Annual Conference reports: Part 2

More coverage from the Society's Annual Conference.

How valid is the dyslexia label?
Dr Katie Slocombe reports on Professor Dorothy Bishop’s keynote

I know four of my friends are dyslexic but I don’t personally know anyone who has specific language impairment (SLI). Professor Dorothy Bishop, a world expert on developmental disorders, argues my different levels of familiarity with these disabilities is not down to random chance. My own encounters with these disabilities seems to be representative of many: whilst Bishop reports dyslexia readily passes the ‘taxi driver test’ of being a widely used and understood term, specific language impairment routinely draws blank or quizzical looks from members of the public. This is despite considerable similarities between the two disorders: the estimated prevalence is comparable (dyslexia 5–10 per cent; SLI 3–7 per cent), and they are both characterised by a specific and unexpected deficit in either learning to read, or talk that cannot be attributed to a more generic cognitive or sensory deficit or brain injury. So given these commonalities why is only dyslexia, but not SLI, a household term?

Some labels are simply more successful at spreading into the public consciousness than others. Successful ideas (memes) are easy to understand, remember and communicate, and thus propagate themselves, however the survival or the successful spread of an idea is not, unfortunately, dependent on the utility or validity of the idea. The label dyslexia is certainly a contentious one: Certain sections of the media portray dyslexia as a social construct devised by the middle classes as a way to hide stupidity, whilst a medical model of the disorder characterises it as a distinct syndrome with biological underpinnings. So how valid or useful is the label of dyslexia? Is it a disorder with specific and distinct symptoms with a biological basis? Bishop argues that empirical studies fail to find a distinctive cluster of symptoms that characterise just dyslexia: co-morbidity seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Similarly Bishop contends that despite much misleading press coverage of genetic markers for dyslexia, there are as yet no convincing biomarkers for  diagnoses of dyslexia. There are more consistent results from functional brain-imaging studies showing a reliable under-activation of certain cortical regions when individuals with dyslexia read, but it is still unclear if these patterns of brain activation are a cause or consequence of reading difficulties. So despite being a successful meme, dyslexia is perhaps not that useful as a label as it doesn’t seem to define a specific entity. This is not to say that individuals with reading difficulties do not have genuine problems that require support and help, but Bishop suggests a more generic label of ‘neurodevelopmental disability’ may have advantages over the dyslexia label: this would still establish the need for support, but would encourage individual focused assessments of strengths and weaknesses by multidisciplinary teams.  This could also help prevent individuals getting multiple different diagnoses and may help level the playing field in terms of research interest and funding into the poor sisters of dyslexia, SLI and dyscalculia. Bishop is realistic about the slim chances of success her proposal has, given the resilient nature of the dyslexia meme, but she certainly convinced me of the importance and benefits of trying!

No bird brain

Imagine being beaten at a puzzle by a bird. That’s the ignominy that’s been suffered by dozens of undergrads tasked with working out the rule governing which coloured bars on a screen lead to a reward and which don’t.

When the rule is the average height of the bars, pigeons find it easy to work out, but humans struggle. According to John Pearce (Cardiff University), winner of the Society’s Excellence in Psychology Education Award, that’s because we humans try to solve the problem abstractly whereas pigeons just focus on the concrete properties of what’s in front of them. If the rule is changed to favour abstract thought (equal bars leads to a reward, unequal bars does not) then humans excel and pigeons struggle.

This example forms part of Pearce’s exploration of the evolution of animal intelligence in his university lectures. Other studies show that animals have remarkably large and enduring memories (baboons have been shown to remember 5000 photos for at least six months), but they’re mostly incapable of abstract thought. Pearce has found that by explaining animal learning theory in these kinds of terms, he’s managed to rejuvenate his students’ interest in a subject that they previously dreaded.

Why the aversion? Pearce said that if you look at typical textbook coverage of animal learning theory, you’ll see why. A figure explaining conditioning features obscure language and it comes over as an old-fashioned topic.

But Pearce argued that it’s an essential subject to study and that rebranding it as the evolution of intelligence really works. ‘Students find the subject interesting …’ he said, ‘and once their interest has been engaged, they’re keen to go on and study aspects of animal learning theory.’ cj

‘We’re almost friends now, death and I’

How are people changed by the experience of killing others?
A documentary film shown at the conference – Hidden Battles by Victoria Mills – explored the psychological impact of killing through the testimony of five individuals who have taken other people’s lives: Zachariah, a former leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Palestine; Aaron, a former Marine, who was deployed as a sniper to Somalia; Esmeralda, a New York housekeeper who fought
in Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution; George, a Vietnam vet; and Saar, a former special forces soldier for the Israeli army who now runs a successful dance company.

