Having received a First-class BSc (Hons) in Psychology from the University of the West of England, I then completed my PhD at Cardiff University. My PhD explored the potential applications of learning theory, and other engineering frameworks, to improve human identification of previous unfamiliar faces.
Following the completion of my PhD, I held postdoctoral positions within the Brain and Cognition group at Anglia Ruskin University and within the Visual Experience Laboratory at the University of Birmingham. During these roles, I have been trained to use a variety of techniques including; eye tracking, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and EEG. My position at Birmingham was funded by the International Banknote Designers Association. This role involved collaborating with the central banks (e.g., the Bank of England, US Federal Reserve) and other stakeholders to design perception studies. The main focus of these studies was to investigate how individuals navigate and use the security features on banknotes.
More recently, I have held the positions of Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University teaching and leading on a range of modules including: Introduction to Cognitive and Comparative Neuroscience and Advanced Biological and Cognitive Psychology.
Broadly, my research interests focus on visual perception/attention and how our interpretation of the world can be influenced by prior experience, what we are viewing, and current internal state. I am interested in the basic mechanisms and associated brain areas that underpin learning through simple exposure (i.e., perceptual learning). In addition to applying this knowledge to investigate how we learn to identify previously unfamiliar faces and other frequently encountered objects.
Broadly, my research interests focus is on two strands of investigation (i) information elicitation and lie-detection, and (ii) mental health and offending behaviour.
After gaining a BSc (Hons) in Psychology from Bangor University I became interested in the forensic aspects of Psychology. I then completed an MSc Forensic Psychology from the University of Portsmouth. During this time, I started working in the NHS with offenders who had complex mental health disorders. I worked primarily with adult males but spent considerable time on the female ward. I then transferred to Bluebird House – the highest level of security in the UK for adolescents. I worked here for a year and trained in DBT for frontline staff.
My PhD research focused on ethical methods for encouraging suspects and eyewitness to say more during investigative interviewing. Providing more information creates greater deception cues. From this I developed a new interviewing protocol called the Asymmetric Information Management (AIM) technique.
My academic career started in the Psychology department in Portsmouth part time while working in the NHS. I then left the NHS to work full time in the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies where I supported the development of embedding well-being within the curriculum. I have taught on various psychology and criminology modules and have led a range of undergraduate modules such as Understanding Criminology, Essential Skills for Criminologists, and an optional practice-based Forensic Psychology and Mental Health module. I have also been module coordinator of the Masters dissertation module.
Most recently, I held the post of Principal Lecture at the University of Portsmouth, where I was the Programme Area Leader managing all distance learning Masters courses. Some examples include MSc Criminal Psychology, MSc Victimology, MSc Crime Science, MSc Counter Fraud and Counter Corruption, MSc International Criminal Justice.
implications of nomothetic psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy research has made significant progress in providing strong evidence for process and outcome in favour of specific approaches. However, after many years of research and advanced methodologies, we are still unsure about why psychotherapy works, and how and to what degree these findings can be applied in everyday practice (Kazdin, 2009). Evidence-based approaches do not appear to be effective for everyone, and the mechanisms of change are still investigated with diverse findings. Randomised controlled trials (RCT) and meta-analyses inform policy and guidelines followed by the likes of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Illustrating this, NICE Guidelines for the treatment of Depression state that “well-defined” depression can be treated with CBT based on its proven efficacy, however “it is not effective for everyone” (NICE, 2009). Clinicians need evidence-based recommendations to inform their work with clients. It is notable though that evidence-based practice is based on nomothetic, quantitative approaches of inquiry but what is actually demanded from practitioners is to apply these theories in an idiographic context and adjust to the needs of the individual who seeks help (Persons, 2008).
One cannot reduce psychotherapy to specific factors and cannot reduce the person to a specific list of symptoms. Added to that, each psychotherapeutic encounter is unique, in terms of transference and real relationship factors. Rigid diagnosis criteria are challenged and culturally sensitive, social models of diagnosis are encouraged in the literature, which question the constant pursuit of functionality, fulfilment and happiness (Kirmayer, Gomez – Carillo & Veissiere, 2017). In reality, clients with the same labels are likely to experience their diagnosis in different ways (Hayes et al, 2019). Moreover, each therapist has inherent biases and internal processes of interpreting each client before deciding which interventions to apply and how (Makhinson, 2012). The therapist’s training, expectations, overgeneralisations and pressure for positive results have a significant impact on the decisions they will make for therapeutic action plans. Lastly, each psychotherapeutic dyad is different, each process that unfolds in this context is a different experience for both parties. Even if the therapist follows the same approach guidelines, they will be different with different clients (Hill, Chui & Baumann, 2013). Each therapeutic encounter forms a new interaction and discussion; a new therapy (Baldwin & Imel, 2020).
psychotherapy efficacy research struggles to capture the level of complexity therapeutic
interactions entail. The findings make inferences about the general population but
do not necessarily apply to the individual (Hayes et al., 2019). Another issue
is the difficulty in defining each therapeutic modality given the new
approaches that appear and their variations in application. Too many approaches
are now presented in the literature for too many syndromes which account for
too many statistical models, and the number is growing (Hayes et al., 2019). Moreover,
there are many confounding factors when trying to measure the effects of
psychotherapy, such as the therapist’s subjectivity, training, supervision, the
therapist and researcher’s expectations and the clients’ presenting
difficulties. The researcher’s subjectivity must also be recognised in the research
process even for the most rigorous RCTs. Psychotherapy research entails bias
and the effectiveness of psychotherapy can be exaggerated. Moreover, many
studies may remain unpublished if results support null or negative hypotheses
(Dragioti, Karathanos, Gerdle & Evangelou, 2017).
back to case analysis: the idiographic paradigm in psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon. How can we understand and represent its variability in evidence-based findings? Research is moving away from protocol and approach specific treatments towards a more client-centred way of exploring psychotherapy efficacy; it instead becomes a “personalized treatment” (Zilcha-Mano, 2019, p. 694). The focus is on the implementation of methodologies which can do justice to the complexity and variability of the phenomenon of psychotherapy. Qualitative research allows the exploration of the multidimensional interactions in psychotherapy encounters and the emergence of unexpected results (Hill et al., 2013; McLeod, 2011). By implementing methods such as the Narrative Assessment Interview (Angus, Levitt & Hardtke, 1999), the Change Interview (Elliott, Slatick & Urman, 2001) or the Hermeneutic Single-Case Efficacy Design (Elliott et al., 2009), qualitative research is nowadays being used more often in exploring psychotherapeutic processes and effects.
As psychotherapy researchers, we need to pursue a route that is different to “protocol-to-syndrome.” We are moving away from labels and therapy “brands” (Hofman, 2020, pp. 297 – 298) towards elaborate descriptions of people and therapies, focusing on what works, why and how, for both specific individuals or groups that share common characteristics. The suggestion is to distance ourselves from theory-driven process and outcome studies, from measurable and quantifiable behavioural changes (Hill et al., 2013) and instead to approach the client’s perspective in an open and explorative way; to enable learning and knowledge derived from the clients’ experience of psychotherapy efficacy. In particular, idiographic qualitative phenomenological research offers the means to explore intrapsychic change. A well-designed case study provides detailed, in-depth knowledge which is readily applicable to everyday clinical practice (Persons & Boswell, 2019).
