polygraph; well-being; fraud; report from the PsyPAG conference

Proposed mandatory polygraph testing  for sex offenders

The UK government is proposing a nationwide roll-out of mandatory polygraph testing for convicted sex offenders on licensed release. The move comes after a pilot trial in the Midlands was judged a success. A Downing Street spokesperson told the press: ‘It’s vital that we protect the public from serious sex offenders.’

The polygraph, which measures physiological arousal, is used in some US states as a lie detector test, although it has never been used in an official capacity in that way in the UK. Over the last few decades a large literature has accumulated showing that the measure is unreliable, with a particularly high risk of false positive results. The British Psychological Society’s own review published in 2004 stated ( ‘…even in the most favourable circumstances polygraphic lie detection accuracy is not high.’

Professor Aldert Vrij at the University of Plymouth, a contributor to the BPS review, told us the type of polygraph test used to monitor sex offenders is particularly unreliable because it involves the use of vague questioning. ‘Such tests lack support in the scientific polygraph community,’ he said, adding that he believes it would better for the police to be trained in techniques that aren’t ‘atheoretical and inaccurate’.

The new trial, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, took place between April 2010 and December 2011, and involved 635 sex offenders on supervised release from prison, 332 of whom completed one or more polygraph tests as a condition of their probation (all bar four were male). The University of Kent research team, led by Chartered Psychologist Theresa Gannon, focused on the number of ‘clinically significant disclosures’ made by the offenders during the period of study (e.g. contacting someone they shouldn’t have). These were reported to the researchers by offender managers during periodic telephone interviews. The central finding was that more disclosures were made by offenders who received polygraph tests compared with offenders who did not (an average of 2.6 versus 1.25).

The polygraphed offenders took a total of 606 tests over the course of the trial. They were asked questions about their adherence to supervision and other conditions of their release. Nearly 30 per cent were judged to have lied during their first polygraph test and rates of disclosure were particularly high among these offenders (overall, lying and disclosures tailed off with repeated testing). Disclosures in the polygraph group were most often made during the pre-polygraph interview, suggesting it was the threat of the test that was enticing confessions. Offender managers could respond to disclosures by recalling offenders to prison where they felt this was appropriate. Without a disclosure they were not permitted to recall offenders who failed the polygraph, but they could take measures such as increasing their supervision. Offender managers in the polygraph condition more often took action after a disclosure than managers in the comparison condition.

Interviews with some of the offender managers and offenders generated largely favourable responses. The managers felt the test helped with their task of managing the offenders: ‘Often we’re just relying on self-disclosures... we can’t always check the validity of what they’re saying... the polygraph gives you that back-up,’ said one. Although offenders said they didn’t trust the test, nearly half said it helped them obey the rules of their release. ‘I’m tempted to say that it’s a good idea despite the fact that I detest it,’ said one.

The researchers acknowledged some of the limitations of their study. For instance, it’s possible that knowing they were in the polygraph condition may have motivated the offender managers to report more disclosures. Also, offender disclosures were not verified, so there’s a risk some could have been false. Nonetheless, lead researcher Dr Gannon said she was pleased that the government is considering adopting mandatory polygraph testing nationwide. ‘The research findings clearly show that the polygraph increases communication between sex offenders and probation staff, which has to be a good thing for the community,’ she said.

These latest developments follow the announcement at the start of the year by Hertfordshire police that they had completed a successful polygraph trial involving men arrested for downloading inappropriate images of children. The Association of Chief Police Officers said at the time that they’d established a working group to advise other forces  interested in adopting the technology (see News, February 2012). cj

The evaluation of the mandatory polygraph pilot (pdf):

Death of a psychology pioneer
Psychology is mourning the passing of another of its greats, with news that George Armitage Miller has died aged 92. Miller is known to psychology students the world over, thanks to his seminal paper on the limitations of short-term memory, first published in 1956, ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information’. In a New York Times obituary, Miller (an Honorary Fellow of the Society) is credited with helping establish the nascent subdiscipline of cognitive psychology back in the 1960s when he founded Harvard’s Centre for Cognitive Studies with Jerome Bruner. A collaborator with Noam Chomsky, another of his many interests was language processing. Whilst at Princeton in the 1980s, he oversaw the creation of Wordnet, a lexical database that’s been used in artificial intelligence research. Steven Pinker told the New York Times, ‘George Miller, more than anyone else, deserves credit for the existence of the modern science of mind.’ CJ

