the media; counselling psychology; benevolent sexism; Little Albert; 'Beyond boundaries' columns (and more in PDF version)

The media: good and bad news

I would like to respond to the Media page article ‘Who’s your favourite TV psychotherapist?’ (July 2011). As a trained journalist/broadcaster, clinical psychologist and former TV psychologist for 15 years or so, I feel my unique position in the worlds of media and therapy might offer some insight into these seemingly disparate realms.

First, there is endless confusion about the distinctions between the different types of therapists and both the public and broadcasters often erroneously assume that psychiatry, psychology, counselling, and indeed colour visual therapy, are all the same. In other words, they fail to take into account different levels and degrees of training and all therapists are considered the same. Second, frankly, they don’t really care. The point of filling airtime is just that. All they are really interested in is a bum on a seat who doesn’t freeze up while on camera. The content of what is said is instantly forgotten the moment they move on to the next story. Third, it helps a lot if the person is ‘televisual’, especially for females, which is why a bevy of young beauties, irrespective of qualifications, often grace the sofas.

That’s the bad news. The good news is there is a strong public appetite for psychological analysis, ranging from the body language of politicians to explaining personal tragedy and cruelty, to even the seemingly frivolous antics of the Big Brother house, because they affect us all. The trick is to protect the practitioner term ‘psychologist’, as many people claim the title without the qualifications, to understand that the media has its own agenda and that comments might be edited to give a different perspective than the one intended, and not to overstep the mark by giving a definitive opinion without all the facts or insider knowledge. This is easily done by saying ‘I have not met X, so I can only speak in general terms about (depression, phobias, eating disorders, etc.).

Although the two agendas might at times be in conflict, in the main, I have found most broadcasters want experts who are both skilled and communicable.

Kristina Downing-Orr



I found the article ‘Who’s your favourite TV psychotherapist?’ a very interesting read. Whilst I found it useful on some levels, it was unclear and even unhelpful, on others.

I suspect most psychologists who engage with the media (a least Chartered Psychologists) are well aware of the inherent ‘dangers’ associated with such work. It is important to highlight that media work still has some grey areas – areas in which there are no absolute right or wrong ways to conduct oneself (professionally speaking). One of those areas I believe to be, as the article puts it, ‘non-expert commentary’. When journalists/press/media ask psychologists about their views on subjects ‘outside their professional competence areas’, psychologists should be able and indeed encouraged, to give their views and opinions. It is unrealistic (and arguably bad for psychology and the wider understanding of psychology) to expect, or be allowed, only to comment on those areas of professional competence. Are psychologists not also members of the general public and of a wider society? Yes they are, and therefore they are also are entitled to a view – at the very least from a ‘freedom of speech’ perspective.

I think the article misses the point that the public are interested not only in the ‘expert views’ of psychologists (i.e. information relating to individuals’ areas of competence), but also in what psychologists think in general and on a wide range of contemporary subjects in the news and media.

So long as psychologists are not purporting to be experts on all areas of their discussion, why shouldn’t they be allowed to comment? Surely if we were only allowed to speak out/have a view on those areas of our professional competence, programmes such as Radio 4’s All in the Mind would not be permitted, where Claudia Hammond makes an excellent job of bringing all areas and all disciplines of psychology to the general public. As she presents the programme, she also comments and gives her own views/opinions across each subject, yet she is not an ‘expert’ in many of these areas. If she were only able to comment on her area of expertise, she would only be able to express opinions in the areas of health and social psychology. Food for thought.

Caroline Cotterell




Displaced retaliation against rudeness

I enjoyed the article ‘How rudeness takes it toll’ by Christine Porath and Amir Erez (July 2011). I think it should be compulsory reading for anyone either already in or considering a career in management. However, I do have some questions about how one of the findings was interpreted by the authors.

One of the experiments described (Experiment 2) involved a stranger that the participants encountered on the way to the study who treated the participants ‘uncivilly’. The participants’ task performance seemed to suffer following this encounter even though ‘participants had no reason to harm the experimenter or to retaliate against him’. It was proposed that ‘Using a “third party” perpetrator shows that “retaliation” and the “desire to strike back” explanations cannot solely explain the strong effect of rudeness on cognitive performance.’

First of all, even though the stranger was the perpetrator of the rude behaviour towards the participants, why couldn’t the participants’ subsequent thoughts include those concerning retaliation against the stranger, in turn affecting their cognitive performance in the tasks set? To suggest that strangers are immune to such a reaction by the participants seems a strange proposition.

Also, with regard to the participants having ‘no reason to harm the experimenter or to retaliate against him’, this is probably true but what about the Freudian concept of psychology? The stranger was not present during the experiment and so the experimenter (who in this case was not rude) may indeed make a far less threatening and immediately available substitute to displace any aggression against.

