Annual Conference reports: part 1

highlights from London’s April event, from a stellar cast of reporters. Full version in PDF with part two.

An Olympian effort

In his keynote at the Society’s Annual Conference, attended by 800 delegates in London this April, Dr Dan Gould fanned the flames of Olympic Fever. Dr Diane Halpern was there to report for us

Ninety-nine days and counting down. London has Olympic Fever, so the organisers of the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society called in the ‘doctor’ for diagnosis and prognosis of all things Olympian – Dr Dan Gould, Professor of Applied Sport Psychology and Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. Gould has been a ‘performance enhancement consultant’ to a variety of sports teams, including the United States teams for wrestling and skiing, as well as with individual tennis and figure skating competitors. During his career, he has studied the mental skills that help athletes perform at their best. His work on the psychological factors that underlie elite performance also provides insights in other areas of exceptional performance, such as military work and surgery.

 

Olympic success is a mix of positive self-talk, intrinsic motivation, personality dispositions, and cognitive and behavioural factors that come together to create peak performance. The athletes train every day for years, often decades, all for the increased likelihood of optimal performance in the short time span when they are competing at their Olympic event, when the difference between victory and defeat is often measured in milliseconds. The Olympic Games are an ideal laboratory for testing and developing psychological theory and practice for high performance.

So what are the characteristics associated with Olympic success? Most studies of Olympic champions are retrospective, largely because it is difficult to predict the winners, and it is difficult to get Olympic athletes to participate in research in the months leading up to the Olympics. In one study, Gould and his colleagues compared the performance strategies for Olympic medal winners with other competitors who did not win a medal. They found that the medallists had more emotional control and were more likely to practise on ‘automatic pilot’. By contrast, other elite athletes who competed but did not win an Olympic medal reported greater use of mental imagery during practice and exhibited higher levels of negative thinking. The next step in sports psychology research is to apply these findings in prospective studies (before the outcomes of the Olympics are known) and in intervention studies in which groups of athletes are taught how to improve their emotional control and how to use more automatic processing in their preparation for competition. A big problem with this area of research is that with the stakes so high, no one wants to be in the control group.

 

Gould also explained that the Olympics are all about performance. The major types of variables that affect performance include family support, financial sponsorship, strong preparation, positive team influences, talented coaching, and a generally supportive environment. Olympic athletes need a plan to deal with distractions, which are very common and often unpredictable during competition. Distractions include transportation glitches (a frequent occurrence at Olympic venues), noisy dormitories, political controversies, and excessive media attention. It is easy for athletes to get caught up in the hype of the Olympics. The multiple distractions can disrupt an athlete’s carefully established routine, so the athletes need to be prepared for dealing with them.

 

Physical preparation is a key factor for success, but it is also fragile, with a thin line between training hard enough to get an edge and over-training that becomes a detriment to performance. Athletes who do not win at the Olympics often cite over-training as the main reason. A good coach can recognise overtraining and get the athlete to stop training before it hurts performance. Good coaches are well organised so that they minimise the stress of unexpected hassles (both big and small) and they guide the athlete in mental preparation, while providing emotional support and exuding confidence. 

 

Gould acknowledges that there are genetic factors that make success more or less likely. As he said, ‘The level of improvement due to athletic training is constrained by the genetic factors. One’s genes determine the size of his/her bucket. The athlete and the environment determine the bucket’s contents.’ Even the most genetically endowed athletes need to learn strategies for peak performance, how to cope with adversity in a constructive manner, and to develop their personalities so that they can remain stable and motivated during years of intense practice. Because there are so many different types of sports, there is no single athletic gene that could predict success overall. We need to begin talent development at a young age, but there is no way to predict which young athlete will eventually make it to the top of their game. Every elite athlete will need to practise for thousands of hours before achieving elite status, but even intense practice cannot assure elite athleticism. During practice top athletes need to develop mental toughness, confidence, and the ability to stay focused and set goals. They need to remain optimistic and confident. But they also need a supportive environment so that they don’t have financial worries that will cause them to lose practice time or distract them from the single goal of being the very best in the world, for one sparkling moment, on the day of their Olympic competition.

The next generation of sport psychologists will build on the solid foundation that was laid by Dr Gould and his colleagues. They are likely to fill in the gaps in our knowledge using longitudinal research designs with experimental controls that allow causal conclusions.

 

In short, like all researchers they will stand upon the shoulders of those who went before. Thanks to Dan Gould, I will watch the extraordinary performance of the world’s best athletes (and second, third, and fourth best as well) with new-found enthusiasm. Whether they stand draped in the flag of their country while its national anthem plays or whether they are huddled offstage, unable to stop the tears of defeat. They all should be congratulated for their mental toughness, motivation and superb performances. 