Psychologist tops science popularity poll

A postdoctoral psychologist at the University of Bristol has won the ‘I’m a Scientist, in the Zone’ nationwide competition, designed and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Competing against 41 other scientists in an onlineX-factor-style popularity contest (see, Pete Etchells took to his computer through the summer to answer live science questions posed by hundreds of school students aged 11 to 19. At the end of the 12-week process, the students voted for their favourite scientist, and Etchells, a specialist in eye-movement research, came out on top (follow him on Twitter @DrPeteEtchells).

‘I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for scientists to get involved in projects like this’, said Etchells, ‘and would encourage as many other students and postdocs to take part as possible. It’s important to help people understand that scientists aren’t just stereotypical old men in white coats – anyone can be a scientist.’ Etchells writes a science blog ‘CounterBalanced’ at, part of the Nature blogs network, and plans to spend his £500 prize on creating short, engaging psychology videos.

Etchells’ success follows the triumph of psychology graduate Suzi Gage and BPS member Helen O’Connor, who won the Brain and Sports Zones, respectively, in last year’s ‘I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here’ version of the contest. CJ

More data malpractice hits social psychology

The cloud of scandal hanging over social psychology refuses to pass, with news that yet another social psychologist has left his post amid accusations of malpractice. According to Nature, Lawrence Sanna resigned at the end of May from the University of Michigan where he held a professorship, and has so far retracted four papers – three in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and one in Psychological Science.

The last paper ‘Construing collective concerns: Increasing cooperation by broadening construals in social dilemmas’, published in 2009, purported to show that people behave more cooperatively when primed to think abstractly. ‘The data reported in this article are invalid and should not be considered part of the scientific literature,’ was how the journal said Sanna explained his retraction to them.

Concerns about Sanna’s data were first raised by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Uri Simonsohn – the same man who identified anomalies in the data of the Dutch psychologist, Dirk Smeesters, found guilty of research malpractice earlier this year (see News, August 2012). Simonsohn’s statistical techniques for identifying questionable data are explained in a paper that he’s recently submitted for publication in Psychological Science, and which is now also available online at the Social Science Research Network (, entitled ‘Just post it: The lesson from two cases of fabricated data detected by statistics alone’.

Simonsohn says in his paper that he is also aware of a third case of suspected fraud but because of the unavailability of the relevant raw data he is unable to demonstrate this conclusively. ‘[If ] we desire to prevent and detect fraud,’ he concludes, ‘journals should require authors to post the raw data behind the results they report.’ CJ

Cambridge departments merge

The University of Cambridge has merged its two psychology departments (‘Experimental Psychology’ and ‘Social and Developmental Psychology’) to create a unitary Department
of Psychology within the School of Biological Sciences. The new department is headed by BPS Fellow Professor Trevor Robbins and has 19 research groups (Robbins talked about the merger in an interview in our May issue). Psychology at Cambridge has a long history: the university appointed W.H.R. Rivers as a lecturer in Physiological and Experimental Psychology in 1897, and its first proper psychology laboratory opened in 1912.

Dementia report

An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia has investigated why so many people with dementia fail to receive a diagnosis, thus impeding their access to treatment. A common reason is people believing that memory problems are a normal part of ageing. Many surveyed carers and patients complained about GPs being barriers to diagnosis rather than gatekeepers. The provision of memory clinics was also found to vary widely around the country.
I    Download the report at

Antipsychotics and patient choice

A pair of clinical psychologists, Professor Anthony Morrison and Dr Paul Hutton, together with colleagues, have called for patients with psychosis to be given more choice about whether or not to take antipsychotic medication. In an editorial for the British Journal of Psychiatry, Morrison et al. argue that recent meta-analyses show that the benefits of the drugs have been overestimated whilst their harmful side-effects have been underestimated (
). ‘It may be time to reappraise the assumption that antipsychotics must always be the first line of treatment for people with psychosis,’ they wrote.

