Reports from the Annual Conference

reports from the Society’s Annual Conference in Harrogate, including: Alex Haslam and Robin Dunbar covering each other’s keynotes; asylum seekers; social media; Presidential Address; magicians, mesmerists and mediums; the 2011 riots; contemporary masculinities; revisiting the classics; ethics; working memory and education; nostalgia; and more. Download PDF for full version.

You had to be there
Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) opens our Annual Conference coverage with his report on a keynote by Robin Dunbar

Technology is often presented as a solution to the woes of the human condition. E-mail, for example, was initially promoted as a tool that would facilitate a host of cumbersome working practices and free up time for things that we really wanted to do. Reality, though, is less glamorous. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the main thing e-mail has freed us up to do is more e-mails. At a more specific level, the NHS National Programme for IT was initially sold as a project that would revolutionise health delivery and save both time and money by streamlining the management of medical records and associated processes across institutions, services and professions. Ten years and £13 billion later (enough to pay the salaries of 30,000 clinical psychologists for a decade), the project was scrapped without a single patient ever having benefited from it.

In such ways, our capacity to be seduced – but ultimately betrayed – by technological development seems to be as limitless as the budgets that such developments demand.

Turning, then, to new social media like Facebook and Twitter,
a critical question is whether their promise to create a new super-connected and super-socialised citizenry is equally far-fetched.

Do they really offer anything different? And, if they do, is this something we really need or can actually use? These were questions that Robin Dunbar – Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford – addressed in his recent keynote address to the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Harrogate in April.

Despite the fact that many of the speaker’s lectures are available online (e.g. on Oxford’s Creative Commons website), the auditorium was packed to the proverbial rafters. This itself bears testimony to the fact that in the age of the digital classroom, there is still something significant to be gained from face-to-face experience. Moreover, having been there, this is something to which I can attest. Indeed, in itself, the ability to say ‘I was there’ is no trivial thing. For those at the BPS meeting it affirms one’s place in the world as a high identifier with contemporary psychological science just as surely as having seen Derek Stark’s screaming 40-yard goal in Dundee United’s 2-0 victory over AS Roma in the 1984 European Cup semi-final marks one out as a committed and credible Tangerines fan.

Moreover, having watched the Roma match replayed on YouTube and listened to Dunbar again on Podcast, I can confirm that technology does violence to social reality. At Tannadice, Stark’s shot screamed into the net like a guided missile, on YouTube it looks altogether more ordinary. And although Dunbar’s lecture was up there with very best, the same is true of conference keynotes. Moreover, it is one thing to hear the applause of others, quite another to be part of its collective authorship.

Technology, then, is a good supplement but a poor substitute for the real thing. And much the same, it turns out, is true of Facebook friends. In its infancy Mark Zuckerberg’s creation was promoted as having the capacity to do for friendship networks what jet engines did for aeroplanes – with possibilities limited only by the scope of the user’s imagination. In the case of Facebook, this means that one could potentially have up to 5000 friends. But in reality, unless they are using them for something other than friendship (e.g. as a client base or fanclub) the number of friends that people actually have appears stubbornly constrained to an average of around 150.

For Dunbar, 150 is an integer that has particular resonance, since it is the number that bears his name. Why? Well because, as his research has shown, this is a recurring number when it comes to modern social groups (equating ‘modern’ with the emergence of the human neocortex approximately a quarter of a million years ago). It is, for example, the size of a band of hunter-gatherers, the size of effective organisational units (as discovered by Gore-Tex), and the number of people that typically read the Christmas cards we send.

Dunbar’s key point is that for all its promises, the value of technology is always constrained by human socio-biology – in this case, the number of people with whom we can interact meaningfully. Biology (the size of the neocortex) places limits on the number of people whose names we can remember, whose activities we can work into our diaries, whose allegiances we can monitor. Or, looked at another way, it was the need to sustain large social networks (and, in the animal kingdom, 150 defines the upper extreme of a continuum) that required us to develop brains that could support this.

