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Foundations of sand? Christian Jarrett on the lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology

ther sciences have their cardinal theories – of relativity, of evolution, the big bang, to name but three. Psychology has its theories too, of course. But arguably psychology’s foundations are built not of theory but with the rock of classic experiments – Asch’s ‘conformity studies’, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Little Albert, Milgram, the Hawthorne studies, the bystander effect… the list goes on. So important to psychology are these experiments that they’ve acquired an almost mythical status. And like myths, the way some of them have been told has shifted and distorted with time. Some psychologists have noticed this trend, and they’re doing their best to correct the misunderstandings – which they say could be harmful to our science.


The helpful witnesses


You’ll be hard-pressed to find a psychology textbook that doesn’t tell the sad story of Kitty Genovese’s murder in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of New York in 1964. Most will describe the shocking details of how there were 38 witnesses to the stabbing, all of them residents in the apartment block overlooking the scene of the crime, all of whom did nothing. Genovese’s tragedy inspired the psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley to formulate and test their theory that people’s sense of social responsibility is diluted when they are in a group – the bystander effect. The bystander effect itself has since


Chiesa, M. & Hobbs, S. (2008). Making sense of social research: How useful is the Hawthorne effect? European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 67–74. Friend, R., Rafferty, Y. & Bramel, D. (1990). A puzzling misinterpretation of the Asch ‘conformity’ study. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20, 29–44. Gale, E.A.M. (2004). The Hawthorne Studies – A fable for our times. Quarterly Journal of Medicine, 97,

been supported by ample research, but a paper published last year in American Psychologist by Rachel Manning at the University of the West of England and colleagues uncovered fresh historical research showing how the story of Kitty Genovese, as it’s usually told, is actually something of a myth (see box opposite). In short, probably only one person witnessed the final, fatal stabbing and several witnesses did do something to help. ‘Given the iconic status of the 38 witnesses story, I wanted to find out more about the place where this incident occurred,’ says Manning. ‘Having looked through the, interestingly, fairly limited information available in textbooks and journal articles, I trawled the internet, looking for photos and any other information I could find about Kew Gardens. I came across Joseph De May’s local history website ( Joe had started to examine the 38 witnesses story as a clearly difficult but important aspect of the history of Kew Gardens.’ The commonly told inaccuracies in the Kitty Genovese tale stem from the New York Times article which first broke the news. No doubt this version of what happened, shocking as it is, has subsequently served textbook writers well, seeking as they do to link experimental research with the real world in an engaging way. This begs the question: if the distortions have survived largely through accident or convenience, and if the actual

439–449. Harris, B. (1979). Whatever happened to Little Albert? American Psychologist, 34, 151–160. Hodges, B.H. & Geyer, A.L. (2006). A nonconformist account of the Asch experiments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 2–19. Manning, R., Levine, M. & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping:

bystander effect has been supported by subsequent research, does it matter that the tale of Kitty Genovese is not entirely rooted in reality? Manning’s group say it does because the power of the Genovese story has reinforced the notion that crowds are dangerous (in this case through their alleged inaction), thereby inhibiting research on the potential positive aspects of group behaviour. Manning hopes her article will help to redress the balance. ‘Since the publication of our article, we have been contacted by a number of people, including textbook writers, who are happy to correct the historical record,’ Manning says. ‘However, some people remain quite attached to it and are reluctant to challenge its veracity.’

The power of independence

Another psychology classic retold in any textbook you happen to sample are the so-called Asch ‘conformity experiments’, in which lone participants, embedded in groups of confederates working for the researcher, were asked to compare the lengths of lines. The key test was whether participants would go along with a majority opinion that was clearly wrong. Your chosen reference will no doubt inform you that Solomon Asch’s experiments provide a striking illustration of the power of social conformity. Indeed, a fourth edition of Richard Gross’s Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour on my bookshelf quotes social psychologist van Avermaet stating unequivocally: ‘The [Asch] results reveal the tremendous impact of an “obviously” incorrect but unanimous majority on the judgements of a lone individual.’ But is that really what the results showed? A paper published in 1990 by Ronald Friend (now emeritus professor at Stony Brook University) and colleagues, contends that Asch actually saw his results as a demonstration of the power of independence (see box opposite). Interpreting his results, Asch wrote in 1952: ‘…the facts that were being judged were, under the circumstances, the most decisive.’ Of course, a degree of the parable of the 38 witnesses. subjectivity is inevitable – American Psychologist, 62, 555-562. one reader might focus on Parsons, H.M. (1974). What happened at what they see as the Hawthorne? Science, 183, 922–932. remarkable number of Rafferty, Y. & Friend, R. (1985). The Asch “Conformity” Study. Eastern participants who stayed Psychological Association (U.S.) independent, while another Proceedings and Abstracts, 5b:20. marvels at the number who Smyth, M.M. (2001). Fact making in yielded. Given this scope psychology. Theory and Psychology, 11, for varying interpretation, 609–636. the most important aim for

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any author, presumably, is to report the results in an unbiased fashion – something an analysis of textbooks by Ronald Friend and Yvonne Rafferty in 1985 showed hasn’t tended to happen. Over half the 99 textbooks sampled quoted the percentage of responses in which participants yielded to the group majority, without even mentioning the far larger proportion of responses which went against the mistaken herd (only one writer showed the opposite bias). As regards individual differences, 42 per cent of books gave greater emphasis to quoting the number of participants who conformed, while just 5 per cent showed the opposite bias. Another misleading habit has been to flag up the percentage of participants who yielded to majority opinion at least once (76 per cent), without providing the opposite figure – the 95 per cent of participants who stayed independent at least once. Others have challenged the whole conformity versus independence debate as overly simplistic. Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer published a paper in 2006 in which they argued the most interesting participants in Asch’s studies were those – the majority, in fact – who sometimes yielded to the majority opinion but sometimes stayed independent, as they attempted pragmatically to balance the demands of an extremely awkward social situation. According to Hodges and Geyer’s account, giving the occasional false answer, in line with majority opinion, might actually represent the best strategy for persuading others of the truth of your own claims, by showing them that their judgments are relevant and have been noted. Yvonne Rafferty (Psychology Professor at Pace University in New York) says the misinterpretation of Asch’s experiments continues to this day, even finding a voice on the internet. ‘I just Googled “Asch Study Social Psychology”,’ Rafferty says, and the top link []

What threat do organisations perceive if we are not viewed as mindless sheep?

