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Engaging the public in psychology

Psychology is merely common sense, masquerading as science. It cannot produce precise predictions or reliably replicate results. Even if this ‘soft science’ could, individuals are unique, thus rendering generalisations meaningless. Put simply, psychology is not useful to society. These are some of the harshest criticisms psychology faces – yet they are not the product of academic snobbery, they simply represent what the public thinks of psychology (see Lilienfeld, 2011).

Although psychologists have attempted to dispel these misconceptions, their efforts have been somewhat undermined by the publicity surrounding scientific fraud cases such as that of Diederik Stapel (see, for example, tinyurl.com/6zke3t5). A recent survey distributed amongst 2155 academic psychologists suggests Stapel is not alone – an estimated one in 10 psychologists appear to falsify data (John et al., 2012). With psychology’s reputation hanging in the balance, what can we do, as psychologists, to win back public trust in a science that seeks to understand the human mind and behaviour?

We suggest that one way to do this is to increase awareness about the opportunities there are for everyone to engage in real psychological research. By participating in online research studies, the public could experience first-hand the types of questions psychologists ask and understand how we go about answering them. The public might realise that psychology addresses a rich tapestry of topics that they would not have naturally linked with psychology, such as climate change or road safety.

Participation in these studies, combined with appropriate dissemination, may lead the public to realise that psychology’s findings can have real-life applications that clearly benefit society. For instance, recent research shows that at night motorcycles are perceived as moving towards us at a slower rate than cars, yet the addition of two extra headlights to the motorcycle greatly improves accuracy judgements (Gould et al., 2012).

To ensure that the public are kept engaged with online participation, studies should be thoughtfully designed and participants should be fully debriefed, including information about the procedure to demonstrate the rigorous methodology psychology employs. Where appropriate, participants could receive customised feedback that tells them about their responses (e.g. for instance that they are more extraverted than introverted). Providing personalised feedback may help incentivise participation in psychological research further as individuals will have the opportunity to learn more about themselves. Once the research is complete the key findings should be clearly and simply summarised on the site.

Aside from engaging the public, the proposed website would also benefit researchers who often struggle to find willing participants. Studies indicate that findings obtained online are just as reliable as those obtained offline using traditional pen-and-paper methods (e.g. Buchanan & Smith, 1999). Indeed, several researchers have noted that the web may prove superior to paper as it is efficient and economical (Birnbaum, 2000).

Often researchers tend to recruit participants using their network of family and friends and/or the university research participation schemes. Yet such recruitment methods lead to findings that are predominantly based on ‘WEIRD’ people who are representative of just 12 per cent of the world’s population – people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (Henrich et al., 2010). Hence, a website designed specifically to promote psychological studies to the general public would present an ideal opportunity for researchers to recruit a more diverse, representative and generalisable sample. Moreover, researchers will be able to make new connections to other researchers whose interests are compatible to their own and thus the proposed site may increase collaborative opportunities. 
Currently, only a few websites exist that promote psychological research (e.g. tinyurl.com/99a9kvt) and while these can be commended, many are not based in the UK. An additional problem is that far too many websites do not get great public exposure and so it may be the case that the only people responding to them are students and other academics, not the general public. To date, existing websites based in the UK promoting psychological research (e.g. www.onlinepsychresearch.co.uk) do not have the backing of an official organisation or body such as the British Psychological Society. 

A Society-backed online participation website could increase the public’s exposure to psychological research in the UK, in addition to providing a supportive environment for academics to conduct their research. Perhaps the website could even be incorporated into the Society’s Research Digest blog (see www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog), which already attracts a diverse audience. Ultimately the website we propose could be used to widen public relations in the UK and encourage the public to engage more fully in the scientific study of the mind. We believe the site could have far-reaching benefits for the general public, academics and the Society, and we would be interested to hear whether other readers agree.

Kathryn Buchanan
Research Officer
Department of Psychology
University of Essex
Lee Saunders
MSc Psychological Research Methods Student
University of Winchester

Birnbaum, M.H. (Ed.) (2000). Psychological experiments on the Internet. San Diego: Academic Press.
Buchanan, T. & Smith, J.L. (1999). Using the internet for psychological research: Personality testing on the world-wide web. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 125–144.
Gould, M., Poulter, D.R., Helman, S. & Wann, J. (2012). Errors in judging the approach rate of motorcycles in nighttime conditions and the effect of an improved lighting configuration. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 45, 432–437.
Henrich, J., Heine, S.J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010).  The weirdest people in the world?  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83.
John, L.K., Loewenstein, G. & Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling. Psychological Science 23(5), 524–532.
Lilienfeld, S.O. (2011). Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist , 67(2), 111–129.  