Going back to one of the examples with which we started, the significance of this analysis is that it points to the problems that are likely to arise when we put a technological cart before the social psychological horse. The reason the NHS IT project failed was that its architects imagined foolishly that social behaviour would necessarily follow where computer science led. Likewise, it seems naive to believe that Facebook or any similar product can, in and of itself, be a panacea for problems associated with a lack of human connectedness.

This is not to say that such technologies are worthless. Indeed, Dunbar presents plenty of evidence that speaks to their utility and value – something with which 40 million Facebook users would no doubt agree. The critical thing, though, is that our appreciation of their worth and our ambitions for their application must be tied to an appropriate understanding of the nature of human society. Indeed, empirical work that explores the impact of new technologies affirms that, far from making such understanding redundant, it is now more important than ever.

Opening the box
Robin Dunbar returns the favour, with his report on Alex Haslam’s keynote

Every discipline has its icons, and for social psychology these are surely the classic studies of conformity and aggression carried out by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961 and Philip Zimbardo at Stanford exactly a decade later. Taking a leaf from Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the Eichman Nazi warcrimes trial that same year, the grand conclusion from both these studies was that humans are not intrinsically evil, just mindless conformists. Alex Haslam takes a different view.

One starting point for this claim was Haslam’s own investigations, with Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews), in the Milgram archives. What caught their attention was Box 44 – the original handwritten comments made by Milgram’s subjects after the experiment. Among the most common was gratitude for having been allowed to take part in an important, ground-breaking scientific experiment – ordinary folk making their contribution to science, something they viewed as worthwhile. (Oh, the days when scientists were held in such high esteem!) In essence, Haslam’s argument is that most of these people were far from being distressed by their experiences (as some have claimed) but rather were delighted to take part, felt honoured by the opportunity and were therefore committed to the grand project (science) that the experiment represented. They would have done whatever Milgram asked because they believed in him: this was ‘engaged (or identified) followership’, not mindless conformity. Milgram himself had contributed to the effect: it was clear from the notes that he had ‘bigged up’ the experiment and their value in it.

Both Milgram and Zimbardo were skilled salesmen, and this in part explains why their experiments succeeded. Herein, mused Haslam, may be an answer as to why young graduate students so often find their experiments not working properly: unlike Milgram and Zimbardo, they lack the ‘identity entrepreneurship’ to talk up their project and persuade their subjects to engage enthusiastically.

Towards the end of his lecture, Haslam turned back to Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann, a view that had played a seminal a role in Milgram’s own thinking. In fact, Haslam makes a case for their having been ‘identified followers’. Himmler’s ‘Posnan Speech’, delivered in 1943 to his SS extermination squads in Poland, illustrates this. Like Milgram, Himmler played up the big story – the contribution the squads were making to the greater good. Yes, it was dirty work and hard to do, and, yes, none of them liked doing it… but by giving the squads a purpose in the grand scheme of things, he was able to turn ordinary men into engaged followers, enthusiastically and creatively doing what was necessary.

The key insight is that it makes nonsense of the ‘they-made-me-do-it-guv’ defence. Eichmann and his ilk were not forced to do what they did. They weren’t even given orders by the Führer (as Eichmann claimed in his defence). Theirs was a willing and committed engagement with the grand plan. Hitler didn’t need to tell them what the plan was: their whole being was committed to second guessing what the Führer and his henchmen might want. Haslam’s point is that it was not blind obedience that motivated Milgram’s subjects and Himmler’s thugs; rather, they were actually engaged in a labour of love. That’s an argument that gels with the emerging evolutionary social psychology view of charismatic leaders and the important role they have played (and still do play) in creating social cohesion around a central theme –in both politics and religion.

