories as one possibility. He concludes by urging more psychologists to believe ‘at least one impossible thing before breakfast’.
If Bem hoped to spur other researchers into action, he will be pleased. Even before his study is in print, several failed replication attempts have appeared online – find links at tinyurl.com/34rmgyq. There is also a critique of the statistics methods used, although this acknowledges that if Bem is guilty as charged then so are many psychologists working in mainstream fields.
Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at Hertfordshire University, has a replication attempt under way with Stuart Ritchie at Edinburgh University. Based on this, Wiseman wrote on his blog that a methodological problem had already been unearthed with Bem’s word learning experiments: the student research assistants, who had to disambiguate words misspelt by the participants, knew which words the participants went on to learn in depth, so they could have (deliberately or inadvertently) biased the results. However, in a reply posted on Wiseman’s blog, Bem said he had re-analysed his results with the misspelt words omitted from the analysis and the psi effects were still present.
‘The proof of the pudding will…yet again be whether or not independent scientists can replicate these effects,’ says French. ‘Episodes of so-called “pathological science” arise periodically in science. This refers to situations when a surprising finding is announced by a respected scientist amidst a flurry of media excitement, only to subsequently be rejected when other scientists cannot replicate the effects. Remember cold fusion?’
In collaboration with Wiseman and Ritchie, French is setting up his own separate replication attempt at the APRU. ‘So, watch this space,’ says French ‘but it’s probably advisable not to hold your breath!’ CJ
National well-being and the wandering mind
The happiness and well-being of the population is to be recorded systematically for the first time, the Prime Minister announced in November. ‘From April next year we will start measuring our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving…’, David Cameron said, ‘…not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.’
Cameron argued that while economic growth provides the foundation for our aspirations, its rise doesn’t necessarily mean the country has progressed. In fact, negative events, from disasters to poor health, can all have the paradoxical effect of driving up GDP (gross domestic product), he said.
Cameron also defended the notion that governments are able to make decisions and pursue policies that can raise the overall well-being of the population.
‘A whole host of world-leading economists and social scientists – including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen – have developed a new school of thought about government’s role in improving people’s lives in the broadest sense,’ he said. ‘Here with us today we have Lord Layard [the economist behind the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme], Professor John Helliwell [another economist], Professor Felicia Huppert [a psychologist at the University of Cambridge] and academics from all over the world.’
Cameron first mooted the idea of measuring well-being alongside traditional economic indices in 2006, as leader of the opposition. Similar schemes have started or are due to start elsewhere, including in Canada and France and at the UN.
In the UK, responsibility for measuring psychological and environmental well-being has been given to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – an independent body. They are currently conducting a consultation until 15 April ‘to find out what matters most in people’s lives’ (see tinyurl.com/2g52dzr). Based on this and other considerations, National Statistician Jil Matheson will then compile several new well-being questions to be included in the annual General Household Survey (listen to her interview on the Today programme: http://ht.ly/3fkFe).
Professor Emeritus Peter Warr of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield is an expert in measuring happiness and well-being at work. He told us the government’s intention is hugely important. ‘However, the proposals seem at present still to be at an early stage,’ he said, ‘and it’s not yet clear whether they will emphasise a national index of well-being, a listing of key sources of well-being in addition to money, or both of those. The current ONS survey has the second focus.’
Warr said there could be substantial problems if the ONS decides to obtain only a single overall well-being score. ‘The several kinds of well-being (e.g. joy, contentment, or sense of personal meaning) are different from each other,’ he explained, adding that the government needs to decide which should be the focus. ‘Media discussions so far have hopelessly mixed up the different forms, as well as longer-term versus transient well-being. And government decision making often involves supporting one well-being subgroup more than another, with the subgroups that gain or lose varying between issues; so an overall figure will often be of limited value.’
‘I feel it’s important for psychologists’ research and understanding to feed into the plans, but up to now national policy and surveys in this area have been dominated by economists,’ Warr added. ‘Thinking and measurement appear to have been rather simple in psychological terms.’
In another happiness-related development, a study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University has used an iPhone app to show that mind wandering is associated with people feeling less happy (Science: tinyurl.com/2apv4qh).