Glimpses of the original conflicts are interwoven in the film with footage of these five characters revisiting the scenes of their killing or interacting with their families. There is no narrative, only the stark testimony of the former killers. The message is often bleak. ‘We’re almost friends now, death and I,’ says Zacharia, seen hugging his young daughter goodbye, a pistol strapped to his side. Aaron, who suffers from long-term PTSD, recalls promising to himself that he would never kill. ‘That promise didn’t last long,’ he says. ‘I didn’t remember it the whole time I was in Somalia, I just changed.’

But the film also offers hope. Zacharia recently handed over his weapons to the Israeli authorities and now champions his cause through the Jenin Freedom Theatre. George has worked as a firefighter and is now President of a chapter of Vets for Peace, and he helps counsel soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A panel of experts gave their response to the film. Former military psychologist and Northern Ireland veteran, BPS Fellow Dr Jamie Hacker Hughes, revealed the scale of the issue – each year, he said, 20,000 more veterans in the UK leave the military. Matt Fossey, a former Deputy Director of IAPTs, aired his concerns about the lack of services for the families of service men and women – a question he has tackled in a forthcoming report for Combat Stress. Imogen Sturgeon-Clegg of Combat Stress admitted she still has no concept of what it’s like to kill. ‘Many vets don’t talk about their own killing,’ she said. ‘They often avoid talking to civilians because they don’t want to be asked about whether they’ve killed.’ All three panellists agreed that alcohol abuse is the biggest problem affecting the mental health of returning veterans.

Visit to learn more about the film and to watch a trailer. cj

Fitness fans

At the time of the conference, Scottish football club Rangers were in the news, with individual fans taking it upon themselves to pay off some of the club’s smaller debts. It was fitting, then, that Nanette Mutrie (University of Strathclyde) showed how the loyalty of Scottish football fans can be harnessed as a way to motivate men to improve their fitness. Football Fans in Training provides an opportunity for men aged between 35 and 65 to participate in a 12-week group programme delivered within a Scottish Premier League club. The programme focuses upon graduated, individualised physical activity and developing a healthy lifestyle. It is gender-sensitised to tackle the high prevalence of male obesity within Scotland.

An initial feasibility trial, with randomised treatment and waitlist groups, found significant weight loss in programme participants that was maintained at 12 months. Additionally, participants reported increased self-esteem and quality of life, and decreased sedentary time.

The key to the programme’s success, according to Mutrie, is a high starting level of motivation rarely seen in physical interventions. The men get to train within the hallowed ground of the football stadium, wear the club colours and work with the club coaches. Despite recruitment from across the socio-economic spectrum, the group are bonded by a shared interest before the intervention even begins and a big part of the experience is the banter amongst the men and coaches.
A full RCT is now under way across 13 football clubs, with plans for an expansion into rugby clubs. aj

Exercise – Why bother?
Dr John Kremer (Queen’s University Belfast) gave a keynote address to the Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology at the Annual Conference. Professor David Lavallee reports.

Dr Kremer opened his address by suggesting the legacy of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games could be counterproductive, due to individuals simply watching sport on the television rather than inspiring people to take exercise. Kremer’s epistemological critique of contemporary sport and exercise psychology challenged the audience throughout to consider the role psychologists can play in helping people become more physically active.

In the first part of the presentation he considered the social construction of physical exercise and the psychology of play. He discussed how children, by nature, engage in spontaneous, non-conscious exercise for fun (i.e. they are not ‘bothered’ why they exercise). Recent advances through what he described as the second technological revolution have, however, created video games where we can play without exercising. Based on a review of the extant theories and models that have guided our work in the area (including reference to an article he published in The Psychologist in 1996 entitled, ‘On the RAE, TQA and intrinsic motivation’) he concluded that although research has helped understand the who, what, where and how of exercise psychology, no hard answers have emerged from a massive literature on the ‘why’ of volitional exercise.

This led into the second part of the address, during which Kremer presented five case study interventions promoting exercise, across a range of contexts including the general population, workplace and prisons. These cases, collectively, started to unveil the meaning associated with physical exercise and highlighted the important role(s) psychologists can play. Kremer concluded his keynote with an answer to the question posed in this title: to feel good about the self.

The Psychologist and Digest, Live!