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is a qualitative methodology that focuses on the individual’s unique experiences of the situation studied. IPA can make a significant contribution by enabling researchers and practitioners to gain insights into client’s experiences of therapeutic processes. The philosophical, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings and guidelines of IPA allow for an in-depth exploration of the client’s experience, leading to significant conceptualisations on how therapeutic approaches work (Larkin & Thompson, 2012). It is based on the phenomenological paradigm as outlined by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merlau-Ponty (Smith, 1996; Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). It provides the framework to place the therapeutic encounter in context and analyse it; to go back to the phenomenon of psychotherapy “on its own terms.” The focus is on individuals, their subjective accounts and perceptions, bracketing the understanding of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and expectations. IPA methodology views persons in-context as they expound on embodied, dynamic, and interactive experiences. Interpretation in IPA implies moving away from the obvious, focusing on the meaning participants attribute to their experience, engaging in a dialogue with the data, and illuminating sense-making (Smith, 1996; Smith et al., 2009).
Adhering to an existential framework,
IPA methodology does not rely on psychological theories for the collection and analysis
of data. It is data-driven, emphasizing personal experience (Smith, 2017). It
is deemed a useful method for psychotherapy process exploration as it frees the
researcher from the compounds of psychotherapy theory and gives voice to the
clients’ unique experience and intersubjective meaning-making processes
(Larking & Thompson, 2012). Phenomenological methods have been applied to
the exploration of adults’ experiences of psychotherapy during their childhood
have changed their live, clients’ experience of positive change and to psychotherapy outcome studies
(Binder et al., 2010; Midgley, Target, & Smith, 2006; Olofsson et al.,
2019; Wilmots et al., 2019). IPA applied to psychotherapy research allows for
the exploration of the clients’ perspective, the meaning they attribute to
seeking and receiving help and how they conceptualise the psychotherapy process
rendering the results useful for incorporation into everyday clinical practice
(Binder et al., 2010; McLeod, 2011; Midgley et al., 2014). IPA guidelines help researchers keep the focus
on the participants’ experiences and meaning-making processes, and can further
bolster and clarify the knowledge of psychotherapy effects from the clients’
approaches to research claim that there is one absolute truth outside of us to
be discovered (Ponterotto, 2005). As psychotherapy researchers, the
phenomenological perception of truth helps us view psychotherapy as real
however it is the individual’ consciousness that determines its reality. IPA
exploration of psychotherapy brings research back to the clients, to their
experience of change, from which we can acquire significant insight on how and
why psychotherapy works. We go back to the individual case and understand the
psychotherapy processes from their perspective. Thus, the findings are closely
linked to practice. Inventories and questionnaires may capture a small proportion
of this variability in psychotherapy change procedures, but they are restricted
to overt behaviours and symptoms whilst the questions might not be applicable
to the person’s issues. The use of qualitative research methods in
psychotherapy effectiveness and outcome research adds to our efforts to
comprehend when and how psychotherapy works in an explorative and descriptive
psychotherapy research allows for the client’s voice to be heard. Their
perceptions and interpretations of psychotherapy process and change may guide
research conclusions, theory advancements and policies. Hence, psychotherapy is
adjusted to the clients and the service users, and not the other way around. In
recent literature, a more pluralistic method of inquiry is now considered in an
effort to address the diversity of psychotherapy processes, encouraging
researchers’ reflexivity on the aspect of psychotherapy they choose to explore (Rieken
& Gelo, 2015). Various methodologies and epistemologies are now employed in
the search for an answer to why psychotherapy works. Qualitative methodologies,
and especially IPA, places the client in–context considering psychological,
physical and social aspects of their experience of psychotherapy. Like
clinicians who tailor their use of techniques to the specific client in the
specific therapeutic relationship, researchers should consider individual needs,
culture and social context, tailoring research methods to specific aspects of
psychotherapy process and change.
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Psychology, like all disciplines, has a history. Like all histories, it is a contested one, and it often unravels within a dominant narrative that might surprise you. For instance, the birth of the psychological laboratory in Leibzig, Germany in 1879, its founder Wilhelm Wundt, and the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner are considered far more influential to the development of contemporary psychological science than the psychoanalytic insights of Carl Jung or Melanie Klein. My teaching experience suggests that, in their vast majority, psychology undergraduates are left a little dissatisfied at the end of their degrees insofar as their understanding of human behaviour is concerned. Psychological knowledge in the last 40 years has developed largely in silos and final year courses offer quite specialised explorations of processes (social, developmental, biological, or cognitive) that underpin human psychic life. Thus, rare opportunities are afforded for some sort of synthesis of perspectives that can form an even partially satisfactory answer to the question: ‘so, why do I do the things I do?’. As academics, we face enormous pressure to profess expertise in specialised topics, publish our work in journals that mainly speak to other academics, and create our brand by accentuating the unique contribution(s) we have made to the discipline. ‘I teach why people do the things they do’ sounds just as silly as it is impossible. But shouldn’t studying psychology help us understand ourselves and others around us?
Cognitivism is a term that has been used to describe the influence of cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes such as attention, memory, and problem solving) on mainstream psychological theory as well as popular perceptions of human subjectivity. Experimental social psychology for instance talks of social cognition, namely what our brains do when we are in groups. Many theories suggest that the social world ‘enters’ individuals via biosensory pathways and cognitive mechanisms, which can be schematically represented as diagrams (and who doesn’t love a good, self-evident diagram?) and subjected to empirical testing. The brain (or ‘mind’) is widely hailed as the seat of selfhood, and I bet that if you asked people which organ represents them best, most people would pick their brains. That is, despite emerging evidence from medicine that implicates the digestive system (gut) in interesting psychophysiological processes, few people would name their intestines as the bit of tissue they would want preserved in a jar, and I am probably not one of them. Psychoanalytically speaking, there’s nothing surprising in the finding that the gut is a significant locus of psychological activity; after all emotions have to be symbolically digested somewhere. ‘One brain per person’ is how it works, and psychology loves some good old-fashioned dualisms. And so it has come to pass that psychology will leave the study of societies to sociology and social anthropology and cast its expert light on the unit of analysis that no mortal shall divide: the individual.