The bystander effect Drawing on De May’s research, Rachel Manning’s group suggest the truth of the story is that there weren't 38 witnesses; probably only one person saw the final, fatal attack; and the police were called. Much of the fresh evidence comes from transcripts of the trial in which Winston Moseley was charged with Genovese’s murder. None of the three witnesses who were called reported seeing the stabbing; in fact, Moseley’s final, fatal attack took place inside the apartment block, out of the view of all but one of the known witnesses. And contrary to the popular notion that no one did anything to help, one of the witnesses claims to have shouted at Moseley, scaring him off from his initial attack – a claim corroborated by a second witness. Moreover, a former police officer – a 15-year-old eyewitness at the time of the murder – says that his father called the police.

Asch’s conformity experiments Groups of between six and nine people were asked to match, out loud, a target line, according to length, with one of three comparison lines. All bar one of the group members were actually accomplices working for Asch, and on 12 of 18 trials they were instructed to unanimously match the target line with the wrong comparison line. The majority of participants’ responses (63.2 per cent vs. 36.8 per cent) went against the erroneous majority. Another way Asch measured outcomes was to examine individual differences. This showed that just 5 per cent of participants were always swayed by majority opinion whereas 25 per cent of the sample consistently stuck to their guns. Though rarely reported, Asch’s research also included the collection of qualitative data via interviews. Many participants said that although they had agreed with the group on occasions, they were certain all along that the group were wrong. This confirms the idea that participants hadn’t actually been persuaded by the erroneous group majority, but rather they were attempting to play an awkward social situation in the best way possible.

brought me to a blog site that states “Solomon Asch’s classic... social psychology experiment shows that many of us will deny our own senses just to conform with others”.’ Rafferty notes that Wikipedia propagates the same line, even suggesting that Asch’s experiments provide an empirical basis for the ideas on conformity in George Orwell’s 1984. Why do people who write about classic psychology experiments want to propagate the idea that we’re all prone to becoming mindless sheep in the face of a majority opinion? Rafferty believes part of the answer lies in the headline appeal of the notion that conformity is all powerful. But beyond that she wonders if there lies a darker motive. ‘Why is individualism so overvalued by society – what threat do organisations perceive if we are not viewed as sheep?’, Rafferty asks. ‘Is there perhaps such a fear of social movements by which we might come together for a common cause?’ Echoing Manning’s views on the influence of the Genovese myth, Rafferty believes that the misreporting of the Asch experiments has had a harmful effect on the direction taken by social psychology research. ‘In overemphasising the powerful but

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detrimental effect of the group on the individual, the discipline of social psychology may have inadvertently undermined its potential usefulness in showing the practical contribution and positive benefits that groups can have for individuals,’ Rafferty says.

Conditioning babies You’d be forgiven at this point for thinking that it is exclusively social psychology that suffers from the lure of academic myths. Not so. One of the most consistently misreported studies in psychology is the tale of Little Albert and his conditioning by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner in 1920. For decades the case has been heralded as the classic example of how humans, like animals, can be easily led to fear innocuous stimuli using classical conditioning, and how this fear generalises to other similar stimuli according to the rules of behaviourism. Unfortunately, Watson and Rayner’s study was conducted in a haphazard fashion (see box on p.759) – a fact neglected by most textbooks. To give one example: It is often reported that Albert’s conditioned fear of white rats generalised to, among other things, a fear of dogs. The reality is that Albert was initially



unmoved when, after his conditioning, a stimulus generalisation in classical dog was first brought into the laboratory. conditioning,’ says Harris ‘and it is just After that, the dog, previously silent, too inviting an idea that something like barked three times loudly just six inches from Albert’s face. In the words of the original 1920 report, not only was Albert upset, but ‘The sudden barking of the hitherto quiet dog produced a marked fear response in the adult observers!’ This was hardly an appropriately controlled test of Albert’s conditioned fears. Authors have also invented stimuli that Albert was never tested on, including a cat, a man’s beard, a white furry glove, his aunt, a teddy bear, as well as the oft-cited claim that he became fearful of all Not only was Little Albert upset, but the sudden ‘furry animals’. Another barking of the hitherto quiet dog produced a marked curious error is that textbook fear response amongst the attending adults authors have tended to claim that Albert’s mother withdrew him from Watson and Rayner’s care before they had a chance to white objects or furry objects are going to extinguish his fears using desensitisation. be fear arousing because of the process of The truth, apparent from the original stimulus generalisation.’ 1920 report, is that Watson and Rayner Could the misreporting of the Little knew a month in advance when Albert Albert story have damaged progress in would no longer be available. psychology in the same way that Manning ‘These inaccuracies definitely do still and Rafferty believe academic myths have exist,’ says Professor Benjamin Harris at inhibited certain lines of research in the the University of New Hampshire, author social domain? According to Harris, this of a landmark critique of the Little Albert depends on the extent to which you story published in 1979 entitled believe behaviourism continues to exert ‘Whatever happened to Little Albert?’ an unjustified influence on contemporary ‘There are still people out there who want psychological thought. ‘You could argue to give an easy explanation for things like that it makes people complacent, leading

What cognitive revolution? Never mind that key studies in psychology are a little mythical, Sandy Hobbs believes there are in fact entire movements in our science’s history that may have a whiff of fiction about them too. Test any psychologist on the history of psychology and they’ll probably tell you that the first half of the 20th century was dominated by behaviourism, before the rise of computers inspired the cognitive revolution of the latter half of the century. But Hobbs says they’re wrong on both counts. Citing the work of Alexander Lovie, who used mentions of the word ‘attention’ in psychology journals as a proxy for the status of the cognitive approach, Hobbs says there was only a tiny dip in articles dealing with attention in the 1930s and 40s, and that behaviourism never really dominated during that time. ‘Behaviourists were studying animal cognition’ he says, ‘and psychoanalysis and gestalt psychology were also flourishing alongside.’ On the other hand, there’s no evidence that behaviourism died in the 1950s or that it isn’t thriving today. ‘The first Skinnerian journal was published in the 50s,’ says Hobbs, ‘and today there are 20 or 30 of them.’ ‘Many psychologists would say that cognitive psychology is the main approach,’ Hobbs continues, ‘but the existence of a flourishing comparative approach to psychology is a bit of an embarrassment to them because it means that we haven’t established a Kuhnian [Thomas Kuhn was an eminent historian of science] “normal science” as you have with physics and chemistry. I think that’s the attraction of the cognitive revolution as a myth. It’s a way of dealing with uncomfortable facts about our subject.’


them to think simplistically about PTSD or other forms of adult psychopathology,’ he says. Beyond his 1979 paper, Harris has devoted great energies to correcting the mis-telling of the Little Albert story, unfortunately with little success. For example, Harris worked to ensure the tale was told accurately by Philip Zimbardo in the 1990s Discovering Psychology TV series broadcast on American Television. Harris sold the show producers the rights to footage of the Watson and Rayner study, which he had serendipitously discovered under a stairwell at the University of Michigan. But instead of this serving to improve the veracity of the programme, the producers edited the clip in such a way to make it appear that Watson had in fact conditioned two children, not just one, a misleading impression reinforced by Zimbardo’s narration!