‘We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go,’ so ended Professor Steve Reicher’s (University of St Andrews) stirring call for psychologists to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the publication you are reading right now.

Reicher, who writes a regular ‘Real world’ column for The Psychologist, said the publication serves three important functions. First, it allows psychologists to attack the taken-for-granted in a way that’s not possible in traditional journals (for example, challenging the notions that no one helped in the case of Kitty Genovese and that Milgram’s studies showed people follow orders blindly). Second, it (together with the Research Digest) encourages debate and communication between subdisciplines. ‘We need that balance between the neurocognitive and the social,’ he said, ‘or else we fall into reductionism and fragmentation.’ And third, it provides a chance to engage with the wider world, to change the cultural understanding of what psychology is and how it impinges on society.

Writing for The Psychologist, Reicher said, provides a chance to ‘distil ideas until they have a limpid clarity and a compelling argument; it’s a link to the world, so that not only do we turn to the world, but the world turns to us.’

Reicher was speaking as part of The Psychologist’s and the Research Digest’s first conference symposium, convened by Professor David Lavallee (Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Policy Committee) and Dr Jon Sutton (Managing Editor). Invited presenters charted a journey through the publications. Professor Derek Mowbray (Psychologists Direct) opened the event, describing how, over the years, he’d used contributions to the magazine to make the case for a College of Health Care Psychology. In my role as Research Digest Editor, I highlighted a few items from the Digest with practical use for conference life (including how to brag without it backfiring; see Professor Sophie Scott (UCL), a contributor to The Psychologist’s regular ‘Big picture’ format, talked about the universality of laughter across cultures and species, and the social functions it serves.

Dr Darren van Laar (University of Portsmouth), a ‘Careers’ section contributor, discussed the rising popularity of the subject at university (it’s now the fourth largest degree course) and the promising job prospects for graduates.

After the break, Marc Smith (Boroughbridge High School), a ‘New voices’ contributor, lamented the lack of boys choosing the subject at school and how this is related to misperceptions about the subject as being ‘for girls'. As the session arrived at the back pages of the magazine, Professor Jim Horne (Loughborough University), a ‘Looking back’ contributor, provided gore-filled accounts from the Victorian medical literature of people who recovered remarkably well from exploding musket wounds to the head (see Finally, Julie Stokes OBE (Winston’s Wish), a ‘One on one’ contributor, shared her experience of contributing to The Psychologist, including how she heard from the son of one of her early mentors. ‘Out of writing the One on one came a whole series of connections for me to the psychology world,’ she said. cj

See to contribute to your publication or e-mail the Managing Editor of The Psychologist on [email protected]k

Putting online research in context

Increasingly, sources of information from the internet are being used within psychological research, a trend that looks set to continue. The challenges embedded within such online research were raised in a symposium convened by David C. Giles (University of Winchester). Although the three talks looked at very different topics, all highlighted the need to be aware of the internet as a research context.

Giles argued that websites and discussion forums should be conceptualised as mass media productions and people’s posts within these as media texts, akin to printed texts. In this way ethical concerns often felt regarding the use of individuals’ online texts without permission are negated. Giles further suggested that online behaviour can only be fully understood by contextualising it within the specific internet source it comes from.

This theme was picked up by Adam Jowett (Bradford Institute for Health Research), who took a discursive approach to online text. A feature of online talk is negative posts; ‘flaming’ involves making a hostile post directed at an individual whilst ‘trolls’ make posts deliberately intended to provoke others. Jowett recognised that it is not possible for a researcher to accurately infer a person’s motivations for posting, and thus cannot know whether flaming or trolling was intended. Instead his analysis of posts in a discussion forum for diabetics treated posts as social practice, focusing on what they achieved and how norms of what is considered appropriate or inappropriate online behaviour are negotiated within a specific online context.

Without trying to understand people’s motivations, Jowett’s approach still recognises that they are active participants engaged in online behaviour. Arguably, treating internet posts as objects of study may not adequately capture the whole picture. Some dilemmas along these lines were raised by the audience. Is it acceptable to treat posts as media texts if a website moderator states that researchers cannot use forum posts or must gain permission? Or if an individual writes within their post that researchers should not use it?

An additional challenge is the very mass media nature of the internet. It is easy for quotes or even images reported in studies, however anonymised, to be plugged into a search engine and the particular site they came from located. This was an important issue to be borne in mind for the Patients’ Experiences of Penile Cancer study presented by Peter Branney (Centre for Men’s Health, Leeds Metropolitan University). Participants were recruited with the explicit purpose of making interviews about their experiences available on a health website. Whilst anonymising steps could be offered, it had to be acknowledged that participants could well still be recognised given the personal nature of their disclosures.