Cognitivism seeps into all other branches of psychology; thus, a unitary subject that is knowable, predictable, and bound by reason emerges undisputed. How I hear you ask? Let’s rewind. Cognitive psychology arose as a direct challenge to Watsonian ‘black box’ psychology, a necessary critique of the idea that humans are shaped solely by environmental contingencies and schedules of reinforcement. It blossomed in parallel with the computer revolution and adopted much of the language of computer science (input, network, information processing, mechanism etc). Some 70 years later, this language is not confined to the study of largely involuntary brain processes such as space perception or executive function. Quite the contrary, it has implied, assumed, and naturalised the reality underpinning most of human behaviour. It’s not cognitive psychology’s claims that solidify cognitivism, in fact cutting-edge research in this area has probably moved beyond it. This is how discourse (a devilishly slippery concept) works: an ideology such as the one we are dealing with can only become entrenched if it is propped up by a myriad of supporting beams. Cognitivism engulfs reality with every university psychology department that uses imagery such as an electrode-wired person to promote itself to prospective applicants (and funders). It lurks in the most innocuous of everyday utterances: ‘it’s all in your head’. And it goes unchallenged because no self-respecting psychologist would ever explicitly defend the position: ‘we are just our thoughts’.
several problems for contemporary psychology, if one takes that to mean the
study of ‘why we do the things we do’. It is less of a problem if one is
concerned with ‘how we do what we do’, but the critique still applies I
believe. Humans are not like computers in that we possess a tricky little thing
called consciousness and an equally tricky if not more tangible thing
called thebody. Let’s pretend that there’s no such tricky little
thing as soul or spirit, otherwise this brief commentary will get derailed. How
consciousness manifests, is embodied, and interacts with other conscious beings
is, really, what psychologists are studying. We need access to more than just
cognition to understand why people fall in love, why they fight, why they
suddenly act in unpredictable ways, and what happens when many people co-exist
for prolonged periods of time. Family dynamics, ambivalent friendships, and
toxic couples won’t make much sense by illuminating the intricacies of individuals’
cognitive apparatus. Why we feel what we feel is, invariably, more interesting
to the undergraduate student than why the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon
occurs. Affective cognition is cognitive psychology’s answer to the former. So
what about relationships? Cue crickets.
There are good reasons why cognitivism has prevailed, not least because it squares with scientific methods, Western biomedicine, and reasonable expectations for publicly funded psychological research to have utility and applied value. Measuring things and discovering variables that affect human behaviour often translates into practical solutions for many a modern malady. In consequence, mainstream psychology enjoys widespread applications in health, occupational, and even recreational settings. At the same time, we should not ignore the more sinister reasons. As it squares, it concurrently dovetails with an ideology of the human subject as a predictable, fixable machine that can be controlled and programmed. It delights advertisers who are in search of the ideal font, image, or message to feed consumerism. It makes sense to politicians who, through no fault of their own, are also entangled in its discursive net and therefore look to psychology to fix symptoms (or hide them) rather than transform conditions to prevent the problems in the first place. It makes people feel cleverer as it follows a rational methodology and can be delightfully illuminating to the mind that has been trained all its life to excel and produce without ever pausing to reflect on the unbearable question: ‘what and who am I producing for?’.
A little context on the writer so that the reader can more fully appreciate the vested interests in this article (free tip: all discourse carries vested interests and (dis)locations of power). I studied for a 4-year experimental psychology degree, which I enjoyed, and my first job was as a statistics instructor for the university I graduated from. After a brief detour that involved meeting Avril Lavigne and dining with Patti Smith, I trained as a counselling psychologist. Whilst in training I took issue with several other assumptions counselling psychology made (the allure of cognitivism is perhaps less felt in this particular corner of applied psychology) but I finally found a home so to speak in another sub-discipline: community psychology. After struggling for many years, I can finally combine my passion for community psychology with my expertise as a counselling psychologist and proudly co-organise the Community Psychology Festival, an annual event borne out of hope and glitter. Even though I write from this intersection, I am informed and shaped by theories and experiences that are not immediately apparent in my professional identities.
It might therefore not surprise the reader to know that I take issue not with the very existence of cognitivism, but with its obliterating influence on all other ways of conceptualising human beings. I don’t for a second believe that we are rational and unitary; our internal worlds consist of affectively laden ‘bits’ that can be pre-verbal and unconscious (this is a Kleinian view), and I have started wondering whether producing a coherent self is more of a hassle than it is to surrender to the possibility of multiple selves, even if some of them are conflictually aligned against others. ‘Make happy thoughts’ is just about the worst advice you can give someone experiencing depression or anxiety. I have a problem with cognitivism’s unintended consequence of eradicating the social dimension of what it means to live and act in this world. I try hard to instil in my students a scepticism of mechanistic claims that do not recognise just how deliciously neoliberal their implications for the human condition are (see previous blog entry on ‘resilience’ by Dr Miles Thompson). Speaking of ‘resilience’, this research paradigm is only just beginning to acknowledge that metals should be resilient, humans not so much. Imagine a person who suffers a messy breakdown at work when they are working on a temporary contract and their partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness, at a time when healthcare has been privatised. A breakdown is the healthy response here; that is what should happen in the name of ‘normality’. Quite what form that breakdown may take is a different matter; I do not wish to absolve our fictional friend from personal responsibility. I am not comfortable with ‘victim culture’ and people who are unwilling to locate their own complicity in their suffering; that is if social-material conditions allow for such agency. But to condone any notion that said fictional (yet easily recognisable) person will be described as ‘resilient’ if they continue to work with a stoic half-smile and be in rational control of their emotions is where I draw a line.
No account can ever be ‘objective’, or definitive for that matter, and I do not wish to naively scapegoat cognitivism; rather I seek to reiterate that complex institutional and social conditions have allowed it to enjoy unprecedented platforms (hello inane ‘wellbeing’ apps) and unchallenged status in the Western world. This point has been made before. Several times. It is articulated every time sacred wisdom such as the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is usurped, diluted, decontextualized, and packaged in a cognitivised version, easily available for mass consumption. Distinguished cognitive scholars have grappled with some of the issues described here, and some have actually protested the dominance of the machine as the ultimate metaphor to symbolise psychological activity (cf. Jerome Bruner’s work). How many psychotherapists must speak up to protest the irrational (the irony!) program of mass mental hygiene that IAPT has become? How many psychologists must swallow their ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ (50% at the last count) in mental health settings before we all agree: “The psychologists and their cognitive errors (‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘This is hopeless’) are not the problem here!” Clinical and counselling psychologists know that cognitive interventions have a place in working with distress, but it is certainly not the place they currently occupy. So you might ask, if this has been said many times before, and it is not a hugely incomprehensible point to get hold of, why is there need to still write about it? Hmmm…Let’s call it ‘selective attention’, shall we?
Desai, M. & Hadjiosif, M. (2020). The
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If you read the higher education press, you will be aware of the concerns of many British academics and universities following the 2016 referendum and the vote in favour of leaving Europe. How the UK leaves the European Union could have many important consequences for British universities. It may become impossible for British researchers to access European research funds, which in the past have been a major source of funding. Access to staff and student mobility schemes may cease, making it harder for people to travel abroad to study and collaborate. Academic staff from Europe may no longer find the UK an attractive place to come and work, and vice versa.
As an academic that has had strong links with our nearest
European neighbour for some time, the referendum decision has been personally
painful, and the ensuing months and years since torturous. However, I am
determined to do my bit in maintaining close working relationships with our
continental colleagues, however the Brexit project turns out. So I thought I
would use my PSRG blog entry to tell you a bit about French psychology, and the
rewards of international collaboration.
