Letters: austerity and more
Speaking out and acting on austerity
We would first like to say how refreshing it was to see the excellent austerity focus in the April edition of The Psychologist. The articles included in that issue appeared to build upon the growing number of academic and non-academic accounts that outline the consequences realised by the political administrations across Europe who have recently extended the neoliberal political project through the discourses and practices of austerity. Governments are deploying fiscal austerity programmes that are generating unemployment, underemployment, debt, poverty, and inequality, privatising or destroying public services and obliterating social, health and educational resources for adults and children. Through no fault of their own a growing number of people are being left to struggle in the unmanageable bind between stagnating wages and increased cost of living.
As the New Economics Foundation have so eloquently summarised, austerity is a story that has been sold to the public. The story goes that there are no alternatives, that welfare claimants are the problem and that Britain is broke. This dominant discourse unremittingly told by the powerful is framing the debate and leaves out the narratives of the casino economy and the political ideologies that lie behind the policies; as a result it becomes the problem of the poor with the government ‘tidying up’ the mess.
Reading some letters in The Psychologist in recent months there appears to be a noticeable recognition from psychologists regarding a concerted need to engage with the proximal and distal circumstances that lead people, families and communities towards the psychological professions. One question is whether learned and potentially influential national professional bodies, whose practitioners have a privileged view on the damages of austerity, are doing enough to make a clear and unequivocal public stance on potentially damaging psychosocial practices. It is one (good) thing to publish a collated series of critical accounts of austerity and mental health but another to use the capital of the British Psychological Society to publicly and coherently speak out against the mental health impacts of austerity.
Community psychologists from across the world recently assembled in Naples for the 9th European Congress of Community Psychologists to debate the politics of austerity and its meaning and relevance for psychologists. A task force was developed to undertake work in the area. The task force will focus on increasing the understanding by policy-makers, community organisations, and professional bodies of the way that austerity politics is affecting communities in Europe, and what communities are doing to fight back.
As part of this remit we are undertaking work and developing events not only to address the experiences of those living and working in current austerity regimes but also to reflect on and work toward creative and impactful psychosocial and political forms of engagement where psychologists can more preventatively engage with the practices of austerity. This may include providing a coordinated and constant voice of public resistance from our discipline in partnership with other organisations. We have already built useful relations with organisations across the continent who are working to resist the impact of austerity politics on mental health. In the UK the People’s Assemblies and Taxpayers Against Poverty are two such organisations of many doing invaluable work. The public sector unions are planning to call for a national strike on 10 July 2014 to demand the alternatives to austerity, and we would encourage psychologists to join together and participate. Check the People’s Assembly website for details of upcoming actions (www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk).
Moreover, we are facilitating a London Community Psychology Network session on this topic in the summer.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the work of the task force and/or interested in being involved in the task force or the Community Psychology Section then please e-mail [email protected].
Non-verbal tests don’t exist
In the June issue there are advertisements for a new series of non-verbal tests. I noted that the tests were by an established publisher with an international reputation. However, I did feel some unease, and it seemed that a comment might be sympathetically received.
Ever since I administered Raven’s Progressive Matrices in Zimbabwe in 1962 to pupils whose first language was Shona, I have known that the soubriquet non-verbal when applied to figural tests was systematically misleading. I had not realised this until I saw a film of a testing session I had conducted in a rural school. The lips of the girls and boys were moving as they tried to find the answers. Subsequently, I have noticed the same signs of verbalisation when items depending on figural representations are presented, either in paper-and-pencil or computer-delivered formats. Lip movement was common with military recruits regardless of locations in the UK, USA, Germany and Belgium, where recent studies with identical figural items, computer-generated and -delivered, have occurred. Moreover, correlational analyses revealed no separate non-verbal factor. All that emerged were working-memory constructs in which verbal items, in multilingual form, were equally prominent.
For more than a hundred years psychologists have gone down the non-verbal path. Perhaps we need to collect our own data and watch the performance of participants, just as Spearman did with his village children at the turn of the last century. Then we might declare a moratorium on the use of the label. The benefits would be manifest.
Professor Sidney Irvine PhD, CPsychol, FBPsS
Anglia Ruskin University
Where are the psychologists?
I was pleased to find Jo Saunders letter (May 2014) responding to Sian Williams’s article ‘Voices of the vulnerable’ (March 2014). It surprises me that it did not prompt more discussion in The Psychologist from clinical and social psychologists. The article makes reference to mentally ill people and those traumatised by physical illness and serious misfortune. These people are often also treated by psychologists. There was also mention of attempts to change popular stereotypes of mental illness by increasing positive coverage of mental illness in the media.
