Worrying on the Edge
Edge.org, the online soapbox for scientists and other intellectuals, has published the answers to its latest annual question – What should we be worried about? As usual, numerous psychologists were invited to contribute, including many of our home-grown colleagues. Recurring anxieties were cultural homogenisation and the march of technology, especially the internet (read all the answers at http://edge.org/annual-question).
At the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore believes we should be concerned about the effect of environmental factors on the development of the adolescent brain, something she says we know little about. She highlighted the possible adverse effects of excessive gaming and social networking, and the UNICEF estimate that 40 per cent of teenagers worldwide lack access to secondary education. ‘Adolescence represents a time of brain development when teaching and training should be particularly beneficial. I worry about the lost opportunity of denying the world’s teenagers access to education,’ she said.
For Susan Blackmore, what’s worrying is that we’re losing our manual
skills and developing an ever deeper dependent relationship with
technology. ‘Whether it’s climate change, pandemics, or any of the
other disaster scenarios… and we can no longer sustain our phones,
satellites and Internet servers. What then?’ she asks. ‘Could we turn
our key-pressing, screen swiping hands to feeding ourselves? I don’t
The availability of superficial knowledge at the touch of a button is creating ‘a drearily level playing field’, according to Nicholas Humphrey at the LSE. We used to have to work hard to discover and learn things, he said, and the journey was arguably more important than the ultimate facts.
But ‘soon no one will be more or less knowledgeable than anyone
else,’ Humphrey warned, ‘…it will be knowledge without shading to it,
and, like the universal beauty that comes from cosmetic surgery, it
will not turn anyone on.’
The loss of death, that’s what Kate Jeffery, Head of the Department
of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at UCL, thinks we should be
worried about. Death allows species to improve and flourish, she said,
and yet genetic research promises to create a world filled with not
just your grandparents’ parents’ parents, and their parents, but
everyone else’s too. ‘Truly would the generations be competing with
each other: for food, housing, jobs, space.’
Away from the concerns of technical and medical progress, it’s the
persistence of the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures that worries
Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge
University. In particular, he thinks the gap may have widened when it
comes to the way that sex differences are understood. ‘[T]he debate
about gender differences still seems to polarize nature vs. nurture,’
he said, ‘with some in the social sciences and humanities wanting to
assert that biology plays no role at all, apparently unaware of the
scientific evidence to the contrary.’
Meanwhile, Bruce Hood, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol, argued that we should be worried about the recent trend towards placing so much value on the societal ‘impact’ of science research, especially its economic merits. ‘I would submit that focusing on impact is a case of putting the cart before the horse or at least not recognizing the value of theoretical work,’ he said.
Among the international contingent of psychologist contributors were
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man who developed the concept of ‘flow’,
and Alison Gopnik the author and developmental psychologist. Like many
of his British colleagues, Csikszentmihalyi highlighted his anxieties
about technology, especially the arrival of 3D immersive role-playing
games. The ‘incessant warfare’ involved in such games is not virtual to
the child, he warned – it’s the child’s reality – and within one or two
generations Csikszentmihalyi believes our children will grow up unable
to tell reality from imagination. ‘Of course humanity has always had a
precarious hold on reality,’ he said, ‘but it looks like we are headed
for a quantum leap into an abyss of insubstantiality.’
Alison Gopnik is also worried about children; in particular she’s
worried that many parents worry about the wrong things – middle-class
concerns like the direction of push-chair seats or the rights and
wrongs of co-sleeping – but that as a society we don’t worry enough
about the bigger picture, the huge numbers of children who continue to
live below the poverty line and who lack a safe, stable environment in
which to develop. ‘Children, and especially young children, are more
likely to live in poverty than any other age group,’ she said. ‘This
number has actually increased substantially during the past decade.
More significantly, these children not only face poverty but a more
crippling isolation and instability.’
Christian Jarrett (CJ)
- What do you think we should be worried about? Send your thoughts to [email protected]
Surveying our values
Social commentators often bemoan the loss of family values and rise in selfishness in contemporary Britain. A new survey of the nation’s values paints a far more positive picture.
Last December, the Barrett Values Centre asked 4000 people across the UK to pick the 10 values or behaviours that most reflect who they are. The five most commonly chosen values were ‘caring’, ‘family’, ‘honesty’ and ‘humour/fun’. Respondents also said they experienced values in their local community that largely matched their own values, in terms of family and friendship.