The ‘whatever’ effect A true sign that a study or studies have acquired mythical status is when they lend their name to an ‘effect’. So it is with the ‘Hawthorne effect’, a name derived from a series of experiments on productivity conducted at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago, in the late 1920s, early 1930s. But according to Mecca Chiesa at the University of Kent and Sandy Hobbs at the University of West of Scotland, the fame of these studies is not matched by their quality (see opposite). The pair published a critique this year in which they lamented the thriving, widespread use of the term in light of its hopelessly vague meaning and given that the original Hawthorne studies were woefully poor. Chiesa and Hobbs sampled over two hundred books published between 1953 and 2003 and found an astonishingly broad range of uses for the term ‘Hawthorne effect’, with many such meanings actually contradicting each other. In some cases the term was used to imply that simply being the subject of an investigation can enhance workers’ performance. Elsewhere the term was used more specifically, to refer to the presence of a ‘warm climate’, the ‘presence of an observer’, ‘concern’ or merely ‘friendly supervision’. Moreover, there were widespread inconsistencies in how the effects were supposed to exert their influence, with some accounts suggesting an unconscious effect, while others pointed to ‘feelings of pride’ or ‘job satisfaction’. Chiesa says she first became

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interested in the Hawthorne effect after hearing the same comment over and over in response to research she was involved in. ‘Finally, when I was asked by a journal editor to respond to “the potential criticism that our findings were an example of the Hawthorne effect” I thought it was time to have a closer look,’ she says. ‘That was when I discovered that just about everything and anything was speculated to cause improvement in human performance.’ Hobbs says he thinks a key part of the problem causing the perpetuation of myths in general and of the Hawthorne effect in particular is people’s reliance on secondary sources. ‘People read something, don’t question it and that then leads to poor quality knowledge. The concept is appealing, but there’s this reification – once something’s got a name it somehow seems more concrete and real.’ He adds that the rise of the internet may have added to this problem, especially as it makes it so much harder to gauge the veracity of a source. ‘When I was a student you looked at the Daily Express and at a journal and there was a clear difference – you’re setting out with assumptions about what the standards are. But now you can get websites that look neat and clean but the content is pretty much valueless.’

Putting psychology on the couch Other sciences certainly do have their own myths – just think of the story of Newton and the falling apple or Archimedes leaping out of the bath following his Eureka insight. Perhaps myths just seem more prominent in psychology because we tend to talk and write about our science in terms of studies rather than facts. Certainly the work of Mary Smyth at Lancaster University would appear to be consistent with this view – she has compared psychology and biology textbooks and found that psychology appears to have comparatively few taken-for-granted facts. Instead, numerous experiments are described in detail, lending scientific credence to any factual claims being made. Related to this, there’s no doubt that the actual subject matter of psychology plays a part too – there’s that ever-present pressure to demonstrate that psychological findings are more than mere common sense. Benjamin Harris says that historians have described psychology as putting a scientific gloss on the accepted social wisdom of the day. ‘Psychology is always going to have a strong social component,’ he explains. ‘With psychological theories speaking to

Little Albert Watson and Rayner’s study was conducted in a haphazard, barely controlled way. Some fear of stimuli was induced and did generalise, but not in the neat, consistent way that textbook authors have reported. Watson and Rayner banged a steel bar and claw hammer together behind 11-month-old Little Albert’s back at the same time as they presented him with a white rat. This was done seven times, over two sessions, a week apart, after which Albert cried and attempted to avoid the white rat when presented with it. Five days later, Albert showed a fearful response to the rat, a rabbit, a dog, a sealskin coat and what’s described as a ‘negative response’ to a Santa Claus mask and to Watson’s hair, as well as a mild response to cotton. However, he played happily with the hair of Watson’s assistants. In short, the infant had hardly shown a neat transfer of his fear to all things white and fluffy as is often reported. After five more days Watson again conditioned Albert to fear the rat and this time also conditioned him to fear the rabbit and dog. Later that same day Albert barely reacted when presented with these animals in a different room – again showing how messy the real results were. Finally, 31 days later, Albert was tested again with many of these stimuli. He showed a fear response to the rat, mask, coat, rabbit and dog, yet he also initiated contact with the coat and rabbit.

The Hawthorne effect The investigations into factory productivity at Hawthorne were never published in a peerreviewed journal, and the term ‘Hawthorne effect’ was in fact coined many years later by John French in 1953 in his chapter contribution to a book on research methods. According to separate analyses of the Hawthorne studies by H.M. Parsons in 1974 and Edwin Gale in 2004, the idea of a ‘Hawthorne effect’ probably stems from experiments on the effect of such factors as lighting, ventilation, payment method and supervision, often at the same time, on the productivity of women working on telephone relays. For example, one study involved the female factory workers witnessing the lights being re-fitted with ostensibly superior bulbs, which were in fact identical, and those women then showing improved performance. A key flaw in the studies, according to Chiesa and Hobbs, is that two of the five female workers were replaced between experimental conditions in a repeated measures design, obviously meaning that any observed effects could have been due to a change in personnel rather than anything more complicated.

the human condition, there’s always going to be an appeal to myths that resonate more with experience than something coming out of the lab that’s sterile and ultra scientific.’ Another role that myths play is to reinforce the empirical legitimacy of psychology and to create a sense of a shared knowledge base. ‘In this way, tales such as of Kitty Genovese or Little Albert are rather like origin myths, pushing the creation of psychology, or a particular approach within psychology back in time, thus giving an air of greater authority,’ says Harris. Hobbs agrees: ‘It’s nice to have something that you can take for granted,’ he says. ‘In the case of the Hawthorne effect and other myths, you shouldn’t take it for granted, but it’s comforting to be able to say “Oh, this could be the Hawthorne effect” and for others to nod and say “Ah yes, that’s right”.’ But if, as we’ve seen, these myths are

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harmful to psychology – for example, inhibiting potential fruitful lines of research, or leading to meaningless criticisms of submitted papers – then shouldn’t we be doing more to set the record straight? Harris is philosophical: ‘The more time I spend studying the history of psychology, the more I just enjoy standing on the sideline and watching psychologists argue about the myths – that itself becomes part of the interesting history of the science,’ he says. ‘You get to see how psychologists’ understanding of human nature has its fashions, it’s always dynamic.’ Hobbs, though, thinks we should be doing more. ‘There isn’t any sense of a field of study looking at the myths of psychology and I think that’s regrettable. I think if there were it would make people be more on their guard.’ I Dr Christian Jarrett is The Psychologist’s staff journalist.