The investigation involved participants answering questions about their current activities, feelings and mind wandering habits whenever prompted bytheir iPhone. The researchers analysed results from 2250 US residents (although data is being collected worldwide; see www.trackyourhappiness.org) and found that, compared with being focused on a current activity, mind wandering about something pleasant made no difference to in-the-moment happiness, but that mind wandering about a neutral or unpleasant topic was associated with feeling worse. Although a bad mood is known to induce mind wandering, Killingsworth and Gilbert said the pattern of their results over time suggested mind wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of happiness.
The results also showed that people, at least in the USA, generally mind wander a lot (46.9 per cent of the time, on average) and that what people were thinking about was generally a more powerful predictor of their current happiness than what they were doing.
‘In conclusion, a human mind is a wandering mind,’ the researchers said, ‘and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’ CJ
The European Research Council’s Advanced Investigator Grants offer funding to allow exceptional, established, research leaders
in any field of science, engineering or scholarship to pursue frontier research. The aim of the scheme is to encourage creative, original and interdisciplinary activity. Grants of up to 3.5 million euros are available. To apply, researchers must have a track record of significant research achievements in the last 10 years. Applications can be made in three domains, including Life Sciences (closing date for applications 10 March 2011) and Social Sciences and Humanities (closing date for applications 6 April 2011).
The Entente Cordiale scholarship scheme provides funding for French postgraduate students who want to study in the UK, and for British postgraduate students who want to study in France. The scholarships are prestigious awards for those with clear professional goals and an interest in consolidating Franco-British links. An aim of the scheme is to assist successful candidates in playing leading roles in their countries. Closing date for applications is 15 March 2011.
The Wellcome Trust is offering International Engagement Awards to support projects that involve engagement with health research in low and middle-income countries. (A full list of eligible countries is given on the website). The awards seek to strengthen, stimulate, investigate and promote engagement in health research. Projects can involve communities and members of the public, science communicators, health and science journalists, healthcare professionals, educators, field workers and policy makers. Preliminary expressions of interest should be submitted by 4 February 2011, with a final submission deadline of 8 April 2011.
The BBSRCs New Investigator Scheme assists early-career researchers to secure their first major research funding. Applicants cannot have received competitive research funding from any sources, as a Principal Investigator. The deadline for the summer 2011 round of applications is 13 April 2011.
Introducing November’s Nottingham Lectures, British Psychological Society President Dr Gerry Mulhern said that the event was a symbol of the great importance the Society places on those studying psychology, the ‘lifeblood of the discipline’. The line-up of speakers – all but one from last year’s days in Edinburgh and London (see January 2010, pp.14–15) – once again did a fantastic job of enthusing the next generation, and the 400 students reciprocated with probing and insightful questions.
Opening with the bleak statistic that one in four people who suffer spinal cord injury commit suicide, Dr Brett Smith (Loughborough University) showed how many nevertheless move from a ‘chaos narrative’ to post-traumatic growth. He pointed to personal and social competence, family and peer support, and a purpose in life as key resources in resilience. In a vignette typical of the day’s question-and-answer sessions, Smith explained how personal experience may have played a part in his choice of career and research topic – in his case, a chronic knee injury sustained while playing for Hull City FC.
The next speaker, Dr Carol Ireland (University of Central Lancashire), has a world-famous juggler in the family and was tempted to go into acting. It is perhaps too much of a stretch to link those skills to her exploration of the role of crisis negotiation adviser, but the need for composure and verbal dexterity was clear as Ireland explained strategies to buy time so that the emotion of the perpetrator can subside and rationality can increase.
On the day it was announced that Beatles songs are to be available on iTunes, Dr Catriona Morrison (University of Leeds) presented plenty of Fab Four related memories from her ‘Magical Memory Tour’ study. Her main message countered the views of Steven Pinker – music is not ‘auditory cheesecake’: because of its links to emotion it affords an important tool by which to encode and retrieve memories.