This story really started for me in the winter of 2013, when I decided it might be useful to travel abroad to find out how other institutions were delivering online learning in post-graduate psychology. Having set up a distance-based MSc in the early 2000s, and by 2013 being the programme lead for the doctorate in counselling psychology at UWE, I was keen to see how professional courses could be delivered online. I duly wrote and submitted a travel grant application to the Higher Education Academy (HEA), with a view to visiting the Fielding Institute in California and Paris 8 University in France, both of which run distance courses in clinical psychology (if you are an undergraduate psychology student that speaks good French you might consider the Paris 8 Masters – though using this to get HCPC registered might be less straight forward after Brexit!). Unfortunately, the HEA hit a period of financial turbulence, and the travel grants were axed. As a result, the USA part of the plan had to go, but Paris 8 was possible with some university funding.
So in 2014 I spent a week at Paris 8 University, talking to
staff and students, and finding out how their online MSc in clinical psychology
was run. In France currently, access to the profession of clinical psychology
is via a two year MSc, as it used to be in the UK (before Plymouth University
pioneered professional doctorates in the 1990s, and everyone else followed suit).
I soon discovered that an interesting aspect of clinical psychology at Paris 8
is that it quite closely resembles our counselling psychology course at UWE, in
that students study both humanistic and psychodynamic foundations of therapy,
as well as the ubiquitous cognitive behaviour therapy.
Paris 8 University is well known in France as the experimental university which was founded after the student led riots of 1968. Well known academics have included Foucault and Deleuze. Amongst the current psychology staff is Professor Arnaud Plagnol, who like me has interests in the application of cognitive science to understanding and working with client issues in therapy. Following my 2014 visit, Arnaud and I have collaborated on a number of projects. The picture shown here is a poster we did on neuroscience and depression, at the DCoP conference in Harrogate in 2015. More recently we have written a book together called Cognitive Psychodynamics, which illustrates how psychodynamic insights into phenomena such as the unconscious and transference can be understood and further developed in therapy through a cognitive framework.
Since 2014 I have done a small amount of teaching on the Paris 8 MSc. To help me communicate better with my French colleagues and students, I have attended a number of the annual conferences of the French Psychological Society. This year’s was in Poitiers, and the picture shown here is of the Hotel Fumé, which as the name suggests was built as a hotel by the Fumé family in the 15th century. It became part of the University of Poitiers’ Faculty of Human Sciences in 1922. The University of Poitiers is one of the oldest in France, often seen as the number 2 after Paris (so the French equivalent of Oxford ;). I was pleased to be able to present at the conference the excellent research carried out by one of my professional doctorate students, Sara Dowsett, on the utility of schema theory in understanding mental health issues in higher education students. The great thing about attending this conference is also the opportunity to catch up on some of the research being done by our colleagues in the Francophone world. For example, I listened to an extremely interesting paper by Geoffrey Gauvin, who along with colleagues in Montreal has been looking at the utility of self-help groups for clients with depression. It struck me that the holistic perspective being used with clients in these groups is something we might well benefit from here in the UK.
One of the highlights, as you would expect for a conference in
France, was the conference dinner. I felt privileged to be seated opposite the
president of the French Society, Rene Clarisse. In talking to Rene, one of the
interesting things I learned was psychologists in France are pushing the
government to extend psychology training courses by an extra year, which may
well give rise to the development of professional doctorates in France. Ironically, the similarities between British
and French psychology may well therefore increase even further after Brexit,
just as the possibility of professional mobility may well get harder.
I hope my blog entry encourages you all to reach out to our
continental psychology colleagues and overcome the linguistic barriers, whatever
language your rusty GCSE happens to be in.
I received my undergraduate degree in Psychology from University of Crete in Greece. I then moved to London where I completed my Master of Science in Counselling Psychology as well as my Professional Doctorate (PsyD) in Counselling Psychology at City University of London. Prior to joining UWE, I worked as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Psychology Division at Hellenic American University (Athens, Greece) for three years.
I am a qualitative researcher and my projects have been based on constructionist methodologies like Grounded Theory and Narrative Analysis, but recently I have engaged more into phenomenological paradigms and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis in particular. My scholarly interests initially involved the exploration of psychotherapy termination, trainees’ professional development, mental health practice and the impact of financial crisis on people and services. Over the last years, my research focuses on the investigation of psychotherapy process, change and outcome, developing longitudinal, mixed method and qualitative study designs. I have collaborated with academics and researchers from Greece, UK, Netherlands, and USA, and I have published academic articles and peer-reviewed chapters based on my research activities. Given my expertise in qualitative methodologies, I have been invited to facilitate seminars and also consult on projects by a number of institutions. Moreover, I have been the organizer of five qualitative research panels in national and international conferences and I have been invited to participate in numerous discussions as a presenter. Recently, I was invited to be the keynote speaker in an international conference of the American Counseling Association.
I am a trained psychotherapist, adhering primarily to the psychodynamic and psychoanalytic model of formulation and practice but I have also been trained in Cognitive Behavioural approach. I have worked on short and long term therapeutic basis with a variety of clinical cases (depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, psychosis etc.) and ages (adults, adolescents, children and families). I have collaborated with social workers, play therapists, psychiatrists, teachers and other professionals in the fields of mental health and education. I adhere to the scientist – practitioner model based on my academic and clinical training and practice. As a researcher and a psychotherapist I believe the two domains interact and inform each other. I try to encourage this model to my students and trainees.
In April, I was fortunate to attend the annual and prestigious British Neuroscience Association (BNA) Festival of Neuroscience. The conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with contemporary interdisciplinary neuroscience research across the UK and internationally. Spread over four days the event hosted workshops, symposiums, keynote lectures and poster presentations. Covering 11 neuroscience themes, as an experimental psychologist, I was particularly interested in themes relating to attention, motivation and behaviour, sensory and motor systems, and neuroendocrinology and autonomic systems.
Not only was this a chance to embrace cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience research, this was a chance to develop skills enabling me to become a meticulous researcher. It was clear that an overall goal of the conference was to encourage high standards of scientific rigour by embracing the open science movement.
“Fast science… too much rubbish out there we have to sift through.”
The open science movement encompasses a range of practices that promote transparency and accessibility of knowledge, including data sharing and open access publishing. The Open Science Framework is one tool that enables users to create research projects and encourages sharing hypotheses, data, and publications. These practices encourage openness, integrity, and reproducibility in research, something particularly important in the field of psychology.
A especially striking claim was noted by Ioannidis (2005): “most published research findings are false.” Ioannidis argued that there is a methodological crisis in science, particularly apparent in psychology, but also cognitive neuroscience, clinical medicine, and many other fields (Cooper, 2018). If an effect is real, any researcher should be able to obtain it using the same procedures with adequate statistical power. However, many scientific studies are difficult to replicate. Open science practices have been suggested to help enable accurate replications and facilitate the dissection of scientific knowledge, improving scientific quality and integrity.
The BNA has a clear positive stance on open science practices, and I was lucky enough to be a part of this. Professor Uta Frith, a world-renowned developmental neuropsychologist, gave a plenary lecture about the three R’s: reproducibility, replicability, and reliability, which was arguably one of the most important and influential lectures over the course of the conference.
