Reports from the Annual Conference
Memories of Glasgow
Star power arrived at the Annual Conference this year in the form of Elizabeth Loftus (University of California, Irvine), the doyenne of false memory research who’s had the mixed fortune of attracting death threats and the highest academic accolades.
Anyone can experience false memories – that is, memories that feel as if they’re based on real events but are in fact fabricated in part or in full. Loftus gave the example of Hilary Clinton’s dramatic memory of the time she landed at Sarajevo airport in 1996, running for cover under sniper fire. Photographic and video evidence tells a different story, as Clinton is seen kissing children at a calm welcoming ceremony on the tarmac. ‘I made a mistake… that proves I’m human,’ Clinton said later.
The US Secretary of State is far from being alone in her memory fallibility. Loftus described an online experiment conducted by Slate magazine in 2010, in which readers were presented with skilfully doctored photos including one showing Obama shaking hands with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and another showing George W. Bush on holiday with former baseball star Roger Clemens (see tinyurl.com/3db4pq4). Neither event happened in reality, yet over 25 per cent of five thousand participants recalled the handshake and over 15 per cent recalled the holiday snap. In many cases participants embellished the fiction – ‘The Chicago Trib had a big picture of this meeting,’ said one.
In case the audience were in any doubt that they too could be prone to false memories, Loftus provided an interactive example with successive pairs of faces. By the end, half the audience believed they’d seen one face in a pair before, the other half swore it was the other face that had been shown earlier.
Loftus’s findings showing how easy it is to implant false memories raise obvious ethical questions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a new line of work she’s conducting with the US military at their school for survival training.
After a stressful mock interrogation, soldier participants were presented with a photo, ostensibly of their interrogator, and asked questions about their experience (e.g. ‘Did he feed you?’, ‘Did he give you a blanket?’). Crucially, some participants were shown a random face during this questioning rather than the face of their real interrogator. Next, all the participants were shown an array of nine faces and asked to pick out their interrogator. The random face misleadingly shown earlier to some participants was in there, but the true interrogator’s face was absent.
The alarming finding? 84 per cent of the participants shown the random face during their earlier questioning subsequently picked out this random face as belonging to their interrogator (compared with just 15 per cent of control participants who’d seen their interrogator’s face during their earlier questioning).
‘In a way this makes me feel a little bit uneasy,’ Loftus admitted. ‘What we’re putting out there is a recipe for how to commit some atrocious act against somebody else and then tamper with their memory so they are unable to identify the person who committed that act upon them.’
Other applications of Loftus’s research are more salubrious. In one study, participants were tricked into recalling that strawberry ice-cream had made them sick as a child; they subsequently chose to avoid that food when it was listed on a menu. It works the other way too – another study led participants into believing they’d grown up with a penchant for asparagus. ‘I never really thought I’d be getting into the business of applying this research to the problem of nutritional selection – maybe even making a dent in the obesity problem in our society – but I can see the work being taken in that direction,’ Loftus said.
Her take home message? ‘If I’ve learned one thing, it’s this,’ she concluded: ‘just because it’s vivid, just because it’s detailed and expressed with confidence and emotion doesn’t mean that it’s true.’
Sexual health interventions in action
There has been a rise in sexually transmitted infections in the UK in recent years and the need for effective interventions is all too apparent. Hence this symposium, introducing a number of practical studies from the Applied Research Centre in Health and Lifestyle at Coventry University, was highly topical.
The symposium was convened by Jude Hancock, who opened the session by describing a theory-based approach, incorporating literature reviews and preliminary data collection. She described a study based on the theory of planned behaviour, in which an internet survey was used to elicit individuals’ beliefs about five condom behaviours. This can then provide a basis for changing the behaviours. For example, people may be reluctant to carry condoms because they believe that it gives an impression they are looking for casual sex. Reframing that belief so that they feel it is a responsible course of action may help promote the behaviour.
This introductory talk was followed by a series of interesting presentations of examples of interventions. Katie Newby described the development of a sex education lesson on chlamydia for secondary-school pupils. This used an intervention mapping approach that translates theory into practical approaches to meet the needs of the target population via a series of iterative steps. This resulted in an engaging classroom lesson, which will be hosted on the Health Protection Agency European-wide e-bug website.
The second example of an intervention, presented by Julie Bayley described a programme to improve parent–child communication about sex. We were told that half of young people get little or no information about sex from their parents – a fact that may be linked to the high rate of teenage pregnancy. The researchers used a similar intervention mapping approach to the previous study and resulted in the production of a training course and a computer game. The latter was designed to reach those parents who cannot or chose not to attend courses. The game gives a series of scenarios and the respondent is given a choice of reactions. They then receive feedback on their response. This game can be seen on the website www.besavvy.org.uk.