Rich and rewarding

Jon Sutton reports from the annual conference of PsyPAG at the University of Northumbria, 18–20 July

These are not easy times to be a postgraduate in psychology. Talking to delegates at my first PsyPAG conference for some 15 years, I was struck by their drive and professionalism in the face of looming career uncertainty and limited opportunities. Perhaps competition is good for the discipline; on the basis of the buzz surrounding this event, the next generation are certainly ones to watch.

PsyPAG is a national organisation for all psychology postgraduates based at UK institutions. Funded by the Research Board of the British Psychological Society, PsyPAG is run on a voluntary basis by postgraduates for postgraduates. This excellent conference, hosted by the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, brought together postgraduates from around the country. The three days were led by keynotes from established academics.

Before my flying visit, Professor Gerry Altmann (University of York) opened the conference with a talk on the importance of multiple representations of an object for event comprehension. On reading ‘the squirrel will crack the acorn’, we must maintain multiple instantiations of the acorn: before it was cracked, and after. Using a series of fMRI and eye tracking studies, Altmann showed how these ‘before’ and ‘after’ states compete, and the implications of this for sentence processing and the implicit learning of grammatical information.

Also before my arrival (thanks to Cross Country Trains), Professor Pam Briggs (Northumbria University) questioned why we trust online health advice. More than 80 per cent of internet users seek health information online, and Briggs has found that nearly all of those who reject a site as a trusted source do so in the first few minutes, simply on the basis of design factors such as poor layout and use of colour, pop up adverts and poor navigation aids. Beyond that, users are looking for informative, unbiased content, clear simple language, and features such as discussion groups and frequently asked questions. Briggs advises those delivering health information online to make the page visually appealing, avoid overly commercial elements, make the motivations of the site clear, create a likeable character for the website, allow personalised, tailored experience, and include markers of both social identity and expertise. And these characteristics have an impact: creating high- and low-trust versions of a website describing the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, Briggs was able to demonstrate greater reductions in drinking amongst those who had viewed the high-trust version. She is now working on, a programme examining the role of patients’ experiences as a resource for choice and decision making in health care.

On the final day, Professor Ian Maynard (Sheffield Hallam University) gave a timely account of 20 years as a sport psychologist with British Olympic sailing. Back in Barcelona 1992, he admitted, ‘We were rubbish. I was probably the most rubbish of the lot. It was a recipe for disaster… underperformance from the sailors and support staff.’ Thankfully many of Maynard’s reflections at the time were adopted for the next Games in Atlanta –a move towards individualised sports science which he described as ‘from G and T – gin and tonic – to G and T – gym and training’. Drawing on psychological constructs such as hardiness, need for achievement, and dependency, Maynard illustrated the numerous tweaks that can make that 0.01 per cent difference between gold and silver. It was fascinating to see the shifts in emphasis over the years, from mental toughness and building the ‘British bubble’ around the team, to a focus on different types of goal – process, performance and outcome. After Athens, a more ‘corporate’ approach was the order of the day, with Maynard emphasising that ‘money wins medals’. With huge honesty, he admitted, ‘I’m still not sure after 30 years in sport psychology whether I’m just a placebo.’ Maynard must have done plenty right though, given the medals haul and the increased sport psychology input over 20 years from a lone sport psychologist on 40 days per year to one full-time and two part-time in 2008.

Of course, the keynote speakers were just a small part of the proceedings. Highlights from the postgraduates themselves on the first day included symposia on ‘qualitative research with impact’, forensic psychology, and eating behaviours; followed by talks on topics as diverse as white water rafting accidents (Iain Wilson, Loughborough University), text message shortcuts (Kirsten Bartlett, Sheffield Hallam University), and trauma reaction in police officers (Sajida Naz, University of Huddersfield).

On day two I attended an excellent symposium on the importance of psychological factors to physical health and well-being. Alys Griffiths (University of Manchester) had gone into deprived areas of Sheffield and found that feelings of defeat and entrapment predicted later depression, anxiety and a reduction in positive coping strategies. Incoming PsyPAG Chair Fleur-Michelle Coiffait (University of Edinburgh and NHS Lothian) demonstrated the importance of cognitive factors such as locus of control in the subjective well-being of parents who have children with profound and multiple intellectual disabilities. Rebecca Band (University of Manchester) described her work on the role of significant others in chronic fatigue syndrome. Annegret Schneider (Peninsula Dental School) highlighted the importance of mapping feelings and cognitions over the course of the dental care cycle, in order to reduce the very common dental anxiety. Finally, Amy Cadden (NHS Lothian) revealed a worrying lack of screening for mood disturbances in stroke patients, and outlined the use of a ‘distress thermometer’ measure to remedy this.

