Fiona Jones on planned changes to the Society’s media and press function; when Ariely met Gladwell; curiosities; and more

Bringing psychology to the public: Have your say
Fiona Jones on planned changes to the Society’s media and press function

Members of the British Psychological Society, in common with scientists of many persuasions, are sometimes unhappy about the quality of press coverage of their discipline. Too often the psychology that reaches the media, and particularly the tabloids, can seem trivial and not representative of the best the subject has to offer. Psychology stories clearly reach the media by many different methods over which the Society has no control. So how does the BPS try to ensure quality research reaches broadcast and newspaper journalists?

Sometimes journalists will contact individual psychologists themselves or via university press offices, but very often they will ask for recommendations from the BPS Media Centre. For example, in 2011 the office took around 2000 queries from the media. Undoubtedly, there is a great demand for psychological comment on issues relating to the activities of celebrities or issues of topical concern, such as obesity, work stress or childcare, for example. There is inevitably much less demand for information on cognitive or statistical psychology! The PR team therefore have very little influence on either the type of enquiry or the resulting output. Thus it can be hard to ensure that the full range of psychology is represented.

Where the PR team and Society members themselves have more influence is over the press releases that are produced. These include releases of new research from the Annual Conference and member network conferences as well as a selection of research from the latest BPS published journals. The PR team work very hard on behalf of the Society to produce a stream of press releases throughout the year. For many years now they have worked closely with the BPS Media and Press Committee, a team of approximately 12 psychologists who represent every branch of psychology and work in both academic and applied settings.

The committee role includes selecting appropriate presentations to be the subject of press releases at the Annual Conference. In addition they review BPS journals prior to publication to try to identify research suitable for release. Together with members of the PR team and the researchers themselves, they write press releases which are always checked for accuracy with the original authors. The involvement of the qualified and experienced psychologists on the Media and Press Committee helps to ensure that good-quality research, including research from the less obviously media-friendly areas can sometimes reach the press. Equally importantly, we are able to advise that, while some research might be ‘popular’, it may be exploratory or not empirically rigorous and should not be recommended for release. We support the view that publicising empirically weak ‘pop’ research leaves the Society open to criticism and we are in a position to advise members of the PR team where we feel this is a risk. Members of the committee are also present in the press office at the Annual Conference to liaise between journalists and the researchers who are presenting at the conference. They are also often a first port of call for journalists looking for advice on stories and are committed to offering a fast response wherever possible.

In short, the Media and Press Committee is a major way in which members of the Society are able to contribute directly to the press outputs and in addition gain useful experience and skills in this area. Regular collaboration between an expert PR team and psychologists representing every area of psychology helps ensure that a wider range of the best-quality psychology research is publicised than would otherwise be the case.

It is therefore particularly concerning that the recent Board of Trustees Communications Review has decided that the Media and Press Committee be dissolved. This decision came with no apparent consultation with members on this specific issue. The review seeks to implement a more strategic approach to the BPS PR coverage, designed to ensure a rapid response and to present a unified view on major issues on which the Society needs to comment. This has been an area of weakness in the past. However, there also is a need for regular work, such as put in by committee members, to ensure that the work of BPS members, in all its diversity, is represented. At present it is unclear how the regular input from committee members – around two to three weeks a year each – will be covered. It is likely to result in more work for an already stretched PR and marketing team and could potentially lead to a reduction in coverage of research in the less obviously media friendly areas.

The BPS is a membership organisation, and it’s important that members have a say. If you have any comments or suggestions please write to the Psychologist letters page or e-mail either [email protected] or [email protected].


When Ariely met Gladwell

Through a series of bestselling books, Duke University behavioural economist Dan Ariely and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell have both made significant contributions to the public’s understanding of social science research. Last year, Ariely interviewed Gladwell as part of his ‘Arming the Donkeys’ podcast series, discussing the challenges of translating and representing academic research for a mass audience. The audio and a partial transcript have now been made available via the ‘Journalist’s Resource’ website (see

Ariely asks Gladwell how he picks his topics. ‘I see things and I collect them, and I think they might be interesting,’ Gladwell replies. ‘But there’s no theory or system. I go to the library sometimes, and I just sort of roam around; or I go on the databases and I just type in things at random, or I get articles and read through the bibliography… But there’s no rhyme or reason. Someone will say something to me interesting, and I’ll follow up on it or something. To be a writer I think you’re kind of constitutionally disposed toward optimism.’