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The name game We all have one, and it might determine our fate in a number of intriguing and bizarre ways. Nicholas Christenfeld and Britta Larsen investigate Names have meanings – historical, geographical, occupational, and so on – that transcend the individual, and while people do occasionally change their names to match their characters, the most intriguing hypothesis is that they change their characters to match their names. There is plenty for psychologists to get their teeth into. Why are names so powerful in drawing attention, but so vulnerable in memory terms? Could position in the alphabet determine the quality of health care we receive? Were the urologists J.W. Splatt and D. Weedon particularly drawn to publish papers together on incontinence? Can surnames spark unconscious racism? Could something as minor as our initials determine our fate?

questions resources Pelham, B.W., Mirenberg, M.C. & Jones, J.T. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decision. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 469–487.



How can we determine whether our fates are influenced by our names, or simply by the people who named us?

Aura, S. (2004). What’s in a name? CESIFO Working Paper No. 1190: Category Four: Labour Markets. Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American Economic Review, 94, 991–1013. Christenfeld, N. (in press). Don’t yet name your child P.I.G.: Reply to


mong the defining moments in a person’s life – and on such a list most would include conception, coming-of -age ceremonies, near-death experiences, and perhaps a wedding or two – a moment that might be worth adding is the one when the person is named. Names seem far more than arbitrary labels useful for telling one’s children apart, or alerting friends to falling safes and other imminent dangers. They seem instead to capture and shape the individual, making it reasonable to say, as is done in English, German, Mandarin, and other, though not all, languages, not just ‘I am called Nicholas’, but ‘I am Nicholas’. This identity of name as self suggests that it is worth looking for correspondence between names and the characters of those who hold them. There is no shortage of research doing just this. There is also no shortage of research disputing causal effects of names on characters. The problem, most simply, with exploring the impact of names is that they are not randomly assigned, and that the people who give the name to the child also give it genes and an upbringing. Thus, one might suspect that a child whose parents chose to call him ‘Big Loser Smith’ might do badly for reasons not entirely confined to the direct impact of his name. Nonetheless, overall, the research suggests that names may well matter sufficiently to warrant careful attention from parents. And attention parents certainly give the task of naming their beautiful (or soon to be so) baby. If choosing a name seems daunting, it is often preceded by the task of choosing

Should parents consider influences on future success or failure of the names, or even initials, they give their children?

Morrison and Smith. Psychosomatic Medicine. Christenfeld, N., Phillips, D.P. & Glynn, L.M. (1999). What’s in a name: Mortality and the power of symbols. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 47, 241–254. Compton, R.J. (2003). The interface between emotion and attention: A review of evidence from psychology and neuroscience. Behavioral and

a baby naming book: even the most cursory look reveals thousands of such volumes! Of course, all the books in the world will be of no avail if the causal power rests with the last name or the patronymic. Surnames, not being essential when communities were small, and occupational and geographic mobility was limited, were instituted, in the West, by William the Conqueror to facilitate taxation of landowners. They were not generally adopted for several centuries, and not mandated in Finland until the 1920s. While they often reflect the original occupation, location or father of the bearer, there have also been groups whose names were more arbitrarily determined, as for example when Jews in the Austrian empire adopted them by law in the 18th century, and residents of the Philippines were assigned them in the 19th. Names seem to have a special status quite apart from any possible role in determining one’s fate. With the cocktail party effect, for example, people who are not deliberately or consciously processing a stream of speech, perhaps because they are attending to a more fascinating partner or experimental instructions, will nonetheless notice when their own name is mentioned (Moray, 1959). However, it does not seem that an entire brain centre is devoted solely to detecting whether people are talking about us – this low-level processing, or filtering, will also detect other important words, such as those with a strong emotional charge (Compton, 2003). The special status of names cuts both ways, with them also being vulnerable to loss. There are reported cases of people who, after they suffer strokes, suffer from an inability to recall names (Semenza, 1995). It is possible for such patients to do perfectly well at naming common items, with common nouns, but show essentially no ability to generate the names of old friends, relatives and celebrities. Many can sympathise with the plight of such people, since names are notoriously hard to recall, and it is not uncommon to be unable to reproduce the

Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 2(2), 115–129. Einav, L. & Yariv, L. (2006). What’s in a surname? The effects of surname initials on academic success. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, 175–188. Ellis, A. & Beechley, R.M. (1954). Emotional disturbance in children with peculiar given names. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 85, 337–339. Fryer, R.G. & Leavitt, S. (2004). The

causes and consequences of distinctively black names. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 119, 767–805. Harari, H. & McDavid, J.W. (1973). Name stereotypes and teachers’ expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 222–225. Harris, J.R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Free Press. Hodson, G. & Olson, J.M. (2005). Testing