The final talk by Katherine Brown described an online volitional intervention to increase contraception use in adolescents who have already decided they want to use contraception. Thus it focuses on closing the gap between intention and behaviour. Given that we were told that 85 per cent of the adolescents studied held strong intentions to use condoms, but less than half were effective users, there is a clear need for this. The intervention was developed in collaboration with Charles Abraham from the University of Exeter through an elaborate process of consultation with users and health professions, utilising the well-established approach of forming implementation intentions. This and other interventions can be seen at www.healthinterventions.co.uk.
Neil Macrae on Uta Frith and Uta Frith on Neil Macrae
Around a decade ago, a purportedly new area of psychological inquiry appeared on the intellectual landscape – social cognitive neuroscience (SCN). In reality, however, SCN had been around for quite some time, it was simply that social psychologists had failed to grasp the brain science nettle. Now, the nettle is well and truly grasped. Together with colleagues in cognitive neuroscience, experimental social psychologists are exploring how an understanding of the brain can inform basic questions in human social cognition. Who better then to provide a general overview of SCN than one of its most thoughtful and skilled practitioners, Uta Frith.
Cutting through unnecessary definitional debates, Uta commenced with an exposition of what is ‘social’ and ‘cognitive’ about SCN. Armed with a raft of general-purpose cognitive processes, the mind quite simply gets to work solving a range of fundamental social problems (e.g. navigating the social world, learning from others, mind perception). As key illustrative examples, Uta considered the topics of observational learning and person understanding (i.e., ToM). Grounded in mirroring and mentalising systems in the brain, she identified the neuroanatomical substrates that underpin imitation, empathy and mental state attribution. Adroitly combining imaging and behavioural research, Uta’s presentation highlighted how implicit and explicit processes support core aspects of social-cognitive functioning.
Even allowing for my own research interests, Uta’s keynote address was a highlight of the meeting. Cutting-edge, eclectic science delivered by a leader in the field, outstanding. Top notch slide transitions too.
If Dr Who was invited to give a keynote speech at the BPS Annual Conference he should come in the guise of Dr Macrae. Of course, the vehicle for time travel is not the Tardis, but the Brain. The brain will transport you into the past as well as into the future, but Neil can tell which direction you are moving in. Not only this, he can nudge people into going into a particular direction. How is this possible?
Neil invites potential time travellers to his lab and gives them questionnaires about their daydreams. He uses them later to correlate with activity of their brain’s so-called default system. Your preference might be either as a dweller in the past (with predominant activity in para-hippocampal cortex) or as an explorer of the unknown (in prefrontal cortex). Now potential time travellers are given a mean working memory task, over several days, repeating certain sequences of letters to the point that just seeing them induces boredom. When the boring sequences appear, thoughts take flight. Past or future? Body sway you can tell you. If you ever so slightly lean forwards, your mind is probably going to the future. If you lean backwards, it is in the past.
Cleverly, Neil put this phenomenon into reverse to shape the direction of travel. He induced strong illusions of motion, as when sitting in a motionless train at a station and observing a moving train on another platform. If the apparent movement direction is backwards, the mind wanders into the past, if it goes forwards, into the future. In other words, he has demonstrated that there is a bi-directional mind–body link.
It will not escape the astute reader, and it did not escape Neil, that cultural factors might have an effect. For instance, the direction used in different writing systems might shape time travel direction. Can one and the same person entertain two time lines simultaneously? Bilingual English and Mandarin readers in Singapore can. They would flexibly adopt a vertical mapping of time when Mandarin words were used, and a horizontal mapping when English words were used.
In another innovative study, Neil used priming to demonstrate that a particular location in space would ‘attract’ the movement a person made with a mouse tracker – left for past, right for future. Compatible and incompatible pairings could be compared, and compatibility is reflected in movements of the hand. Again this work shows how closely our body movements are bound up with the dimension of time.
‘Time has a place’, according to Neil Macrae, and this means he can subtly suggest the direction of time travel and can confidently launch us on a journey in the mind.
A weighty issue
As the philanthropist and medical research advocate Mary Lasker once said, ‘If you think research is expensive, try disease’. Obesity is perhaps a modern-day epidemic, carrying huge personal and societal costs. So it was heartening to see a workshop devoted to psychologists in obesity management at the Annual Conference, particularly so soon after the publication of a report from the Society’s Obesity Working Group (see www.bps.org.uk/obesity).