The way they move
The vulnerability of child and adult witnesses to leading questions is well documented. But what about the way the interviewer moves their hands? Elizabeth Kirk at the University of Hertfordshire presented her research that involved the questioning of 30 two- to four-year-olds and 26 seven- to nine-year-olds about the events in a 90-second video.
Kirk found that 93 per cent of the children were susceptible to being misled by an interviewer’s gestures – for example, stroking their chin at the same time as asking if a (clean-shaven) man in the video had had a beard. On average the children incorporated around 2.5 out of eight misleading gestures into their narratives. Age and superior language ability offered no protection. Among older children only, a greater tendency to mirror the interviewer’s gestures was associated with more vulnerability to misleading gestures. ‘These findings have serious implications for how we interview child witnesses,’ Kirk said.
A related line of research was presented by Daniel Gurney, also based at the University of Hertfordshire. Sixty adults were presented with a staged crime captured on CCTV and then asked 20 questions about what had happened. If the interviewer nodded as the participants answered, the participants tended to say they were more confident in their answers. In contrast, a shake of the interviewer’s head was associated with reduced confidence. Debriefed afterwards, it was those participants who said they’d noticed the nods and shakes who’d shown the strongest signs of being influenced. 

A member of the audience asked about the subtlety of the gestures – would police interviewers really nod and shake their heads in this way? ‘We spend a lot of time performing these gestures in the most natural way possible, rehearsing them,’ Gurney said.
- Christian Jarrett

Emotional closeness across the net

As use of social media like Facebook and Twitter has exploded, there’s been an accompanying cacophony of speculation about the impact of these new media on our relationships. This symposium on the ‘perils and pleasures’ of social media was a chance at last to hear about some actual data on this controversial issue.

Jens Binder of Nottingham Trent University began by describing his new ‘fictitious friends’ paradigm. Student participants read six-month-long exchanges between two friends conducted via virtual media (such as Facebook) or traditional media (such as the phone and face-to-face).

Virtual exchanges were rated as less enjoyable, even though the content was just as positive as in the exchanges by traditional media. The students’ own technology use also made a difference. Binder said low-tech users were ‘blown away’ by friendship exchanges that relied on virtual media, rating them very positively, but were less impressed by more traditional interaction patterns.

The reverse was found for high-tech users who responded less positively to virtual media use A similar study involving female non-students recruited online found that friendships relying on virtual media were rated more negatively, but only when it was a close friendship.

Next we heard from Sam Roberts (University of Chester), who has been looking at the question of whether Facebook has the potential to increase the size and/or intensity of our social networks – in other words, to overcome ‘Dunbar’s number’ (the idea that time and cognitive restraints limit the number of people we can maintain in a social network). Two studies comparing Facebook users vs. non-users found no differences in their social network size or emotional closeness to contacts, even when focusing only on ‘active’ users as opposed to passive browsers.

Most compelling was Roberts’ diary study in which, for two weeks, 41 people kept track of their interactions with five friends, including how they felt after each contact and how much they laughed. People reported laughing more and feeling happier after face-to-face contact, including via the video-call platform Skype, compared with after text-based or phone contact. Roberts said this shows the importance of non-verbal cues.

What of the idea of media multiplexity? This states that relationships improve as more media channels are used for communication. Bernie Hogan at Oxford University put this to the test, analysing data from 24,242 husbands and wives from across Western Europe. He found that emotional closeness between couples increased the more types of media communication they used (ranging from interaction in virtual worlds to blogs, Facebook and more), but only up to a point. Beyond five forms of media, emotional closeness stalled or actually went into decline. Hogan speculated that perhaps excessive multimedia contact reflects couples’ attempts to save their relationship, or maybe it’s a sign of stalking behaviour as people lose trust in their partners. Hogan also shared an irony – his study had been sponsored by the dating website eHarmony, he said, and yet he found overall lower levels of closeness between spouses who first met online. 

Lastly, we heard from Monica Whitty at the University of Leicester about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been ripped off by online dating scammers. The fraudster uses a fake photo and profile and close daily internet contact to ‘groom’ their victim. At first,
a small gift is requested, and this progresses to a request for an airfare to visit the victim. ‘Crisis’ occurs when they fail to show up, by which time real-life personal relationships have often been displaced.