taken from the march 2008 issue

the name game

name of the person to whom one was that person to move to the front of the introduced just moments before. This is line. Such an advantage is often, in fact, not simply a matter of failing to pay conferred on those whose last names come attention. Introduced to Mr Smith, the first, or at least early, in the alphabet. The carpenter, and Mr Carpenter, the smith, notion is that alphabetical position is often one may well recall the occupations of used as an arbitrary way of sequencing both and the name of neither (McWeeny et people, whether it be in lunch lines or al., 1987). One problem with names is that telephone directories; and perhaps years they, unlike professions, do not activate of the slight, but consistent, advantage webs of associations, and so the memories that Ms Aardvark has enjoyed over Mr are vulnerable. To counteract this problem, Zooplankton have cumulated into some various mnemonic strategies have been measurable outcome. tested which involve creating associations There are some domains where with names – for alphabetical position example, thinking of has been shown to Ms Farmer as one, matter. In economics, strong enough to pull for example, the a plough, and so on creators of multi(Yesavage et al., 1983). authored papers are Forming sequenced not by the associations between magnitude of their the person and name contribution, by their would be facilitated, seniority, or by their of course, if people’s selfishness, but instead, names did shape their more simply, lives. There are various alphabetically by their ways this could surnames. One might happen. The most imagine that, although straightforward is readers of those articles through the meaning are likely to know that of the names. That is, principle, the name people called Miller that comes first might Introduced to Mr Smith, the may be drawn to jobs still get more credit, as it carpenter, and Mr Carpenter, the that involve grinding could be the one which smith, one may well recall the grain, and those called is recalled more readily, occupations of both and the name Melody to music or referred to more of neither making. This sort of frequently. One does not influence can come need to imagine such an from first names, last outcome, as it exists and names, and also initials, should those has been documented. Economists with happen to spell anything of meaning. (New early names are more likely to be tenured Scientist popularised the term ‘nominative at top departments, to be fellows of the determinism’ for this phenomenon, and Econometric Society, and, perhaps even to there are plenty of real-life examples in the win the Nobel Memorial Prize (Einav & Wikipedia entry). A second way is through Yariv, 2006). That this is a local result of other attributes of the name, such as where the publication rules of the field, rather in the alphabet it falls, how unusual or than a general benefit to the authors from attractive it is, what letter is begins with, a lifetime of getting to go first, is supported and how it connotes age, class, gender by the alphabetical advantage not existing or race. in other fields, including psychology, Perhaps the easiest way that a name which do not order their authors that way. could influence its bearer is by allowing Should they injure themselves

the generality of the name letter effect: Name initials and everyday attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1099–1111. Kraepelin, E. (1909). Psychiatrie. I Band: Allgemeine Psychiatrie. Leipzig: Baarth. Lieberson, S. & Bell, E.O. (1992). Children’s first names: An empirical study of social taste. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 511–554.

McWeeny, K.H., Young, A.W., Hay. D.C. & Ellis, A.W. (1987). Putting names to faces. British Journal of Psychology, 78, 143–149. Mehrabian, A. & Piercy, M. (1993). Positive or negative connotations of unconventionally and conventionally spelled names. Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 445–451. Moray, N. (1959). Attention in dichotic listening: Affective cues and the

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celebrating their successes, those early in the alphabet, when discussed by medical staff, also receive four minutes more attention than those whose names come late in the alphabet, and whose cases are thus taken up correspondingly late in the staff meeting (Singh et al., 2006). Whether that additional attention from teams of physicians would benefit or unfit them is not examined. There is not much that can be done about where one’s last name falls in the alphabet, short of unusual foresight in picking parents, or, sometimes, careful prioritisation in picking a husband. But control is exerted, at least by parents, over characteristics of first names, including how unusual that name is. Names can be rare because they have drifted out of fashion, such as Ethelred, whose popularity peaked perhaps a millennium ago, because they are spelled in uncommon ways, such as Catelin, a name spelled now so many ways it is hard to know even what is standard, or because they are simply made up, such as Gra2T, a name as yet of nobody. As new parents struggle sleepless through the first weeks, after having stamped some such unusual name on the birth certificate, they might reasonably wonder whether they have blessed that child with specialness, or saddled it with a terrible, nominal burden. Early research suggested the latter. The idea of psychiatric disturbance resulting from odd names goes back at least to Kraepelin (1909), but has also been investigated with Harvard undergraduates, who are more likely to flunk out with rare names (Savage & Wells, 1948), and with psychiatric samples, where those with rare names show more severe emotional disturbance (Ellis & Beechley, 1954). Lacking experimental control over the names of their subjects, these studies do not demonstrate that names are causal, rather than just being markers of various parental characteristics. There are studies that try to examine name rarity more directly, and they suggest that rare names, and rare spellings, get

influence of instructions. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 11, 56–60. Morrison, S. & Smith, G. (2005). Monogrammic determinism? Psychosomatic Medicine 67, 820–824. Nelson, L. & Simmons, J. (2007). Moniker maladies. Psychological Science, 18, 1106–1112. Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., DeHart, T. & Jones, J.T. (2003). Assessing the

validity of implicit egotist: A reply to Gallucci (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 800–807. Pelham, B.W., Mirenberg, M.C. & Jones, J.T. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decision. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 469–487. Rossi, A.S. (1975). Naming children in middle-class families. American


the name game

lower ratings from judges (Mehrabian & increase their mate value. In choosing Piercy, 1993), and, when such names are more common and historically popular randomly assigned to student essays, they names for their boys, parents may signal get lower grades than more common that their sons are mature and established, names (Harari & McDavid, 1973). and so help them to attract young, exotic However, taking advantage of graduation mates. programmes that list both the name of Suggesting youth or status is not all each student and the honours that student that names can indicate. There are names has earned, or at least received, one can that give strong hints about religion, such readily examine whether those with as, among the less subtle examples, common names are actually Christian and Muhammad, and names that overrepresented in the ranks of the exalted. hint at national origins, such as Paul, Pablo They are not (Skinner, 1984). Perhaps and Paulo. However, what has been of names, unusual at first, quickly come to most interest to researchers is that names seem ordinary, and, in the end, do not can signal race. Kristen and Anne are impair solving partial derivatives or white, while Latonya and Keisha are black; translating Caesar. Brad and Jay white, Darnell and Jamal This is not to say that wise parents black (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). do, or ought to, give no regard to the Not all black people, of course, have commonness of their offspring’s names, names that indicate blackness, so it is especially those of their daughters. In general, girls’ names are more varied, with the top 10 accounting for a smaller fraction of all girl babies than the top 10 do for boy babies (Lieberson & Bell, 1992). Furthermore, popular names for girls change more rapidly over time. Among the 20 most popular girls’ names in the US in 1900 were, for example, Florence, Ethel, Edna, Bessie, Bertha and Mildred, which have not been used for anyone other than a great Bad luck or badly named? Baseball players aunt for some time, and, none was even among the most popular thousand whose names begin with K are more likely to strike out names a century later. By contrast, the male name to take the greatest tumble off the top-20 list was Clarence, which fell just to the 616th position. Similarly, reasonable to examine the effect on, half of the 20 most common girls names for example, career prospects, of those in 2000, such as Madison, Ashley, Kayla who do. and Brianna (see When resumes were mailed out in babynames), would have been unknown to response to job postings, with typical black their great-great-grandmothers. and white names randomly assigned to It may be that gender differences in resumes of various sorts, the black-named naming reflect different goals, even now, applicants got 33 per cent fewer responses, that parents have for their sons and even from self-described equal opportunity daughters (Rossi, 1975). By avoiding the employers (Bertrand & Mullainathan, most common and old-fashioned names, 2004). In order to achieve the same parents may enhance their daughters’ interest as would be generated simply by claims to be young and exotic, and thereby changing the name to a white one, a black-