 

Studying sex differences – Not for the faint-hearted!
Dr Dan Gould reports on Dr Diane Halpern’s keynote

A reason I really enjoy attending conferences like the 2012 BPS Annual is that I can hear eminent scholars and practitioners discuss their work; work that is often on topics and using methods very different to the ones I study or use. This was the case when I had a front row seat to hear Dr Diane Halpern’s keynote, ‘Sex differences in cognitive abilities: New data, new theories and new conclusions’.

 

I knew Dr Halpern was a highly respected scholar who has spent the good part of her career studying this topic, conducting numerous studies and publishing a number of important books. However, I quickly discovered that in addition to being an impressive scholar she is an exceptional teacher who gave a highly informative and interesting keynote address.

 

The first thing I was reminded of is that studying sex differences is not for the faint of heart. It is not only a scientific issue of considerable interest, but also a topic that evokes substantial emotion and is steeped with political implications. This causes some people to (sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly) selectively review the literature identifying studies that might fit their point of view while ignoring others. Not Halpern – a careful scientist, she examines the literature in great depth with considerable objectivity in identifying patterns she may or may not personally like. I have some experience of this: a doctoral student of mine once studied if and why coaches feel they coach male and female athletes differently. She conducted a sound study but immediately after delivering the first presentation on her results, internet chatrooms were full of messages noting how the study reinforced traditional sex-role stereotypes and was not an example of good science. The controversy went on for a few weeks until I asked the head of the Women’s Sports Foundation research committee to provide an independent review of the study and its results. It was concluded that it was a well-conducted and objective piece of research.However, like Dr Halpern, my student and I learned that studying sex differences evokesa great deal of emotion and can quickly turn into a politically charged issue. While sex differences in cognitive abilities can be controversial, Halpern convincingly argues that this is an important area of study for many reasons. For example, in the US the pool of scientists and mathematicians is dwindling while women make up half of the workforce but only 25 per cent are employed in science and math related fields.  Additionally, she persuasively argues that sex differences have implications for numerous public policy decisions like single-sex schools, child-rearing practices, and affirmative action.

 

The main conclusion from Dr Halpern’s address is that the ‘truth’ about cognitive sex differences is complicated, and although there are many similarities in the cognitive abilities of males and females, there are also differences that are very large, and have been replicated across time, cultures and species. So those looking for simple answers will not find them. She presented an excellent example using recent brain-imaging and neuroscience results, pointing out how some reviewers draw sweeping conclusions from emerging data while ignoring other potential explanations. At the same time she concluded that current neuroscience brain research will unlock many exciting findings in this area. However, it is essential that this research be objectively conducted and interpreted.

 

Some of the biggest gender differences in cognitive functioning identified in Halpern’s address were large differences favouring females in writing and episodic memory tasks, especially those dealing with faces and location. Differences favoured men on visuospatial tasks, but the effects are task-dependent (e.g. very large effects exist on mental rotation tasks).

 

I thought Dr Halpern’s comments were particularly informative when she explained how  mean differences that result from these studies are especially influenced by the highest and lowest ends of the data distributions, with more males in both the high and low ends of the distribution tails. It was also interesting that she presented findings that in more gender-equal societies, some sex differences disappear (e.g. girls scoring lower in math than boys) while others grow larger (e.g. the male advantage in visuospatial tasks). Finally, she predicts that with revolutionary advances in biological psychology a key issue for the future will be ‘not if, but when drug intervention is safe, effective and ethical’ in order to modify sex differences in cognitive functioning.

 

In summary, Halpern concluded that there are ‘no single or simple answers to the complex questions about sex differences in cognition’. An individual’s experience, educational policies, one’s culture and biological factors all interact in complex ways to explain sex differences in cognitive abilities and influence the number of men and women who pursue advanced study in math and science. Thus, it is imperative that psychologists study this important area of research; and luckily those future generations of researchers will be able to profit from Dr Halpern’s impressive body of work in the area.

 

 

Understanding, preventing and alleviating the effects of trauma
Professor Chris Brewin reports on a symposium convened by Professor William Yule

One of the main aims of this symposium was to illustrate the relevance of traumatic stress to many aspects of the Society’s activities and members. The breadth of topics underscored the value of the proposal for a new Section on Disaster, Crisis and Trauma Psychology to join together members whose professional activities bring them into contact with major incidents and personal catastrophes, whether from a legal, forensic, developmental, occupational, public health or clinical perspective. This would also be valuable for those who conduct research into the social, interpersonal, cognitive, biological or neuroscientific aspects of trauma. Members who wish to support the formation of the new Section are currently able to vote in favour of introducing it at tinyurl.com/bpssections.