Money – the root of research distortions

Dorothy Bishop’s ‘Forum: Survival guide’ piece (September 2012) suggests how research funding in the ‘corporatised’ university can distort or prevent scholarly activity. As she writes, ‘income, rather than research, has become the indicator of success’. Even in small universities like my own, one of the first questions asked of potential new colleagues is whether or not their research is ‘fundable’: not original, not interesting, not provocative, not timely – but liable to attract agency financing.

It is clear that some research absolutely requires external support, but it is equally clear that some does not, and it is a tragedy when scholars
whose interests lie in the latter category are virtually forced to apply for money. A tragedy, indeed, when grants are increasingly hard to come by, and success rates are very low. Time wasted; unnecessary frustration; useful research avenues closed off; career advancement hindered.

Dr Bishop notes that Daniel Kahneman would fare poorly in the current climate because his Nobel Prize-winning research required little or no funding. Indeed, even God would be hard-pressed
to succeed in the modern academy: only one publication, no references, dubious ethical practices, and so on. The mundane point is simply that funding should follow research ideas, as necessary. When funding pressures are the driving force, however, we may see not only a stifling of useful research activity, but also a decline in the value and originality of what is financially supported: pressure to attract funding lessens the likelihood of more adventurous research applications, and increases tendencies to continue along well-trodden paths.

It is sad to consider that bean-counters, who do not know or care that the distortions they impose upon research activity inevitably affect all aspects of scholarly life, are the ones who, more and more, run the academic show.

John Edwards
St Francis Xavier University
Nova Scotia


Meeting mental health needs of Syrian refugees
As President of the British Arab Psychiatrists Association, I am currently coordinating the work of a volunteer group to help affected displaced Syrians in Jordan and Turkey.

For many displaced Syrians, understandably, basic needs like finding shelter and food is most prominent. For others it is looking after their existing physical ill health in addition to their children’s needs, including schooling.

One of the painful factors is not knowing the fate of a missing relative, who might be have been captured by Syrian security forces, or who may be forced to fight in the regime’s army. There is also the worry of their abandoned properties being destroyed or looted.

To have an accurate idea of needs is a difficult task given the constant changing circumstances for people inside and outside the country. Screening for mental health problems in this population scattered in different towns requires resources, knowledge of their whereabouts, availability of interested personnel and, most importantly, the affected people’s willingness to talk about their mental health needs.

Stories of witnessing violence, heavy shelling and, worst of all, air bombardment are prevalent. Scenes of helicopters hovering in the sky became a familiar daily terrorising moments, particularly for children. Feelings of anger, frustration mixed with sadness and fear for those left behind are common. What can be done to help?I    There is a clear need for more professional help from psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists to assist patients.
I    Delivering training on recognition of common mental health problems in this population particularly for volunteers who are interested in providing psychosocial support for victims including children. These can be graduates, teachers, students and others.
I    Training on collecting relevant information from affected people, which can be used for research purposes.
I    Training on ways to develop and build mental health teams and services.
I    Training in certain therapies like, group therapy, play therapy, Art therapy for children, CBT, trauma focused therapy and EMDR.
I    Organising regular meetings/supervision with the team
of volunteers there either in person which is more supportive or via electronic means i.e. Skype.

I am planning to follow this up to try and help deliver some of the above needs in the near future and also to coordinate with others in this regard. If you think you may be able to help, please get in touch with me.

Dr Nadim Almoshmosh
Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
[email protected]

On the road again

The topic of road behaviour spreads itself over many journals, so it’s good to see it reviewed in a general forum such as The Psychologist (‘Psychology on the road’ special issue, September 2012). A first comment for those seeking more material: the BPS has produced consultation documents for DfT, NICE and the governments of Northern Ireland and Scotland (available via www.bps.org.uk/consult).

Addressing the present reviews, Spence’s thesis on exploiting non-visual modalities is interesting, but – as he acknowledges – there are caveats. Detecting potential collision exploits visual expansion of the viewed object, or looming. There is strong evidence of hard-wired processing: movement after-effects towards the observer are stronger than movement after-effects away from the observer. An analogous asymmetry applies to the auditory modality: growing-louder after-effects are stronger than growing-softer after-effects. However, there is a complication. In vision, most objects are rigid; objects varying in size – for example, inflating balloons – are unusual. In audition, such assumptions are weaker. For example, many sounds are percussive: their sound levels steadily reduce (Reinhardt-Rutland, 2004).