Sociological Review, 30, 499–513. Savage, B.M. & Wells, F.L. (1948). A note on singularity in given names. Journal of Social Psychology. 27, 271–272. Semenza, C. (1995). How names are special: Neuropsychological evidence for dissociable impairment and sparing of proper names. In R. Campbell & M. Conway (Eds.) Broken memories:


Neuropsychological case studies. Oxford: Blackwell. Singh, R., Philip, A., Smith. S. & Pentland, B. (2006). Alphabetical prejudice in team discussions (Or would Zebedee ever get seen on a ward round?). Disability & Rehabilitation, 28, 1299–1300. Skinner, N.F. (1984). Unusual given names and university grades: A rose by any other name does smell

named applicant needs an additional eight years of job experience. So far, then, it would seem that, whatever gains there may be in pride and group identity, there is a serious cost in employment prospects. The second approach to determining the impact of black names is to examine large datasets that include names, and various important outcomes that could be influenced by those names. It is not enough, in such data sets, to show that people with certain names do less well, since names strongly signal how well the parents have done (Aura, 2004). The test is whether names continue to predict outcomes, such as future career success, even when critical background factors, like race and initial socioeconomic status, that may have caused them are also included in the model. Looking at California birth records, Fryer and Leavitt (2004) concluded that names, although they are highly predictive, do not play a significant causal role in outcomes. Others, also looking at large datasets (e.g. Aura, 2004), have suggested that ‘black names’ are damaging, but, such a conclusion requires that all relevant background factors be accurately measured and fully specified in the model, and so the data are far from establishing definitive causality. While there is some suggestion that the sort of name one has may influence one’s career prospects, perhaps the most intriguing notion is that it determines the specifics of one’s occupation, as well, possibly, as one’s location, tastes, and even cause of death. Some of these ideas have been investigated, and even supported, but some of the most basic questions are still lacking careful empirical evidence. There is no shortage of anecdotes, from the Fire Chief Dave Schmoke to surgeon Dr Scott Hacker, about name-occupation matches. But presumably there are rather more anecdotes that are rather less interesting about people whose names and jobs do not match. Likewise, one can find an occasional Bullitt who perishes from a gun shot wound, but there are even more Blades who do not die by the sword. However, there is some evidence that people’s initials influence their as sweet. Psychological Reports, 54, choices, including how they 546. die. People seem to favour Yesavage, J.A., Rose, T.L. & Bowen, products and careers that G.H. (1983). Interactive imagery share initials with them, so and affective judgments improve face-name learning in the elderly. that, perhaps, Peter prefers Journal of Gerontology, 38(2), Pepsi (Hodson & Olson, 197–203. 2005), and Harold tends to own a hardware store, while Roger is a roofer (Pelham et al., 2002). A recent study

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the name game

suggests that our preference for our own Moving to whole names, it appears initials is strong enough to lead us to lesser that Louis will tend to live in St. Louis, rewards – or even punishments – when and Mary in Marysville, and that this those outcomes share effect, applying also to surnames, our initials (Nelson & is not likely to be due entirely to Simmons, 2007). Those parents naming children after “Those whose whose names start with their location, but to implicit initials spell out C or D, for example, are preferences for one’s own name, nasty things, such more likely to receive and variants of it (Pelham et al., as DIE, tend to do those grades than are 2003). Given how many so prematurely” other students, albeit surnames are derived from slightly, and baseball locations and professions, it is players whose names fitting that the names, some centuries begin with K are more likely to strike out later, get their causal turn. (a failure traditionally symbolised by a K). Despite the challenging confounds in Furthermore, those whose initials spell research on the impact of names, with out nasty things, such as DIE, tend to do name-givers generally being the source of so prematurely, and more often by suicide, both nature and nurture, it seems that the than those whose initials spell out nothing, names do shape, in some ways, the fate of and especially more than those fortunate their bearers. Perhaps the thousands of enough, or with parents sufficiently farsighted, to have initials such as WIN (Christenfeld et al., 1999). This finding I Nicholas Christenfeld is has been disputed, though not in a way at the University of that has convinced me (Christenfeld, in California, San Diego press), and it has been suggested that the finding is an artefact of a general shift in the popularity over time of positive and negative initials (Morrison & Smith, 2005).

baby-naming books should add a new section reporting not only on the past of a name, but also on the future. The entry under ‘Barbara’ might include ‘Greek name meaning “foreign”; could help your daughter move to the front of the class and signal that she is caucasian to potential employers, though it will suggest she is decades older to potential mates; could encourage her to move to Southern California; not well-combined with middle and last initials A.D.’ There is a trend in psychology, from behavioural genetics to Harris’s 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, to suggest that parents’ choices, other than of each other, play little role in their children’s outcomes. Perhaps, though, they do get one last shot at shaping the next generation when they name it.

I Britta Larsen is at the

University of California, San Diego

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Can psychology change the world? Tommy MacKay, winner of the Society’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Professional Psychology, on applied psychology and the human welfare agenda

sychology may not hold the ultimate answer to the human condition, but I firmly believe that it can change the world. I hope to convince you of this through an examination of three things: first, the centrality of psychology; second, the relationship of science and values; and third – as this article has its origins in a personal award – an illustration of changing the world drawn from my own work, the eradication of illiteracy in an entire council area.


The subject matter of psychology suggests that psychologists should be central to the human welfare agenda. But do we too often settle for too little? This article argues that it is possible and desirable for psychologists to agree a common framework of values, and to then successfully inhabit the borderland between endorsing the pursuit of human welfare and maintaining the detached purity of scientific enquiry. It outlines an attempt to do just this, in what may be the largest, longest and most ambitious literacy project in the world.


The centrality of psychology

If psychology is to change the world, what areas should it tackle as its main priority? What is the single biggest step towards changing the world that psychology could make in your field of work?