 

The first speaker, Professor Emily Holmes from Oxford University, presented her research showing how the intrusive memories that characterise post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might be prevented by using insights from cognitive science. She and her team have demonstrated how playing the computer game Tetris up to four hours after exposure to a trauma film can reduce the incidence of intrusive memories in healthy participants. Crucially, it appears to be the visuospatial aspects of the game that prevent the consolidation of traumatic images as verbal games such as Pub Quiz do not have the same effect. This research is being taken forward by investigating whether Tetris might assist blocking the reconsolidation of a traumatic memory 24 hours after watching a trauma film, as well as by introducing it into a real-life accident and emergency department.

 

The second speaker was Professor Bernice Andrews from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her topic was the relevance of research on trauma and traumatic memory to legal contexts such as the civil, family and criminal courts, as well as immigration tribunals. A number of PTSD symptoms involve or have an impact on memory, including flashbacks, amnesia for aspects of the event, and difficulty concentrating, and these may affect the nature of testimony provided. Other specific features of memory in individuals suffering from PTSD, such as disorganisation and fragmentation in accounts of traumatic incidents, may also be unfamiliar to juries, lawyers and judges, who may draw inappropriate conclusions about the reliability of testimony that has these features. Although psychologists cannot usually comment directly on the truth or falsity of testimony they may be able to provide valuable guidance on factors that may be positive or negative influences on their likely reliability.

 

Professor Stephen Joseph of the University of Nottingham summarised recent research described in his new book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. The idea that traumatic experiences can lead to positive as well as negative consequences for a person is central to existentialist and humanistic traditions in psychology, as well as to the more recent positive psychology movement. He noted that recovery from disorders such as PTSD needs to be seen not just in terms of symptom reduction but in more general improvements in self-perception, attitudes to life and relationships. He distinguished ‘hedonic’ measures that measure growth mainly in terms of happiness from ‘eudaimonic’ measures that consider well-being more broadly in terms of a sense of autonomy, purpose in life and self-acceptance. In concluding his talk, he called for better theories of positive functioning in response to trauma to complement the existing focus on pathological conditions such as PTSD.

 

Finally, Dr Richard Meiser-Stedman of the MRC Cognitive and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge presented his research on children’s reactions to trauma. Noting that there has been a popular widespread belief that children are resilient to the effects of trauma, he reviewed evidence that nothing could be farther from the truth. Since researchers began to question children rather than their parents, it has become evident that post-traumatic symptoms are common, can last for many years, and have a broad impact on cognitive and social development. As in adults, subjective reactions to the trauma appear to be more important than the objective severity of the event, and PTSD is associated with similar reactions such dissociation, fragmented memory, negative beliefs and maladaptive coping. To date, despite the expectation of marked developmental differences,the emerging picture is of vulnerability processes that are startlingly similar in adults and quite young children of primary-school age.

 

 

PTSD and memory
It’s Professor William Yule’s turn with the reporter’s pad, bringing us an account of Professor Chris Brewin’s keynote

If anyone ever believed that studying PTSD could only be of interest to therapists, Chris Brewin’s carefully argued opening address quickly demonstrated that experimental studies of pathological reactions can throw considerable light on normal processes – in this case on memory.

 

Flashbacks – distressing, intrusive memories – are at the core of post-traumatic stress reactions. They are involuntary and predominately image-based rather than verbal. The involuntary memories appear to remain locked in the present while attempts voluntarily to call up memories of the event are often disorganised and fragmentary.  Such observations led to the seminal model of PTSD – the dual representation model – first elucidated by him with Tim Dalgleish and Stephen Joseph in 1996. This, together with the 2000 model of Ehlers and Clark, underlined that PTSD is more a disorder of memory function than of anxiety.

 

Exposing healthy participants to a stressful film has been shown to generate spontaneous intrusive memories over the next few days. By manipulating the conditions in which the film is shown, a very informative series of studies was made possible. It was found that while, in general, increasing levels of alcohol reduced the explicit recall of traumatic scenes, low levels of alcohol resulted in an increase in intrusions. It was suggested that low level of alcohol selectively impairs the verbally accessible memory system (VAM) that can prevent intrusions but does not affect the situationally accessible memories (SAM). However, high alcohol levels compromised both systems.

 

Asking participants to undertake a complex tapping task led to a decrease in later intrusions, while doing a verbal task led to an increase. Such evidence tends to confirm the existence of these two pathways. So a question arises – are these related to any differing neural pathways? Evidence from a number of neural studies including functional MRI studies confirms the existence of parallel neural systems for visual information – a ventral stream connecting to the inferior temporal context and a dorsal stream linking to the superior parietal cortex. Under normal conditions, these two streams integrate but under traumatic stress they can operate separately. This led Brewin to present a new and elaborated model for normal encoding of a traumatic event with an egocentric, sensation-dominated pathway versus an allocentric, more verbal pathway.