It was a different story at the national level, where there was a striking disconnect between the values people would like to see reflected in the way the UK operates, and the values they perceived to be operating. The top three desired values were: employment opportunities, caring for the elderly and caring for the disadvantaged. Yet the top three perceived values at the national level were: bureaucracy, crime and violence, and uncertainty about the future. The UK’s ‘cultural entropy’ score (based on the proportion of negative values selected by respondents) was higher than eight of nine other European nations surveyed, and higher than in the US, Canada and Australia.
The survey was supported by the Action for Happiness movement and
the UK Office for National Statistics. The chief executive of Action
for Happiness, Dr Mark Williamson, said: ‘At a time when many people
fear we are losing our moral foundations, this research shows that what
people in the UK actually value most of all is caring for others.’
Critics may have concerns about the survey methodology. As well as
the reliance on self-report, respondents’ choice of values was
inevitably constrained by the values they were given to choose from.
For instance, in the list of 93 national values, people could choose
‘animal welfare’ but not ‘mental health’, which wasn’t in the list;
‘environmental pollution’ but not ‘green space’ or ‘scientific
progress’; ‘tolerance’ but not ‘uncontrolled immigration’. CJ
I The United Kingdom Values Survey: Increasing Happiness by Understanding What People Value is available in PDF form at tinyurl.com/bzkqxdj
January saw a British Red Cross psychosocial support team hurry to Algeria to help Britons who had been involved in the four-day siege and hostage crisis. The team, including clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Davidson, travelled to North Africa the day after militants overran a gas plant facility.
Davidson, Deputy Clinical Director on the professional doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of East London, said: ‘We went as part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s rapid deployment team, which is responsible for supporting Britons overseas. We were there to provide emotional support and practical help to British nationals caught in the situation, and their relatives.’
Part of the team’s role was ‘bearing witness’. Davidson said: ‘We
listened to what the people affected wanted to share and helped them
think of ways of understanding their traumatic experiences and how to
deal with them. Those who escaped were worried for those they’d left
behind and they felt a huge responsibility for getting the best outcome
possible. We helped them focus on what they could do, but also to
recognise the limitations of what they could do. We also worked with
them on looking after themselves, for example trying not to spend lots
of time imagining what their friends were going through, and
encouraging them to seek support from friends and partners. As they
begin to recover it will be important to not constantly retell the
story but to plan points togrieve and mark what happened.’
Jon Sutton (JS)
- Davidson wrote about her work in The Psychologist in April 2010 (see tinyurl.com/a9j2mev)
NEW CENTRE IN BATH
A new centre providing specialist treatment for anxiety disorders is to open later this year in Bath. A partnership between the University of Bath and Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Trust, the new Centre for Specialist Psychological Treatments of Anxiety and Related Problems will also conduct cutting-edge research and provide assessment and training. BPS Fellow and Chartered Psychologist Professor Paul Salkovskis will be the Centre’s new clinical director.
Social psychology replications
In the wake of recent concerns about the replicability of findings in social psychology, a special issue of the journal Social Psychology has been announced, dedicated to replicating important results in social psychology. The deadline for full replication proposals is imminent, closing on 28 Feb (grants of up to $2000 are available); proposals based on aggregating existing data have until 30 March.
Norman Kreitman, the psychiatrist and psychotherapist who coined the term ‘parasuicide’, to refer to non-fatal acts of self-harm, has died aged 85. A pioneer in suicide research, he identified self-harm and previous attempts at suicide as major risk factors for a person later taking their own life. Kreitman was also a poet. ‘Yet you imply your history/ requires a unique and loving repair/ I think that where you have come from/ depends on where you are now’ are lines from ‘Therapist’, published in 1984.
CARE QUALITY CONCERNS
Concerns have been raised by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) about the treatment of people detained or treated in the community under the Mental Health Act. The number of people subject to the Act has risen by 5 per cent, and evidence was found in some hospitals of a lack of patient autonomy. ‘CQC is concerned that some hospitals have allowed cultures to develop where control and containment are prioritised over treatment and care,’ said the organisation’s chief executive. - CJ
Full findings at tinyurl.com/adfjfr8
Last year marked 20 years since the first functional MRI paper was published, a milestone that’s prompted a series of retrospectives on the field (see also News, October 2011). The latest appears as a special section in the January issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The emphasis of the (mostly US) contributors is on ways that functional MRI has indeed informed and constrained cognitive psychology theories.
Recalling the advent of the technology, the section editors Mara Mather (USC Davis), John Cacioppo (University of Chicago) and Nancy Kanwisher (MIT) observed in their introduction how ‘few events are as thrilling to scientists as the arrival of a novel method that enables them to see the previously invisible’.