In the opening presentation, Consultant Clinical Psychologist Susan Boyle provided an overview of the Glasgow and Clyde Weight Management Service. This service provides a comprehensive, multidisciplinary weight management pathway of care, from prevention through to the management of severe obesity. Appropriately, the service was developed with an evidence-based underpinning and continues to modify its services based on research (e.g. NICE Clinical Guideline 43, 2006). Rather than asking the question ‘Is obesity related to psychopathology?’ they consider ‘Which obese individuals are at most risk of psychological disturbance?’ It was reported that consistent results (regardless of socio-economic background) have been obtained since 2004, with 50 per cent who start the programme completing it and 36 per cent completers being successful in achieving the programme goal (lose 5kgs).
In the second presentation, Fiona Wright presented results from the programme showing significant improvements in emotional well-being (anxiety and depression) and in all domains of health-related quality of life. Both weight loss and changes in depression predicted meaningful improvements in quality of life, and these improvements were due to weight loss, when participants had lost 5kgs or more in weight. When participants were less successful with weight loss, positive changes in depression accounted for changes in quality of life.
Next up, Marie Prince discussed the aspect of the service focusing on binge-eating disorders. In a previous service model the Glasgow team screened for disordered eating and offered psychological assessment (the individual treatment was in addition to the group weight loss interventions offered), resulting in 50 per cent cases of disordered eating. Their more recent service model includes group CBT for binge-eating disorders to their standard weight loss intervention. This has encouraged weight loss and weight maintenance, and has been beneficial for clients. This service appears agile enough to make changes based on developing evidence, could see benefits through the changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders due out in May 2013. Binge Eating Disorder will be listed as a stand-alone diagnostic category under Eating and Feeding Disorders, rather than the new Addictions and Related Disorders category (which is planned to replace the Substance Related Disorders category). The Eating Disorders category has previously focused on conditions characterised by under-eating rather than over-eating, leaving people with problems of over-eating sometimes unable to access support through eating disorders treatment services.
Ross Shearer then presented data from interviews with eight female participants one year after bariatric surgery. Participants saw the gastric band as an ‘aid’ and that they themselves play an important role in managing their eating behaviours, contrary to what many had anticipated prior to surgery. The participants noted that their expectations before surgery were often unrealistic, many believing surgery would be a ‘quick-fix’, despite receiving professional-led surgical preparation. Despite imposed control over their eating, some participants’ psychological state appeared to play a part in their behaviours, often resulting in difficulty adhering to the lifestyle changes required post-surgery and seemingly poorer weight loss outcomes. Post-surgical patient support appears to be crucial in achieving best possible outcomes.
Concluding this important and timely workshop, Mira Mojee presented a case study for discussion, pulling together the previous presentations and recommending future directions. The importance of multidisciplinary interventions, and involving family members in behavioural treatments for weight loss, were highlighted.
Why do people have activity limitations?
Activity limitations – difficulties executing a task or action – are clearly important, as lack of activity is a risk factor for disease. Traditional biomedical explanations focus on poor health, age, disease or impairment: primarily physical factors. While most people accept that the reality is more complex, this implicit theory needs to be challenged.
Marie Johnston presented a compelling argument based on a wealth of research for the importance of psychological factors. For example, in a Swedish experiment musical stairs looking like piano keys were successful in persuading people to take the stairs rather than the escalator (visit www.thefuntheory.com and select ‘piano stairs’). A further illustration was provided in the recent reality-TV programme The Young Ones, which aimed to increase activity and independence in six elderly celebrities by putting them in surroundings similar to their 1970s housing with little support. This provided a good illustration of how changing the environment can increase activity.
However, behavioural explanations of activity limitations are often ignored in favour of medical explanations. Factors that are important include intentions, planning, self-efficacy, social support, environmental cues, rewards, coping, peer pressure and social support. To illustrate this, Johnston gave an example of the frequently replicated finding that perceived control predicts recovery following strokes after controlling for impairment. She suggested that combined behavioural and biomedical models might be more predictive and be more helpful for informing clinical interventions, for example by incorporating the theory of planned behaviour (TPB) into the dominant model of activity limitations (the WHO International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health – ICF). The TPB suggests behaviour is predicted by intention, which in turn is predicted by attitudes, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control. Johnson’s research indicates that people do talk about their disability in terms of these kinds of construct and thus recognise their relevance.
She describes research using a medical and a behavioural model separately and combined to predict activity limitation in the case of those undergoing joint replacement surgery. She found that the combined model was more successful than the two separate models. Impairment and perceived behavioural control were the best predictors in this model.