Presenting a series of fascinating case studies, Dr Alison Lee (Bath Spa University) provided a neuropsychological insight into vision and Parkinson’s disease. Did you know, for example, that when asked to choose a door width they could fit through, healthy people choose one 18 per cent wider than their shoulders but those with left-side onset Parkinson’s disease want a door 60 per cent wider? As one sufferer said, ‘Every door is a bit of a lottery really: I’m never sure if I will fit through.’ One woman even resorted to placing her son near the gatepost as she attempted to manoeuvre her (by now rather battered) car through the space. Another left-sided patient was convinced that his house was subsiding, but actually he himself had an unconscious 14 degree tilt to the right – ‘a little further and he would have toppled over’. Lee explained how her team got him walking upright again (and how this meant he developed all the same visual problems as those with left-sided Parkinson’s). The students were left in no doubt as to why Lee enjoys neuropsychology, and how single cases can be so useful for helping us to discover how the healthy brain works.
Finally, speaking in the city with the highest density of casinos outside London, Professor Mark Griffiths (Nottingham Trent University) outlined his research into gambling addiction and fruit machines. With their integrated mix of conditioning effects, rapid event frequency, short pay-out intervals and psychological rewards, it is easy to see how slot machine gambling can become a problem. It was heartening to hear of a decline in adolescent problem gambling, potentially linked to Griffiths’ work informing social responsibility programmes.
As always, an inspirational meeting of generations. JS
Fellows’ excellence recognised
Three British Psychological Society Fellows were recognised during November, with two awards for lifetime achievement and an appointment to a prestigious panel.
Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, was awarded the Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award at the sixth annual Times Higher Education Awards.
The judges described Cooper as a ‘world-class occupational psychologist’ and his contributions in the area of well-being as ‘sustained and path-breaking.’
‘He was central to the development of management science in this country and more recently has been leading the Academy of Social Sciences in advocating powerfully for the subject,’ the judges said. ‘His energy and enthusiasm over the past four decades are legendary and he fully deserves this Lifetime Achievement Award.’
Professor Cooper said: ‘I was so shocked to receive the award, not realising that so many others have felt I had made such a contribution to higher education. I am really proud of this award, not only for me personally and my family, but also for the profession of psychology and all it has done for me professionally.’
Meanwhile, Sir Michael Rutter, a chartered psychologist and Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The College’s President, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, hailed Rutter as ‘one of the most influential psychiatric scientists of his generation’. Rutter was the country’s first ever consultant in child psychiatry and in 1994 he set up the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry.
‘Throughout his career, he has never slowed down,’ Bhugra said. ‘He is an inspiring teacher and mentor, and he also influenced social policy in a way no one else had done beforehand.’
Finally, Professor Glyn Humphreys was appointed as the Sub-Panel Chair for Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience for the Research Excellence Framework exercise in 2014. Dr Gerry Mulhern, President of the British Psychology Society, said: ‘The Society was among those who had originally endorsed Professor Humphrey’s nomination. Professor Humphreys is a highly distinguished academic psychologist and a Fellow of the BPS. His research, which stresses the interdisciplinary links between cognitive psychology and cognitive neuropsychology, makes him an excellent choice to head up this sub-panel.’ cj
Oncology award for psychologist
Pioneering cancer care initiatives were celebrated in November at the 2010 Excellence in Oncology Awards, and the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to a Society member.
Professor Lesley Fallowfield, Director of the Cancer Research UK Sussex Psychosocial Oncology Group, was recognised for her world-renowned work understanding the psychological and social effects of cancer. She told us: ‘I am absolutely delighted to be the recipient of this prestigious award. It is particularly gratifying as I am a psychologist not an oncologist, but the judging panel felt that my work in psychosocial oncology had made an enduring impact on their oncology practice. If I really have contributed, with my research team, towards improving understanding of the psychosocial impact of disease and treatments in ways that have affected the communication skills of healthcare professionals and ultimately their care of patients, then this is really satisfying. The biggest challenge now is to continue our work given the stark economic situation making grant support for my team difficult.’
Observers of human nature
Christian Jarrett reports from the Division of Clinical Psychology’s annual conference in Manchester, 2–3 December 2010
Mental health problems are prevalent at about 10 per cent in children, yet few ever get to see a mental health specialist. An alternative approach is to take a basic, universal psychological intervention into schools, to prevent problems from emerging in the first place. Whilst this sounds sensible, Paul Stallard (University of Bath) revealed that initial results from such programmes have been disappointing.
A 2010 study by Michael Sawyer in Australia, for example, involved over 5000 13-year-old children who were given a CBT-style intervention, ‘Beyond Blue’, delivered universally (i.e. to all children regardless of risk) for three years by trained teachers. Stallard said this was a ‘strong, powerful study’ yet no effects of reduced depression were found.
