Focusing on impact

Our journalist Ella Rhodes visited the Division of Forensic Psychology’s annual conference held at the Hilton Hotel Gateshead.

Professor Laurence Alison (University of Liverpool) describes himself as an ‘oddball’ forensic psychologist whose focus is very much on making a difference to people’s lives. His career has seen him work with law enforcement, the military and in major incident debriefs following the Buncefield fire and 7/7 terrorist attacks in London.

Throughout his career Alison said he’s managed to avoid metrics and focused instead on impact. It is a waste of public money, he said, when researchers treat academia as an intellectual gratification process and chase plaudits. He implored researchers to widen their views beyond treatments and interventions, suggesting that before embarking on research psychologists should not assume what experts, such as specialist police officers, require. Rather, they should be involving them in research from the outset.

A strand of Alison’s work involves exploring interviewing techniques. In one project he analysed 2000 hours of interrogations with right-wing, Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists. He found where interviewers used more compassionate, humanistic approaches to interviews they garnered more information from suspects. Later he trained more than 100 police officers in these techniques.

Another area of Alison’s research aims to tackle child sexual exploitation; while working with a PhD student, who was also a police officer, they were alerted to an alarming number of indecent images of children circulating in Kent. They were asked to help with finding a way to best allocate officers to the most high-risk cases – or those that were more likely to become contact offences.

After many years’ work they developed the Kent Internet Risk Assessment Tool (KIRAT) which uses known intelligence on suspects to assess risk and deploy police proportionately. Testing on the tool revealed it could classify high and very high risk offenders at between 87 and 94 per cent accuracy.   

The tool is now in use in 24 European countries and different iterations of KIRAT are used across the world. He and his colleagues are looking into developing a tool that can help identify people who are distributing these images even when their identities are unknown.

A third area of Alison’s work is in exploring non-decision-making in the police – or times when police fail to act when they should be – for example in child abuse cases such as Baby P and Victoria Climbié. He pointed to the philosophical paradox of Buridan’s ass – which describes a starving donkey standing between two identical bales of hay, unable to choose which to eat he starves. Alison said he had repeatedly seen in critical incidents that people focus on how bad each potential option for action is, rather than just acting.   

Through his research he has begun to unpack the three points within the timeline of a catastrophe where inertia may occur. Police and other responders to an incident may struggle to make a decision once they’ve become aware of a situation; in the process of creating a plan they may redundantly deliberate over options; and, finally, once a plan is devised this plan may not be put into effect. Alison said the best way for agencies to tackle this is to use goal-directed thinking – or in simple terms to ask themselves ‘what is the least-worst plan in this situation?’

Gang membership and good lives
It is estimated that around 46,000 young people in the UK are members of street gangs, and first-year PhD student Jaimee Mallion (University of Kent) wanted to better understand them. Two studies used the ‘Good Lives Model’ to outline 11 ‘goods’, including knowledge, inner peace, creativity and pleasure. The model is strengths-based and suggests that all humans have the same drive to achieve these goods but that offenders may try to achieve them through nefarious means – for example using drugs to feel pleasure.

Mallion’s work is part of a broader study looking into offending behaviour. Within her student sample of 197 she found 14 per cent could be classified as a gang member. To be classed as a ‘gang’, a group must have existed for more than three months, have three or more members, include primarily young people and be street-oriented.

She asked this sample to rate the importance of each of the 11 goods within the GLM, whether they had achieved any of those goods and whether they had used maladaptive strategies, such as manipulation, to do so. She found all 11 of the GLM goods were endorsed by gang members, with pleasure coming out as most important and, perhaps surprisingly, community ranking as least important. Rather than being bound by the borders of their local areas, modern-day gangs are more focused on drug dealing and increasing profit.

Mallion also found that most gang members were failing to achieve these goods and in the case of some, such as substance abuse for pleasure, were using maladaptive approaches in an effort to achieve them. This model suggests four reasons for people not achieving these goods in life – capacity, scope, coherence and means. Mallion said of all these reasons capacity may be most important for gang members as it describes having, or not having, the external and internal resources and internal abilities to achieve the 11 goods.

