in pursuit of awe; abuse definition; liberal bias; Kahneman warning; fanaticism debate; Developmental Section conference; and more

In pursuit of awe

For a few eerie minutes on Wednesday14 November local time, just after sunrise, people living in Northern Australia will be shrouded in darkness as the Moon falls into perfect alignment with the Sun ( One person who will be returning to her homeland to witness this total eclipse is the Chartered Psychologist Kate Russo, of Queens University Belfast.

Since 1999, when she experienced her first total eclipse, Russo has become hooked. Like other ‘eclipse chasers’, Russo travels the world in search of these darkest of shadows. November’s experience will be her eighth total eclipse.

By day, Russo helps people with chronic health conditions find meaning in their lives. She also co-directs a doctoral training programme in clinical psychology, where she is an expert in phenomenological research. Recently she’s applied these professional skills to her hobby, in search of an answer to why total eclipses have such a profound effect on some people, to the extent that they’ll navigate the globe repeatedly in pursuit of the next eclipse event.

In her new book Total Addiction, The Life of an Eclipse Chaser (Springer, 2012), Russo reports the results of the in-depth phenomenological interviews she’s conducted with nine eclipse chasers, including the amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. The others are categorised as ‘enterprising chasers’, ‘introspective chasers’ and ‘occasional chasers’.

‘The experience of totality can be described as a “mystical experience with a kick”,’ says Russo. ‘There is an eerie atmosphere in the lead-up to totality. We feel SPACED – a Sense of wrongness, Primal fear, Awe, Connection, Euphoria, and a Desire to repeat. These emotions are intense, and appear to happen in a way that affects us on a very physical level – people are often overwhelmed and unprepared for such a strong reaction. The beauty of the total eclipse itself is then revealed, leaving us in complete awe as we see the elusive corona for those few magical moments.’

The corona is an extremely high temperature atmospheric halo around the Sun. Normally it’s invisible, but during a total eclipse the ghostly rays can be seen extending outwards into space. The total eclipse itself occurs every 18 months or so, when a privileged slice of the earth’s surface is darkened by the Moon’s apparent identical diameter completely obscuring the view of the Sun.

Coincidentally, a study is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science that explores one aspect of the eclipse experience – the effect of awe on people’s time perception. Researchers at the Universities of Stanford and Minnesota, led by Melanie Rudd, used a variety of devices to induce awe in some of their participants, including having them watch a video about astronauts in space, or describing a real-life awe experience of their own. Compared with participants who were induced to feel happy, those who experienced awe felt like they had more time, showed less impatience and were more willing to volunteer their time. They also experienced a brief boost to their life satisfaction. ‘These results…underscore the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life,’ the researchers said.

Watching a total eclipse is one way to find awe, with many people feeling personally changed by the event. ‘There is a recognition that the experience is significant, although it is difficult to make sense of, and difficult to communicate to others,’ says Russo. ‘We feel we are at the edge of our language abilities. We come to understand that this cannot be a one-off event. We are hooked. Another eclipse chaser is born.’
- Christian Jarrett
I     See for a chance to win a copy of Russo’s book 

Abuse definition widens

The Home Office has announced that it’s widening the cross-government definition of domestic violence, to take into account psychological factors, and to include young people aged 16 and 17, who were previously excluded.

The new definition of ‘domestic violence and abuse’, coming into effect from March next year, now includes: ‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional.’

The change comes after a consultation of local authorities and voluntary sector support groups on whether the definition used by government departments should be widened. Although the definition is not statutory, it’s hoped it will help raise awareness of abuse within relationships, and make it easier for victims to seek help. The age range to which the definition applies has been lowered based on evidence that the experiences of many older teens are more akin to the domestic abuse suffered by adult victims, than to child abuse per se. 

In related news, the Centre for Social Justice has published a new report Beyond Violence: Breaking Cycles of Domestic Abuse, co-authored by Chartered Psychologist Elly Farmer (NSPCC) and Samantha Callan (download a copy at Among their many recommendations, Farmer and Callan suggest introducing into the curriculum a module for adolescents on how to ‘build equal and non-abusive relationships’, and offering early help to children living in a household with domestic abuse, even if no mental health symptoms are yet apparent.
- Christian Jarrett


Men aged between 30 and 50, particularly those from poorer economic backgrounds, are the demographic most likely to die by suicide in the UK, according to a new report published by The Samaritans – Men, Suicide and Society, Why Disadvantaged Men In Mid-life Die By Suicide (PDF:

With contributions from the Chartered Psychologist Professor Rory O’Connor and doctoral psychology student Olivia Kirtley (both at Stirling Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory), the Samaritans’ report argues that middle-aged men from working-class backgrounds are at particular risk in part because of a range of sociocultural factors, including their beliefs about masculinity, the loss of traditionally male industries, and a lack of social support, especially after relationship break-up. Statistics show that about 3000 middle-aged men on average take their own lives each year, with men from poorer backgrounds at 10 times the risk compared with men from more affluent backgrounds.
Among the report’s recommendations is the need for prevention strategies to take account of men’s views of what it means to be ‘a man’. ‘Men compare themselves against a masculine “gold standard” which prizes power, control and invincibility. When men believe they are not meeting this standard, they feel a sense of shame and defeat,’ the report says.

In related news, the UK government launched its new suicide-prevention strategy for England in September, backed by the Samaritans, with up to £1.5 million being made available for new research (research applications are invited: The strategy identifies six key areas for action, including more support for vulnerable groups, and more advice and support for those left bereaved by suicide.

Wiley Prize nominations sought
The British Academy is calling for nominations for the Wiley Prize in Psychology. This annual prize, made in partnership with Wiley-Blackwell, provides an award of £5000 in recognition of excellence in research in psychology. Past winners are Professor Dr Michael Tomasello, Dr Essi Viding and Dr Martin Seligman.

In 2013 the award will be for lifetime achievement by an international scholar. The award winners will be announced at the British Academy’s AGM in July 2013.

Funny and thought-provoking
Imagine, after reading this news article, you were to make an estimate of its word length.

A lean to the left while you made your guess and it’s likely you’d predict a lower number than if you leaned to the right.

That’s based on the results from a study that’s just won the psychology prize in this year’s Ig Nobel awards, for research that makes you laugh, then think. The winning paper, published in Psychological Science by Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe, involved participants standing on a Wii Balance Board and making numerical estimates, such as the height of the Eiffel tower or the number of hits Michael Jackson scored in the Netherlands (

Participants standing on a board that, unbeknown to them was slightly left-leaning, estimated the Eiffel Tower to be 12m shorter, on average, than participants leaning to the right. Eerland and her colleagues think the effect happens because leaning to the left makes smaller numbers on the left-hand end of the mental number line easier to access.

Eerland’s team received their award at the 22nd annual Ig Nobel ceremony held at Harvard University in September. The neuroscience prize went to a team led by Craig Bennett who exposed the perils of poor brain-imaging analysis by revealing evidence of brain activity in a dead salmon ( A book about the Ig Nobel movement – This is Improbable – was published by One World in September.
- CJ

To sleep, perchance to learn

For years, quack educational tapes have made false promises about our ability to learn their detailed material while we sleep. Such productive use of time spent in slumber remains little more than a dream. But a research team led by Anat Arzi at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has provided the first demonstration of entirely new information being learned by humans during sleep (Nature Neuroscience:

Without waking them, the researchers exposed dozens of participants to pleasant (deodorant or shampoo) or unpleasant (rotten fish or carrion) odours while they slept. The pleasant smells provoked deeper sniffs from the dozing volunteers. The smells were then paired with distinct auditory tones. Later in the night, the tones were presented alone and the still-sleeping participants showed signs that they had learned the smell–sound associations. That is, they sniffed more deeply to tones previously paired with a pleasant smell. Moreover, the learned associations were in evidence in the morning. After the participants had woken, they still sniffed more deeply to the tones paired with pleasant smells. This was despite the fact they had no memory of the smells or tones from the night before.

A notable detail was that although the learning of tone–smell pairings took place during both REM and non-REM sleep, only learning during non-REM sleep persisted into wakefulness the next day.

‘Our results reveal learning of novel information during natural human sleep and implementation of this new learning in sleep and ensuing wake,’ the researchers concluded. ‘This implies that…humans may be able to utilize toward learning new information, a state in which they spend about a third of their lives.’
- CJ

Stroke guidelines

New guidelines for the commissioning, organisation and delivery of stroke care have been published.

The National Clinical Stroke Guideline was launched at a joint British Association of Stroke Physicians and Royal College of Physicians event in September. Promising the most comprehensive coverage
of stroke care to date, the document recommends commissioning stroke services across the whole pathway and integrating services.
It includes updated sections for rehabilitation, longer-term care after a stroke, and secondary prevention, as well as profession-specific concise guides for psychologists, nurses, dietitians and other professions. New features include a section on public awareness of stroke, and the incorporation of the stepped-care model for psychological care after stroke.