Professor Frith summed up the scientific crisis in two words, “Fast Science.” Essentially, science is progressing too fast, leading to lower quality research. Could this be due to an increase in people, labs, and journals? Speeded communication via social media? Pressure and career incentives for increased output? Sheer volume of pre-prints available to download? Professor Frith argued that there is “too much rubbish one has to sift through.”
A potential solution to this is a ‘Slow Science’ movement. The notion of “resisting quantity and choosing quality.” Professor Frith argued the need for the system to change. Often we here about the pitfalls of the peer review process, yet Professor Frith provided us with some novel ideas. She argued for a limited number of publications per year. This would encourage researchers to spend quality time on one piece of research, improving scientific rigour. Excess work would be appropriate for other outlets. Only one grant at a time should be allowed. She also discussed the need for continuous training programmes.
A lack of statistical expertise in the research community?
Professor Firth argued that there is a clear lack of statistical knowledge. With increasing computational advancements, it is becoming easier and easier to plug data into a function and accept the outcome. Yet, we must understand how these algorithms work so we can spot errors and notice illogical results.
This is something that spoke out to me. I love working with EEG data. Analysing time-series data allows us to capture cognitive processes during dynamic and fast changing situations. However, working with such rich and temporally complex data is technically challenging. The EEG signal is so small at the surface of the scalp, and the signal to noise ratio is poor. Artefacts, non-physiological (e.g. computer hum) and physiological (e.g. eye movements), contaminate the recording, meaning that not only does the EEG pick up neural activity, but it also records other electrical signals we are not interested in. Therefore, we apply mathematical algorithms to help with cleaning the data, to improve the signal to noise ratio. Once the data are cleaned, we also apply algorithms to transform the data from the time series domain (for which it is recorded in) to the frequency domain. The number of techniques of EEG analysis has risen hugely, partly thanks to computational power, and therefore there are now a whole host of computational techniques, including machine-learning, that can be applied to EEG data.
Each time algorithms are applied to the EEG data, the EEG data change. How can an EEG researcher trust the output? How can an EEG researcher sensibly interpret the data, and make informed conclusions? Having an underlying understanding of what the mathematical algorithms are doing to the data is no doubt paramount.
Professor Frith is right, there is a need for continuous training as data analysis is moving at an exhaustingly fast pace.
Pre-registration posters – an opportunity to get feedback on your method and planned statistical analyses
I also managed to contribute to the open science movement during the conference. On the second-to-last day, I presented a poster on my research looking at the temporal neural dynamics of switching between a visual perceptual and visuomotor task. This was not an ordinary poster presentation; this was a pre-registration poster presentation. I presented planned work to be carried out, with a clear introduction, hypotheses and method. I also included a plan of the statistical analyses. There were no data, graphs, or conclusions.
The poster session was an excellent opportunity for feedback from the neuroscience community on my method and statistical analyses. This is arguably the most useful time for feedback – before the research is carried out. This was particularly beneficial for me coming from a very small EEG community, and seeking particular expertise is vital. A post-doctoral researcher, who had looked at something similar during her PhD, provided me with honest and informative feedback on my experimental design. In addition, I uploaded my poster to the Open Science Framework, and the abstract was published in the open access journal Brain and Neurosciences Advances. I also received a preregistered badge for my work. These badges work as an incentive to encourage researchers to engage with open science practices. Check out cos.io/badges for more information.
So, what next?
Practical tools and significant support are coming together to allow open science to blossom. It is now our responsibility to be part of this. I’ve created an Open Science Framework account and plan to start there, detailing my aims, methods and data, to improve transparency in research. I’m making the most of my last year of my PhD to attend data analysis workshops. I would like to pre-register my research in the near future. How do I contribute to the slow science movement? I can start by slowing down (perhaps saying no to additional projects?!), improving my statistical knowledge, and embracing open science practices.
Not only was the conference an incredible insight into multidisciplinary neuroscience research (I did not realise you could put a mouse in an MRI scanner, anaesthetised of course, as it would never keep its head still!), it was an influential and motivating atmosphere. Thank you, British Neuroscience Association. Now, who else wants to join me in advocating open science, becoming a rigorous researcher, and improving scientific practices?!
Cooper, M. M. (2018). The Replication Crisis and Chemistry Education Research. Journal of Chemical Education, 95, 1– 2.
Ioannidis, J. P. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Medicine, 2(8), e124.
Exceptional physical features, together with high commitment and motivation, are important attributes of high-performance athletes. However, when faced with frustrating setbacks, the same qualities of commitment and motivation that have elevated athletes above the pressures of competition can be their own worst enemies. It is not uncommon for elite athletes, especially young athletes to push themselves too far, to overreach and experience extreme tiredness on a regular basis and never reach their full potential because of excessive training load and insufficient recovery.
Unexplained underperformance and persistent fatigue – Exploring overtraining syndrome
Overtraining syndrome has been described as persistent fatigue and underperformance, which occurs following hard training and competition. The symptoms do not improve following two weeks rest and there is no other identifiable cause. It can be a devastating condition, as highly motivated athletes have to cope with the frustration of reduced performance and taking extended periods off training and competition to recover. Monitoring and treating a persistently fatigued athlete can be challenging, as the root cause of the fatigue is often not recognised until months of poor performance have passed. Accurate diagnosis is difficult as there are often numerous other medical and psychological conditions that present with similar symptoms.
There is much debate in the sport science literature regarding the aetiology of overtraining syndrome. Various physiological mechanisms have been proposed to influence an athlete’s vulnerability to the overtraining state. These include low muscle glycogen, decreased glutamine, central fatigue, oxidative stress, an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, hypothalamic dysfunction and elevated cytokine levels. However, no single marker can be taken as an indicator of impending overtraining syndrome. Until a definitive diagnostic tool for overtraining syndrome is developed, regular monitoring of a combination of performance, physiological, biochemical, immunological and psychological variables seem to be the best strategy to help identify athletes who are failing to recover properly.
Making the familiar unfamiliar – Using visual methods in applied psychological research
My passion for conducting research in the area of overtraining syndrome was inspired by my personal experience of the condition when I was competing as a national level lightweight rower. I understood first-hand what a debilitating condition it can be and the devastating impact it can have on an athletes’ career. I desperately wanted to help further our understanding of the condition so that sport science and medical practitioners could better support athletes like myself. There is a wealth of research that has examined the pathology of the overtraining syndrome, but no comprehensive understanding of the subjective experiences.
When I started my research, I was excited to conduct my first interview with a triathlete who had suffered with the condition for the last five years. I thought long and hard about the questions I was going to ask, and I was eager to hear his responses. But at the end of the interview I felt bitterly disappointed that the answers I received told me nothing I didn’t already know. I could not understand why. Perhaps he had difficulty accessing and communicating his experiences, maybe he was offering a rehearsed narrative, or was it that I was asking the wrong questions?