Jo Saunders claimed Sian Williams used the term ‘vulnerable’ of some individuals and not others, suggesting Ms Williams holds ‘dichotomous’ views of people. However, on a close re-read of the article, I decided this was not the case. In her use of the word ‘vulnerable’, Sian Williams was referring to the interpretation of Ofcom guidelines by the BBC for the media treatment of any individuals ‘confronting complex challenges’ such as those above. There was also reference to the term ‘informed consent’.
Anyone who agrees to be interviewed by the BBC does so after signing the BBC’s conditions of ‘informed consent’. ‘Vulnerable’ individuals form a category who are allowed to have a ‘proxy’ signatory acting on their behalf.
Sian Williams was expanding on issues with interviewing people in this category while ‘providing a voice’ for them. She recounted in some detail her own interview with David Rathband, the policeman injured by Raoul Moat, the gunman. He was interviewed under informed consent. It is not clear whether he signed for himself, or had someone else act for him.
I can see the potential positive value of successful one-to-one interviews for modifying misleading stereotypes of certain ‘vulnerable’ people. A single interview can reach large numbers of the public. However, given that even ‘robust’ interviewees can find such an experience challenging, and that an unsuccessful interview could be edited out of recognition by the broadcaster, it could be risky and futile.
Also, the vulnerable individual at the centre of the event (without which there is nothing) risks being disappointed if it is a failure, and may not gain as much as the other parties if it is a success. In view of this, people in the vulnerable category who agree to give interviews would benefit from an advocate to support them through the experience.
Are qualified and experienced psychologists ever on hand for interviews as advocates for the interviewee to prevent undue stress to vulnerable interviewees, or acting as proxies for informed consent? Are psychologists authorised to halt or modify an interview to protect the interviewee from unnecessary distress?
Elsewhere, John Oates from the BPS Media Ethics Advisory Group has called for qualified psychologists to be advisers to independent media broadcasters in PACT. I hope Professor Oates is being heard and responded to by fellow psychologists, as well as by the media.
Dr Ann Partington CPsychol
Saving the men of tomorrow
I was very relieved when reading the article ‘Being a man – putting life before death’ (June 2014) – I do think it has been long overdue to give the male gender some recognition. For many years now we have been taught and educated in regard to the vast number of feminist theses; however, the mention of interventions for men in psychology has been very thin on the ground. I am currently studying a Psychology with Criminology degree and have just completed an exam which included a question about how feminism has contributed to our understanding of criminal behaviour; as much as I enjoyed researching and developing my answer, there was a part of me that felt a little frustrated – not for what the women were saying as such, but for the bitterness towards the male gender – I understand it was a one-sided argument and the reasons for why they were brought forward, yes women were perceived and portrayed in a distorted light – nevertheless women are getting a lot of acknowledgement, in criminology, psychology, law, and so forth; but unfortunately – men do not seem to be given a second glance, due to this preconceived and embedded perception that men are the ‘stronger’ gender?
It is statistically proven that men represent a large majority of all suicides. Just in the UK alone the highest suicide rate is ‘reported’ for men aged between 40–44 years; however, that is still not a true representation as there are unreported suicides not taken into consideration and we are not getting a true picture of the severity of the problem. Women are much more willing to call upon friends and family and even a complete stranger to ‘get things off our chest’. I think the majority of women can agree when I say that we like to put the world to rights over a glass or wine, a cup of coffee on the sofa, around the table, even curled up on our bed clutching our phones to our ears, waiting for the next piece of advice our confidante is willing to give us. This is not a typical scene when imagining men – so who do they turn to? Behind that ‘cool’, ‘calm’ and collected’ exterior, there could be that young boy, banging on that glass window begging his father to come home or that young boy scrunched up in the corner of the room trying to cover his ears and block out the sounds of raised voices. As a society we are fully aware that emotional, physical and psychological trauma goes on, but who is that shoulder to lean on when times get unbearable for the male population? Next time the man on the station platform, half drunk, being asked to leave may willingly get slowly to his feet and go on his way, but it could be the wrong way and potentially be another statistic to join the majority that have slipped through the net.
When we focus so strongly on one ‘problem’ there leaves room to neglect another and this is seems to be the case with men of today, and yesterday; however, if we start to get things right now we can save the men of tomorrow.
Narratives of maleness
Your recent issue on the male gender (June 2014) stirred some ganglions in me, some worthy, some less so. The most unworthy was a churlish let’s not start some form of masculinism to pit against feminism. That didn’t last long, however, faced with horror at the stats on p.404 – the large and significant majorities of men among suicides, addicts, prisoners and the homeless. Those figures are truly horrifying and more than justify your decision to devote an entire issue to the subject.
