Never judge a piece of research by its abstract
Reflections from Kisane Prutton, a bingo-playing conference press officer
This year’s Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference proved to be a bumper year for press coverage, with, to date, well over 100 pieces in print, online, on the radio and on TV. Had my tea leaves been read in the run up to the event, they would have predicted a modestly successful outcome. So what happened and why were we so fortunate?
First, we had a tremendous conference programme; and second, the timing was spot on. The DOP Annual Conference takes place in the shadows of Christmas, in the second week of January. This year the news was pretty quiet; thankfully Kate Middleton had not appeared in any more high street frocks, Britain had not ground to a halt under an unexpected snow flurry and the global financial crisis was still the same, in crisis.
To be perfectly honest, I was less than optimistic in the months leading up to our Christmas deadline. I had started to worry when selecting papers for the conference at the DOP programming meeting in September, because I could see that quite a few submissions had not analysed their data yet. How on earth could we anticipate what was going to be newsworthy?
By November I had selected my long-list, which shrunk to a short-list by the time we took out those papers without data and those whose authors had chosen to decline the offer of presenting in poster format. It is unfortunate that people perceive posters as second-class citizens – from a newsworthy perspective we often find a good percentage of innovative material here. Perhaps next year we could call it the Pioneering Research section.
Conferring with Jonathan Calder from the BPS’s Media Centre, we agreed on five pieces of research that were likely to resonate with the public: Sandi Mann’s poster: ‘A Mars a day keeps the boredom away’, Gail Kinman’s interactive paper: ‘Work-linked couples and work–life balance’, Rob Bailey’s poster: ‘Will you look at my CV, or my pictures on Facebook?’, Rich Balding’s poster: ‘The relationship between smart phone use in the workplace and stress levels’ and Cristina Quinones-Garcia’s short paper: ‘The emotional effects of service with a smile’.
The next four weeks were hectic – drafting the media releases, ensuring the authors and their press offices were happy, plus fitting in my day job, attending to family and preparing for Christmas.
It was on one of my increasingly regular trips to Santa’s food grotto that my phone rang. It was Geoff Trickey. Geoff had submitted a paper to the conference and had it accepted, but he was surprised that it had not been selected for media coverage. ‘Understanding the link between personality and risk tolerance’ had caught my eye back in September... Nick Leeson, bankers, bonuses, all the usual clichés sprung to mind. 45 minutes later, from the cramped, shopping-bag-filled cockpit of my Mini, we found it – the sweet spot. Geoff’s research suggested that women make better leaders than men during economic crises due to their risk-averse personalities. ‘Bingo’! So it came to pass that a new media release was borne.
Fast-forward to January, the risk prone personality ‘story’ hit the news big time. Accompanied by the gleaming face of Angela Merkel, the research was a conduit to promote the Society and UK psychologists to audiences as far and wide as Canada, India and the United Arab Emirates.
Encouraged by our success, we tried the formula again, mid-conference. Unsuspecting abstract, interesting topic, data to riffle through and ‘Bingo!’, again. ‘Office workers spend too long at their desks’ emerged from Myanna Duncan’s interactive paper: ‘Occupational health provision: The challenges of the ageing population’. Jersey, Dallas, New York... if only we could go and collect the press clippings in person!
And the point of this article? Very often there are hidden gems in research which can be missed or overlooked. To promote Psychology-Team-GB, we need to be vigilant on the conference circuit and consider how our findings might serve our public audience, not just our academic community. We need psychologists who are brave enough to engage with the media, with research that holds meaning for the daily lives of everyday people. I am not for one moment suggesting researchers sell their souls and bastardise their life’s work in order to satisfy the public’s unrefined appetite, far from it. I am simply saying that in the name of Team-GB, we should look to nourish both an academic and lay audience and it may be possible with different elements of the same piece of research. In other words, more ‘Bingo!’.
A modern-day witch-hunt?
‘The hounding of 'Psychic Sally' is becoming a modern-day witch-hunt’, claimed the headline of a Telegraph piece by Brendan O’Neill (see tinyurl.com/7h2b8o7).
For those not familiar with the story, Sally Morgan is a TV psychic who is demanding damages of £150,000 from Associated Newspapers over a Daily Mail story by magician Paul Zenon, accusing her of scamming a vulnerable audience. The article, published on 22 September, was headlined: ‘What a load of crystal balls!’, and it alleged Morgan pretended to have psychic powers when she was in fact simply repeating information from members of her team via a microphone and hidden earpiece.
