Overlapping interests in a complex and ambiguous world

Cyberpsychology, defence and security, male psychology, and political psychology under a topical spotlight.

With voting underway over the formation of four new Sections of the British Psychological Society, we asked those involved why members might want to get behind them, with reference to a current, pressing issue in the news. 

Our digital lives

Simon Bignell (University of Derby), Chris Fullwood (University of Wolverhampton), Linda Kaye (Edge Hill University) and Alison Attrill-Smith (University of Wolverhampton) write on behalf of the proposed Cyberpsychology Section.

If Brexit and Donald Trump’s election have taught us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in politics. In both cases, the side which was expected to lose was triumphant. After each outcome, the ‘right’ accused the ‘left’ of being ‘sore losers’, but in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the left are now accusing the right of not playing by the rules!  

Evidence has emerged that psychologists, Facebook and private data mining companies all played a part in the controversial harvesting of the private data of as many as 87 million Facebook users. The personal information harvested by psychometric profiling applications was used strategically by third parties to target groups of people with adverts, based on their psychological profiles. 

We are unlikely to ever know the true extent to which information from the Facebook data breach actually influenced public opinion but the general public may rightly be more suspicious about the authenticity of information they come across. In the light of the scandal, theories around the ‘mind-control’ tactics of Facebook have taken flight, reminiscent of the Star Trek episode ‘return of the Archons’ in which a super-computer exerts control over the populace, transforming them into obedient zombies devoid of creativity and free-expression. 

Although these theories might be overplaying Facebook’s powers of persuasion, cyberpsychology researchers may be able to shed some light on the processes at play in the intricate interweaving of technology and political persuasion. For example, drawing on the classic Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects, one might consider downplaying the notion that political opinions can be changed via Facebook content and instead focus on the idea that they may instead be consolidated and reinforced, which in turn may influence voting behaviour. If Facebook is ‘persuasive’ then, it may be in convincing someone that his or her existing worldview is legitimate because it is shared by others.

With the exponential increase in computing power, consumer-level hardware and the mobile connectivity of the Internet we in live exciting times. However, alongside this remarkable potential to improve our lives with technology comes a level of responsibility we have never experienced. 

The last 25 years or so has seen the rapid emergence of a new and vital sub-discipline of Psychology. Cyberpsychology is the applied focus of Psychology that encompasses psychological phenomena associated with or affected by emerging technologies. This can include; digital gaming effects, online identity and groups, personality in virtual worlds, effects of the Internet and associated activities, online learning, and social networking in cyberspace. Researchers are particularly interested in questions such as why we engage or use these systems, as well as how we experience and are affected by them. Our digital lives are governed increasingly by online interactions and digital representations. Society members will play a leading role in shaping Cyberpsychology, its focus and response to some of the most pressing issues we face from technological advances that will shape humanity and the emergent psychological properties of the evolving digital age. 

Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous

Senior Lecturer with Special Responsibilities Dr Mike Rennie (Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst) writes on behalf of the proposed Defence and Security section. 

If you type ‘Brexit’ into Google you are given 30,200,000 results. A range of conflictive opinions and views in which the only constant seems to be that there is no consistency. Welcome to a VUCA environment!

VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous; a concept first developed in the 1990s by the US Army War College. Since then it has become a mainstay of US military doctrine and in recent years has emerged into British military thinking. The understanding of the impact of a VUCA environment is enshrined in the commissioning course at Sandhurst. 

What this means for effective leaders and decision makers is a need to be able to adapt to a shifting situation where information may be unclear, incomplete or even, contradictory. It requires an ability to take risks in decision making based on the information at hand and a resilience that enables the individual to be able to change a plan of action as new situations develop; even if this means a complete change of direction. There is no place for ‘sunk cost fallacy’ in a VUCA environment (which might be a glimmer of hope for those who are ‘Remainers’!)

Although originally described by military thinkers, the concept of VUCA has found traction is the wider civilian world. There are obvious parallels in business and civil and political leadership situations. From reacting to changes in the market for a business, to dealing with civil contingencies and emergency responses, or to dealing with the ever-changing political and diplomatic world, being able to deal with a VUCA environment is now key: especially with the sheer amount of information available across a range of media.

Most of the current research is from outside the military sphere. The majority of articles focusing on business leadership, most acknowledging the military background to many of the concepts and ideas being published. For psychologists involved with the military and other security services, this dissemination of ideas to a wider audience is satisfying, but also a vital part of what we do. It allows us to have a two-way conversation with colleagues in different fields and allows an exchange of ideas that can lead to best practice; especially in areas such as leadership and decision making.

As for Brexit, it is easy to see that those dealing with it are operating in a VUCA environment. Some of the decisions will be made without all the facts and with ambiguous information, the challenges and opportunities are complex and often unclear, and of course the situation is ever changing due to world events and the vagaries of politics. Those working in a leadership capacity in this area need to be aware of the issues that can impact on their effective decision making. Awareness of VUCA, and more importantly how to manage a VUCA environment, has been the mainstay of British Army training, and it is that experience that needs to be shared. And that is where the Defence and Security Section can really come into its own.

