Media coverage from the Society's Annual Conference, Anders Breivik and more

An almost perfect media cocktail
Gail Kinman on extensive coverage of the Society’s Annual Conference

Reflecting the popularity of psychology in the public domain, the Society’s 2012 annual conference, held in London from 18 to 20 April, attracted considerable attention from the media. The Public Relations team, together with the Media and Press Committee, identified papers and posters that were potentially ‘media friendly’ and worked with authors to prepare 24 press releases that sought to communicate their research findings to the public in a clear and accessible way. The press releases reflected the diverse nature of research presented at the conference, including: the impact of electronic cigarettes on smokers’ working memory; trauma in victims of online dating scams; prison gangs as sources of friendship; why people need to believe in conspiracy theories; impaired brain function and structure in violent offenders; how superstitions help footballers control pre-match anxiety; the benefits of t’ai chi for older people; and the influence of advertisers’ use of celebrities in advertising on children.

Research presented at the conference received extensive coverage in newspapers, magazines and periodicals, and online within the UK, as well as on news and science websites in countries including the USA, Nigeria, New Zealand, China and India. Stories received high-quality coverage in several UK national newspapers, such as The Independent, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, as well as the local press throughout the UK. The research was also featured on numerous national and local radio stations including BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio Wales and Radio 5 Live.

One of the most popular stories from a media perspective focused on the benefits of visiting the coast. Katherine Ashbullby and Mathew White (Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry) presented data from 2750 respondents drawn from a two-year study of public engagement with the natural environment. The study examined the relative impact of visits to urban parks, the countryside and the coast. Although all three types of location were associated with positive feelings, such as calm, pleasure and appreciation, trips to the seaside were most satisfying – even after controlling for factors such as the distance travelled, the presence of others and the activities undertaken. Highlighting its broad appeal, this story was featured by 18 radio stations including the BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show and BBC Radio Wales. It was also covered widely by the national and local press, attracting headlines such as ‘We do like to be beside the seaside’, ‘Life’s a beach’, and more creatively ‘Plain to sea – a hard-wired draw to the coast’. Reflecting on the findings, an editorial published in The Guardian suggested that proximity to the sea should be taken more seriously as a predictor of national well-being, and possibly included in a world happiness index. The reality of many British seaside holidays was appropriately but unintentionally illustrated, however, as the webpage featuring this story was also advertising windproof umbrellas and woolly socks.

Reinforcing the stereotype of the British as a nation of dog lovers, another popular story from the conference suggested that people are drawn to breeds that reflect their personality. An online survey of 1000 dog owners conducted by Jo Fearon and Lance Workman of Bath Spa University (in collaboration with the Kennel Club) found considerable variation between breed groups and owners’ personality (measured by the Big Five) with owners of hound dogs, for example, scoring more highly on emotional stability, and owners of toy dogs (such as Chihuahuas) being more open to experience. This story was covered widely by the print and broadcast media: Dr Workman was interviewed by radio stations, national newspapers and websites; these interviews were then distributed to over 180 media outlets. National newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail illustrated their coverage of the research findings with photographs of famous dog owners such as the Queen, the Duchess of Cambridge, Geri Halliwell and Simon Cowell suggesting that their choice of breed ‘gave away secrets’ about their personality. 

Psychological research that provides insight into romantic relationships is of particular interest to the media and the public in general. Unsurprisingly, Adrian Banks’ (University of Surrey) findings
that men tend to flirt at work through boredom and lack of emotional intelligence rather than genuine passion was widely featured – though the findings were sometimes interpreted selectively with one newspaper’s headline reading ‘The office flirt doesn’t fancy you – he’s just bored and a bit dim’. Contradicting ‘traditional’ evolutionary theory on mate choice, the findings of a study conducted by Fay Julal (Southampton Solent University) that women seek less dominant dates during a recession were also covered widely. Dr Julal presented a series of fictitious online dating profiles to more than 150 women; findings suggest that men who consider themselves ‘natural followers’ are more attractive to women than rich alpha males during an economic downturn, as they are seen as less likely to cheat on them. Focusing on relationships in the workplace, the risk to well-being of expressing your ‘real’ self at work compared to in romantic relationships was highlighted in research conducted by Oliver Robinson (University of Greenwich) and colleagues from the University of Houston, USA.