I attended a seminar organised by my colleagues Victoria Clarke, Nicola Holt and Elizabeth Jenkinson from the psychology department at the University of the West of England, in collaboration with Cathy Randle Phillips and Catherine Butler. The seminar focused on exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. Whilst feeling demotivated and dejected about my research it was following this seminar that I experienced what can only be described as an epiphany. I realised that the problem was that I was asking questions I already knew the answers to; overtraining syndrome had become too familiar – I needed to make it unfamiliar.
The Dormouse – Recollections of a lightweight rower with overtraining syndrome
In my role as a practitioner I have been humbled and privileged to hear the stories of athletes I work with. I have shared in their joy and their sorrow, I have played a part in their journey of self-exploration – my role has been so much more than enhancing athletic performance. Yet in my research, to date, I have not allowed my participants to tell their stories. So, like all mad scientists I conducted a little experiment on myself! I got my camera out and started taking photographs of what overtraining syndrome meant to me. These are the images that represented my experience of living with the condition and some extracts from the story they inspired, told as part of The British Journal of Sports Medicine’s Patient Voices series this month.
Making weight was a challenge for me and my crew, the extreme and frankly ridiculous weight loss strategies we employed in the days leading up to the National Championships in 2000 seem incomprehensible now. I was not at race weight the night before the finals, so I severely restricted my food and drink intake, to the point of dehydration. I remember feeling so thirsty it was uncomfortable to swallow. The blissful sensation of sucking the moisture out of my toothbrush – I savoured that moment when the cool, minty water slid down my throat, it could have been champagne! It was July and I had set the central heating in the house to full blast, I had put on as many layers of clothing as I could, and I slept motionless, restrained from the weight of the blankets pinning me down. Despite subjecting my housemates to a night in a sauna, the next morning I was still 500g over race weight. In a last ditch attempt to be able to compete, I fashioned a t-shirt out of a bin liner, layered all my cold weather kit on top and ran a few laps round the housing estate. I remember darting behind a dustbin when I saw my coach drive past, I did not want him to know the shameful extent of my weight loss strategies. But to me it was normal, it was just part of being a lightweight rower, we all did it, I think our coach did know but he chose to ignore it.
These strategies proved effective as I won a bronze medal at the Nationals, and later a coveted place on the England lightweight women’s rowing squad for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.Everything was going to plan, when one morning at 5.30am as I reached over to turn my alarm off, I felt my head begin to spin, my heart was pounding, and I felt violently sick. I threw up to ease the nausea, sipped some water, put on my kit and drove to the rowing club. I managed to complete the training session, but my legs felt like lead and my heart was racing. This was the start of a progressive decline in performance.
One of the most debilitating symptoms I experienced was the need to sleep. I became affectionally known as “The Dormouse” because I slept over 10 hours a night and during the day. When I stood up my heart rate would go through the roof and my blood pressure would drop, I felt constantly dizzy and sick. I caught cold after cold and I felt like I had a pair of golf balls permanently lodged in my throat. Despite these debilitating physiological symptoms, I was more motivated than ever to represent my country.
It took me two years until I was well enough to do a full training session on the water with the rest of the squad. I had various relapses along the way, but none as severe as the first one. By the time I was fit enough to trial for the national team again I was completely burnt out. The sport that I loved more than anything else in the world, became something I despised and not long afterwards I quit (Woodford, 2019).
My current research has embraced some of the methods offered by the creative arts and has empowered my participants to shape its direction. I am excited about how this new approach can further our understanding of this debilitating condition and help us develop strategies to support those athletes with overtraining syndrome.
There’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to psychological research; as much as we often characterise scientific research as being objective and neutral, like many researchers, our own personal experiences often guide us and inform us through our exploration of research areas. I am an immigrant raising my daughter in a different country than her grandparents. I was thrust into a new lifestyle of motherhood 3 years ago and had to re-evaluate my identity, my purpose and how I fit into society. As my maternity leave ended and I came back to the world of academic life, I became involved with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks Playgroups, a new organisation which was organising playgroups in care homes across the Bristol area, as a parent participant, a group leader and the research coordinator. I could immediately see the benefits of activities such as these playgroups to not just the older people and the children, but the parents, grandparents, caregivers, student volunteers and staff as well.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of providing mental health support and reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness in our society, whether it’s for older adults, new mothers, or university students, three groups vulnerable to these issues as they experience life transitions. Intergenerational activities have been proposed as a way to prevent and alleviate some of these issues, providing the connections and relationships that allow for improvements in mental and physical health, changes in ageist attitudes, learning opportunities, and stronger communities.
Why is Research Important?
Key to any programme or intervention is the research; activities should be evidence-based and evaluated. For decades, researchers have been investigating the effects of intergenerational contact on its participants, particularly the physical and mental wellbeing of the older participants and the attitudes and social development of the younger participants, finding overall positive consequences from intergenerational experiences. Constructing a coherent picture of intergenerational benefits has been tricky, however. The nature of evaluating programmes that have not been set up as controlled experimental studies means that research often suffers from issues such as small sample size, lack of control groups or control activities, and variation of participants and structure both within and across studies.
Research on intergenerational contact, however, has also been useful to identify what qualities can make a programme more or less successful. Focussing on programmes that aim to reduce negative attitudes toward ageing and stereotypes of older adults, publications such as a recent report for Age UK by Drury et al. (2018) and a review article by Christian et al. (2014) give a thorough review of intergenerational programmes and research findings to highlight, backed by social psychology theory, recommendations for planning and structuring successful intergenerational activities.
Intergenerational Contact and Research: The Next Steps
Research can be greatly beneficial to any organisation interested in setting up and evaluating an intergenerational activity. Although it’s positive that so many nurseries, care homes, community organisations and councils are interested in developing intergenerational activities, the fact that so many of these projects are initiated from the ‘bottom-up’ means they aren’t able to benefit from a top-down structure or organisation that can provide the evidence for planning, the evaluation tools, the practical guidelines such as risk assessments and data protection and funding opportunities. There are, however, some excellent resources, for example the United for All Ages’ webpage which includes tips for planning parent and toddler groups in care homes, St Monica’s Trust’s guide for intergenerational activity, and the Together Young and Old Programme, which provides a number of resources and training opportunities, a toolkit for training people in intergenerational activities and an online course. The more a network of those interested and working in intergenerational activities and research can be developed, the stronger this area will become. Currently I am part of an interdisciplinary intergenerational research group that has recently been awarded funding from the NIHR to do a systematic review on intergenerational programmes and research. This research group grew out of last year’s Innovation in Care: Stories of Intergenerational Action conference, which was a very informative gathering of those working in the area ranging from one-off and pilot projects to regular activities to co-located facilities.