Two pictures caught my attention. One (p.393) was a charming cameo of three very young children with the two boys focused entirely on the engineering aspects of Lego bricks – and the little girl more interested in the boys. Said a lot to me. The other (p.405) was a snapshot of five men apparently engaged in a discussion at the ‘Being a Man’ festival. Another unworthy thought intruded again to wonder whether these men might have been helped in their discussion with a leavening of one or two women? Vice versa for feminism conclaves.
Could I make a suggestion? Over time I’ve become partisan to the idea that psychological constructs can be helpfully explored through narrative, through stories. Would it be possible to recruit say 10 male psychologists to give a personal and honest account of what it means to them to be a man? Preferably with the strongest representation from practitioners rather than academics.
Undervaluing competences in the National Health Service
As a newly qualified psychologist, I have spent the last four years looking forward to gainful employment. This is not the straightforward task one would expect it to be after so much hard work and dedication.
The issue that I am raising is to do with the legislation surrounding the recruitment of psychologists within the NHS. I have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of flexibility when it comes to considering applied psychologists for roles. I am a counselling psychologist. I am also a psychologist who has worked hard to ensure that I have had a range of placements in very challenging settings so that I can put myself forward for roles in the hope of fair consideration of my experience.
In posts were I have been unsuccessful I have contacted the recruitment panel to ask for feedback. I have explained that I felt that I fit the criteria in the personal specification and would like to know where I need to gain more experience for future applications. Here is one of the responses I received: ‘The post is for a clinical psychologist and has been through the NHS job evaluation process indicating that counselling psychologists may not apply.’
This was particularly frustrating. They had already responded to my first enquiry by telling me that the application had not been considered because I am not a clinical psychologist. The above line does not answer my request for specific feedback regarding the areas where they did not feel that I met the requirements for the role, but regurgitates a line from an impersonal policy. It is not, in my opinion, designed to ensure that the most appropriate candidates are considered, but to cut a potentially large pile of applications to ensure a simplified recruitment process.
After I first contacted The Psychologist about this, they were able to obtain a response from the BPS outlining that in 2007, 2010 and 2011 the issue of applied psychologists feeling that they were not given fair trials in the recruitment of psychologists in the NHS had been addressed in letters to NHS recruitment departments. In the most recent letter written to HR teams in the NHS the guidelines state:
Where specific essential competences, usually associated with an adjectival title such as clinical, counselling, health, forensic or educational, are needed this must be clearly specified. This specific requirement must be justified and consider issues of equal opportunity and employment laws. Consideration must be given to whether an applicant, through CPD and post qualification experience may have acquired these competences, despite adjectival title, and so be eligible for the post.
I am aware that neurodevelopmental assessments and psychometric testing are a particular issue when applying for psychologist positions. Traditionally clinical psychologists tend to receive formal training in these areas, whereas other applied psychologists do not. This is no longer the case; but even if it were, are we honestly saying that psychologists who have undergone rigorous training and taken part in doctoral-level research and studies would not be able to conduct neurodevelopmental assessments? If newly qualified psychologists were able to work under supervision to familiarise themselves with these assessments for a short period there is no reason why they would not be able to work with them to as a high a standard as a candidate who has completed a module in this area during their training.
I am asking for psychologists to come together to value experience not title. This is the only way to ensure that our patients are receiving the best possible care from our profession. Passionate psychologists who are keen to undertake further training in areas in which they may have limited experience are being turned down for roles that they would be more than capable to do with some direction from their supervisor. I have to question the motivation to prevent these psychologists being given a chance to contribute to the services offered in the NHS on the grounds of their title.
Scribbling for public consumption
After a wonderful career in psychology I now write novels, so I’d like to echo Sarah Dale (Letters, May 2014) and make some other points about the practicalities of getting yourself published. The publishing industry is undergoing vast change with the electronic age. If you have a computer, time and reasonable skills, it’s really not difficult to publish ebooks, giving you access to a world market with no postage or shipping costs. If you produce them yourself, you can price them low enough for anyone to buy. Furthermore, it’s also not that difficult to prepare a traditional book for publication, e-mail it to a printer, and then sell it yourself via the internet (if it’s any good, of course). All the knowledge required is out there. As for magazines and other media, they all have websites and e-mail contacts. Here are some practical tips about writing for the public:
Writing style: Show, don’t tell Meat and drink to storytellers; hard to achieve for psychologists trained for years to write using a factual, non-emotive, recounting (telling). This style may be great for science, but it’s death by a thousand (boring) cuts for a media writer.