Spence invokes risk-homeostasis, a concept applied notably to the incomplete effectiveness of seat-belts. Unfortunately, the concept is arguably descriptive rather than explanatory, allowing many commentators to ignore potential disadvantages of safety-related technologies. However, I have offered an explanation referring to the empirically robust concepts of looming and negative reinforcement (Reinhardt-Rutland, 2001).

Gatersleben and Murtagh’s exploration of walking and cycling presses many buttons. However, segregated facilities for walking, cycling and motoring are often inadequate – as neatly illustrated in the cover photo of September’s Psychologist. Pedestrians and cyclists do not coexist comfortably because of their respective speeds, so they need better separation than illustrated; also, note the relatively high density of motor vehicles. Related problems include motorists illegally parking on pavements and ignoring rights of way at road junctions.

Many feel ambivalent about forgoing driving, particularly if life styles seem to demand it and safety apparently improves – at least for drivers and their passengers. Walking and cycling, in conjunction with better public transport, should be better accommodated. The example of the Netherlands well illustrates what can be achieved.

Tony Reinhardt-Rutland
University of Ulster

Reinhardt-Rutland, A.H. (2001). Seat-belts and behavioural adaptation: The loss of looming as a negative reinforcer. Safety Science, 39, 145–155.
Reinhardt-Rutland, A.H.(2004). Perceptual asymmetries associated with changing-loudness aftereffects. Perception and Psychophysics, 66, 963–969.

As someone who is fascinated with the application of cognitive psychology in driving behaviour, I was delighted to read the articles on traffic and transport psychology and took interest in many of the issues raised. Of particular notice was the ‘vulnerable road users’ interview with Ian Walker.

During the interview, Walker identified that one of the main problems faced by road users is that they do not understand the needs and behaviours of cyclists and suggested that ‘compulsory cycling as part of driver training would be an ideal solution’. But what implication does this have for motorcyclists?

As recently found, drivers with dual driving experience (car and motorcycle) elicit the safest responses at junctions, especially when a motorcycle is present, compared with novice and experienced drivers without dual driving experience (Crundall, 2012). This would fit with Walker’s ‘red van theory’; most were post office vans and so the drivers had previous experience of cycling in the job and understood the needs of cyclists better.

If the same red van theory applies to motorcyclists, does this mean that processes for identifying a cyclist are also responsible for identifying and responding to a motorcyclist? Whilst cycling as part of driver training may be a practical solution, it is not suitable for addressing the problem of motorcycle accidents.

As Walker noted, the ‘looked but failed to see’ phenomenon is underresearched within traffic psychology, but this type of error is actually responsible for 69–80 per cent of intersection accidents (Cairney & Catchpole, 1995). As suggested, the wider audience may struggle to ‘let go of the idea that high-visibility clothing is always the best thing’ but why is this so? Langham et al. (2002) analysed collisions involving stationary police vehicles, which are highly salient by nature, and found that the collision cause involved factors such as ‘vigilance failure’ or the driver possessing a ‘false hypothesis’
about the road ahead rather than difficulty seeing the vehicle.

Interestingly, tests indicated participants were quicker to respond to the police car hazard when it was parked at an angle as opposed to
in the direction of surrounding traffic.

So knowing that ‘looked but failed to see’ errors are responsible for a large percentage of intersection accidents and that motorcyclists are particularly vulnerable to collisions where other road users’ fail to give way (Crundall, 2012), where should the focus in this area of research lie? We already know that visual search patterns change with age and amount of driving experience (Chapman & Underwood, 1998), and it has since been identified that ‘looked but failed to see’ accidents often involve older drivers who have the benefit of driving experience (Clarke et al., 2007). So why are they unable to detect and respond to the approaching motorcycle? Is it time to more thoroughly assess evidence for an oculomotor basis to these errors? And how much is it our responsibility as psychologists to guide the public away from the ‘high visibility’ answer for everything and towards road safety campaigns that are based in accurate theory and research?

Natalie Holloway
Clinical Psychology Department
Autism Care UK

Cairney, P. & Catchpole, J. (1995). Patterns of perceptual failure at intersections of arterial roads and local streets. In A.G. Gale (Ed.) Vision in vehicles, VI. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.
Chapman, P.R. & Underwood, G. (1998). Visual search of driving situations: Danger and experience. Perception, 27, 951–964.
Clarke, D., Ward, P., Bartle, C. & Truman, W. (2007). The role of motorcyclist and other driver behaviour in two types of serious accident in the UK. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 39(5), 974–981.
Crundall, D., Crundall, E., Clarke, D. & Shahar, A. (2012). Why do car drivers fail to give way to motorcycles at T-J=junctions? Accident Analysis and Prevention, 44(1), 88–96.
Langham, M., Hole, G., Edwards, J. & O’Neil, C. (2002) An analysis of ‘looked but failed to see’ accidents involving parked police vehicles. Ergonomics, 45(3), 167–185.