 

This model suggested a novel way of investigating allocentric memories using virtual reality – computer-generated scenes that could be used to get the participant to imagine seeing a target image from a different vantage point (shades of Piaget’s three mountains studies). It was found that worse allocentric memory performance was predictive of greater subsequent intrusions. Thus, it appears that there is indeed a long-term perceptual memory system supporting explicit recall as well
as for the automatic registration of visuo-spatial information. There are two functionally distinct memory systems. Flashbacks are seen as sensation-based memories that involve the dorsal visuo-spatial processing stream whereas ordinary memories are contextualised – particularly in relation to time – and involve the ventral stream and medial temporal lobe. Brewin ended by noting how the model explains how the therapeutic practice of rehearsing trauma memories leads to their weakening rather than to their strengthening as had been anticipated from previous models.

 

The whole talk illustrated the strengths of adopting an applied science approach to the observations of human behaviour and experience. Advances in cognitive and neural science help better to explain the phenomena of PTSD while study of those phenomena help reframe the theories. He ended with a heartfelt plea for members to support the formation of Trauma Section within the Society so that work such as this could benefit from cross-Section collaboration.

 

The authentic self

Should you bother to ‘be yourself’ at work? A study by Oliver Robinson (University of Greenwich), Frederick Lopez and Katherine Ramos (University of Houston) explored the extent to which people vary the expression of their ‘authentic self’ across four social contexts (with partner, friends, parents and co-workers), and how this variability relates to well-being.

 

An online cross-sectional survey design captured data from a large sample of students and professionals in the US and UK. Expressed authenticity was highest in the partner context, followed by friends, then parents, and lowest of all at work. In a regression model, only authenticity with partner emerged as a significant predictor of well-being and life satisfaction. 

 

‘Authenticity does relate positively to well-being,’ Robinson concluded, ‘although this effect appears to be context-specific. Our results indicate that as long as individuals have partners with whom they can express themselves authentically, well-being is maintained. In the absence of a partner, authenticity with parents and friends also predict well-being. So if you “put on a front” at work – don’t worry, it probably won’t do you any harm.’ js

 

Loved and lost in cyberspace
Dr Catherine Loveday reports from a symposium on internet dating scams

Suddenly I was sending all this money to a man I’d never met and all my sense and sensibility was telling me not to, yet at the same time I was.’ This was one of the opening quotes from a participant in a large study by Professor Monica Whitty (University of Leicester) and Dr Tom Buchanan (University of Westminster), investigating online dating romance scams. In this surprisingly common crime (200,000 known estimated victims in the last four years in Great Britain alone), an organised gang of criminals initially attracts individuals via a fake profile on an internet dating site and then after building up a rapport with their victim they quickly move correspondence to other online formats such as e-mail and instant messaging, where there are no safeguards.

 

Whitty described how the scammer will then continue to woo their victim with poetic e-mails and apparently high levels of self-disclosure before testing the water by asking for gifts or small amounts of money, always under the pretext of a powerful or heart-rending need, such as a sick child. Crucially, Whitty explained, the online nature of the interaction allows for careful management of self-presentation and a rapid and intimate style of communication leading to ‘hyperpersonal’ relationships. Both Whitty and Buchanan stressed that while some people will give away huge amounts of money, even those who recognise the scam before losing money will still suffer significant emotional consequences. 

 

So what type of individuals are prone to this kind of scam? As Buchanan explained, theory and common sense would both suggest that victims might have specific qualities, for example particular personality profiles or higher levels of loneliness. Since dating sites routinely collect personality data, this might open up the possibility of putting some prevention measures in place. Surprisingly though, Buchanan and Whitty’s research revealed that those people who fall victim to the scammers were very similar to those who didn’t, both in terms of personality traits and in relation to gender and sexual orientation. There was however one characteristic that did differentiate: individuals with high levels of romanticism are more vulnerable. ‘But are they still full of romantic ideals after the scam?’ one delegate asked. ‘Yes!’ said Whitty. Interestingly, both the qualitative and quantitative data suggest that people continue to show high levels of romanticism even after the distress of being conned in this way. It seems then that on the whole, using personality profiles to predict those who may be vulnerable is not likely to be a useful preventative strategy. Instead, said Buchanan, research should focus on other ways of protecting and supporting victims.

 

Taking a different look at online relationships, Dr Martin Graff (University of Glamorgan) finished off the session by discussing his research on male and female jealousy in relation to online and offline infidelity. He asked students to imagine given scenarios where their partner had displayed either emotional or sexual infidelity, either online or face-to-face. Women reported higher levels of jealousy for emotional than sexual infidelity, regardlessof whether it was online or offline, while the reverse was true for males. Strikingly though, his data revealed that for both men and women, levels of jealousy were as high in the online condition as they were in a real context.

 

For the rest of our coverage please view, Conference Part 2. Alternatively download the PDF with part two for full article.

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