But they also noted the later onset of scepticism. For instance,
Michael Page (University of Hertfordshire) wrote in 2006 (see
tinyurl.com/b8aemgq) that the explosion of fMRI ‘has not resulted in a
corresponding theoretical advancement, at least with respect to
cognitive psychological theory’. Was he right?
Denise Park and Ian McDonough (University of Texas at Dallas) argued for the major theoretical contribution of fMRI in the field of ageing. Traditional cognitive theories – such as limited resource theory and speed of processing theory – tended to espouse a view of ageing as ‘a passive model of decline’, they said. Since then, findings from fMRI, showing, for example, bilateral activation in older brains versus unilateral activation in younger brains (to the same tasks), had fundamentally changed this view, leading to more dynamic models of adaptation ‘characterized by plasticity and reorganization of function in responseto neural degradation and cognitive challenge’.
Examples of fMRI research advancing cognitive theory are rare, admitted Michael Rugg (University of Texas at Dallas) and Sharon Thompson-Schill (University of Pennsylvania), but examples do exist. The pair described work comparing brain-activation patterns associated with colour memory versus colour perception. Results have shown that the amount of anatomical overlap depends on task difficulty and subject factors (such as a preference for verbalisation or visualising information). These findings suggest colour is represented at different levels of abstraction, available for both perception and memory – ‘it is arguable that no other method possesses the combination of spatial resolution and coverage necessary to identify this phenomenon,’ Rugg and Thompson-Schill said.
It’s also important to note that the relationship between cognitive theory and functional brain imaging isn’t just one way – cognitive theory also influences the way we interpret fMRI findings, so said John Wixted and Laura Mickes (University of California San Diego). They gave the example of memory experiments in which participants say whether a stimulus is merely familiar to them (they ‘know’ they’ve seen it before), or if they can actually ‘remember’ encountering it. ‘Remember’ responses tend to be associated with increased hippocampus activity, but how to interpret this depends on cognitive psychology theory. The dual-process signal-detection model says this means the hippocampus supports recollection. By contrast, the continuous dual-process (CDP) model says that ‘remember’ responses reflect the strength of the memory signal (regardless of whether it’s based on recollection or familiarity), and that hippocampus activity is therefore a mark of memory signal strength, not recollection per se. A more sceptical contribution came from Max Coltheart (Macquarie University, Sydney). He highlighted a review he published with others last year of cognitive neuroimaging articles published in leading journals between 2007 and 2011. Of the 199 articles concerned with cognitive functions, just 10 per cent had attempted ‘any kind of evaluation of cognitive theories.’ Coltheart also warned against what he called the ‘consistency fallacy’ – the tendency for brain imaging researchers to report ways that their results are consistent with some cognitive theory without pointing out ‘explicitly what pattern(s) of neuroimaging data that are inconsistent with the theory could plausibly have been obtained in the neuroimaging study’.
Wrapping up the special section, Mara Mather and her co-editors shared their view that fMRI can inform cognitive theory by helping to answer four questions: ‘Which (if any) functions can be localized to specific brain regions? Can markers of Mental Process X be found during Task Y? How distinct are the representations of different stimuli or tasks? And, do two Tasks X and Y engage common or distinct processing mechanisms?’ But the editors also listed fMRI’s limitations, including its inability to demonstrate the causal role of brain activity, and the limits of its spatial resolution, with each voxel reflecting the activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons.
‘The best approach to answering questions about cognition’, they
concluded, ‘therefore is a synergistic combination of behavioral and
neuroimaging methods, richly complemented by the wide array of other
methods in cognitive neuroscience.’ - CJ
I All 12 contributions to the special section are at pps.sagepub.com/content/8/1.toc
Please send your verdict on the contribution of fMRI to cognitive theory to [email protected]
Cosmetic surgery guidelines
Psychological assessment is at the heart of new cosmetic surgery
‘professional standards’ guidelines published by the Royal College of
Surgeons. The new document states that it should be standard practice
to discuss relevant psychological issues with a patient during
consultation prior to cosmetic surgery. ‘It is neither possible nor
necessary for every patient to undergo a detailed psychological
assessment with a clinical psychologist,’ the document states.
‘However, all practitioners should consider if they should refer a
patient to a clinical psychologist before proceeding with further
consultations or treatments and referral pathways should be in place.’
The guideline draws particular attention to patients with a history
of psychiatric problems, especially eating disorders, body dysmorphic
disorder or personality disorders. Concerns about cosmetic
gynaecological surgery are also addressed, and it’s stated that: ‘High
levels of anxiety regarding body image where appearance is within the
normal range should trigger psychological referral.’