Richard M. Williams



Counselling psychology needs to take its ‘proper’ place

As a relatively recent psychology graduate I have joined the BPS as a graduate member and joined the Division of Counselling Psychology while I continue working towards chartered status in that profession. Since I joined, I have become thoroughly disheartened to note the extent to which counselling psychology is treated as the poor relation within applied psychology. Examples are many and varied. Last month saw the publication of a new applied psychology textbook, Applied Psychology (ed. Davey, G., 2011), published by BPS Blackwell, hailed by reviewing professors as providing ‘a thorough overview of psychology in practice’ (tinyurl.com/656z82h) it features chapters on clinical, health, forensic, educational, occupational, and sport and exercise psychology (each an area of applied psychology recognised with a Division within BPS), but not counselling psychology (also recognised with a BPS Division). Sadly, I am already aware enough of the standing of the discipline not to find this surprising.

A friend and colleague who is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist looked at me with an expression of horror when I told her than I planned to continue my psychology studies in the field of counselling psychology, effectively telling me that counselling psychologists are not ‘proper’ psychologists – a view that I have heard expressed by numerous others. Of course we know that the state only values clinical psychology as this is the only subdiscipline that has any funding attached to training, despite all branches of applied psychology requiring training to doctoral level.

Wanting to make use of the resources from the BPS I logged onto EBSCOhost, to look for journals that I could use in my studies, only to find that of more than 500 journals available, only nine (slightly less than 2 per cent) appear to be directly relevant to counselling psychology and none of the journals I needed to complete my current assignment were available. This shows again how little importance is placed on counselling psychology.

I still believe that counselling psychology is worthwhile and important, and the low regard in which it is held does not prevent me from continuing my training, but I would like to see more recognition of the subdiscipline within the BPS and within the wider world of psychology. I would also like to understand why there is this perception that counselling psychology is somehow not ‘proper’ psychology as this may help us to address the problem.

Catherine Coe



Response from Carole Allan, Chair of the Professional Practice Board:

Graham Davey’s Applied Psychology textbook focused initially on the areas most commonly taught at undergraduate level. As such, the six fields that are covered in detail in the book are those that are most frequently found as core or popular elective modules on degree courses. It is, however, being extended to give broader coverage, and counselling psychology will be prominent among the new material being added.

The Division of Counselling Psychology and its members play a full, active and highly valued part in the wider life of the Society. It is the Society’s third largest Division with 3024 members of which 1511 are Chartered Psychologists. DCoP members are significant contributors to the work of the Professional Practice Board (PPB), the Standing Committee for Psychologists in Health and Social Care and a range of PPB working parties, and they share their expertise, knowledge and experiences when assisting the Society respond to public consultations. Barbara Douglas (a past Chair of DCoP) has just recently been elected as the Chair of Representative Council, an influential and important position in terms of the Society. 

This is a brief overview of the wide range of activities undertaken by counselling psychologists. I am sure the Division of Counselling Psychology will go on to achieve even greater influence in the future.


What does it mean to be professional?

At the recent European Congress of Psychology I went to a session on ‘Quality and Standards of Professional Psychology’ – which is, indeed, an important topic. But I cringed at what was going on and exited.

I have a long-standing interest in the goals of education, the role of the universities, professional competence, and the tendency for the apparently laudable objective of generating standards to protect the public to result in the opposite; and, more specifically, in the case of psychology, to result in studies that, because of the limited range of outcomes that it is possible to assess with the tools currently available, are seriously misleading and often deeply unethical while presented as contributing to ‘evidence-based practice’. I feel, therefore,  that I cannot let the matter pass without sharing a few remarks.

To contextualise these remarks, I should perhaps first mention that I was already seething with anger arising from the fact that, while the official theme of the conference was to ‘understand and enhance diversity’, hardly any of the speakers said anything at all directly or indirectly relating to this topic – and those who did spoke only of ethnic diversity, without even coming to terms with many important issues arising from that. So far as I am aware, no one spoke about the huge diversity of talents, values, action-guiding beliefs, and motivations that are available in every classroom and the fact that these cannot be recognised, registered, nurtured or utilised using psychological assessment procedures that meet current test ‘standards’. No one spoke about how these diverse talents can be harnessed to create emergent cultures of intelligence or enterprise or societies offering diverse patterns of life satisfaction and different chances of surviving into the future. No one spoke about the apparently abhorrent human predisposition to denigrate, even eliminate, values and life styles that differ from one’s own and how such predispositions can be capitalised upon on the one hand and held in check on the other.

And so to the symposium: So far as I could see there was no discussion of the huge variety of roles and activities carried out by professional psychologists, no discussion of what is meant by professional conduct (as distinct from the routine execution of prescribed duties), no discussion of the role of the universities in promoting the development of diverse, generic, motivationally based, high-level competencies, and no acknowledgement – let alone recognition of the significance – of the tendency of the majority university students from any academic discipline to enter employment in areas outside their discipline of study.