How do you decide what’s central to the story and what nuances to leave out, Ariely asks. It’s impossible ‘to reflect the full complexity of the underlying academic data’, Gladwell admits. ‘So what you try and do is either represent the best-supported position, or make it clear that what you’re arguing is an interpretation of the data and there might be others. Or you use this in the service of a larger idea.’ What about explaining variance: that something is a really important effect, but that there’s still more unknown than known? According to Gladwell, ‘you can only tell the story about the part that’s known’, but thankfully readers are ‘a good deal more sophisticated than we give them credit for. I don’t think anyone reads a book like yours or a book like mine or a book like Freakonomics and thinks that what we’re talking about explains everything.’

At this point, I admire Ariely’s honesty in saying: ‘But when you write or I write, I don’t feel that you or I make it explicit that [we’re saying], “I’m going to tell you a story about the small part of the picture.” … It’s very hard to tell a good story [that says], “I’ll tell you a story and at the end of the day I’ll tell you it explains 20 per cent of…”’ Gladwell counters that it’s OK ‘to tell stories the way we do’, because ‘the experience doesn’t end on the final page. It is feeding into an ongoing conversation that people have about their lives.’

Sticking with the theme of complexity, Ariely asks whether there are any topics that Gladwell has decided are just too opaque to tackle. Gladwell’s answer is a fascinating summary of the challenges of communicating science to large and diverse audiences:
This is one of the things that academics sometimes fail to grasp about popular writing. Sometimes there are, I feel there is, some friction between me and the academic world; not a lot, but there’s a little bit sometimes. Part of it is that I don’t think they understand the limitations of the form. There’s almost no occasion when they are writing for their own audience where they can’t tackle a topic because of the difficulty explaining it. Someone’s always going to be able to follow, or some huge percentage of their audience is always going to be able to follow it… It’s a small audience, but that’s the beauty of academic work.

Whereas I literally cannot discuss something that my audience cannot understand. I can’t do it, I lose them, they’re gone… and then I’ve failed. So that limits the way in which I talk about – not hugely or dangerously – but it limits. It means I will tend to stress some things sometimes more than others. And that is, you know, this is – to use to use my favourite quotation from The Godfather – as Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” Right? You know, you accept when you take a position in a certain kind of a field… the limitations of it, and that’s one of them.            

Media curiosities

Sometimes, you just want people to shut the hell up. Not my view, you understand: it’s that of two Japanese researchers who have introduced a prototype for a ‘SpeechJammer’ which can ‘disturb remote people’s speech without any physical discomfort’.

In their paper (, Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada point to situations of ‘unavoidability’ and ‘occupancy’ where the usual rules of turn-taking in conversation and quiet in public places are broken. Never fear, SpeechJammer is here! A direction-sensitive microphone and speaker, combined with a distance sensor and some other technical gubbins, becomes a portable gun exploiting the principle of delayed auditory feedback (DAF). Playing someone’s voice back to them, with a slight delay of around 200 milliseconds, can jam a person’s speech.

After the researchers’ paper went viral and they posted a video online showing the prototype in action (see, Professor Sophie Scott from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience was moved to write a blog post on the topic (see ‘Need we worry about this? It’s clearly at least technically feasible, but remember not everyone is as affected by DAF as everyone else (and some people are dramatically improved by the technique). There are DAF apps which you can use to find out what DAF is like, if you want to know more about how you’d react. Also, consider other technology that can come to your aid – wear noise cancelling headphones, and turn them on if you suspect long range DAF might be used on you.’

The arms race continues!    

Media prime cuts

Robin Murray on schizophrenia and his life’s work
Psychologists, torture and confidentiality: ‘what price is too high to be able to look yourself in the eye?’
Why Adele makes us cry
Survey on life crises from Greenwich’s Oliver Robinson
‘Female sexual dysfunction’ is about relationship dissatisfaction
Mainstream media and neonatal death, from @DrPetra

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