The rich and rewarding presentations just kept on coming on the final day. I particularly enjoyed Alison Davies (Open University) on how the talk of parents of children with ADHD construct what it means to be a ‘good father’; Hannah Heath (University of Bath) with
a study of the impact that self-harm has on friends and friendships; and Nadia Crellin (UCL) on measuring family carer efficacy for managing neuropsychiatric symptoms in dementia.

The conference also offered a range of workshops. The one I attended, led by trainee occupational psychologists Laura Neale and Nicola Toth (University of Northumbria) aimed to create the resilient psychologists of the future, who could survive ‘the rollercoaster of postgraduate study’. The importance of playing to signature strengths, adopting ‘can do’ thinking and an optimistic explanatory style, and setting SMART goals were all in evidence. Developing and using good social support systems was described as a key way to strengthen well-being and resilience.

PsyPAG is one such support system during what can seem like a long and lonely slog. On the basis of this successful conference – for which much credit must go to the organising committee of Sarah Goldie, Amy Fielden, Greg Elder and Laura Neale – I would encourage all postgraduates to get involved. 

- See for more details. You can also follow @PsyPAG on Twitter, and there is a PsyPAG Alumni Association for past committee members (see

Honours at the International Congress

One of Britain’s foremost developmental psychologists, Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith CBE of Birkbeck, University of London, was honoured with the prestigious Fondation Mattei Dogan Prize by the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) in July.

Established in 2006, the $4000 award recognises ‘a contribution that represents a major advancement in psychology by a scholar or team of scholars of high international reputation’. Karmiloff-Smith, an Honorary Fellow of the Society, was presented with the award in Cape Town, at the 30th International Congress of Psychology.

‘She is an international scholar and scientist who, for the past 30 years, has been working at the intersections between educational and developmental psychology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and linguistics,’ said IUPsyS President Rainer Silbereisen.

Professor Karmiloff-Smith began her research career in Geneva at the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology run by Jean Piaget. Between then and arriving at Birkbeck, she’s worked at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the MRC Cognitive Development Unit in London and the UCL Institute of Child Health. The latter phase of her career has been focused on atypical development, including the study of conditions like William’s syndrome and Down’s syndrome. Karmiloff-Smith advocates a dynamic ‘neuroconstructivist’ approach that recognises how syndrome-specific abnormalities in basic level processes give rise to problems in particular domains such as with numbers.

‘I am honoured to receive this award’, Karmiloff-Smith said in a statement to the BPS, ‘and especially delighted that it recognises the importance of development in psychological research.’

Another award winner in Cape Town was Albert Bandura of Stanford University, the creator of ‘social learning theory’, which was made famous by his Bobo doll experiment published in 1961. Bandura was honoured with the IUPsyS Lifetime Career Award. ‘Bandura’s work inspired us, he really served the humanity,’ said IUPsyS President Silbereisen.

Dr Sathasivan (Saths) Cooper, previously Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Durban-Westville, was honoured with the Achievement Against the Odds Award for ‘a researcher or team…who succeeded in conducting research under extremely difficult circumstances’. Cooper spent nine years in jail for opposing apartheid, including resisting the creation of an ethnic university. He was credited by IUPsyS with helping to restore the reputation of psychology in South Africa and is set to succeed Silbereisen as IUPsyS President.

Finally, Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California and William Cunningham at the University of Toronto were honoured with Young Investigator Awards, in recognition of the significant contribution they’ve already made to psychological science.
In his closing remarks at the Congress, Rainer Silbereisen said the presentations and discussions at the event were ‘catalysts for better and more relevant basic, applied, and translational research, and for the professional applications of psychology – all working towards improving, developing and enriching society for everyone. Psychology is serving the humanity.’ CJ

National well-being

Bearing in mind that we’d yet to enjoy the tonic of the Olympics, a flurry of reports were published this summer, providing new evidence about the state of the country’s mental well-being. First off, the Office For National Statistics (ONS) published its first annual subjective well-being results, showing that three quarters of people aged over 16 rated their overall life satisfaction as 7 or more (considered medium to high) on a scale of 1 to 10.