I was fascinated to read the special issue on traffic and transport (September 2012). It has given me a wonderful excuse to write you a letter from giddy heights of the moral high ground. That said, I felt Birgitta Gatersleben’s absorbing article on the psychology of sustainable transport did not fully capture my experience of doing without a car.

Five years ago we decided to sell our family’s seven-seater people carrier. I’m afraid the stages of change model she cites just doesn’t reflect the enormous leap of faith that this decision entailed. The idea that I would no longer have a car outside my front door, to satisfy any whim I might have to drive off in it, seemed ludicrous and entirely impractical in view of the fact that our three children were still quite young (10 to 15). Besides, I had grown up in a culture where owning a car was a social expectation of adulthood; I felt rather entitled to this level of personal freedom. Yes, what seemed at stake was the potential freedom it represented, just sitting there on my drive.

But my wife had stronger convictions and believed that doing without a car could work for us, though of course neither of us have any illusions that this could work for everyone. We are fortunate to live within a couple of miles of Bristol’s city centre and we have good shops within a walkable distance. Each of us has a bike to get around the city, get to work, see friends, etc. Like many other cities in the UK, Bristol has good coverage of ‘shared cars’ provided by schemes such as City Car Club, whose cars and vans we regularly use. If you are a member, these cars can be booked by the half-hour (currently £2.85 plus petrol at 23p a mile), either online or within the car itself. Members can use cars in other cities too! So, if I do need a car I simply book it online, hop on my bike and can be driving away within 10 minutes. If we need a car overnight it’s cheaper to rent one from a car rental firm.

All this may sound like a big hassle compared with owning your own car but it was astonishing how quickly we got used to using other means of transport. And listen to the advantages.

For the first few years I rather obsessively kept records of how much
we were spending on buses, City Car Club cars, bike maintenance, car rental, taxis, etc. to see how it compared with our previous costs of owning a car. I calculated that were saving at least £1500 per year, funds we’ve been able to put to more interesting use. No longer were we wasting money through car depreciation, road tax, car insurance, maintenance and MOTs. What’s almost as good is that we no longer even have to waste time on these things. Am I having a smugfest? Well maybe, but look, I don’t even have to wash the damn thing. The tyranny of car ownership is all but invisible until you take the leap.
Clearly, the way things are, not everyone can manage their lives without actually owning a car but I would venture that many more could. It’s just that most folk don’t even consider it. As Gatersleben rightly says, car ownership is a habit and an idea that is rarely questioned. Moreover, Daniel Kahneman (2011) has eloquently shown that (1) the irrational choices humans make are partly due to the cognitive filter What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is; and (2) only conscious, analytic reasoning can override such easy automatic ‘emotional’ decision making, but it is often not deployed because it requires effort and is taxing. Changing the habits of a lifetime requires some serious ‘contemplation’ before people are ‘ready for action’, but if policy makers wish to encourage citizens to take a leap of faith and do without their own private car, they surely need to narrow the gap by helping people see the advantages more clearly.

Dr James Brennan                                                                    University of Bristol

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.

Road transport has shaped much of modern life enabling people to move around relatively cheaply; however, it has also posed us many difficult issues, including the design of our roads, infrastructure and the way we use and abuse motor vehicles.

My interest in this topic is rather different. I have over the past few years been working with victims of road crashes and other road vehicle incidents where people have been injured or killed. What is particularly painful for this group of victims is the lack of importance given to those killed on the road as opposed to those killed in other disasters. It is difficult for those of us who have not experienced this lack of compassion or discounting of the life of a loved one to respond adequately to the needs of those people who are distressed and bewildered by the situation in which they find themselves. What is vital for the recovery of all victims of road crashes is the knowledge that the lives and well-being of the victims is important and that, wherever possible, lessons are learned which make road crashes less likely.

Over the past four years I have been working with the charity RoadPeace (http://roadpeace.org.uk) to provide resilience-building groups for bereaved families of road crash victims. This programme, which was launched in London, is being rolled out across the country. The groups have adopted a trauma-focused CBT approach (Smith
et al., 1999) with each participant being given a workbook which is used during the sessions and to help them with undertake homework. The results of the groups have been very positive, with reductions in symptoms of traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. Last year the Ministry of Justice took the decision to fund the programme for two years.