It was a similar story for a study led by Amy Challen at the LSE in which Martin Seligman’s Penn Resilience Programme was adapted for use in the UK. This time 18 hours of CBT were delivered universally by trained teachers, yet at 12 months there were again no benefits in terms of depression scores. ‘It’s not looking good, is it?’ Stallard said.
Against this demoralising context, Stallard described his own ongoing PROMISE project, which involves the universal delivery of the ‘Resourceful Adolescent Programme’ (CBT-based, plus interpersonal therapy) to more than 5000 pupils at eight UK secondary schools, over what will be a 40-month period. Pilot outcomes are encouraging – ‘we’re not doing any harm’, Stallard said – but pupil and teacher perceptions of the programme are disappointing. Fewer than 40 per cent of pupils and one in three teachers rated it as useful.
School-wide interventions are full of potential, Stallard said, but delivering them is highly challenging – timetables are busy, school staff may not always be supportive and schools have many competing priorities. ‘Most importantly of all,’ he concluded, ‘we still don’t know whether it works, and I suppose that has to be the bottom line.’
Defining paranoia has ‘taxed the greatest minds in psychopathology’ said Richard Bentall (Bangor University), opening his wide-ranging survey of the field. But what’s clear is that people don’t tend to have paranoid delusions about things like chairs and carpets, but do have them about ‘their position in the social universe – beliefs that reflect common, everyday anxieties that we’re all prone to, to some degree.’Indeed, the view of psychologists is that the paranoid beliefs held by patients are on a continuum with the experiences of the general population, with up to 10 per cent of us being paranoid at any one time. What distinguishes the paranoia of patients and non-patients, according to Bentall, is the type: ‘bad me’ versus ‘poor me’. Paranoia in the general population tends to be the former kind and is characterised by the belief that the persecution is deserved. By contrast, the paranoia displayed by patients is more often the poor me, undeserved variety.
The ubiquity of paranoia likely reflects the fact that, in evolutionary terms, it serves an adaptive function. If you’ve been mistreated or betrayed in the past, it pays to have a suspicious mind. Consistent with this, past experience of victimisation is known to be associated with paranoia emerging later. Similarly, there is a high risk of paranoid psychosis among immigrant groups, especially if they live in an area that’s populated by the dominant ethnic group. Bentall said this theme was supported by Tony Morrison’s recent finding that patients generally believed their taking a paranoid stance was sensible,
‘a way of keeping out of trouble’.
Bentall presented a model of paranoia that encapsulates many of the recent findings in the field. One collection of factors fuelling paranoia falls under the umbrella of pessimism, and includes low self-esteem, negative thinking and attributional style.
A separate group is made up of cognitive factors, such as jumping to conclusions, having poor executive control and a poor ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to think about other people’s mental states). The first set of factors are where bad ideas come from and then it’s the cognitive factors that prevent the bad idea being dealt with.
Recent ‘experience sampling’ research (in which a beeper prompts participants to record their current feelings) has revealed some fascinating relationships between self-esteem and paranoia, and how this varies between the bad me and poor me versions. A drop in self-esteem tended to precede bouts of both types of paranoia, but then a bout of bad me paranoia led self-esteem to drop still further, while a bout of poor me paranoia led to a recovery in self-esteem. Related research has shown that people with poor me paranoia have higher explicit (i.e. self-reported) self-esteem than those with the poor me version, but much lower self-esteem on implicit measures (which tap subconscious levels of self-esteem).
All this is consistent with Bentall’s theory that for many patients, paranoia seems to serve a defensive function, helping them to deal with unpleasant emotions and feelings. ‘Friends of a psychoanalytic ilk have enjoyed pointing out that this is in some ways a psychoanalytic theory because it’s a theory about a defence mechanism whereby attributional processes are defending the self,’ Bentall said. ‘I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.’ Psychoanalysts may be lousy scientists, he said, ‘but they’ve been acute observers of human nature.’