Morgan was subsequently invited to prove her supernatural powers in a Halloween test devised by psychologist Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. When she inevitably failed to show, Morgan was heavily criticised on Twitter.
O’Neill appears to have taken issue with this, writing: ‘Why are ostensibly intellectual people devoting so much time and energy to having a pop at a woman who claims to be psychic? … The anti-Morgan lobby is motivated by the same impulses as those pointy-hatted witch-hunters of old: first, by a desire to look big and impressive by shouting down an allegedly wicked woman; and second, by a desire to save the little people, who are daft and easily led, from having their minds warped and their lives wrecked by people who believe in things the rest of us don’t believe in.’
I asked Professor French about this, and he said: ‘There are crucial differences between the persecution of innocent women falsely accused of being witches and criticism of a woman who has made millions of pounds by herself claiming to be able to talk to the dead. If she really does have such powers, it would be the most amazing discovery ever and she should be willing to be tested under controlled conditions. If she doesn’t, she’s a fraud exploiting the bereaved and nothing more.’
I am in complete agreement with Professor French here. Yet I do occasionally feel a twinge of unease at the speed, volume and ferocity of response the sceptical scientific community appear able to marshal. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in O’Neill’s caution that ‘the fashionable secular set seems incapable of asserting itself in any positive way’, and we should be particularly wary of social media in this context.
The Guardian and Observer held a themed Memory Week in January, part of the papers’ Head Start self-help series for 2012 (see tinyurl.com/maximem). This included a mass participation online experiment run by psychologists Jon Simons, Zara Bergström and Charles Fernyhough, looking into long-term memory and how the similarity of events affects remembering. In three weeks, over 27,000 people took part. ‘It was great fun collaborating with The Guardian,’ Simons told us. ‘Thanks to lots of publicity by them, and hundreds of people sharing and re-tweeting the weblink around the world, we had an extraordinary response. We’re currently immersed in processing these data, and hope to publish a preliminary report on the findings soon.’
Another feature was a live, online Q&A session with Charles Fernyhough. ‘That was a very new experience,’ Fernyhough said. ‘It showed me that a lot of people think of memory as a muscle that needs to be strengthened, rather than this fascinating and tricky process of self-editing that the research is telling us about.’
The week culminated in publication of a special two-part supplement coordinated by Fernyhough, which included contributions from him on autobiographical memory and shared memories; from Simons on the science of remembering; Hugo Spiers on the neurobiology of memory; Alice Bell on the effect of the internet; Ed Cooke with mnemonics and memory tests; and me on memory myths and glitches.
New York – the city that never sleeps. Perhaps that’s why taxis are to be fitted with ‘honk-reduction technology’ (http://t.co/MeGiq1BA).
It seems that enormous signs reading ‘Don’t Honk – $350 fine’ are not enough. ‘Give someone a horn and they’ll honk it,’ writes Josh Max in New York Daily News. So why are New Yorkers such brats behind the wheel?
‘It’s frustration,’ says environmental psychologist Dr Arline Bronzaft. ‘Nothing moves if you’re stuck at the back end of a line of cars and you honk your horn. Rationally, we know this. But are people rational beings? No – they’re emotional.’
Yet despite the impact of noise on quality of life, most drivers like their horn nice and loud. During a press launch for the Hyundai’s Sonata, there were overwhelming complaints about the car’s wimpy horn. Within a week, Hyundai replaced the hardware with a ‘more appropriate dual-shell unit that gives the car a louder presence when the owner needs to use the horn’.
Despite this, a new Nissan taxi is to be fitted with honk-reduction technology, ‘specifically a so-called low-annoyance horn’. Bronzaft recommends training drivers to control their tempers. ‘Take a deep breath, hum a song. Say to yourself, “How best could I deal with this situation?” Or why not see if we can come up with something imaginative? Why not a horn you can restrict? If you hit the horn, say, 2–3 times, then it quits. Or design a mechanism whereby when you put your hand down for any length of time, the horn simply stops. And then it won’t go on again for a period of time. At least let’s stop the horns from continuous, unrelenting blasts.’
Media prime cuts
The Media page is coordinated by the Society’s Media and Press Committee, with the aim of promoting and discussing psychology in the media. If you would like to contribute, please contact the ‘Media’ page coordinating editor, Ceri Parsons (Chair, Media and Press Committee), on [email protected]
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