Branney’s study revealed that for some people the risks associated with putting their information online, and it being used within a piece of research, were acceptable. However, this was in a context that specifically aimed to offer help to other sufferers and where participants were both recruited offline and fully informed. It seems unlikely that the issues highlighted by this symposium, involved in using data already on the internet, are going to be resolved easily. aj


Unlocking the mysteries of time perception

Do you ever wish you could slow time down? The secret, according to Claudia Hammond, winner of this year’s Public Engagement and Media Award from the Society, is to exploit the holiday paradox – this is the phenomenon whereby vacations seem to whistle by when we’re on them, but feel sluggish in retrospect. The in-the-moment speed of time is accelerated by the arousal and pleasure of engaging in so many new activities;but that same period seems slow looking back, as the brain mistakes memory detail and abundance as evidence that a longer duration has passed. ‘If you fill your weekends with loads of new activities,’ Hammond said, ‘they will go fast at the time, but looking back they’ll seem longer.’

Hammond, who has a new book out (Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception), had earlier opened her talk with an account of BBC journalist Alan Johnston’s experience of time when he was held for four months by kidnappers in Gaza. He became obsessed with time, she said, trying to stay up late so as to sleep through as much of the next day as possible. Once released he vowed never to be impatient again, but just six weeks later he had slipped back into old habits. ‘We can’t change our perception of time long term,’ Hammond said.

Do you remember which year Johnston was released? What about the year of the Chernobyl disaster? Johnston was released in 2007, Chernobyl was in 1986. Hammond explained that most people make estimates that are too recent thanks to a phenomenon called ‘telescoping’ – because we can remember it well, we assume that a notable event must be more recent than it is.

When she’s not writing psychology books, Hammond is prolific on the radio, presenting shows such as All in the Mind and Mind Changers for BBC Radio 4. During one programme she invited listeners to send in descriptions of how they visualise time. Their answers demonstrate how common it is to think of time as extending in space – for example, two thirds of listeners who visualise months of the year do so as a circle. Hammond reported this herself, with her circle going anti-clockwise. For one woman, time was a slinky, for another it was a meandering time-line of past decades. Returning to Johnston’s experience, Hammond said he saw time as a river, finding reassurance in the idea that whatever happens, time moves on.

Hammond closed her talk by explaining how the quirks in the way we think about time sometimes lead to mistakes, most notably the ubiquitous planning fallacy – our tendency to underestimate how long things will take. Among the most dramatic examples of this relates to the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea for the book was first mooted in 1857 and a completion date set for 1862. ‘Five years later,’ Hammond said, ‘and they’d only got to the word and. It was finally finished in 1928, by which time it was completely out of date and had to be re-started again.’ cj
- For games illustrating anomalies of time perception, see Hammond’s website:

Allowing experience to make its impact

‘The methods of scientific psychology are inadequate for understanding experience,’ argued Wendy Hollway (Open University) in her keynote lecture on kinds of knowing. Hollway, a pioneer in qualitative methods, said it’s ‘good news’ that the Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section is now one of the largest in the Society. But she warned that the ‘ghosts of positivism, quantification and objectivity’ still haunt the discipline.

Hollway championed a methodological approach inspired by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s theory of thinking – an epistemology which Hollway said transcends the usual boundaries erected between the subjective and objective, between feeling and thinking, and between the separate individual and inter-subjective connectiveness. ‘Psychoanalysis as epistemology is about knowing of, not knowing about,’ she explained.

As an example of how these ideas can be applied in research, Hollway discussed her project looking at how women’s identities change when they become mothers. Hollway and her colleagues deployed
two psychoanalytically informed methods – free-association narrative interviews with the mothers (including the keeping of reflective field notes by researchers), and infant observation by trained psychoanalytic observers who made weekly visits.

When analysing interviews, Hollway said she increasingly works with the full audio, not just transcripts, because so much is lost by only looking at words on the page. Similarly, researcher field notes allow for reflection on the relationship between the researcher and the participant. Regardingthe infant observation, Hollway explained how this required the difficult-to-master skill of ‘evenly hovering attention’ – the ability to listen to, not to listen for. This allows ‘experience to make its impact’; reflection on what’s observed is about generating thoughts and ideas, not exemplifying existing theories.