Dr Noreen Tehrani

Smith, P. Dyregrov, A. & Yule, W. et al. (1999). Children and disasters. Bergen: Children & War Foundation.


Losing interest in ergonomics?

I was delighted to read ‘On the right track’ (October 2012) describing Suzanne Heape’s career path within ergonomics and human factors. For a long time I have been concerned that the British Psychological Society is turning its back on an important area of psychology. I should declare an interest. Although  I will always consider myself a psychologist – and CPsychol appears on my business card – my profession is ergonomics.

The article may have done a disservice both to Suzanne and to ergonomics – it’s not just ‘blue-collar’, nor would I see the obvious point of contact as being HR. Ergonomics is a scientific discipline in its own right, but one that draws on many strands of psychology (as well as other disciplines, such as engineering, anatomy, physiology and organisational sciences) to optimise the role of people within systems – people are part of the system rather than simply interacting with it and hence ergonomics addresses the entire socio-technical system.

My own experience is mainly in the high-hazard industries, but ergonomics is concerned with far more than production lines, engineering and IT. It addresses both performance and well-being, and is equally relevant to such diverse topics as the design of nuclear power plant, the development of decision-support tools for crisis management, reducing errors in health care, and addressing the needs of an ageing population.

Currently the BPS position, particularly with respect to chartership, appears to disenfranchise many ergonomists with strong psychology backgrounds. Some of my staff have discontinued their pursuit of chartership simply because the BPS model appears not to recognise the role of psychology within their work. I am also aware of a number of BPS members who have chosen to leave the Society for what appear to be similar reasons. Whilst that may be fortunate, indirectly, for the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, I believe it diminishes the BPS. The aspects of psychology that are embedded in ergonomics should be recognised, as should the converse. For example, the letter from Professor Berger concerning healthcare informatics (July 2012) appears to focus primarily on the impact on delivery of psychological services rather than also considering the impact of new technology on the wider socio-technical system and the safe and effective delivery of other healthcare services.

Am I alone in thinking that the Society is losing interest in many aspects of the discipline that previously lay somewhere in the occupational/applied/ industrial context? And am I also alone in thinking that this would be a retrograde step if it were true?

Jonathan Berman
Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors


Reflections on case formulation

It was great to read Ira Turkat’s letter on case formulation (October 2012), with his reflection that this is a core skill of our profession but also in many other fields; to gather available information to explain and understand a problem for the purpose of solving it.

From my own observations, I think these skills are especially relevant to our colleagues in the nursing profession. My current work in a psychiatric hospital on an acute adolescent inpatient ward has led me to believe this. On a ward like this, the amount of contact with patients is by far mostly done by health care assistants (HCAs), then by registered mental nurses (RMNs), then by psychologists and other therapy staff, and then medical staff. Generally the more years you’ve spent in formal education and training, the less time you tend to get to spend with your clients.

Although this is a pragmatic approach, it makes sense to me that the staff who spend the most time with our clients should also have training at least in basic formulation skills (as well as therapeutic skills), given they are by far the best placed people to implement well-timed interventions during the day-to-day lives of our clients.

Acute adolescent inpatients are experiencing changes not only as part of their normal development, but also being in part of a group on a ward that is changing on a day-to-day basis, with people being admitted, transferred or discharged. And most of them are also experiencing some level of family conflict, not to mention the severe mental illness and risk of suicide or serious self-harm that led to their admission. These constantly changing ward dynamics affect our clients’ responsivity to our weekly treatment plans. In a nutshell it’s difficult to keep up.

A weekly treatment plan can quickly become obsolete due to a change on the ward (often a new client) that changes ward dynamics, and the timing of interventions is crucial! Our nursing colleagues (both RMNs and HCAs) in this setting are much better placed to implement interventions quickly and at the right time especially in informal settings that can support the work we do in individual and group sessions. They are also well placed to advise us, given they are better able to provide more well-rounded observations of our clients as they are with them in both formal and informal settings and can see differences in presentation; they are the ones who regularly wake them in the morning, get them organised for groups, observe them and interact with them during free time, eat meals with them, through to sending them to bed at night. They are with them when family and friends visit, they are the ones who are more available when the young person has had a bad ward round or bad telephone call with their parents.

With this is mind, it makes sense that being equipped with formulation skills, to have an ongoing understanding of the important issues affecting our clients’ mental health would be advantageous to our nursing colleagues, as well as the rest of the ward multidisciplinary team who oversee our clients’ care. After discussion with my clinical psychologist colleague on our ward, we will be taking our frequent case discussions and group supervision sessions with our nursing (HCA and RMN) colleagues to the next level

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