The many faces of Psychology

Ella Rhodes reports from a British Psychological Society event.

A range of fascinating speakers were on hand at the British Psychological Society ‘Your Future in Psychology’ conference, aimed at those interested in going on to study at undergraduate level. 

Assistant Professor in Social Psychology, Dr Daniel Jolley (University of Nottingham), opened the day’s talks with his work on conspiracy theories. Although it might be comfortable to believe that conspiracy beliefs are confined to the fringes of society, they are much more widespread than we may think – as evidenced during the Covid pandemic. 

Jolley explained that most questionnaires ask about events which happened before Gen-Z were born, and that he has recently been involved in creating a measurement tool for conspiracy beliefs in the younger generations. He and his colleagues developed the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (ACBQ) and found that the age of 14 seems to be a peak time for conspiratorial beliefs to flourish. The reasons for this remain unclear. 

Conspiracy theories and beliefs, Jolley explained, may be a way to address various needs we have – a need to be in control, to feel secure and connected to our social group. During Covid, for example, conspiracy theories may have given people a simple way to explain an enormous event which affected everyone. 

One of the mental shortcuts we take, which can go some way to explaining why conspiracy theories flourish, is the proportionality bias – or the feeling that a big event needs to be explained by something equally big. Jolley gave the example of Princess Diana’s death. The death of a princess being explained by something as everyday as a car accident does not seem proportionate to some. In other’s research, participants were shown a series of coin tosses or a Jackson Pollock painting and asked whether they observed patterns in randomness. Those who did were more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs. ‘If we assume that the world is ordered and things are predetermined and don’t just randomly happen, you’re also more likely to see that in events. When something large happens, the death of a celebrity or a global pandemic, you’re likely to see meaning behind that event.’

Some research in the early days of the pandemic asked participants about their conspiracy beliefs, then eight months later they were asked about health behaviours related to Covid. Those with higher levels of conspiracy beliefs were less likely to get a test for the virus, were more likely to test positive if they did get a test, and an increased likelihood of violating covid regulations. 

Jolley shared some of the efforts which have been going on to stem the flood of conspiracy theories and beliefs. He explained that in his own work if you give people facts up front that vaccines are safe they will be more likely to intend to be vaccinated. However, this type of information is not always available to those who get sucked into conspiracy theories. Jolley said that promoting analytical and critical thinking can help to reduce beliefs in conspiracy theories. 

PhD researcher Catherine Hitch (Queens University Belfast) has been working with veterans in Northern Ireland – a particularly hard-to-reach group given the stigma associated with those who served alongside the British during the troubles. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, Hitch explained that many soldiers worked as reservists living and working within the same communities, and they tended to be targets for violence. This stigma persists to this day. 

In the Northern Irish context Hitch said it was important to remember that the country has very few services, with many charities working to fill that gap to provide mental health support. She said there were issues with even working to find the best ways to support this group – for security reasons research with veterans in Northern Ireland wasn’t allowed until very recently. 

Hitch, whose research was funded by the British Legion, managed to get in touch with more than 500 Northern Ireland veterans to ask about their experiences. She has found very significant levels of trauma within the population, with many experiencing multiple types of trauma throughout their lives, along with multiple comorbid mental health difficulties. 

Hitch said that those who worked as reservists, living and working in the same area, tended to have worse mental health outcomes, and the number of traumas experienced was linked to poorer mental health outcomes. She also examined qualitative data from interviews with some of the veterans – she found six main themes including a lack of literacy and education in mental health and a feeling of being hated and not appreciated.

Current psychology students Ellie Duncan (Loughborough University), Nisa Han (Nottingham Trent University) and Aiko Leung (UCL), also current chair of the BPS Student Committee, shared some of their experiences and activities during their time at university and advice for new students. Later, Leung was joined by fellow undergraduate students Edith Lee (St Andrews) and former Student Committee chair Eduard Daniel (Abertay University) who answered questions from the audience about their time at university and shared advice for gaining work experience and eased fears about studying statistics.   

Chair of the BPS Sexualities Section Dr Adam Jowett (Coventry University) shared his experiences of carrying out research commissioned by the UK government. He said he had followed his passion for social psychology, sociology, and research on prejudice and social stigma to end up a career researching the experiences of LGBT+ people. Later, given his research interests, Jowett was commissioned by the government to carry out research on so-called conversion therapy and explained that conversion therapy describes attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He said there was a consensus among many organisations, including the BPS, that this type of therapy is unethical and potentially harmful to those who undergo it. 

Jowett explored existing research on conversion therapy and interviewed people who had been through it. He found that there was no evidence that conversion therapy could change sexual orientation or gender identity, and that it is associated with poor mental health outcomes. Those carrying out conversion therapy tend to be faith organisations and groups and healthcare and medical professionals, and while some people are forced or coerced into therapy others seek it out. Jowett explained the power of in-groups and out-groups. People of a certain faith may see that faith as their in group, and may also feel like an out-group if they are LGBT+. When asked why they wanted to go through conversion therapy, people spoke of wanting to feel normal and to belong. Jowett said people had internalised negative stereotypes about their own sexualities or gender identities and some felt as though they could never be happy and healthy as an LGBT+ person. However, conversion therapy left them feeling stigmatised, ashamed, isolated and depressed. 

Happily, many of Jowett’s participants found self-acceptance after they ended their therapy, often through finding inclusive faith communities and connecting with other LGBT+ people. 

‘The key thing for these people in finding this sense of inner peace was this sense of belonging, finding a place they could be themselves, where they didn’t feel they were part of an out-group and they felt they belonged to the community.’

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