‘Achieving the Vision’ (MacKay, 2007) is available free on request from education.centralregistry


If psychology is a force that could change the world, have we settled for too little in our vision?

Basic Skills Agency (2001). Adults’ basic skills. London: Author. Boyack, K., Klavans, R. & Börner, K. (2005). Mapping the backbone of science. Scientometrics, 64, 351–374. Brown, G. (2007). Britain’s everyday heroes: The making of the good society. Edinburgh: Mainstream. Cowling, K. & Cowling, H. (1993). Toe by Toe: A highly structured multi-sensory reading manual for teachers and


Where does psychology stand in relation to science in general, and to addressing the human welfare agenda in particular? Is it central or peripheral? First, in relation to science, it is often seen as being on the fringes – somewhere on the borderland of proper science, but never fully accepted as one of its central disciplines. However, a different picture emerges when these views themselves are subjected to scientific inquiry. In a paper entitled ‘Mapping the backbone of science’, Boyack et al. (2005) looked at citations in over a million journal articles published in 7321 journals. Their aim was to map the various scientific disciplines in terms of how central or peripheral they are, using crossreferencing to determine which disciplines have most influence on other areas of inquiry. Seven ‘hub’ sciences were identified: mathematics, physics, chemistry, earth sciences, medicine, psychology and social sciences.

parents. Baildon, West Yorks: Author. Fox, D. & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.) (1997). Critical psychology: An introduction. London: Sage. MacKay, T. (1995). Reading failure in an area of multiple social disadvantage. In Scottish Office Education Department Matching service delivery to client needs (pp.210–233). Edinburgh: Scottish Office Education Department.

(Interestingly, those on the periphery included psychiatry, law, political science and economics.) Second, in relation to human welfare it is relatively straightforward to demonstrate why psychology is central. The definition of psychology on the Society’s website is ‘the scientific [or we might equally say, the systematic] study of people, the mind and behaviour’. But the main problems facing the world today are caused by people, their thinking and their behaviour. Psychology is therefore the discipline that is clearly at the very heart of the human welfare agenda. It provides the scientific foundation for understanding people and the problems associated with them, and the mission of applied psychology is to address these issues, allowing human welfare to be promoted by interventions leading to changed thinking and new patterns of behaviour. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to illustrate the centrality of psychology to human welfare is to consider the main items that feature in the daily news. On the day that I write this article five key themes dominate the newspapers: the environment, war, international disputes, crime and the rise in obesity in the UK population, especially among schoolchildren. All of the issues covered arose directly from how human beings think and act: pollution and waste, enmity and aggression, the breakdown of relationships and failed negotiations, antisocial behaviour and unhealthy living. Psychologists are already working in all of these areas, but does our influence match the centrality of our discipline?

Science and values When we speak of the ‘mission’ of applied psychology in terms that are predicated on ameliorating human welfare, we make a number of assumptions. That is, we take for granted that there is a set of implicit values to which we all subscribe. These values reflect a positivist agenda at the core of the caring professions. It is a philosophy that human well-being,

MacKay, T. (1999a). Baseline assessment in Scotland. Journal of Research in Reading, 22, 1, 81–88. MacKay, T. (1999b). Can endemic reading failure in socially disadvantaged children be successfully tackled? Educational and Child Psychology, 16, 1, 22–29. MacKay, T. (2000). Commentary on Prilleltensky and Nelson, ‘Promoting child and family wellness: Priorities

for psychological and social intervention’. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 10, 113–116. MacKay, T. (2006). The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative: The design, implementation and evaluation of an intervention strategy to raise achievement and eradicate illiteracy. Phase I research report. Dumbarton: West Dunbartonshire Council.

taken from the november 2008 issue

psychology and human welfare

MacKay, T. (2007). Achieving the vision. The final research report of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative. Dumbarton: West Dunbartonshire Council. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2000). Literacy in the information age: Final report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris: Author. Prilleltensky, I. & Fox, D. (1997).

is to provide the analytical tools that make the world a better place?’, or ‘Can describe, explain and predict. The role of psychology make a significant impact on the psychologist, as scientist, is not that of human welfare and quality of life?’. It is social reformer or political campaigner, but hard in my view to conceive of a more is one of carrying out these systematic and important question to be addressed by any analytical functions in relation to human scientific discipline, and if psychology can thought and behaviour. address this, then we must ask whether However, there is a further question any other discipline could be of such about what governs the subject areas in central importance. which we are carrying out our scientific If the question then is about doing inquiry. What are our aims and priorities good and improving the lot of human in seeking public funding for our scientific beings, it is necessary to advance on the interests? Surely the focus of our research basis of a set of agreed values about what and interventions is not detached from any we seek to do. Yet psychologists occupy ultimate concept every part of the spectrum of the public of political, religious and good? I do not philosophical viewpoints, wish to be and this raises questions misunderstood about the possibility of here, since I am a common agenda for totally committed doing good. Nevertheless, to the pursuit of I believe that such an pure, academic agenda is possible. For psychology in its a statement of core values own right and for to which I feel we would its own sake, and almost all subscribe we to the view that could propose the psychology should following: health, caring stand at no and compassion, selfdisadvantage in determination and comparison with participation, human other scientific diversity and social justice disciplines in its (Prilleltensky & Nelson, dispassionate 1997). pursuit of Personally, I have In a world riven by endemic knowledge and an even simpler values problems, does psychology have understanding. statement, and one that the solutions? And as to human I believe carries fewer well-being, we are assumptions, so perhaps not concerned only it could come near to being with meeting our basic needs but in the a basis of universal consensus in our excitement associated with exploring discipline. In the words attributed to John things that satisfy our interests and Wesley, which I learnt at my mother’s knee curiosity. Nevertheless, in a world riven and which were framed on my desk at by endemic problems and tensions that work for many years: Do all the good you can, psychology above all other disciplines can By all the means you can, address, we must surely be concerned with In all the ways you can, a research agenda that has basic human In all the places you can, welfare and social justice at its very heart. At all the times you can, Therefore, when we ask ‘Can To all the people you can, psychology change the world?’, we might As long as ever you can. rephrase that question as ‘Can psychology

Introducing critical psychology: Values, assumptions and the status quo. In D. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.) Critical psychology: An introduction (pp.3–20). London: Sage. Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. (1997). Community psychology: Reclaiming social justice. In D. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.) Critical Psychology (pp.166–184). London: Sage.