Dr Audrey Bowen (University of Manchester) and Dr Peter Knapp (University of York), represented the British Psychological Society on the Royal College of Physicians Intercollegiate Stroke Working Party. Dr Bowen told us: ‘We led a subgroup of psychologists who appraised the evidence and drafted the guidelines related to the psychological impact of stroke. The psychological impact of stroke is rightly emphasised in these guidelines. There is a clear message that promoting well-being is not just for psychologists, and the newly recommended stepped approach encourages developing levels of skill within multidisciplinary team members.’
- JS

For further information see The guidelines will be free to download from December.

Liberal bias in social psychology

When US morality researcher Jonathan Haidt asked the 1000-strong audience at a social and personality psychology conference last year if there were any conservatives in the room, only three people raised their hands. It was a crude test of liberal bias in the discipline, but now a survey by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands has provided more compelling evidence (Perspectives on Psychological Science; Their findings expose an irony. It appears a discipline that’s often focused on the topic of prejudice and how to reduce it, is itself guilty of discrimination.

Inbar and Lammers surveyed 1939 members of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Of the just over 500 who answered, 4 per cent admitted being conservative in relation to social issues; 18 per cent were economic conservatives;  and 10 per cent were conservative on foreign policy matters. Six per cent described themselves as conservative ‘overall’. For comparison, a Gallup poll in 2010 found 42 per cent of Americans describing themselves as either very conservative or conservative.

Although the sample were overwhelmingly liberal, most respondents overestimated the prevalence of liberal views among their peers. This may be because many social psychologists keep their conservative beliefs hidden. In a follow-up survey, the more conservative a psychologist, the more likely they were to report experiencing a hostile climate in the profession. And no wonder – one third of the sample as a whole said they’d be inclined to discriminate against conservatives when making hiring decisions; one quarter said the same in relation to grant applications.

Does it matter? One possible consequence of the liberal bias is the skewing of topics chosen for research and the silencing of conservative issues. ‘Even those who fundamentally disagree with conservatism will agree that silencing political opponents will not convert them,’ Inbar and Lammers concluded. ‘By excluding those who disagree with (most of) us politically, we treat them unfairly, do ourselves a disservice, and ultimately damage the scientific credibility of our field.’

The new results attracted a mixed response in several invited commentaries. Among these, Linda Skitka at the University of Illinois criticised the survey methodology, including ‘a focus on hypothesis confirmation instead of hypothesis testing’. Deborah Prentice of Princeton University said the findings merely reflect the predominance of liberal views in academia more generally. Others were more supportive. Richard Redding of Chapman University said ‘the discrimination must be overcome because sociopolitical diversity is vital for scholarly inquiry, pedagogy, and for ethical professional practice’. cj

Thomas Szasz
Thomas Szasz has died aged 92. The world’s foremost critic of psychiatry, Szasz believed that mental illness was a myth used to control people who were inconvenient to wider society. Hungarian by birth, he spent much of his career as professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, retiring in 1990. He wrote 35 books and hundreds of articles during his career, including the seminal The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, published in 1961.

In 2010, The Psychologist published a ‘Looking back’ article on Szasz’s life and continuing influence, by Ron Roberts: see cj

Book Prize
The Paradoxical Brain (Cambridge University Press, 2011), edited by Narinder Kapur and others, has won the runners-up prize in the annual book awards of the American Medical Writers Association.

New ATSP President
BPS member Peter Beaman, from the School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences at Loughborough University, has been elected President of the Association of Technical Staff in Psychology.

The board of directors at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa has placed the celebrated primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on ‘administrative leave’, whilst it conducts an internal welfare investigation. The audit was triggered by accusations from former staff and others that the mental state of Savage-Rumbaugh, the centre’s director, was posing a threat to the resident bonobos’ well-being. Savage-Rumbaugh is known for her pioneering research demonstrating the remarkable language skills of the male bonobo Kanzi, and last year she was named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She denies the apes are in danger.

‘Incorrect or over-stated’                                                                     In 2010, we reported on an astonishing series of studies by the respected psychologist Daryl Bem that appeared to show classic psychological phenomena working backwards in time. For example, memory performance was superior for words that the participants went on to practise afterwards – a kind of reverse learning effect whereby your memory is improved now based on study you do later (see report from the Society’s Research Digest at Now Jeff Galak and colleagues have performed their own replication attempt and a meta-analysis of 10 other attempted replications, failing to turn up any evidence of what’s been dubbed ‘retroactive facilitation of recall’ (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: The journal’s editor, Eliot Smith, said: ‘It seems that the normal practices of scientific research and journal publication can effectively correct claims that turn out to be incorrect or overstated.’