‘Showing’, on the other hand, uses personal experience to highlight the
key issues; ‘Jack whimpers and shrinks further into himself within the darkness of his hiding place. He flinches at every shout, every crash of overturned furniture, every scream… who’s next?’
Use your knowledge: Multiple perspectives Psychology excels in using multiple perspectives to show that there is ‘no single truth’ in human nature, rather than ‘Brand X always washes whiter’. For the public, too, a good contrast will make an issue interesting, sharpening up understanding more than it confuses.
Writing style: Lose your neutrality – bring your conflicts to life by using dialectics Psychologists use reasoning to problem-solve while retaining scientific neutrality; but rational neutrality makes for tedious writing. If you want to get public interest, it’s far more productive to highlight inherent contrasts and bring your issue to life as a verbal duel or a ding-dong argument. Verbal duels can easily be imagined, with or without parody, depending upon comic or serious intent. What would Freud say to David Cameron and what would Cameron’s responses be?
Use your knowledge: Empathy and metaphor Psychologists are good at empathy; but our habitual neutrality can inhibit demonstrations of empathy. The best way to demonstrate empathy is in a metaphor that ‘hits the nail on the head’. Metaphors demonstrate that we know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes; exactly what is required both in therapy and in the media.
A topical metaphor for the public: ‘After the elections, UKIP leaders looked like the cats that got the cream. It didn’t seem to matter whether it was British cream or not: Brussels cream would do, as long as it made them fat cats…’
Research Get your facts right, and find facts that have real impact. In my current novel a merchant navy seaman replies to an insult in a bar during the Second World War (he’s not in uniform and therefore must be a coward). ‘I’ll tell you something about life in the convoys. In a tanker, now, one torpedo can blow the whole ship sky high. Even when it doesn’t, you’ll be jumping into a layer of burning fuel… and if you do get home, say after three or four weeks in a lifeboat, you know what? They’ll dock your pay from the exact moment your ship went down. You bloody shirkers, they’ll say; sitting in a lifeboat all that time…’
Use your knowledge: Personal beliefs and paradigms People avoid issues because they have unhelpful paradigms or assumptions: we are not responsible; we don’t have sympathy for those affected;
it won’t affect us; we cannot, or should not, act. The public has paradigms too; the first task for a media writer is to challenge self-defeating assumptions that the public hold about the subject. Who
is really responsible – all of us? Could it happen to you? How might this problem suddenly smack you in the face? What can we do, realistically, and what should we do, in all conscience?
Writing style: Comedy and humour The role of humour in communicating serious messages is seriously undervalued. My favourite cartoon concerns a dog riding a monocycle on a high wire while simultaneously juggling, using a hula-hoop, and holding a cat in his mouth. The thought bubble reads ‘High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: he was an old dog, and this was a new trick...’. I found this cartoon particularly useful when I had to teach cynical, dyed-in-the-wool ‘old hands’ about new and fashionable topics…
Ian Wilkinson FBPsS
Note: Details of Ian’s latest novel Crossing the Water can be found
A pure challenge
I should like to set a challenge – to produce an entire issue of The Psychologist with no mention of any area of applied psychology and with no isms and philosophical positioning. Instead, an issue that simply presented interesting behavioural science focused on appropriate model organisms for the phenomena at hand. The section on Careers could discuss the transition to blue sky scientist.
Please do not read this as a statement against applied psychology in all its guises (clinical, health, occupational, etc.) but more as a plea to recognise that there is applied science and then science that is yet to be applied. The Psychologist can help to defend core science against the impact agenda by displaying the wonderment and deep ignorance of our discipline, which I take to be an exciting state of affairs. Reflecting on what behaviour is, what it is for and how it is delivered should be of interest to all – a true normative base from which to work.
Of course, this is really a challenge to the readers and it is to them that I now turn.
Professor Tom Dickins
University of Middlesex
Guest column – The lighter side
Few things are more theatrical – the theatre and Christopher
Biggins notwithstanding, obviously – than a trip to a good restaurant.
The subdued lighting, the hushed ambience, the napped tablecloth, the canard and pea froth amuse bouche fashioned into a Foreman grill… these are the core constituents of the sybaritic eating experience. They introduce us to an exotic world, cartographically distinct and more enticing than the usual Pot Noodle platter and Um Bongo sorbet.
Psychology has long mined the ore of behaviour in restaurants and bars and discovered some interesting gems (largely, don’t eat out with Christopher Biggins and order a canard and pea froth amuse bouche fashioned into Foreman grill). Some of these findings are fascinating and can provide the adventurous eater with a handy doggy-bag of useful guidance.