Comparing across regions, the highest proportion of people reporting very low or low life satisfaction lived in England, the lowest proportion in Northern Ireland. The data also revealed the adverse effects of unemployment – across the UK, 45 per cent of the unemployed rated their life satisfaction below 7, twice the proportion of employed people who did so.

Fears about the effects of economic austerity were also raised by new data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre on prescriptions in England by GPs and other health professionals. Of the 200 drug categories, the largest rise was in antidepressants, with just under 47 million prescriptions made in 2011, an increase of 3.9 million (or 9.1 per cent) compared with 2010 – the continuation of a decades-long trend. Prescription rates were highest in Blackpool, which was also the English town with the lowest happiness levels in the ONS survey (across the whole UK, the Orkney Islands were the happiest place).

The national picture was darkened further by an online survey of 300 UK GPs, over three quarters of whom said they felt there’d been an increase in mental health problems linked to the recession, particularly anxiety in men. The survey was conducted between April and May by the Insight Research Group.

If the doctors’ fears are true, the health consequences of increased rates of poor mental health were brought home by a new study published in the BMJ. Tom Russ and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 10 longitudinal studies conducted in England involving over 68,000 people. They found that even mild, subclinical levels of psychological distress were associated with an increased risk of dying sooner, even after lifestyle, social and health factors were taken into account ( bmj.e4933). More severe psychological distress was associated with even greater risk of death. ‘Further research is required to investigate whether treating psychological distress…could have an ameliorating effect on the increased mortality demonstrated here,’ the researchers said. CJ

No need to hide your ‘lying eyes’

A team of psychologists led by Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire has debunked a popular myth about lying (PLoS One; The researchers tested the idea, rooted in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) teachings, that in right-handers, glancing up and to the right is a sign of lying whilst looking up and to the left is a sign that a real memory is being recalled. Wiseman’s team instructed 32 students to lie about where they’d hidden a mobile phone and then analysed their eye movements.

No evidence was found that the students made more up-and-right eye movements when lying compared with when telling the truth. An analysis of real-life videos of people lying at press conferences also failed to turn up any support for the myth. The results provide ‘considerable grounds to be skeptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye-movements provide a reliable indicator of lying,’ the researchers concluded.

Since its publication in July, the open-access article has been downloaded over 20,000 times, and numerous NLP practitioners have taken to social media outlets to say that they never made such claims in the first place. Wiseman responded on Twitter: ‘Love the NLP folks saying they never  believed the eye movement lying claim. Before yesterday we couldn’t find [a single] website that was critical.’ CJ


From the cross–research council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme:
Extending working lives: Research Partnership Awards. Available to support collaborations between academics and public/private employers to conduct research  promoting health and well-being in the older workforce. Areas of interest include understanding the determinants of working later in life and the relationship between health, work and well-being of older workers. To assist researchers to build collaborative partnership with employers and stakeholders a Partnership Building Workshop will take place on 8–10 October 2012. Deadlines: Workshop 5 September 2012. Outline proposals 4 December 2012.

Promoting physical activity in older age. Funding for interdisciplinary research into the physiological effects and behaviours associated with physical activity and sedentary behaviour in older adults, which will inform the future development of effective interventions to motivate and sustain activity in this target population. Proposals should focus on the following:
I Effects of activity and sedentary behaviour on older people’s health
I Understanding the determinants of physical activity and sedentary lifestyles in later life
I Measurement of activity and inactivity in older populations
Collaborations with users, service providers, stakeholder organisations and government departments are strongly encouraged. Applications deadline: 18 October 2012.

The EPSRC is organising a five-day interactive workshop (sandpit) on Digital Personhood on 26–30 November 2012. This initiative will explore ‘How can digital technologies influence individual expression of “self”?’ The main themes will be:
I overcoming barriers to the expression of digital identity
I curating personal digital narratives
I physical proxies of digital self
I multiple digital projections of self for good or bad
I understanding how citizens could be empowered by utilising the value of their digital self.
 Applications deadline: 24 September 2012.

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