Whitty has conducted in-depth interviews with 20 victims of these scams. Often the image they have formed in their head of their new ‘partner’ is so strong that they find it difficult to correct even when the truth is known. Some victims even continue to cherish supposed ‘photos’ of the person who scammed them. Whitty said the key for prevention was breaking up the relationships before the requests for money start. cj


Presidential address: Keeping a roof over psychologists’ heads

In his Presidential Address, Peter Banister addressed ‘ignorance about how the Society is governed and how it works’, and reminded us of the successes of the Society in notably challenging times. The shift to HCPC regulation went ‘smoothly’, with approval also gained for the BPS qualifications. Membership numbers increased in anticipation of the HCPC move, and have remained at a steady level. Financial stability has been achieved – with the BPS literally keeping the roof over psychologists’ heads despite persistent thieving of the lead from the roof of the HQ building in Leicester!

Banister also pointed to other ways the BPS is growing and evolving to meet the needs of its diverse membership and to improve public impact. These included the Learning Centre and online shop; myCPD and e-learning provision; 100+ conferences and events a year; an increased public policy emphasis; the international impact of the Research Digest and the availability of The Psychologist in several formats; and an expansion in electronic resources for members, such as EBSCO and Wiley Blackwell journal access, and the new PsychSource portal.

Banister described the Society’s web and social media developments as ‘a good effort’: although he said ‘I do not personally find it as useful as it might be’,  it has been a developing avenue for increasing public awareness and information sharing about both the BPS and psychology in general. On that note, do feel free to share your thoughts on the successes and challenges of the BPS on Twitter via @psychmag.

- Alana James 

The lives of asylum seekers

This symposium, convened by Simon Goodman of Coventry University, explored the experiences of people who have fled their home countries to escape conflict, persecution or violence. Four papers were presented that analysed asylum seekers’ accounts of their life in the UK using a qualitative, predominantly discursive approach. Helen Liebling (Coventry University) argued that safety was of fundamental concern for asylum seekers. Although the UK was generally considered a ‘safe haven’, they are frequently the target of hostility and racism from the community, and harsh sometimes inhumane treatment from the Home Office. The greatest fear for asylum seekers, however, is to be forcibly returned to their country of origin to face persecution or even death. Liebling disclosed that symptoms of trauma are common, which are exacerbated by loneliness, disorientation and feelings of being trapped and controlled by punitive Home Office procedures. Support received from friends and refugee centres in the UK is particularly valued, as many asylum seekers are destitute and homeless.

Steve Kirkwood (University of Edinburgh) considered asylum seekers’ constructions of racism and the consequences for social relations. Reflecting Liebling’s findings described above, most participants had experienced antagonistic behaviour, ranging from name-calling to serious assault. Such experiences were downplayed or even excused, however, as participants were reluctant to acknowledge that widespread and ingrained racism exists in the UK. A range of alternative motivations for such behaviour, such as boredom and ignorance, was expressed. Kirkwood argued that attributing antagonistic behaviour to racism is problematic for asylum seekers; they are reliant on the host country for protection and may appear ungrateful if they criticise its citizens. He also proposed that it is functional for asylum seekers to make unstable attributions for what are clearly racist acts, as this engenders optimism for their future integration into UK society.

Maria Clare (University of Warwick) investigated how women refugees from Africa talk about emotion to construct an empowered and resilient identity. Analysis of participants’ accounts revealed two interconnecting themes: ‘rejecting pity’ and ‘being strong’ in the face of trauma and adversity. Clare argued that seeing themselves as resilient, allows participants to position themselves as responsible and capable mothers who are in control of their life and able to work towards building a better future for themselves and their children. Nonetheless, she indicated that a discourse of strength can be problematic, as it can mask vulnerabilities and reduce opportunities for support to be offered and accepted.

In the final paper, Shani Burke (Coventry University) investigated how refugees manage talk about returning to their countries of origin. As was highlighted in earlier presentations, participants contrasted the safety of the UK with the danger of their home country. Although participants frequently faced hostility and punitive treatment and did not feel they were living a good life in the UK, they were prepared to sacrifice happiness for safety.