Fanaticism – a form of madness?

Earlier this year, Anders Behring Breivik – the killer of 77 people in Norway in the summer of 2011 – was declared sane in court and sentenced to 21 years in jail. It had been an unusual case, with Breivik and his team pushing for a declaration of sanity, whilst the prosecution hoped for him to be found insane, therefore ensuring his imprisonment for life.

Before the official court verdict, the question of Breivik’s sanity was tackled at the 45th Maudsley Debate, held at the Institute of Psychiatry in July. The first proposer for the motion – ‘Insane? Cases such as Anders Breivik demonstrate that fanaticism is a form of madness’ – was the consultant psychiatrist in private practice and former TV regular Dr Raj Persaud.

Persaud labelled Breivik a ‘lone wolf’ killer and compared him to other similar mass murderers with a known history of mental problems, including the ‘London nail bomber’ David Copeland. Whereas many ruthlessly violent people through history (for example, the soldiers who perpetrated the Nanking massacre) have overcome their natural inhibition towards violence through group processes and fear and propaganda, Persaud argued that killers like Breivik and Copeland are isolated and find their motivation through their own dysfunctional thought processes.

Persaud also saw a contradiction in Breivik’s claiming sanity whilst simultaneously insisting on the existence of a (fictional) ‘Knights Templar’ group. For Persaud, if the roots of these kinds of atrocity lie back in people’s pasts, in psychological disorder and poor emotional literacy, then an appropriate memorial to those who died last year would be ‘if we could improve mental health services, and improve emotional literacy in society’ and thereby prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Seconding the motion was Professor Max Taylor, a psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University. Taylor said he’d been reluctant to support the motion at first, but then decided to think of the issue backwards from the end point of wishing to protect the public. Viewed this way, he said Breivik was ‘different’ from most other terrorists and violent offenders. In fact, Taylor said he considers Breivik to be evil and, whilst he would be in favour of execution, he realises that’s not possible, and so the best way to ‘dispose’ of Breivik is for him to be placed in a secure hospital where he could potentially be changed, and would be unable to inspire other prisoners. Another thing, Taylor added, is that by labelling Breivik as disturbed and mentally ill we make it more difficult for other fanatics to ‘carry his flag.’

The motion was opposed by Professor Simon Wessely, Director of the King's Centre for Military Health Research, and Maajid Nawaz, Chairman of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam. Wessely said that the shocking scale of Breivik’s crime left people incredulous and labelling him as mad was their way to make sense of his actions. But according to the two key tests – having intact reason and knowing that his actions would be considered wrong by others – Wessely said that Breivik was clearly sane. Pointing to his meticulous planning, Wessely added ‘there cannot be any scintilla of doubt… that he knew exactly what he was doing’. And contrary to the arguments that Breivik was isolated and irrational, Wessely argued further that there are others who share Breivik’s extreme views, and that Breivik had spelled out a justification for his actions, which whilst abhorrent, betrayed a rational mind (for instance, he said he’d killed the children of the political elite because they were already supporting and furthering the multicultural agenda).

With a final flourish, Wessely quoted from a letter writer to The Guardian, who’d taken former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to task for labelling Osama Bin Laden insane. ‘Mr Bin Laden may not, by all accounts, be a pleasant man,’ wrote the correspondent, ‘but this does not render him psychotic, and to brand him thus merely stigmatises mental illness. It yet again reinforces the stereotype that bad equals mad.’ The author of the letter? Dr Raj Persaud.

Up next, Maajid Nawaz provided a different perspective. Why, when Muslims perpetrate violent acts, he asked, does no one ask if they are mad? Why was it assumed that the perpetrators of the Beslan school siege were terrorists and not lunatics? Labels are important, he argued, and the ‘insane’ label takes away responsibility.

Nawaz said that when Muslim extremists commit terrorist acts, there’s an expectation from society at large for the Muslim community to redouble their efforts to challenge extremist views within their culture. Yet when a white European man – Breivik – commits a mass killing, one that’s motivated by radical views held by other far-right, fascist Islamaphobes, immediately people reach for the insanity label. Nawaz lamented how this double-standard will undermine his and other people’s efforts to get Muslims to challenge the extremism in their own ranks. ‘If we don’t adopt a consistent approach, and rather we turn a blind eye to non-violent extremism, perhaps we are the mad people,’ he said.