Among the contributors to the professional standards document were
Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow Dr Andy Clarke, a
Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
at the Royal Free Hospital; and Chartered Psychologist and Associate
Fellow Professor Nichola Rumsey, Research Director of the Centre for
Appearance Research, University of the West of England. - CJ
I Professional Standards for Cosmetic Practice is at tinyurl.com/axnmeqc
The Wellcome Trust has launched The Hub at Wellcome Collection, an initiative to provide resources and a stimulating space for researchers and other creative minds to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project linked to the Trust’s vision of improving human and animal health. Up to £1m is available for up to two years. Applications can be made by universities, charitable bodies and other not-for-profit organisations. Preliminary applications deadline: 3 May 2013.
The Worshipful Company of Curriers has healthcare bursaries available to enable established primary healthcare professionals to undertake research or personal study to enhance the healthcare of families and children in inner London who, through socio-economic deprivation or other adverse social factors, are at high risk of physical and psychological illness. Further details are available on the website. The closing date for applications is 31 March 2013.
The ESPRC has a call to fund Centres for Doctoral Training. The closing date for outline proposals is 4 April 2013.
The BBSRC Strategic Longer and Larger Grant scheme is open for the submission of outline proposals. Applications are encouraged in specific strategic areas, including ageing across the life-course. Deadline for outline applications: 18 April 2013.
The Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE) has two grant schemes available:
I The Arnold Bentley New Initiatives Fund: one grant of up to £3000 to support new interdisciplinary initiatives concerned with the advancement or promotion of research in the psychology of music or music education.
I Reg and Molly Buck Award: one grant of up to £2500 to support a postdoctoral research project in an area of study that embraces SEMPRE’s aims.
Applications to both schemes can be made at any time.
HUMAN BRAIN PROJECT
A project to create a computer simulation of the human brain has won €1 billion of funding from the European Commission as part of a Future and Emerging Technologies competition. It’s hoped the Human Brain Project will lead to medical benefits, including advances in diagnosis, and the development of systems with brain-like intelligence (www.humanbrainproject.eu).
Standard guidelines call
Psychologists at the University of Sussex have called for standardised global guidelines on what constitutes safe levels of alcohol consumption. Richard de Visser and Nina Furtwængler looked at government guidelines across 57 countries and found huge discrepancies, including a 10-fold difference in accepted blood alcohol levels for drivers. ‘Agreed guidelines would be useful for international efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm by increasing people’s capacity to monitor and regulate their alcohol consumption,’ said de Visser (see tinyurl.com/a9aypum).
Leading questions are known to provoke inaccurate information from eye-witnesses, but intriguing new research suggests this isn’t the case when a robot does the interviewing. The findings by Mississippi State University researchers were reported by New Scientist and are due to be presented at the Human–Robot Interaction Conference in Tokyo this month.
More negative outcomes
The UK Council for Psychotherapy and the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC) have published a survey of their members, which they argue shows longer-term psychotherapy on the NHS is under threat. Seventy-seven per cent of the 800 therapists surveyed said that they’d observed negative outcomes for clients as a result of cuts to services. Gary Fereday (Chief Executive of BPC) said ‘IAPT [improving access to psychological therapies] services are helping many people, but the service was intended to be a way of improving access, and not become the only service available.’
Silent witnesses: Using theatre to combat crime
How can we reduce the risk of children who witness or experience violent crime becoming perpetrators themselves? Perhaps some answers will be gleaned from Silent Witnesses, an 18-month long collaboration between Theatre Centre and senior developmental psychologists Dr Edward Barker and Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck, University of London.
Working with Year Five pupils across 10 inner-city primary schools from Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Manchester, Silent Witnesses will aim to help children deal with violence they may have witnessed in their community, on television or in computer games. The project also seeks to raise awareness among parents and teachers of the role they can play in improving children’s safety and well-being. It will culminate with a tour of a new play by Ed Harris in spring 2014, commissioned and produced by Theatre Centre.
The project comprises three stages. First, the pupils will participate in a two-day residential programme run by playwright Ed Harris and Dr Kirkham. These involve creative writing workshops and group discussion. Then Harris will draw upon the material created in the workshops and the conversations held in schools to create a script that will be developed and rehearsed by Theatre Centre. The production will then be toured to targeted primary schools across the UK. Children, teachers and parents of children at participating schools will complete pre-play and post-play questionnaires evaluating their attitudes to violence and their responses to the play.
By the end of the 18-month long project researchers from Birkbeck will have gathered evidence from over 5000 children, teachers and parents about the role of creative expression in changing responses to, and understanding of, violent behaviour.