The research findings presented in this symposium were in stark contrast to mainstream media representations whereby a horde of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers come to the UK for financial gain. Although the UK is considered a safe haven, refugees continue to face many privations here and their long-term safety is far from guaranteed. Nonetheless, despite their negative experiences, refugees do not want to be pitied or seen as spongeing on society. Participants’ accounts revealed a genuine fondness for British people and British culture and a genuine wish to contribute to society.
- Gail Kinman

Who’d be a referee?

Constant stick from crowds, players, managers and the media. How do referees cope? Well, new research from Melissa Anderson (Northumbria University) suggests they are protected by an illusory belief that they are better than their peers. Anderson compared 11 Premier League referees with a larger sample of county-level officials. The refs rated themselves on positive characteristics such as how well prepared, confident and decisive they were, and negative ones such as their levels of anxiety and apprehension. Both groups saw themselves as superior to their colleagues, with no significant difference between elite and county refs (although age and years of experience correlated positively with superiority). Turning to football managers, Andrew Manley (Leeds Metropolitan University) found that the impact of coach reputation was diluted by a footballer’s ‘need for cognition’. In other words, if a player was motivated to think, they were more likely to consider other sources of information when assessing a coach, rather than simply going on their trophy cabinet.
The trainer–exerciser relationship has parallels with the coach–athlete relationship, and Paul Davis (Northumbria University) investigated it in the context of ‘bootcamps’ and zumba classes. Feedback from trainers that was perceived to provide encouragement, improve technique and correct bad form was positively associated with closeness, commitment and complementarity. Perhaps surprisingly, instructors’ use of criticism did not influence perceptions of relationship quality.
Lastly in this symposium, John Batten (University of Winchester) presented an ambitious field study into student-athletes’ perceptions and behavioural responses toward a sport psychology consultant. When engaged in a standard imagery session with a consultant they had been told was inexperienced, student-athletes fixed their gaze on the consultant more so than if they thought they were experienced. Batten argued that theywere engaged in a more rigorous and systematic data-driven strategy as they questioned the consultant’s reputation.
- Jon Sutton

A violent version of the Mexican wave?

What can psychology teach us about the 2011 English riots?
For more than a hundred years, social psychologists have tried to understand the reasons why crowds engage in antisocial activities. Various explanations have been provided: deindividuation theory maintains that people indulge in ‘mindless’ violence because their personal identity is subsumed into that of the mob, whereas convergence theory holds that crowd behaviour is a product of a ‘coming together’ of individuals who are predisposed to criminality.

In this incisive and very well-received talk, Clifford Stott (University of Leeds) considered the utility of these ‘classic’ psychological explanations in explaining why a peaceful protest escalated to serious rioting in several cities and towns across England in late summer, 2011. He argued that such explanations are flawed as they imply that antisocial behaviours by crowds would occur randomly, whereas analysis of the circumstances surrounding the riots has identified specific patterns. 

Stott highlighted a determination amongst mainstream commentators to pathologise the riots and those that were involved in them, whereby the events were popularly constructed as a ‘a violent version of a Mexican wave’ performed by ‘flaming morons’ and ‘feral rats’. He also observed a general reluctance amongst these commentators to see the riots as a rational, collective response to oppression by the state. It is important to note that in the months prior to the riots, police in Hackney and Tottenham (a key area for rioting) performed 6894 stop and search procedures, mainly on young black men, but 6807 of them resulted in no further action. By rejecting the notion that the riots were a rational response to such treatment and a reaction to the cuts, Stott argued that these commentaries raised important questions about the marginalisation of psychological theory where it contrasts with the government’s ideological stance.

Stott argued that in order to improve the management of future crowd situations and discourage the generation and escalation of violence, we must reject simplistic explanations that focus on mob pathology. It is vital to identify the circumstances that led to and fuelled the riots through an identity-based theory of crowd behaviour that acknowledges its inherent complexity. In an analysis that drew on YouTube and Google Maps, Stott highlighted the role of the police, who typically acted against crowds as a whole rather than problematic individuals, thus engendering psychological unity and empowerment in such groups to resist police action. He concluded by emphasising the need for a science-based analysis of antisocial behaviour by crowds that embraces rather than marginalises psychological explanations, and the development of community-based interventions that work towards solutions rather than apportioning blame. The success of such interventions has been demonstrated, as Stott was involved in training police in conflict resolution techniques that proved to be successful in last year’s London Olympics. gk

Magicians, mesmerists and mediums

‘You need people like me’, argued Peter Lamont (University of Edinburgh), an expert in historical and conceptual issues in psychology. Psychologists are ahistorical, he said, neglecting centuries of data. In this talk, the focus was the feats magicians, mesmerists and mediums have performed, and what they can teach us about extraordinary beliefs.