Members of the audience raised concerns about the stigmatisation of mental illness, in labelling Breivik as mentally unwell. Others were worried that Professor Taylor appeared to be advocating the use of psychiatry for political ends, as a way to ‘dispose’ of inconvenient people. Another questioner wondered, if Breivik is insane, what the proposed treatment would be? No answer was forthcoming. Before the debate, 48 people voted for the motion, 127 against, and 22 abstained. By the end, support for the motion had slipped further still. cj index.aspx

Kahneman warns of ‘train wreck looming’

In the wake of the recent scandals and replication failures that have afflicted social psychology, especially in the field of social priming, the Nobel Laureate and psychology grandee Professor Daniel Kahneman, of Princeton University, has taken the unusual step of publishing an open letter to researchers in the field (a PDF is available via the Nature website:

Social priming involves exposing people to reminders of particular concepts, often below the level of conscious awareness. For example, in one highly cited study published in 1996 (PDF:, subtle exposure to words related to old age led participants to walk away from the lab more slowly (although a recent attempt to replicate this finding ended in one failure, and a demonstration that the effect only worked when researchers were themselves primed to expect the right result:
Kahneman says that he is a ‘general believer’ in social priming effects and he agrees with John Bargh, the lead investigator on the elderly priming study, that priming effects are subtle and require high-level skills to detect. But Kahneman argues that, rightly or wrongly, the field is ‘now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research,’ and that he sees a ‘train-wreck looming’ with the first victims likely to be young researchers working in the area.

To remedy the situation, Kahneman urges his colleagues in social psychology to confront the doubts by forming a ‘daisy-chain’ of five labs, with each lab attempting to replicate the findings of its neighbour. Such a project would require only 10 trips and would be relatively cheap and easy to complete, he says.

‘The main point of my letter,’ Kahneman concludes, ‘is that you should do something, and that you must do it collectively. No single individual will be able to overcome the doubts, but if you act as a group and avoid defensiveness you will be credible.’

Professor Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, for research he conducted into decision making with his long-time colleague, the late Amos Tversky (Herbert Simon is the only other psychologist to have received a Nobel prize). Kahneman’s recent book for a general audience Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, How the Mind Works and Makes Decisions has been a bestseller, shipping over 100,000 copies in this country alone. It was also named recently in the long-list for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, alongside Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, and 12 other contenders.

- CJ

See our May 2012 issue for an opinion special on the place of replication in psychology

On anonymous data

Websites like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk offer psychologists a goldmine of potential research participants sitting at their computers around the world. But against this promise of abundance and variety is a lack of control and supervision. Surely the quality of data collected anonymously over the internet must suffer? A new study by Laura Germine and her colleagues at Harvard claims not. Thousands of participants recruited anonymously via completed tasks including memory and face-recognition tests, with their data proving similar to,and just as reliable as, data collected from lab participants (Psychonomic Bulletin and Review;
However, another new study (see ‘Digest’ and, suggests that when it comes to questionnaires, anonymity may come at a price. The researchers reported that a promise of confidentiality ‘may serve to sanction half-hearted survey completion rather than freeing students up to respond with greater honesty.’ cj


The Alzheimer’s Society has the following calls open for applications. Postdoctoral Research Fellowships: fellowships for postdoctoral researchers with three to eight years postdoctoral experience. Funding of up to £220,000 over three years is available. Dissemination grants: grants of up to £30,000 are available for researchers who wish to disseminate the findings of a completed research programme or project.  The deadline for both schemes is 30 November 2012.I

The ESRC and DFID Development Frontiers Research fund has been established to support pioneering theoretical and methodological innovation that will provide a major stimulus to new and novel streams of inquiry or practice in poverty alleviation research. Interdisciplinary perspectives and research are encouraged. The closing date for applications is 29 November 2012.

The NIH National Cancer Institute is running a Provocative Questions (PQ) Initiative to stimulate research in specific areas of cancer research that are understudied, neglected, paradoxical or have been difficult to address in the past. Group A funding seeks answers to specific unsolved problems generally related to investigation of changes in behaviour and various exposure risks. A full list of the PQs in Group A is available on the website. The next Letter of Intent due date is 4 November 2012, there is a further Letter of Intent due date on 20 May 2013.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation offers Research Awards to recognise the work of researchers w

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