I am currently working with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks to evaluate their playgroup experiences, looking at some of the motivations and perceived effects of participating in the playgroups from the perspectives of the older adults, those that bring children to the group and the staff involved. Psychology students researching this area for their final year undergraduate dissertation have been key in this data collection. Findings will be presented later this year at the 11thInternational Social Innovation Research Conference in Glasgow. I have also been working with BS3 Community in South Bristol, who have run a number of successful intergenerational programmes, including linking their nursery with a local care home, Tech and Talk and their current pilot Grandparent-Toddler playgroup, which will feature as a case study in Children’s Centre Leader magazine later this year. We also have a fantastic opportunity now with the new ExtraCare Stoke Gifford Retirement Village situated next to UWE Frenchay Campus for intergenerational connections to be made with university students, as well as special projects with the local community. Psychology students have been instrumental in working with the new village to develop and run an intergenerational playgroup, funded by a UWE Community Fund and Quartet, and we’re working with ExtraCare to help keep their intergenerational programmes sustainable with a general plan for intergenerational activities across their facilities.
I’m very interested to grow a local Bristol/Southwest network of those involved in intergenerational activities and help provide resources and workshops to those interested in starting and evaluating programmes. If you’d like more information, please contact me at email@example.com.
Sport psychology is a broad subject, covering such things as the enhancement of athlete performance, dealing with pressure, enhancing focus, working with addiction and an infinite number of other issues. In terms of these services there has traditionally been a focus on athletes at the professional end of the sporting continuum, and there is a wealth of research which has shown very convincingly the efficacy and worth of these services for this group of athletes. All sport psychologists who work in practice have a smorgasbord of techniques they can bring to any given athlete or team, from psychological skills training (goal setting, visualization, relaxation techniques and self-talk) to more intensive therapeutic techniques (mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, REBT), all of which can be adapted and used collectively to address the issue or issues we face in applied sport psychology work.
We can also say from our own experience, both from an applied sport psychology perspective and as a professional coach, that athletes and teams almost all believe in the importance of the mental side of their sport, regardless of what that sport is, and that despite an emphasis on the importance of this side of their training and performance in competition situations they do very little, and often feel they don’t have the opportunity, to enhance the psychological side of their game.
Sport psychology, in an applied sense, therefore fills this gap. Indeed the discipline as a whole has been developed and continues to evolve in order to provide a way to enhance and support athletes to be the best they can be. So, taking both the focus of sport psychology and the need and enthusiasm for it in sports in general then it seems rationale to assume sport psychology is widely available to all and that sport psychology services are integrated across all levels of all sports. This unfortunately isn’t necessarily the case.
Who uses sport psychology?
Sport psychology services (SPS) have traditionally been directed at professional athletes, perhaps not exclusively, however when one looks at any number of sport psych textbooks there tends to be a skew to this group, or at the very least when describing and discussing applied techniques the assumption often is that who you are working with has significant access to sport psychology and other resources. This may well be the case for professional or semi-pro athletes however this is almost universally not the case for the hundreds of thousands of us that play and compete outside this professional group. If one were to look at a current issue of a popular sport psychology academic journal (for example Journal of Applied sport psychology; The Sport Psychologist; Psychology of Sport and Exercise), there is a trend toward elite and professional levels of sport in academic research as well (not exclusive but certainly the focus tends to be on semi professional and professional sports women and men). There are undoubtedly many reasons for this focus however this shouldn’t lead us to conclude that sport psychology services have no place in amateur sport, be that competitive or non-competitive amateur sport. It is in the authors experience that far from not having a place there is in fact just as much demand for sport psychology support and that sport psychology interventions and support at this level can be just as effective. There is however a sub group of this already unrepresented group that have even less access to sport psychology services and are further under researched, and that is young (non-adult) non-elite athletes.
Sport psychology support for young amateur athletes
Authors of the ‘International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development’, reported an “urgency to address the culture of specific sports and youth sport in general, which have become disproportionately both adult and media centered”. The IOC recommendations advise on the need for widening the definition of success in youth sport, focusing on the development of young athletes in their whole and as “persons”, and committing to their psychological growth. The historical paucity of literature on developmental sport psychology is even more surprising when considering that young athletes are placed at the “ideal window of opportunity” for developing mental qualities and competencies.
Many researchers agree on the need for developing comprehensive and holistic models and programs to support young athletes at a vital transitional period of physical and psychological development. This is of course challenging for all sorts of reasons, perhaps one of the most important being the already existing challenges for young people, be they pre-adolescent or be they 12-18 years of age.
Due to the high demands of competitive sport and more general life demands, young athletes are faced with the need to take ownership of their psychological growth: this often leads them to intuitively (through experience) and/or informally (taught by significant others) acquire a repertoire of mental skills necessary to cope with the pressures their sport places upon them. Consequently, young athletes may gain an implicit understanding of a range of psychological skills, albeit at various levels of awareness.
Furthermore, the lack of easy-to-access sport psychology services to young athletes might drive them to spontaneously seek information, gain understanding and share experiences. In this context, in addition to relying on members of their support network, they might explore the internet and access online communication tools, such as social media platforms etc. However, a lot of this is assumed as so little work is done at this group, and it is in this context that we have conducted an initial investigation into sport psychology in youth amateur sport.
Our research into sport psychology and young athletes
The main purpose of our research was to investigate non-elite young athletes experiences by giving young athletes voice and an opportunity to express feelings and communicate thoughts in relation to their sporting engagement. The study revolved around three main research questions:
What are young athletes’ perceptions of psychological needs and experiences of challenges?
What is their understanding of the psychological dimensions of sport?
What spontaneous ways do they resort to when seeking psychological support?
An online survey, including quantitative and qualitative data collection and qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted in a sample of 13-19 year old girls and boys who regularly engaged in extracurricular sporting activities (outside of school and within clubs, associations, organisations), involved in a number of sports (including multi-sport engagements), at any level of training and competition, but not included in any talent development programs or professional level sport structures.
Through these interviews what the participants said clearly showed the discrepancies between young athletes’ needs and their sporting realities. The young athletes’ all desired sport psychology support, specifically access to independent sport psychology professionals and availability of ‘in-house’ and ‘easy-to-access’ services consistently integrated in their ‘ideal sporting world’. Participants sometimes resorted to Screen-Based Media (SBM) as a spontaneous way to seek psychological support: however, the young athletes were favourable to online communication technology to get that support as well as face to face support with a sport psychology specialist. (This work is currently being prepared for publication, as well as a follow-on study to this initial work.)
So what does this mean and where do we go from here?
In summary, it certainly seems that there is a need for a greater understanding of how sport psychology services could be used to benefit young athletes, and that irrespective of level of athlete this support is desired and sought out. Our work with these young athletes clearly shows that demand and perhaps points to a way we can get sport psychology into amateur club and team settings (through screen-based media and social media being one possibility). The lack of research into this group also needs to be addressed, specifically deepening our understanding of how sport psychology can be integrated within a young athletes life, and what the subsequent benefit for future engagement and performance might be. We believe that integrating sport psychology into youth sport has the potential to reap huge benefits for youth sport and the sport psychology profession in general, and we hope in the years to come a greater focus on this group of athletes will lead to not only to the next generation of elite levels sports women and men but perhaps more importantly a much greater engagement with all sports across all age groups at all levels.