Introduced as the ‘perfect example of a scientist-practitioner’, this year’s May Davidson Award winner, Cathy Creswell (University of Reading), described how the anxiety exhibited by some children can be alleviated purely through interventions aimed at their parents. The theory behind the approach is that signs of childhood anxiety can encourage some parents to be overly controlling, thus setting in train a vicious cycle, since excessive regulation of children’s behaviour is known to reduce their sense of mastery and competence. Her research found that changes in parenting style seem to be mediated by modifications in how the mothers think about their children.
‘It seems that parents’ cognitions and behaviours can really reinforce children’s cognitions and behaviours,’ Creswell said, ‘so we can capitalise on this to deliver effective, efficient treatments through parents who can obviously spend a lot more time with their children than we’re ever going to be able to.’
As President of the American Psychological Association, James Bray (Baylor College of Medicine) commissioned a report and summit on psychology’s future (see ht.ly/3iLLP). Picking up that theme here, Bray said we need to consider: integrating with mainstream health care, integrating technology into practice (including Skype and other forms of tele-practice), applying basic and applied science in practice, greater accountability, meeting the needs of diverse societies, and increasing comparative effectiveness research (the APA is developing sets of treatment guidelines with depression due next year).
Psychologists should have a stronger presence in primary care, Bray argued, because of the close ties between mental and physical health – in fact, health behaviours are the primary cause of premature death. Research in Australia has shown that having psychologists in GP offices reduces healthcare costs. Psychologists should also shift from working in terms of psychiatry’s DSM to the WHO’s forthcoming ICD-12, which is integrated with primary health care.
Psychologists are like a surfer in unchartered waters, Bray said, often unable to see because of the huge economic forces at work around them: ‘But if we can catch the right wave and stay in the right position, even if we get temporarily covered by the water, we can have the ride of our lives and move forward in ways that we can only imagine.’
The distant chants of a small but noisy protest could be heard throughout Ken Zucker’s (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto) keynote on gender identity disorder (GID) in children and adolescents. According to an introduction from DCP chair Jenny Taylor, several BPS groups, including the Psychology of Women and the Lesbian and Gay Sections, had called for Zucker’s invite to be rescinded on the basis that children’s gender confusion shouldn’t be pathologised and amidst allegations that Zucker had practised ‘reparative’ therapy for homosexuality. Zucker denied this – ‘it’s an urban myth,’ he said – and also denied that his clinic had ever had the goal of reducing homosexual outcomes in children.
Zucker described the diagnosis of GID and gave several examples of children who fulfil the criteria, including one girl who pleaded with her parents to be given a penis for her sixth birthday. The key criteria are a strong and persistent cross-gender identity, dressing in opposite-gender clothing, disliking of one’s sexual anatomy, and verbalising the wish to change genders. Zucker, who is chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 Work Group for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders, said that the current proposal was to change the name to ‘gender incongruence’ and to drop the word ‘disorder’ in the hope of reducing stigma. The explicit desire to change gender was also going to be made a compulsory criterion for diagnosis.
Regarding developmental trajectories, there appear to be
two pathways. Most young children diagnosed with GID lose their ‘gender dysphoria’ with time. By contrast, the feeling of being the wrong gender persists in 75 per cent of adolescents, only subsiding with the help of surgery or hormone treatment. As for links with homosexuality (another issue raised by protestors), the majority of boys diagnosed with GID grow up to be homosexual adults, Zucker said, but only a minority of girls with a diagnosis of GID develop into adult lesbians.
In brief from DCP
From acupuncture on the tongue to less wacky behavioural and communication-based approaches, there is a bewildering array of treatments available for children with autism (see www.researchautism.net for a breakdown). In her overview, Patricia Howlin (Institute of Psychiatry) said a key pattern is for interventions to only lead to improvements in the given domains they focus on. ‘What you teach is what you get,’ she said. ‘So if you want to do social skills training, and you want it to work in the playground, what you need to do is social skills training in the playground, in the street etc., rather than nice middle-class skills in a sheltered school or clinic environment.’
Increasingly subtle uses of rape myths are allowing convicted rapists to ‘justify, deny, and minimise’ their actions. That was Sarah Pemberton’s (Nottingham Trent University) conclusion based on her interviews with 18 men who’d raped women. David, 29, for example, painted himself as a victim: ‘I never thought this would happen to me’ and separated himself from rapists who plan their acts in advance. Brian, 52, blamed his latest victim – ‘she said it turned her on’ – and accused an earlier under-age victim of lying about her
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