In her second study, Mallion wanted to understand whether internal processes may stand in the way of gang members achieving the GLM goods. She pointed out that antisocial personality disorder is found more in gang members while psychopathy is more common in gang leaders. Gang members are also found to have consistently lower empathy than the general population and potentially more callous-unemotional traits, but there is limited research on this.

Mallion interviewed 73 male offenders in a category C prison – 44 who were gang members and 29 who were not. She found that higher levels of antisocial personality traits, aggression, anger rumination and lower trait emotional intelligence predicted gang membership.

The latter study, which Mallion says may provide a novel explanation why gang members struggle to achieve the GLM goods, is set to be published soon in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Porn in secure hospitals
Trainee forensic psychologist Emily Mellor (University of Nottingham) presented her research on a thorny issue – the use of pornography in secure hospitals. Mellor cited stats from Pornhub, showing that last year the site had 81 million viewers per day, with 50,000 searches per minute – porn plays a part in many lives.

The use of porn in secure settings was highlighted by the 1999 Fallon Inquiry into Ashworth Hospital. After a patient absconded, it was found that certain units in this high-security setting were awash with hardcore pornography – including illegal material. During her own doctoral placement with St Andrews Healthcare, which has a range of services from medium secure to community, Mellor said clients who wanted to access porn would ask a member of staff who would either approve or deny this request. This led her to devise a study on whether these decisions are based on staff members’ own attitudes towards pornography.

She hypothesised that male staff may have a more positive attitude towards porn, that a nurse or other staff member’s own attitude would affect their decision, that the general population would be less likely to approve of offenders having access to pornography than staff, and that female clients may be more likely to receive porn than males.

Via an online survey of staff members and the general public, Mellor presented six hypothetical situations involving an offender asking to view porn – the offender was either male or female, a sex offender, violent offender or non-offender. They were asked in that situation whether they would approve or deny the request. Each participant was also asked about their own attitudes towards pornography and offender access to pornography.

She found no significant difference between attitudes towards porn between staff members and the public. However, staff were more likely to approve the hypothetical requests for pornography than members of the public. She found no significant difference between men and women’s attitudes to porn, but attitudes towards porn in both the staff and public groups significantly predicted whether they approved or denied the hypothetical request.

The offence of the hypothetical prisoners also made a difference – participants were six times more likely to say no to a request from a sex offender, and twice as likely to say no to a violent offender compared to a non-offender. The gender of the prisoner wasn’t a significant factor.

Mellor pointed to the influence of using the ‘sexual offender’ label in this study: in other research, if the wording is changed to someone who had committed a crime ‘of a sexual nature’, this slightly changed the number of people who would approve their viewing of porn. She also highlighted the need to explore the actual effects of porn on different kinds of offenders, as well as its potential ‘therapeutic’ use.

Youth reoffending examined
Final-year PhD student Natasha Mokhtar (University of Central Lancashire) has worked alongside youth outreach teams researching reoffending in children and teenagers. She explained that over the last 10 years the reoffending rate for young people has been steadily rising, and that 10- to 14-year-olds have the highest reoffending rate of any age group.

There is still much to be uncovered about what causes this population to reoffend. Mokhtar examined the cases of 245 young people (87.8% male), retrospectively examining their first offence – when it occurred and the seriousness of it, as well as further offences and outcomes of the young people.

The most common types of both initial and subsequent offences were property crimes, and just 29 of the sample did not go on to reoffend.

She divided the sample into early-onset offenders – who began offending before 14 and later onset – who started offending after the age of 14. She found the early-onset group showed a higher reoffending rate, significantly more total offences, more serious crime overall and offences across more categories of crime than the later-onset group.

She concluded that a small group of young people are responsible for most youth crime. Those who have earlier onset of criminal behaviour often commit more offences, are more versatile in the types of crime they commit and are more serious offenders.

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