In everyday life, you will be asked to report your attitudes and opinions towards a whole host of different things. When buying a TV, you may be asked retrospectively to provide ratings of the product, or even the person who sold it to you. The reporting of attitudes has become so sought after by companies that specific websites have been developed providing people with an open forum to post their opinions and evaluations of accommodation, restaurants, and services, and even receive arbitrary points and badges for their reviews (e.g., Trip Advisor). Given the plethora of surveys and questionnaires utilised on a daily basis, you may therefore think that measuring attitudes is relatively easy. Simply ask someone what they think and they will respond with an honest answer. However, psychology has shed light on the limitations posed by self-report tools, such as questionnaires and surveys, which are so readily used by companies and organisations alike.
Gauging attitudes: A problem of measurement or construct?
Studies have shown consistently how people’s attitudes can
be altered by systematic factors, such as how the questions are framed and
even what order they are presented.
For example, a recent study
demonstrates how the number of scale points in a questionnaire affects the
extent to which gender stereotypes of brilliance are expressed. Specifically,
female course instructors were more likely to receive a top rating on a 6-point
scale relative to a 10-point scale, whereas this difference did not emerge for
male instructors. The author’s reason that this effect occurs because of
cultural meanings assigned to the number ‘10’ – perfection. As such, a
top-score on a 6-point scale does not carry such strong performance
expectations. To me, this is a landmark study demonstrating how the features of
tools that are frequently used to judge merit can powerfully affect people’s
responses. Who knew that something which appears meaningless can shape our
answers in a way that tells a completely different story?
Another issue plaguing questionnaires is that psychologists – or whomever uses them – need to trust that the questionnaire can tap into exactly what we want to measure. When asking people about socially sensitive topics, such as prejudice or discriminatory behaviour this is rarely often the case. Consider how you would answer the following questions when asked by a researcher, someone you barely know: “Do you treat people from other races the same as you treat people from your own race? Do you willingly give to charity or those who need it the most? Think hypothetically about your answers for a minute. Now, reflect on your previous behaviour and try to gauge whether the answers given provide an accurate representation of how you really act. What you might uncover about yourself here is called the ‘willing and able’ problem; people may not be willing to report their honest attitudes, and when put on the spot, may not be able to accurately reflect and report what they truly feel. Answers to questions are usually influenced by self-presentational motives – that is, people’s desire to look good in someone else’s eyes.
A more interesting question is that we might not know what we actually believe. To a lay audience with no psychological training, this may sound surprising. How can we hold attitudes that we are unaware of? Psychology holds the answer. The past three decades of psychological research have revealed the frailties of introspection (the inner workings of our mind), and how little control we possess over our own thoughts. This has led researchers to coin the term ‘implicit attitudes’; introspectively unidentified traces of past experience that mediate favourable or unfavourable feeling towards social objects. The general argument is that individuals harness attitudes that they are not aware of, and these can manifest as judgements or actions.
How do we measure attitudes that people aren’t aware of?
The development of implicit measures have afforded
remarkable insight into the human mind, and opened up a new research field
termed implicit social
cognition. This may leave you wondering, how do we measure such
attitudes, and how do they develop in the first place?
Whereas explicit attitudes are measured by asking people directly about their thoughts and feelings (e.g., through questionnaires), implicit attitudes are assessed indirectly through tasks that typically measure response times towards various stimuli and compare systematic variations in people’s performance. One of the most well-known tasks of this kind is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tests how quick (or slow) people are at pairing different social categories with various attributes. The race IAT, for example, requires test-takers to categorise pictures of White and Black faces with positive and negative terms as quickly as possible. The underlying theory is that people will be quicker to pair concepts with attributes that are strongly associated in memory, compared to those weakly associated. In order to understand this better, think about learning a new language for the first time; you will always be quicker to think about words from your own language compared to those from a newly learned language because of the automaticity of your native tongue. Going back to the race IAT, research has consistently shown that White people are quicker to associate pictures of White faces with positive terms and Black faces with negative terms. This is referred to as implicit bias.
However, implicit measures have also received their fair
share of criticism. Research indicates a weak
relationship between explicit and implicit attitudes, suggesting
that they may reflect separate attitude representations. An alternative theory,
however, is that explicit and implicit measures allow people to edit their
responses to varying degrees. In 2016, as a PhD student I wrote my first
commentary reflecting on what
exactly do implicit measures assess?
In addition, although the IAT has shown some predictive validity (e.g.,
voting behaviour), other research indicates that for more socially sensitive
attitudes, the IAT does not
predict resulting discriminatory behaviour. Although the IAT was heralded to provide new insights into
human cognition and behaviour, some researchers believe this test has been
oversold. Nevertheless, I argue that the reason that implicit attitudes may not predict real-world behaviour is influenced by the same
issues that plague self-report measures – social desirability. That is, people
may think negatively about a certain
out-group member, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will act upon this. The same may be true for
weak correlations between explicit and implicit attitude measures; people
distort their attitudes on self-report questionnaires, whereas implicit
measures aren’t susceptible to these self-presentational motives. Should we
expect correlations between these two measures when one is tapping into
controllable beliefs and the other is uncovering introspectively unidentified
traces of past experience?
In order to answer these questions, I was awarded funding through the Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Research Awards (VC ECR Award) at UWE Bristol to investigate other implicit socio-cognitive mechanisms that may predict implicit bias. The blue sky thinking behind this research is to develop other measures that can potentially measure implicit behavioural manifestations of bias. At this stage, we are too early in our research endeavour to reveal any findings; however other influential and impactful avenues have already stemmed from this research.
At the same time as I have been conducting my research, Ellie Bliss (Adult Nurse
Lecturer) and Alisha
Airey (BME Project Officer) have been running staff workshops at UWE
Bristol, reflecting upon how implicit (unconscious) bias can play out in the
higher education classroom. I am now involved in supporting these workshops,
providing research-led guidance on how we access implicit bias, and answering
the many questions that staff have about this rather ambiguous construct. One
interesting discussion centres on whether implicit biases can be viewed as unconscious when we are increasingly
acknowledging them through teaching and training. The majority of attendees
come away from the workshop with new reflections on how teaching practice is
orientated towards Western culture, and with classroom strategies to implement
to prevent implicit bias playing out. However, a handful of attendees are surprised
and doubtful of the concept of implicit bias and the tools that purportedly
measure it. They have difficulty in accepting that they may hold certain
biases. But the truth is, we all do.
Where is implicit social cognition headed?
In this blog post I hope I have demonstrated that we are
shining the light on what implicit bias really is and the nature of our unconscious
attitudes. Such research has paved the way for training workshops which teach
people to acknowledge their deep-rooted attitudes and reflect upon how these
may impact our thinking and behaviour towards other people. But what’s next for
this research arena? There are still lots of unanswered questions and
controversies surrounding implicit bias, which makes it an exciting topic to
study. Do implicit measures really provide a window into the unconscious mind? Is
implicit bias relatively stable when measured at different time points? Can
implicit bias be changed, and if so, are such changes short or long-term? Are
attitudes towards some social groups easier to change than others? Can we, as a
field, develop other (implicit) behavioural measures that more accurately
predict implicit attitudes better than self-reports? Such investigations will
represent the future of implicit social cognition and I, for one, am extremely
excited to see what’s to come.