Pioneering new ways to reach men and boys

Consultant Clinical Psychologist Martin Seager (Central London Samaritans), John Barry (UCL), and trainee health psychologist Louise Liddon write on behalf of the Male Psychology Section. 

The nation sighed and cooed recently when Prince Louis was born. Some might presume that he will live a protected life of privilege if only because he is royal. But what sort of world will a boy of his generation be growing up in when it comes to attitudes to the male gender?

In education, boys across all social strata have been falling behind girls for around three decades. In the UK today young men make up less than 40 per cent of those in higher education. However, society seems blind to this issue and there are no policies or interventions to address it.

Boys today are also growing up in a culture that talks openly about ‘toxic masculinity’, where the awful things that a minority of damaged men do are presumed to be typical of the whole male gender. This stigmatising narrative must surely be impacting negatively on the identity and self-esteem of boys in our schools and communities.

As psychologists we should be eager to debunk irrational ideas about gender, but this doesn’t happen often enough. Instead our profession remains unresponsive to the need for teaching and research on male gender issues, and consequently toxic assumptions and attitudes towards the male gender are perpetuated. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that only 20 per cent of clinical psychologists these days are male, though what need is not simply more psychologists who are male, but more psychologists who can be male-centric.

Although men make up 75 per cent of suicides, and suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, men are less likely than women to seek help from psychologists. Men make up 85 per cent of rough sleepers, 95 per cent of the prison population, 75 per cent of addicts, 40 per cent of reported domestic abuse victims and 97 per cent of those who die at work. And yet as a society, we provide almost no services for male victims whilst at the same time chastise men for not seeking help. We are a caring and scientific profession, yet we are doing almost nothing about these issues in terms of research, teaching or service provision.

As professional psychologists, we should be better than this. We could be exploring these problems and leading the way to solutions. We know about cognitive biases, prejudices and distortions, and pride ourselves in respecting diversity, but we need to apply this knowledge to solving the festering social problems that this new generation is being born into.

Let’s together pioneer new ways of reaching men and boys in need of our help. A Male Psychology Section of the BPS is urgently needed to create the research, teaching and interventions that can help boys and men, and by extension help also the women and girls who share their lives. We encourage all psychologists – men and women – to join us in this venture. Please vote positively and please get involved! 

The art and practice of politics

Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) writes on behalf of the Political Psychology Section.

Political Psychology seems to be all around us because politics is not just about politicians. Understanding why President Trump tweets that way, how elected and non-elected leaders can live with the carnage they wreak, or why decisions such as the denial of citizenship and human rights are made, occupy not only the media but impact on our own lives. We want to understand what is going on and sometimes this means we feel no option but to get involved regardless of political viewpoint or activist inclinations – to help promote knowledge and understanding of political phenomena in everyday life as well as on the global stage.

Changing people’s lives for the better is a primary concern for all interested in psychology – whether you’re a student, practitioner or academic and change requires political skills to achieve desired results. Hopefully this means we are well-equipped to deal with inevitable challenges and to advise on important decisions, yet in busy lives the time and mental space to consider fruitful strategies are not plentiful. A new section in Political Psychology would/will also aim to engage and collaborate with all interested members in developing resources which support this often problematic area.

In order to achieve its deserved impact, psychology as a discipline is working hard to raise awareness of what it can offer at policy-making level as well as to wider society. The new section in Political Psychology hopes to play its part in supporting this important goal. This is not to say that advising key decision makers will always have the desired effect, but drawing relevant issues to the attention of politicians and their advisers is something for which psychology in the UK used to be well known, and in a world with so many challenges we have an important contribution to make. 

The behaviour of politicians shows little difference from anyone else’s and although the problems they face at work attract a higher profile, they remain human beings with all the joys and woes this brings. In other words, communicating attitudes and desires, persuading others, facilitating control over events, and preparing the ground for change – and a limited capacity to cope – underline strengths and frailties familiar to us all. Just ask any passing Prime Minister!

A Political Psychology section is an exciting new development seeking to exchange ideas, foster research, host conferences and workshops and to share events with the UK’s Political Studies Association, who are keen to work with us and who already embrace politicians within their own professional activities. It is hoped that by setting up a new section we can give Political Psychology a broad base in the UK appealing to all.  

In the global context and in challenges facing our work as psychologists, there has never been a more critical time to further our understanding of human political behaviour at all levels. Links between psychology and the art and practice of politics are not only logical but help to raise our awareness of the politicians we don’t always recognise – all of us!  

- Voting for the new Sections is open until 20 June. Eligible Society members will be contacted by email or post.

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It's very exciting to see so many newly proposed BPS sections. It's a testament to how healthy and vibrant Psychology in the UK is at the moment. For those interested in the proposed Cyberpsychology Section we are tweeting out information at https://twitter.com/BPSCyberPsych @BPSCyberPsych