The inclusion of psychological variables is also important for interventions. Here, Johnston gave the example of an intervention using workbooks for stroke patients. The use of behavioural change techniques including goal setting, planning and social support helped people recover from their activity limitations faster. Finally, Johnston discussed a study aiming to develop a taxonomy of effective behaviour change interventions (see tinyurl.com/3j5v5bc).
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) presents healthcare providers with a costly conundrum. Known by medical professionals as ‘frequent consulters’, sufferers of CFS tend to report around 16 different symptoms per patient. Most commonly these include concentration difficulties, muscle pain, fatigue, weakness and fever. At present there is no known underlying cause for CFS and no coherent approach to treatment. Moreover, outcomes for patients vary wildly depending on how ‘improvement’ and ‘recovery’ are defined and measured. Marie Thomas (University of Wales), Andy Smith (Cardiff University) and Gary Christopher (University of the West of England) ran a three-year study with the aim of developing a toolkit that would help to understand outcomes for sufferers of this most mysterious of ‘functional somatic syndromes’ (others in this ‘family’ include irritable bowel syndrome, tinnitus and chronic lower back pain). Over 200 patients were recruited from specialist CFS clinics and asked to fill out measures of well-being, quality of life and psychopathology as well as symptom checklists and measures of illness beliefs, history and severity; 84 per cent of participants believed that their illness had been preceded by a specific event, often a bout of flu. At three-year follow-up, 45 per cent said they were recovered with occasional relapses, while only 2 per cent felt they had recovered completely. One of the best predictors of ‘recovery’ seemed to be employment; participants who were in work at initial testing were more likely to be in the ‘recovered’ group at the end of the study.
Digitial natives and digital tourists
It is a given in life that a help desk won’t help you, that it will rain on bank holidays and that any talk about the use of technology in education will start with a technical problem. And so it was for this symposium, ‘Reinventing the wheel? The role of technology in teaching psychology’. In fact this illustrates the most robust finding of the last 20 years of research into new technologies, which is that they are not nearly as easy to use as they appear. Just think back to the number of times a lecture or a lab session has ground to a halt because a video hasn’t loaded or you’ve got the wrong cable. These experiences make us aware of the risks of relying on technology and make us cautious in our use of new technologies – in stark contrast to the behaviour of our students.
This symposium, convened by the Tim Jones from the University of Worcester, looked to present papers from advocates of new technologies in teaching. The aim was to develop a framework for best practice in the use of technology while at the same time being careful to hang on to the best traditional techniques of teaching. The question that underlies this discussion is whether we are doing anything new with these technologies or whether it is just the same type of teaching and learning but with shiny, fancy gadgets.
In the first talk Jacqui Taylor from Bournemouth University outlined the development of technology in education over the last 30 years and raised Marc Prensky’s idea of the ‘digital native’ (download PDF at tinyurl.com/marcprensky). The current generation of primary school children know no other world than the digital one. They log on to their laptops before they can read or write, and although our current undergraduates have not been as immersed as this, their world is a digital one and Prensky argues that they ‘think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’. They are digital natives and we are merely tourists to this digital world.
The narrative on educational technology commonly highlights examples of good practice and points towards what might be achieved if this practice is rolled out. Taylor showed examples of how social networking can be used in education and how it can be related to academic performance, and also how knowledge of the impact of new technologies can be used to design new learning experiences. This optimistic narrative was continued in a discussion of patchwork assessment, first by Caroline Wesson and Wendy Nicholls from Wolverhampton University and then by Penny Upton from Worcester University.
Patchwork assessment can be used as an alternative to the traditional essay, which is a format that has surely passed its sell-by date. Students are required to build up a portfolio of short pieces of work across a module. These formative pieces of work are commented on by the tutor and by peers. The final piece of work at the end of the module is a composite of the short pieces, which have been enhanced by comment and reflection. The software used by both teams of teachers was Pebblepad, which is designed for this kind of activity and brings the strengths and weaknesses of bespoke educational software.
On the plus side the modules that adopt this method receive good feedback from students and facilitate good-quality work. On the negative side the start-up costs in terms of time and training are heavy, and the time to review the patchwork contributions is substantial. The problem is, then, that although enthusiastic and technology-competent teachers can develop and use facilities like Pebblepad there is reluctance from other staff to adopt these techniques.
