From sparklers to schizophrenia

Pre-university psychology students came together for a day of inspiring talks from all areas of the discipline at the British Psychological Society’s recent ‘Your Future in Psychology’ event. Ella Rhodes was there to report.

I’m sure many people will fondly remember that bonfire night tradition of sticking used sparklers into a kitchen drawer only to find them refreshed with new ones the following morning… or perhaps not. Dr Robert Nash (Aston University), who studies false memories, shared this childhood recollection – which later turned out to be entirely imagined. 

Nash asked what causes false memories, what happens when we discover them, and why we often fail to do just that. He explained that the source monitoring theory of false memories suggests that retrieving a memory is an unconscious decision process and we can retrieve memories of dreams or things we have imagined – which may seem as vivid, plausible and emotional as a real memory – and believe they really happened. 

Our beliefs about a memory also play a role in whether we feel that memory is true. In a number of studies Nash and his colleagues invited people into the lab and had them sit across from an assistant who would perform an action, such as stirring a glass of water, which the participant would then copy, all the while being filmed. After they left the lab Nash would doctor the video to show them sitting across from the assistant, who would be performing an action the participant had never actually seen or copied. When subjects were asked how strongly they remembered these false actions and how strongly they believed they had copied that action, they felt very confident they believed they performed that action and that they had a memory of it. In a follow-up study Nash found that even after participants were told they never saw or performed those false actions they could still ‘remember’ them, even though they did not believe they had seen or performed them. Nash said this is similar to visual illusions – even when we are told a visual illusion is not real we still ‘see’ its illusory effect. 

Compulsion or choice?

Professor Matt Field (University of Sheffield) gave a whistle stop tour of theories of addiction as well as his own research in the area. He has explored whether addiction is a disorder of compulsion or choice, and he highlighted the dual process theory which says that all behaviours are influenced by both controlled and automatic processes. When people initially begin using a drug it tends to be a choice but after repeated exposure, although there is still an element of control, automatic processes become much stronger. Feedback loops and classical conditioning can lead people to associate cues in their environment with a particular drug, such as the smell of tobacco smoke, leading to an automatic response to use that substance.

Field has found that smokers have an attentional bias towards images of smoking compared with non-smokers, a pattern which is seen across different addictions. Such a bias can make it more likely that people trying to abstain from using a substance will be more likely to relapse in response to cues in their environment. Heavy drinkers, and people addicted to other substances, also show an automatic approach bias to photographs of alcohol in lab studies. If presented with a photograph of alcohol and control pictures and asked to move an avatar towards or away from alcohol-related photos, heavy drinkers are much faster to approach alcohol photos than avoid them.   

This paradigm may also have clinical implications. If people are trained to avoid, rather than approach, photographs of alcohol, and then asked to rate alcoholic drinks, they end up drinking less alcohol. Another research group in the Netherlands has also tried this type of training in a treatment clinic for alcohol-dependent people and found those people were more likely to abstain from using alcohol after associating alcohol with avoidance. 

Field ended by suggesting several career options for students interested in addiction, including in academia, practice, and working within public health teams. 

Coping with inequality

Using large scale panel studies in New Zealand and India, in which tens of thousands of people are asked the same questions once per year, Dr Nikhil Sengupta (University of Kent) has examined how inequality affects people and how people affect inequality. Each of the panels Sengupta works with, the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study and the Lok Surveys in India, are both nationally representative. 

Sengupta pointed out some of the negative effects of inequality on wellbeing, social and economic factors and even interpersonal trust. Looking at the impact of inequality within local areas, Sengupta and his colleagues examined 4000 neighbourhoods in New Zealand and found living in a neighbourhood with higher inequality was related to lower wellbeing and self-esteem, regardless of people’s individual circumstances. How might people cope with being faced with inequality?

Sengupta highlighted system justification theory which suggests that people cope with inequality by holding certain beliefs that downplay inequality or justify it. For example, they might believe in a meritocracy – that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. In his research Sengupta has found that people in India and New Zealand who do not hold these types of beliefs suffer more from the effects of inequality compared with those who believe the system is fair – no matter what level of the hierarchy they sit on. 

This poses a problem, he said, for changing inequality in society. In the past this type of change has been achieved by collective action, usually on the part of disadvantaged groups, but how can this be achieved if people believe the system is fair? 

In his research Sengupta has examined this through exploring the extent to which people from disadvantaged groups support policies that would support their in-group, or protest on behalf of causes that would help their in-group. The results are somewhat startling. In the New Zealand sample Sengupta focused on indigenous Māori people, the amount of contact they had with New Zealanders of European descent, and their support for policies that would benefit Māori people. The more contact Māori people had with European-descended New Zealanders the less they supported policies that would benefit Māori people, and the less they perceived injustice in New Zealand society.  

In a slightly different study Sengupta looked at the attitudes of people in India from lower-caste groups, who have been disadvantaged for many thousands of years, who were asked about their contact with higher-caste groups as well as their support for protesting for the rights of their own lower-caste groups. He saw a similar pattern – those lower-caste members who had more contact with high-caste groups saw less injustice in their society and felt less inclined to protest for the rights of their own in-group – although protests among lower-caste groups are a common occurrence in India. 

‘These findings of out-group contact and the fact it can have these ironic effects by dampening down the political mobilisation of low-status groups in society highlights this tension between harmony and equality in society – it shows that harmony and equality are not the same thing. Having more positive contact between groups is a good thing in the sense that it does foster greater warmth and less anxiety… but when it comes to pressing for social equality that has, historically, taken a fight. Intergroup contact for improving society has this limitation where it can increase harmony but it doesn’t necessarily increase equality.’ 

There is a counterargument to this, Sengupta said, and pointed to the many white people who supported the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 – a different story to earlier protests by the movement. He asked whether contact may increase solidarity with disadvantaged groups, and as a result might this solidarity counteract the sedative effect of contact between advantaged and disadvantaged groups? 

When he looked at this in a longitudinal way with more than 22,000 white New Zealanders, Sengupta found that outgroup contact increased feelings of warmth towards Māori people. However, over time he did not see any increase in their feelings of political solidarity with Māori people. ‘Once again it doesn't look like just fostering strong, positive bonds of friendship across groups is this great panacea that's going to help us to change society for the better.’

An enormous leap

The transition from studying A levels at school or college to starting university can be an enormous leap for many. Dr Phil Banyard (Nottingham Trent University) spoke about some of the challenging transitions the students were set to face – from leaving home and studying more independently, to asking bigger questions in one’s studies and even challenging the curriculum itself. 

Banyard was then joined by Chair of the BPS Student Committee Eduard Margarit who answered questions from the audience. They were asked whether students would be supported in a similar way at university compared with school – Margarit said relationships with tutors felt more like a partnership at university, while Banyard said it depended on the university. 

Professor Veena Kumari (Brunel University) gave the final talk before a speaker Q&A session on her work with people with schizophrenia. She explained some of the main symptoms of the condition and highlighted a lack of attention on the cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia by researchers until relatively recently. 

Kumari emphasised the fact that most people with schizophrenia are not violent, but that in some of her own research involving people with schizophrenia and a history of violence, she has found they tend to have heightened feelings of threat. She suggested that when violence does arise in people with schizophrenia, it may need to be managed differently to violent people in the general population. 

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