At least while I was there (and in the accompanying booklet) there was no discussion of the paucity of ways of giving students credit for having developed these diverse high-level competencies, no discussion of the ways in which universities can nurture them and give lecturers credit for having done so, and no discussion of ways of differentiating institutions in these terms so that students can make informed choices between them. This despite the fact that ‘everyone knows’ that the institution attended is more important than the courses taken.

Yet these are all topics to which one might have expected psychologists of all people to have paid attention.

John Raven



Little Albert will always be ‘Little’

Like many psychologists I was first introduced to Little Albert as part of my A-level psychology course. The idea of a small child being conditioned to fear a harmless animal and the accompanying ominous ‘clang’ announcing the animal’s presence was quite disturbing and has certainly resonated ever since.

When I came to do my degree in psychology I was reintroduced to Little Albert and re-reading the story eight years later certainly did not lessen its effect. So it was with great interest that I read the recent article ‘Finding Little Albert’ (May 2011). I had often wondered what had become of the lad. Did his mother know what was happening? Did he proceed through life with this fear of white rats or was he able to overcome it with some sort of therapy? And most importantly, did he know what significance he has had on psychology of learning?

I was saddened to read that his true identity has never been definitively proven, and that the most likely candidate passed away at the tender age of six, he never knew about his impact on the field of learning.

If Little Albert was really Little Douglas and if he had lived a full life, what impact would that have had on psychology? I found myself considering the following questions: If Little Albert had lived would he have eventually ‘outgrown’ his fear through experience? As the conditioning occurred at such a young age, might he have repressed the memories of the conditioning process and, with Watson’s use of a pseudonym, might he have ever even realised that the event had occurred? Could he have lived to adulthood and had children, none of whom would have realised how significant their father had been, could they even, here’s a thought, have studied him themselves without ever knowing it. Had Little Albert lived longer, might Watson and Rayner have been able to track him down and conclude their research with follow-ups? This could have had implications, not only for learning, but also for phobias. I also wondered whether his poor health may have had anything to do with the ease with which his fear was conditioned: would a stronger child with a healthy brain have developed the fear as easily?

The article provoked so many questions in me, questions that we will never now know the answers to, but this does not diminish the strength of Watson and Rayner’s work, the Little Albert study will always be a fine example of conditioning, and one that for all the wrong reasons, people remember.

So Little Albert, Little Douglas, or whoever he may have been, we raise a glass to psychology’s long-lost boy.

Kirsty Plank



FORUM guest column: Beyond boundaries
Dr Ricardo de la Espriella’s office is surprisingly quiet. Buried deep within San Ignacio University Hospital, the growl of the chaotic Bogotá traffic is perceptibly absent. Despite the street-level pandemonium, the capital city of Colombia remains an oasis of relative calm in a troubled country. The five-decade-old conflict has been pushed back from the urban fringes and persists, unabated, in the rural areas where it continues to devastate the country’s diverse cultural landscape. Dr de la Espriella has long promoted an understanding of how psychological distress is filtered through cultural norms. ‘There are difficulties in recognising post-traumatic stress in certain populations, which is why cultural psychiatry is so important’ he stresses, highlighting the surprising variation in response to suffering. In this case, however, he is not talking about the culture of ethnic or racial groups, but the micro-culture of illegal paramilitary organisations.
While working on a project to rehabilitate ex-members of illegal armed groups, he noticed a striking absence of post-traumatic stress disorder in his patients, despite them having experienced extreme violence both as combatants and civilians. Many had taken part in massacres and selective assassinations, and many had lost companions to equally brutal treatment. There were high levels of substance abuse, aggression and social problems, but virtually none showed signs of anxiety. Intrigued, de la Espriella decided to investigate more closely and carefully interviewed the ex-paramilitary patients again, using the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale, which asks specific and detailed questions about post-trauma symptoms. After this more detailed examination, more than half could be diagnosed with the disorder.
The reason for why none of these symptoms presented in day-to-day life seemed to lie in paramilitary subculture. While aggression and drug abuse are tolerated, anxiety is taboo to the point where members showing signs of anxiety can be killed by their compatriots for being ‘weak’. This brutal emotional environment shapes the men to neither show nor spontaneously report any form of fear or nervousness. De la Espriella reported his findings in the Colombian Journal of Psychiatry where he discusses the difficulties in treating people who have been involved in violence and killing. His work also raises the uncomfortable question of who we consider to be a victim of conflict. Can we extend compassion to those who commit the atrocities or do we allow those who swim in the tides of war to drown in its powerful currents?

Vaughan Bell is a psychologist working in Colombia. Share your views on this and similar cross-cultural, interdisciplinary or otherwise ‘boundary related’ issues – e-mail [email protected].


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