Other research received extensive media coverage. Richard Keegan’s (University of Lincoln) findings that middle-aged unfit people benefit from being ‘nagged, nudged and cajoled’ by family and friends into being more active was popular with the print and broadcast media, as well as on health-related websites. The findings of a study conducted by Chris Pawson (University of East London) and Mark Gardner (University of Westminster) that students who take water into examinations may improve their grades were also widely disseminated. We received a great deal of positive feedback from researchers whose findings received attention from the media. The encouragement, guidance and support provided by the PR team and Press and Media Committee was highly praised. Moreover, with few exceptions, researchers felt that journalists were genuinely keen to represent their research findings accurately and highlight their real-world relevance. A degree of ‘spin’ in reporting findings within the media is, however, only to be expected. This is well illustrated by Lance Workman’s comments on the press coverage of his research on dog breeds and personality: ‘Looking back on it I think the reason the story took off was because it was about both dogs and their owners – it allowed the press to publish pictures of cute dogs and of celebrities walking them – perhaps an almost perfect media cocktail!’

Helping to process trauma?

Anders Behring Breivik’s trial for the mass murder of 77 people last July has puzzled mental health experts trying to decide one of the central questions in the case: whether he is insane or in touch with reality. As Norwich-based Chartered Psychologist Ged Bailes commented, in a piece for Reuters: ‘It’s a hell of a complex case. Mad people can do bad things and bad people can become mad. There are lots of areas of overlap.’ So to what extent is media comment from psychologists useful and, indeed, ethical?

Society members have historically been advised not to comment on ‘celebrities’, the reasoning being that if a psychologist has insider knowledge then this should be confidential, and if they haven’t then they are in danger of straying beyond their own professional competence unless they can keep the comment very general. Could the same logic apply to Breivik?

I turned to the guidelines for Society members on ethics and the media (see There seemed to be several pertinent points in terms of respecting the dignity and autonomy of contributors and other persons:
I    promoting fairness and sensitivity in portraying individuals and groups;
I    observing best practice standards for privacy, confidentiality and anonymity which are only infringed with the valid consent of the individual(s) concerned or where there is a clear overriding public interest;
I    refraining from public comment on the behaviour or psychology of identifiable individuals where there is any risk of offence, distress or other harms.

Could it be argued that Breivik has surrendered any claim to privacy or protection from offence, and that there is clear overriding public interest?
In terms of ‘supporting high standards of integrity’, the guidelines include:
I    maintaining high scientific standards of accuracy and evidence;
I    advocating coverage of a diverse range of views and fostering debate;
I    avoiding offering comment, opinion or advice beyond one’s professional competence.

‘Armchair diagnosis’ is certainly not without risks, and some commentators appeared to come unstuck. For example, Dr Raj Persaud and Ramón Spaaij speculated that Breivik may be considering suicide – ‘this is a person who appears capable of delivering death, against all odds’ – but just a couple of days later Breivik said, ‘I have never been suicidal and never will be.’

Some comment seemed uncomfortably black and white. For example, the Reuters piece explained that ‘people with anti-social or dissocial disorders include callous unconcern for the feelings of others, a low tolerance for frustration, incapacity to experience guilt, and a tendency to blame others, traits displayed by Breivik. “You only need to look at that and you can see Breivik has a dissocial or antisocial personality disorder,” said Michael Reddy, an associate fellow with the British Psychological Society who specializes in pathological behaviors within organizations.’

Of course Breivik has given commentators plenty of material to comment on, so opinion is at the very least informed. And the case is particularly interesting to psychologists because in other mass killings, the executor typically commits suicide or is killed by police. Many found themselves drawn to the case and Breivik’s testimony, including Simon Baron-Cohen in The Guardian ( and The Times, and Simon Wesseley in The Lancet (
Returning to the guidelines, perhaps of most relevance are those on ‘Being socially responsible’, including:
I    … acknowledging a shared collective duty for the welfare of human and non-human beings, both within the societies in which media production takes place, and beyond them
I    considering possible risks and seeking to minimise them while maximising benefits.

If psychologists have weighed up these risks and benefits and are able to provide intelligent comment, then perhaps this is what the dissemination of a knowledge of psychology is all about. Perhaps there is also a wider impact than on the discipline itself: when I asked about this on Twitter, @avalloyd responded: ‘I think in the Breivik case psychs commenting help “society” to cognitively process such a traumatic event.’

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