A final paper by Valerie Bentinck from Birkbeck, University of London took a less optimistic approach and described her involvement with an e-learning project that had attracted substantial financial support but was unlikely to have much enduring impact. Xerte is an open source e-learning tool that is described as easy to use; but that is not the common experience of the facility, and it is also not entirely clear what it would be used for.
So are we reinventing the wheel? On one level we are, and by introducing bespoke educational software that has some of the features of public domain facilities such as Facebook or Twitter we have a few special extra features, but the barriers this creates means that wide adoption is unlikely. It can be argued that the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs) constrains students and de-skills teachers, so why not make use of the facilities that students are already using? Why bother to introduce VLEs when we tap into the way students are already communicating and learning? The jury is out on this one but it is clear that we have to change our practice of teaching. We have to adapt to the undeniable change in the way that our students access information and learn. As teachers we are in danger of remaining tourists to this digital world.
Stones and bones, brains and hands
Annette Karmiloff-Smith discovers what determines lateralisation in handedness in the great apes and both prehistoric and modern humans
Introducing this fascinating topic, Gillian Forrester of the University of Westminster argued that motor preference is not arbitrary, but represents an evolutionary bias stemming from the asymmetric hemispheric organisation of the underlying neural function for skilled action. Right-handedness was initially considered as a unique hallmark of human evolution, but more recent analyses have revealed homologous asymmetry in the great apes, suggesting possible common mechanisms for communication in humans and apes. Forrester pointed out that all human tests of handedness involve inanimate objects, ignoring the possibility that humans may use their right hand for inanimates and their left hand for animates. In other words, we may be more ambidextrous than commonly thought.
Caterina Quaresmini of the University of Trento investigated western lowland gorillas to assess the laterality of hand use (left vs. right) and target object (animate vs. inanimate), discovering a group-level right-hand bias only when the gorillas interacted with inanimate objects. She hypothesised that left hemisphere specialisation may have arisen from the processing of sequential manipulation of tools, which served as a pre-adaption to the structure of language. This is a long-standing hypothesis, first enunciated by Patricia Greenfield who argued for a tight relationship between tool use and language development.
Alina Rodriguez, from the Institute of Psychiatry in London, looked at atypical brain laterality indexed by non-right handedness. Interestingly, right-handedness is less frequent in twins and infants with very low birth weight. One also finds more mixed handedness in individuals with dyslexia and schizophrenia. Examining prenatal environmental risk exposures in a large Scandinavian cohort, Rodriguez identified longitudinal associations between handedness, ADHD and language difficulties in adolescence. Prenatal exposure to maternal stress was significantly related to increased incidence of child non-right handedness. Rodriguez also put to rest the myth that ultrasound examinations cause left-handedness. However, atypical lateralisation in the form of mixed handedness, not left-handedness, should be considered by clinicians as a risk factor for atypical development.
A fascinating approach to handedness was presented by Natalie Uomini from the University of Liverpool. She asked whether our ancestors were right-handed and whether prehistoric manual lateralisation can tell us about the emergence of language in hominids. Using fossil bones, teeth and the stone tools of our ancestors, Uomini was able to reveal that hemispheric specialisation was indeed part of our evolutionary history. By the way that the majority of flints were indented from use over time, her studies showed that the right hand was used to hold tools while the left hand played the role of support, much like we hold a cup in our right hand and the saucer in the left. Also examining asymmetries in bones, she could determine whether one side of the body was used more (much like tennis players become asymmetrical via their use of rackets). And this was all happening some 37,000–34,000 years ago!
The final paper was presented by Catherine Hobaiter of the University of St Andrews, who studies the gestural systems of chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. I couldn’t help wondering how this slender young woman could penetrate the habitats of the huge wild chimpanzees to observe their spontaneous intentional gestures, but she was clearly admirably at ease. Coding only for gestures when the choice of limb was unrestricted, Hobaiter was able to identify over 60 different gestures used by the chimps for grooming, contact, play, food use, etc. A large percentage of the gestures targeting objects were done with the right limb, whereas those produced for social purposes tended to be bilateral. Furthermore, certain gestures were more lateralised than others: the right limb was used for shaking, moving and scratching objects. Males turned out to be more right-limbed than females, and right-handedness increased over age, much like it does in human children.
Children and the great apes, then, are similar: they predominantly use a single hand/limb (typically the right) for goal-directed actions on objects, and both limbs for interacting socially with conspecifics. It is also clear that right-handedness pre-dates the human/ape split across evolutionary time so cannot explain the hemispheric specialisation of human language.
Ensconced in a tiny room quite distant from the main conference activities, this symposium was by far my favourite, listening to such talented young researchers pull together a difficult yet fascinating topic.
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