Using plenty of nifty sleight of hand himself, Lamont demonstrated how tricksters direct the audience towards the ‘effect’ and away from the ‘method’ by harnessing our natural psychology: exploiting naturally interesting stuff, using eyes, voice and body language, and reducing or diverting suspicion. I was struck by the difference between magicians and psychics: the latter group are more likely to struggle, and sometimes fail, giving the impression that they are not in control of their ‘powers’ in order to make it all more plausible.

When it comes to measuring paranormal belief, Lamont again turns to history. As he points out, traditional questionnaires can appear flawed in the cold light of day. Witches do exist, some people do have the ability to predict the future, mind reading is possible to an extent. To Lamont, we can shed more light on what is ‘paranormal’, what is believed in, through historical examples such as the Davenport brothers’ spirit cabinet. As psychologists and historians we can then witness a kind of ‘tug of war’ around beliefs, where the exact same evidence used by sceptics becomes evidence of the nature of the phenomena for believers. Psychology itself is a product of thought and behaviour, Lamont argued, it’s reflexive. Even the modern sceptical movement is an expression of certain beliefs about the paranormal, and it is only the turn to history that can help us understand how people continue to come to the conclusions that they do. js

Contemporary masculinities

This symposium, convened by Peter Branney from Leeds Metropolitan University, explored how representations of masculinity are lived out in and through the body. A total of four papers were presented, followed by an open discussion through a pecha kucha (a presentational method showing 20 images for 20 seconds each to initiate intensive discussion) led by the artist John D. Edwards.

Branney began the symposium by considering how conceptions of masculinity can be embodied in the penis, and how this sense of masculinity is affected by penile cancer. Although penis cancer is rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of new cancer cases, it has the potential to cause significant trauma. This is not only through the cancer in and of itself, but also through the potential surgical removal of penile tissue. Losing part, or indeed all, of the penis left some males in this study feeling ‘less of a man’, although others recognised that there was more to being a man than possession of a penis. One
of the key messages to emerge for this talk was that the support
of a partner could be very important for feeling secure. Some of the interviewees indicated that they had even altered their sexual techniques following surgery, which had the positive effect of ‘spicing up’ their relationships.

Kate Hunt, from the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, considered men’s reactions to being diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the first challenges faced is for men to reconcile having an archetypical female cancer in a male body. Male breasts are seldom the subject of discussion, unless linked to obesity, and many males do not realise that they can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Some men had elicited shock or disbelief from others and had to show their scar from breast removal surgery to convince others that they actually had breast cancer. This led to men having a dual status as both ‘a man’ and ‘a breast cancer patient’, statuses which had hitherto been regarded as mutually exclusive. This presents challenges to men in (re)forming their identity and sense of their own body. 

Brendan Gough, from Leeds Metropolitan University, looked at the effectiveness of the ‘Motivate’ scheme in Nottingham to help men manage their weight. Male obesity is on the rise, but men tend to downplay the level of their own obesity. Similar to women, males on the ‘Motivate’ scheme rejected the idea of ‘normalised’ (BMI-based) ideal weights. Men also tended to use humour when discussing the issue of their own weight. Clothes acted as a barometer for their problems; if the men being interviewed could fit into certain clothes, or brands of clothes, they would feel better about their weight.

The final presentation in the symposium came from Paul Flowers, from Glasgow Caledonian University, looking at the rise in commodification of the aesthetic and function of the penis. There is a growth industry in marketing penis enhancements to men. Adverts for such techniques tend to l

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