'We are social even in our most lonely moments'

Our editor Jon Sutton with a few snapshots from the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

Nearly all people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge do so facing the city not the ocean, according to Jurgen Magraf (Bochum University, Germany). ‘We are social even in our most lonely moments’. Magraf was considering ‘macrosocial factors’ such as freedom, justice and health, and their impact upon mental health across cultures. 

Magraf pointed to research suggesting that if someone in your network gets happier, you will likely get happier too: specifically, 6, 10 or 16 per cent happier with three, two or one degree of separation respectively. ‘We don’t even have to know that person exists and they will influence us’ said Magraf, for example through the adoption of standards and behaviour etc. He used the example of school bullying – perpetrators actually have better mental health in adulthood in Germany, but not in China. ‘Bullying may be “adaptive” in an individualistic society, but maladaptive in a collective society.’ 

Considering mental ill health and positive mental health as two sides of the same coin is important. Positive mental health tends to be highest in the countries with the most problematic mental health. ‘In order to survive in America, you need to have a lot of resilience and a lot of positive mental health,’ Magraf said. There are also different relationships to developmental stages across cultures: ‘It’s more difficult to be old in Russia’. 

The influence of class and education on depression is also clear, with Magraf pondering a potential ‘lower class mindset’. A high proportion of the lowest class endorse statements such as ‘Whatever you do it’s not worth it, don’t even try’. ‘It’s a recipe for no exit,’ Magraf said. Yet the emphasis in mental health often remains on the ‘bio’ part of the biopsychosocial model. ‘It’s time to burst the biomedical model’ Magraf concluded, ending with insights from the ‘direct cash transfer experimental design’ (although ‘give the money to the women, not the men…’). 

Towards mutual intercultural relations

All societies are now culturally plural. For some cities, more than 50 per cent of their population were not born in the country. For John Berry (Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada), who has spent a career researching Mutual Intercultural Relations in Plural Societies, it’s an exciting time to seek impact on public policy. 

This, he argued, must be equitable and inclusive. When populations come together, there are four possible outcomes: assimilation (the two effectively become one, in terms of cultures, socialising and communication), integration (maintaining separate identities but mixing well), separation (never moving beyond ghettos), and marginalisation (with the incoming culture rejected by both its new hosts and original group). Psychologically, we all aim for ‘confidence and security in your place in a society’, and Berry pointed to a mountain of cross-cultural research to show that the poorest adaptation is for those who end up marginalised by both societies. Intergroup contact (under certain conditions) is vital: ‘The more I get to know you, the better I like you’. 

National policies have tended to evolve away from assimilation and towards integration – living side by side with an understanding and appreciation of differences. Berry concluded by noting proudly that in canada, ‘multiculturalism continues to be seen as one of the country’s most important symbols’. 

‘Trying to dry a river with a bucket’

Speaking on ‘the future of psychology and psychology organisations’, President of EFPA Telmo Mourinho Baptista likened our task to ‘trying to dry a river with a bucket’. Between 35 and 50 per cent of people with a mental disease do not receive treatment, making the stuff of our discipline ‘by far the biggest contributor to chronic conditions afflicting the population of Europe’. The United Nations sustainable development goals are ambitious to say the least. 

Fortunately, Baptista has hope in the form of new tech. He highlighted ‘Ada’, the health diagnosis app with 6+ million users, providing answers tailored to the person, based on evidence-based knowledge; Robot Vera, already used by 200 companies to take some of the legwork out of personnel selection; WoeBot (‘your self-care expert in CBT and mindfulness’); and BikeAround Memory Lane, using virtual reality with dementia. 

There are of course cautions and dangers said Baptista, noting the European Commission high level expert group on artificial intelligence. And in our new hyperconnected world, Baptista recommended familiarising ourselves with the work of Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans on ‘new power’ – led by peers, rather than leader driven. 

A natural history of suicide

A fascinating thread on the psychology of suicide ran through the conference (and we hope to follow it up with a special collection on new perspectives). In this session, Zhang Jie (Shandong University) considered potential reasons for the fall in suicide rates in the past 30 years in China. He posited migration to urbanised areas; modernised and liberal social values liberating rural women, who used to have the highest suicide rates); surveillance-based counselling monitoring young people on campuses; and government media control curbing the contagion of suicide. 