Dr Barker said: ‘We hope that by including children’s voices in the
development of the play we will help to engender an atmosphere where
children can talk to adults about their experiences of witnessing
violence, and adults are equipped to support children and help them
reduce their potential to react aggressively themselves.’
Emma Penzer, Headteacher at Mandeville Primary School, Hackney, said: ‘This project will be of great benefit to the children and staff at Mandeville Primary School. Gilpin Square and other neighbouring areas experience a high level of crime. Many children have witnessed shootings, knife crimes and criminal damage, amongst other crimes. Very rarely do they talk about them, particularly to school staff.’ js
Suicide rates rising
Months after the UK government launched its new suicide prevention strategy for England, the latest published figures from the Office National Statistics show that suicides rose significantly in the UK in 2011, with 437 more people taking their own lives compared with 2010 (a rise of 11.1 to 11.8. deaths per 100,000 population).
The latest figures show men remain at particular risk, with three
times the number of suicides compared with women. For both men and
women, the rate of suicide was highest among the middle-aged.
A decade prior to 2010, male suicides had been almost consistently in decline. Female suicides declined from 2004 to 2007, but have mostly been rising ever since.
For information on a recent Samaritans report on suicide and the government suicide prevention strategy, see November News. - CJ
One personality to rule them all?
Reports from the Society's Annual Division of Occupational Psychology Conference
The general factor of personality, or GFP, is analogous to g, the intelligence quotient that predicts to differing degrees the multiple intelligences – verbal, musical, numerical – that sit below it. This symposium at the Division of Occupational Psychology’s Annual Conference reminded us that whereas Spearman posited g in the 1900s, and Thurstone the model of multiple differential intelligences in the 1920s, it took until the 1950s for Phillip Vernonto finally reconcile the models.
Practitioners who use personality emphasise its differential qualities: many facets, no one right profile. But the researchers who advocate GFP argue that there is indeed such a thing as having lots of personality, and this global factor is meaningful as it predicts a range of life outcomes. Critics question whether the GFP is down to statistical artefacts, such as an individual’s desire for social desirability influencing all their questionnaire responses.
Rob Bailey, of OPP, used his presentation to question whether a GFP could truly be useful for practitioners. He pointed out the global factor is described as reflecting people who are relaxed, sociable, emotionally intelligent, satisfied with life, and altruistic, with a low score meaning the opposite of these things. He challenged the audience to imagine cases where such information could be provided to an individual in any constructive fashion, compared to the conventional profiling approach. Bailey then presented a data set of over 1200 individuals paid to complete a 16-factor personality questionnaire, the absence of career implications giving them little incentive to ‘fake nice’ and apply spin to their results. His analysis suggested that folding factors together into more global ones lost power in predicting variables like job satisfaction, and that granular measures may be a better bet.
Rainer Kurz and Rob McIver of Saville Consulting also presented,
looking more sympathetically at how a GFP-approach might be useful.
McIver’s presentation showed the farthest extent of their work, which
explores focusing less on one invariant global factor in favour of a
particular super-score that predicts success for a particular job. He
demonstrated that when a personality test is built item by item to fit
with the aspects of job success that matter in the role, this
criterion-based approach can let you produce single personality
super-scores that are good predictors of success. The data suggested
that with methodological pruning of what traits to value and which to
discount, even tests that aren’t developed this way can be effective
predictors. This approach is very different from a purely
statistics-driven factor extraction of a global factor, and calls for
psychologists to know their psychometrics and understand the target
job. But it seems a promising direction to take in this area.
- Alex Fradera (editor of the Society's Occupational Digest)
A balancing act
Who is responsible for work–life balance? The individual, the organisation, or even the legislative system? That was the question posed at the start of this symposium, and it became clear that ‘one size fits all’ policies and practices don’t exist: we must tailor solutions according to needs and wants.
First up was Dr Ellen Ernst Kossek (Purdue University, USA), who
identified the importance of feeling in psychological control of
boundaries. Based on three validated measures of ‘cross role
interruption behaviours’, ‘boundary control’ and ‘work–family identity
centralities’, Kossek outlined different profiles. You’re either an
‘integrator’ or a ‘separator’, or you cycle between the two:
a ‘volleyer’. Add in consideration of whether your well-being level is high or low and you end up with six styles, including the ‘fusion lovers’ who are happy to integrate work and family life, the ‘job warriors’ who volley away to their heart’s discontent, and ‘captives’ who are the separators with low well-being. It’s also important to note that although most measures of work–life balance focus on the family, it’s an issue for the childless too.
The image of Winston Churchill in his pyjamas, as an early remote wo
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