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Developing interest

Sinéad Rhodes on recent responses to a Society Section conference

The British Psychological Society’s Developmental Section conference recently took place in my place of work, the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and I was the organiser. One of the interesting and rewarding aspects of the role was seeing the significant media interest received by a number of the presentations. To our surprise this interest went beyond the UK; there was a lot of coverage of press-released abstracts across Europe, especially Germany for some unknown reason! In total five abstracts were press released from the conference abstracts; three of these, in particular, seemed to hit the media sweet spot. Importantly, each of these studies and associated press coverage also highlight the importance of presenting research to the public in a number of different ways.

The first study, which examined the impact of texting on children’s grammar, highlights the importance of addressing popular underresearched concerns with scientific data. The interest in the second study, which examined the factors that help prevent the development of criminality, shows that the media appreciate research that picks apart established relationships accepted by the population at large. The third study, which examined humour in infants, shows how an area that may seem trivial to research can offer important insights into psychological development.

Addressing popular concerns 
Professor Clare Wood, from the University of Coventry, was the lead researcher on a longitudinal study that examined the impact of texting on children’s grammar. The study assessed 83 primary schoolchildren and 78 secondary schoolchildren on two occasions, a year apart, to see if texting affected grammar over time. Professor Wood highlighted the concern commonly expressed in the media and beyond about the influence of children’s texting on their grammar development. As she noted, these concerns have not up to now been examined in an empirical way. This longitudinal study found no evidence of a link between poor grammar when texting and the actual grammatical understanding of children in the UK. The study attracted a broad range of media interest including an article in  the Telegraph and the Irish Independent, in addition to numerous health websites.

Examining protective factors
Professor David Farrington and Dr Maria Ttofi were the lead researchers on a study that examined protective factors against criminality. This longitudinal study followed 411 London boys from the age of 8 until they were 48 years of age. Information was collected via face-to-face interviews with the boys and their parents (ages 8–14), peer ratings (ages 8 and 10) and teacher ratings (ages 8–14). Ninety-three per cent of the participants were interviewed again at 48 years of age. Dr Ttofi said: ‘We also checked if they had received any criminal and violent convictions from the age of 15–50 inclusive’.

The results showed that 18 per cent of those identified as bullies at age 14 had been convicted for a violent offence and 39 per cent for a criminal offence. Dr Ttofi explained: ‘An interesting aspect of the findings was the contrast between bullies with high and low IQs. Those with a high IQ were less likely to be convicted of a violent criminal offence (5 per cent) compared to those with low IQs (26 per cent). We also found that those who came from a small family, with a good income and attending a good school, were much less likely to go on to commit crimes. Another interesting finding was that factors that appeared to prevent these boys going on to violent offending tended to be related to the individual (e.g. IQ) whilst factors that appeared to prevent criminal offending tended to be family and social factors. The main implication of this is that different types of interventions may be differentially effective in interrupting the path from school bullying to later crime or violence.’

This study is an important example of the need for researchers to get their research ‘out there’ and engage the public with their findings. Studies like this demonstrate that simple accepted relationships – such as that between early bullying and later criminality – are more complex, with the potential to identify ways in which pathways to criminality can be changed. The study received significant press interest including a feature on

A potentially ‘frivolous topic’
A study by US researchers Gina Mireault (Johnson State College) and John Sparrow (University of New Hampshire), which demonstrated that babies learn humour from their parents, also attracted significant media interest. As the researchers point out, at first glance, humour might seem like a frivolous topic to examine. The findings show, however, that the study of this behaviour provides insights into more complex aspects of social development.

This study involved recording the reactions of 30 infants while they watched normal and absurd events. Infants watched their parent react naturally to two ordinary events, looking at a picture book and being shown a small red foam ball. The events were then changed so that they became absurd: The open picture book was bounced on the researcher’s head while she said, ‘Zoop, Zoop’ and the foam ball was placed on the researcher’s nose while she poked it and said, ‘Beep, Beep’. Parents were instructed to either stare at the researcher with an expressionless face or to point and laugh at her.

The study found that, although six-month-old infants stared longer at the absurd events, showing that these were unfamiliar to them, their reactions to the events did not depend on their parents’ reactions. However, infants watched their parents closely when they laughed. The combination of paying close attention to absurd events and to others laughing at those events might explain how infants develop the sophisticated sense of humour they possess at 12 months, the researchers said. According to the lead researcher, Gina Mireault, the study shows that six-month-old infants pay attention to ‘unsolicited emotional advice’ from parents during ambiguous situations that might be funny. This study shows that aspects of behaviour such as humour can provide a lens through which social behaviours are examined, and that media outlets may respond to this route in to a complex topic.  


Never mind the neurobollocks

‘An intellectual pestilence is upon us.’ So began Steven Poole’s recent piece for New Statesman (see The form of this plague? ‘Neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash’. According to Poole, ‘the dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer’.

Poole bemoans the proliferation of ‘neural’ explanations that have ‘become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena’. Simply add the prefix ‘neuro’ to whatever you are talking about. Hey presto, ‘neuromagic’, ‘neuroeconomics’, ‘neurogastronomy’, ‘neuropolitics’…

Taking aim at a wide range of psychologists and non-psychologists, with varying degrees of ire, Poole questions whether such books are just self-help in new clothes. Interestingly, he suggests that their recommendations boil down to a kind of neo-Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice.

‘In a self-congratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.’

Poole talks to some experts to add weight to his argument. Professor Paul Fletcher, from the University of Cambridge, says that he gets ‘exasperated’ by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that ‘activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.’ Too often, he tells Poole, a popular writer will ‘opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve’.

As Poole acknowledges in passing, this idea is not new. The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as ‘medical materialism’ by the psychologist William James a century ago. What Poole doesn’t acknowledge is that several psychologists and bloggers have railed against ‘neurobollocks’ for years, for example ‘Sandra K’ at the Neurofuture blog (, Tom Stafford at Mind Hacks ( and more. ‘The Neurocritic’ picked up on this (see, concluding: ‘There’s always room for snarky new neurocriticism, Mr. Poole, but please realise that simplified pop visions of oxytocin and dopamine and mirror neurons have been under siege for years.’

For me, though, the most important lesson of Poole’s piece was perhaps unintended. Here’s his recipe for writing a hit popular brain book:

‘You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the ‘story-study-lesson’ model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell.’
Now I’m not suggesting  that all dissemination of psychology should follow the ‘story-study-lesson’ model slavishly, but I would say that we’d all be better educated if more of it did! As Poole’s piece descended into a series of pops at easy targets such as Jonah Lehrer and NLP, I couldn’t help feeling that we were in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, we need to be wary of the seductive allure of neuroscience, as psychologists themselves have warned for several years (for example, see
But perhaps we all have something to learn from the success of the ‘story-study-lesson’ model. And as for concerns over the colonisation of the entire human map by brain research: who decides what questions psychology and neuroscience were ‘designed to answer’? Surely the beauty of our discipline is that pretty much anything and everything is up for grabs, and there are always new stories to be spun.

- Jon Sutton

Prime cuts

There’s a phobia about holes – psychologists are looking into it
Reparative therapies ‘relegated to the dustbin of quackery’
Growing up in Broadmoor
The drugs don’t work: a ‘secretive and shameful situation’
Let’s use evolution to turn us green, says psychologist
‘There were no ethical approval boards at that time’ – the psychology of driving blind on a public highway
The political psychology of self-immolation
Replication can’t cure a flawed methodology
Joke boffins analyse tragedy humour
Would you discriminate against a psychologist who displayed clear conservative views in a paper or grant proposal?
Revisiting Robbers Cave 

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