Paul Hewitt (British Columbia) outlined the potential role of ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’ – the sense that ‘other people need me to be perfect’ – as a ‘core vulnerability factor’ in suicide. The lack of disclosure of any imperfection might account for those suicides that seem to come ‘out of the blue’ for families and friends. It also interferes with the establishment of a therapeutic alliance in those who do seek help. ‘There’s something particularly nasty about it in relation to suicidal outcomes,’ Hewitt said. He suggested roots in attachment style: some people ‘come to learn that other people are often sources of profound rejection and abandonment, and therefore “If I am perfect, then I will be cared for”. This is the neurotic paradox… people may engage in behaviour to be accepted, but it actually repels people.’

Fabrice Jollant (McGill University) looked to isolated groups with very high rates of suicide for clues, such as the Palawan of a particular valley in the Philippines. His was a more genetic and neurobiological perspective, considering changes during the suicidal crisis and how to relieve psychological pain quickly (perhaps unsurprisingly ketamine appears to be quite effective). ‘How to become cognitively stronger in a hard world’ was Jollant’s tantalising question, along with whether everybody should learn ‘mental first aid’. ‘We need to move towards a natural history of suicide’, considering the trajectories of suicidal individuals. In terms of risk, ‘we know a bit about who, but we don’t know enough about when… and as clinicians, we deal in when.’

Groups as moral anchors

The influence of social psychologists Tajfel and Turner, and their work on the importance of groups for meaning and social worth, loomed large in the keynote from Naomi Ellemers (Utrecht). As we are bound together by similarity, interdependence and empathy, we start thinking, feeling, and behaving differently when we enter different contexts. ‘The group is part of your self.’

Ellemers consider the group’s desire to include the individual in relation to the individual’s desire to be included – ‘interesting things happen when these are not aligned’ (for example, the ‘admired’ status of someone desired by the group when they’re not actually that bothered about identifying with it). 

People have often been studied in isolation from their family or community systems, but Ellemers again showed the impact of identity incompatibility here. For example, becoming a parent can give a ‘new perspective’ on working life. A focus on identity compatibility, not conflict, makes workers happier, healthier, more productive. 

Leadership is often key in the identity work, and Ellemers reminded us that people are more motivated when their leader embodies a shared identity. Identity measures turn out to be the best at predicting many outcomes, from rule compliance to a supervisor’s rating of combat readiness in the armed forces. 

Ellemers concluded by reminding the audience of the costs of ‘identity concealment’. Even in organisations that actively seek out diversity in recruitment, there are high turnover rates, as people feel pressure to adapt to the majority. As a result, psychologists need to consider ‘identity defining values’, and how these can converge in communities. ‘Groups are moral anchors.’

Going green

What about if you commit to an identity goal but are thwarted in your attempts to reach it, by gaining the ‘symbols’? You feel incomplete, according to Peter Gollwitzer (New York University), and this has varied consequences for perception and action. 

For example, if we commit to the environmental goal of being green, and are then told in an experimental set up that we have been ‘unsuccessful in demonstrating greenness’, we fail to take the opportunity to recycle a party hat. This is despite being quicker to recognise environmental words in this condition, and even (when the goal to be green is highly desired) recalling a patch of colour as more green! 

It’s important, Gollwitzer advised, to link the acting on identity goals to continued striving – ‘being green is a goal that needs to be sustained!’ ‘If-then plans’ also play a part, along with consciously planning to engage in deep thinking over a desired goal. ‘It’s about using your mind to create links, it’s very playful in a way,’ Gollwitzer concluded. ‘We’re moving away from the old concept of willpower as hard work, grit.’ 

- More coverage from the conference – in particular from the British Psychological Society organised sessions – will appear in due course. See also 'Moving psychological science forward in Europe'.

- The European Congress 2021 will take place in Slovenia; and the British Psychological Society has just successfully bid to host the 2023 event, in Brighton.

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