For example, and first off, beware of waiting staff. Research has discovered many things about tipping, all of them bordering on the criminal. People tip more if they are touched – they also order more expensive items on the menu, the dish of the day, and more drinks.
Look out for music: this increases the degree of drink-buying. Music with prosocial lyrics is the most devious of the lot: It makes
you buy even more.
Be vigilant of the dish in which the bill appears. French research suggests that a bill presented in a heart-shaped dish leads to more generous tipping than one in an ordinary dish. If in doubt, wear
a blindfold. Better still, have someone else pay.
Speaking of music, pay close attention to the speed and theme of musical ambience. Research has found that people spend longer in a restaurant when the music is slow-tempo and less when up-tempo. However, exposure to fast music is associated with 4.4 bites per minute and slow music with 3.83 bites. No music results in 3.23 bites. Therefore, if a restaurant belts out Gina G’s ‘Ooh aah… Just a little bit’ with the abandon of a blender on the gravel-mincing setting, then
(1) dine carefully and (2) eat one pea at a time. This, unfortunately, may lead to the manager calling social services.
Finally, look out for a similar effect in supermarkets. Slow music makes patrons navigate the store more slowly. Be attentive. If you find Greensleeves playing in your local, check that (1) you aren’t actually driving an ice-cream van and (2) that you haven’t spent 10 minutes next to Carp Monthly and the egg & cress sandwiches near the entrance.
Dr G. Neil Martin is Reader and Director of Psychology at Regents College University, London. He is a very vigilant diner. @ThatNeilMartin
This column aims to make you laugh (or raise a wry smile), and then think. Send comments / suggestions to [email protected]
Dyslexia definition too narrow
It is now over 50 years since I qualified as an educational psychologist. The year was 1962 and the concept of dyslexia was controversial. At one end of the argument were those who claimed that dyslexia was a valid concept without any research evidence. Others who dismissed this notion often described dyslexia as a ‘middle-class syndrome’ used by parents who could not accept that their children were of limited ability.
I was uneasy about the concept of dyslexia and concerned about the absence of research evidence. In those days I would have been in the Professor Elliot’s camp (Letters, June 2014). I experienced a déjà vu feeling as I read Elliot’s views that had been so familiar in 1962. How things have changed since those early days!
There is ample contemporary research supporting the existence of a discrete group of children, as well as adults, who have persistent literacy difficulties, despite being of at least average intelligence. These people also have associated difficulties in working memory and in the speed of processing material, verbal and/or non-verbal. It is not unreasonable to call this group ‘dyslexic’.
Recently, I analysed WAIS test results for 447 HE students referred to me for assessment because of learning difficulties (Lawrence, 2009). Of this sample, 95.3 per cent had below-average results on the Working Memory Index, and 95.5 per cent had below-average results on the Speed of Processing Index but obtained above average scores on either the Verbal or the Non-verbal Reasoning Indices. The remaining students who did not have these weaknesses had signs of visual stress.
Elliot rightly criticises the use of the discrepancy model regarding IQ and reading attainment. However, it would seem to me, a discrepancy between working memory, reasoning ability and speed of processing would be strong indicators of what we call dyslexia.
Elliot criticises the broadening of the definition of dyslexia from its traditional definition of difficulties with decoding literature, but the problems experienced by HE students are more than a difficulty with word decoding. Every student amongst the 447 analysed could read well. Their main problems were remembering what they had read or heard and in the speed of processing the material. I would suggest therefore that there is a need to broaden our definition of dyslexia, not limit it.
There is an obvious relief shown by HE students following an assessment confirming their dyslexia and an increased confidence in their capacity to succeed knowing that they will receive appropriate support. There is a resultant increase in self-esteem and a renewed motivation to learn. These factors are an added reason for me to suggest the broadening of the definition of the construct of dyslexia.
Dr Denis Lawrence
Lawrence, D. (2009). An analysis of the test results of 447 adult students assessed for dyslexia. Patoss Bulletin, November, 14–17.
Guest column - sporting life
On 12 June the Football World Cup kicked off in Brazil, an event like no other, which engages and brings individuals together on a national and global scale. For psychologists the World Cup provides a window to many psychological phenomena – not least the ability of players from rival clubs to come together for a brief period and unite towards the common goal of success in a global tournament.
Why would players have difficulty uniting in pursuit of the biggest prize in football? Yet consider Gary Neville, who won 85 caps for England and is now part of the coaching team: ‘I regard myself as patriotic but, truth be told, playing for England was a bonus. Winning for my club was always the most important thing, and given a straight choice of a European Cup with United or a European Championship with England, it’s United every time.’
We can und
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