‘I’d like to make absolutely clear’, Hollway concluded, ‘that my central point is not that basing knowledge on feeling is the goal… The goal is to notice one’s feelings and reflect on them with support from structures, procedures and other minds. This way fair and valid knowledge lies. Live knowledge. Ethical knowledge.’ cj

Titanic time travellers, Bin Laden, Earheart and more

On the first day of the conference someone asked me whether I’d heard the latest conspiracy theory about the Titanic: that time travellers who went to watch the ship sinking, actually set the events in motion. As a good, scientifically minded, psychologist I began to try and pick apart the rationale for this theory, but soon realised it was impossible to refute.

The way in which some people believe in such improbable explanations was raised in the symposium chaired by Christopher French (Goldsmiths, University of London) on the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. Translating even the lowest reported proportions shows that millions of people believe in such conspiracist ideas in the face of more likely accounts. Robert Brotherton (Goldsmiths, University of London) opened the session with a look at the challenges of assessing these beliefs. Eliciting people’s attitudes towards real-world conspiracy theories, the typical methodology, fails to adequately account for cultural differences and the shifting nature of which conspiracy theories are ‘in vogue’. Brotherton presented a new standardised measure which instead assesses fundamental assumptions about the world held by believers.

It appears that measuring people’s higher-order beliefs has greater validity. Michael Wood (University of Kent) provided evidence that conspiracy believers develop a monological belief system. It is not the specifics of individual theories which are important, rather it is the overarching belief that conspiracies are likely to be behind events. Compellingly, Wood found that people can believe in contradictory explanations for the same occurrences: to believe, for example, both
that Osama Bin Laden has been dead for years, and that he is still alive.

Furthermore, a review paper from French showed how our cognitive systems readily support such conspiracist ideation. We lean towards Type I errors, seeing meanings where there are none, have a natural tendency towards wanting ‘big’ explanations for ‘big’ events, and tend to find evidence that supports rather than undermines our existing beliefs. Other factors include scoring highly on authoritarianism, high degrees of openness to new ideas, and low levels of trust.

Viren Swami (University of Westminster) also identified relevant characteristics with an examination of conspiracy theory beliefs about Amelia Earheart’s disappearance. Gender, ethnicity, religion and education levels did not predict belief in conspiracist explanations. However, self-esteem, self-assessed intelligences, and low levels of agreeableness were predictors.

Now you may be asking, as I did, what does it matter? What harm does it do to let people believe the improbable? The consequences of believing in conspiracy theories can be surprisingly serious. It engages people in politics but simultaneously disenfranchises them by promoting a feeling of powerlessness. It can also cost lives; beliefs in conspiracies about AIDS and the MMR vaccine have affected people’s health behaviours on a large scale.

So what should we do the next time we are faced with Titanic time travellers? Attempting to provide evidence to the contrary is unlikely to help; engaging with the theory simply provides more fodder for the belief. Instead, the speakers suggested that promoting people’s critical thinking skills and addressing distrust in authorities may be more important. aj

Offender profiling– myth and reality

You’re looking at a very old dog indeed,’ said Dr Julian Boon (University of Leicester) as he addressed a packed room for his student conference keynote. Apparently still eager to learn new tricks, Boon said he was ‘always learning’ while sorting the myth from reality in the psychological profiling of offenders.

Claiming to be one of only three forensic/clinical psychologists dealing with profiling, Boon described his work with the police as ‘an art and a science’. With 500–700 ‘calibrating cases’ under his belt, he knows what to look for in the ‘stimulus array’. For example, if there has been minimal attempt to hide the victim this suggests a ‘disorganised offender’, leading to the expected characteristics of social skills difficulties, prior knowledge of the area and victim, etc.

Boon took the audience on a grisly journey with celebrated killers and those tasked with ‘detection, apprehension and incarceration’. Take ‘Big Ed’ Kemper, the serial killer, who convinced state psychiatrists he was ‘safe’ while the severed head of his latest victim was in the car outside. Or John Wayne Gacy,who the authorities extracted valuable information from on the ego-massaging pretext that he was being broadcast live by satellite to other police stations. Referring to the challenges of working with such despicable human beings, Boon said you sometimes have to ‘jump over your shadow’ in search of the truth.
There are dangers in the techniques used, Boon said. Analyses that plot characteristics and events in multidimensional space can be ‘hopelessly misrepresentative’, Boon said: ‘a house made of sand’. Humility is the byword, he concluded. The objective is to maximise effective deployment of limited police resources: anything that can point them in the right direction is ‘gold dust’, but the other alternative is worse. ‘If you don’t know, say so’. js

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