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happiness and fulfilment are good and we have a duty to promote them; and that by corollary illness, sadness, distress and personal failure are bad and we have a duty to eradicate or at least diminish them. Psychology is a powerful force for changing thinking and behaviour whatever its nature and goals. However, as a discipline we would expect to oppose the use of psychology to promote, say, the ideals of Nazi Germany, but we would without hesitation endorse its application to national programmes to tackle depression or suicide, or to raise educational achievement. Somewhere in the middle we would argue vociferously over applications of psychology in supporting the military or in promoting various strategies of advertising and marketing. All of this points to the assumption that we operate broadly within an agreed values framework, one based on notions of human welfare. This assumption is at the heart of our Code of Ethics and Conduct which opens with the words ‘Psychologists value the dignity and worth of all persons’. Our commitment to values is sometimes made explicit. Fox and Prilleltensky (1997), in their introduction to their classic text on critical psychology, state, ‘Psychology is not, and cannot be, a neutral endeavour’ (p.3). I have articulated the same view in my own critique of the critical psychology agenda: ‘In its pursuit of objectivity science is nevertheless valueladen’ (MacKay, 2000, p.3). The borderland between endorsing the pursuit of human welfare and maintaining the detached purity of scientific inquiry is a difficult one and not without controversy. In a critique of some of my own work, Professor John Black, formerly of Portland – in an unusually scholarly debate for a local newspaper – stated, ‘Science is neutral. It has no agenda of social justice’ (Lennox Herald, 23 March 2007, p.5). I would argue emphatically in favour of both positions, since I believe that when we speak of values in science we must distinguish between things that differ. In terms of methodology, the place of science

Most of the good done by psychologists is unremarkable and unheralded. It consists of the small amounts of good that we all seek to do every day in our jobs, increasing well-being and removing human suffering at the level of the individual or family. This unheralded good is of inestimable value – it represents many thousands of psychologists constantly doing everything they can to help those with whom they work. However, if we are to answer the question ‘Can psychology change the world?’, we must go beyond the good


psychology and human welfare

we routinely do from day to day and grasp a bigger vision – a national vision, a world vision. If we aim to change the world we must ultimately do so at the highest level of its social, political and organisational structures. If we are seeking to achieve visionary outcomes then there will be certain tests by which we can judge our efforts. For example, has it made a recognised impact at the highest political levels? Has it been celebrated by the media? Has it become known in our communities and not just in our academic and professional circles? Do we hear it spoken of as common parlance in our streets and supermarkets? These were some of the questions that preoccupied me 10 years ago when I sought to address an issue at the very heart of human well-being and quality of life in a modern society – the problem of illiteracy. In terms of these tests I have been fortunate in the outcomes of my vision for literacy. As to political profile, the Prime Minister described it as, ‘Something quite remarkable…able to revolutionise an education system to the benefit of thousands of people’ (Brown, 2007, p.222). As to media impact, it has been covered over 100 times in newspaper headlines and on radio and television. And I can ask most passers-by about it in the streets or stores of the communities where I work and expect an informed and enthusiastic response.

Changing the world – the example of illiteracy Every year over 100,000 young people in the UK leave school functionally illiterate

Ten key strands The main study in the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative was based on the following key strands: I I I I I I I I I I


phonological awareness and the alphabet a strong and structured phonics emphasis extra classroom help in the early years raising teacher awareness through focused assessment increased time spent on key aspects of reading identification of and support for children who are failing home support for encouraging literacy fostering a ‘literacy environment’ in school and community lessons from research in interactive learning changing attitudes, values and expectations

(Basic Skills Agency, 2001; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2000). In today’s society illiteracy and human well-being do not go well together, and it is axiomatic to say that those who enter their adult life illiterate have poorer job prospects and restricted economic outcomes. If we are looking for a very straightforward social issue for applied psychologists to tackle at an ambitious and visionary level then we will find it in illiteracy. It was this problem that led me in 1996 to send a proposal to the Director of Education in West Dunbartonshire in a paper entitled ‘Transforming the reading achievement of all children’. Looking back, the proposal was ambitious almost to the point of pomposity. Its stated purpose was to ‘achieve something that has never been done in the world before, but which I believe to be fully achievable’. The goal: not just for every single child to have higher reading levels, but the total eradication of illiteracy. It was not without risk: ‘Unless the council is willing to risk a commitment to achieving the impossible it is limited only to the ordinary and the possible.’ Thus the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative was born, and just over a decade (and three tons of data) later we have completed what may be the largest, longest and most ambitious literacy project in the world. Our total research sample was 63,563 children and young people, over 33,000 of whom were assessed individually. The full research document is available in book form (MacKay, 2006), and an overview of the final results is published in Achieving the Vision (MacKay, 2007), an electronic copy of which is freely available (see references). We carried out five separate studies. The main study This was a cross-lagged cohort study over 10 years in all 35 primary schools and 23 nurseries. The aim was not only to raise the reading attainment of all children but to reduce the numbers who would experience reading failure through a multiple-strategy early intervention. Our programme was based on 10 ‘key strands’ (see box). The changes in achievement levels were dramatic. From a welter of statistics perhaps the simplest way to present the results is to say that the children with ‘very low scores’ for word reading on our specially designed baseline test (MacKay, 1999a) fell from 11 per cent in 1997 to 0.5 per cent in 2007, while those with ‘very high scores’ rose from 5

per cent to almost 50 per cent. In short, the intervention totally transformed the landscape of reading attainment in the early years. The synthetic phonics study This was a quasi-experimental study in 18 primary schools. It compared the effectiveness of two methods of teaching the basic building blocks of literacy – traditional or ‘analytic’ phonics (the approach normally used in teaching reading, beginning at whole-word level and breaking words down into letter sounds) and ‘synthetic’ phonics (starting with letter sounds and learning how to combine these to make words). While good phonics teaching using any approach is fundamental to teaching basic literacy, the results in the nine primaries using the synthetic approach were not only significantly higher but had lasting impact at follow-up three years later. As a result, all of the schools in the authority gradually opted for the synthetic method. The attitudes study This was a long-term follow-up to a randomised controlled trial I carried out with children aged about nine years (MacKay, 1999b). They were all heading for illiteracy, with an average reading age under six years. The intervention had consisted of neither curricular change nor additional support, but only of changing attitudes towards the value of reading. At the time, the experimentals made significant reading gains. We traced all but two of these young people almost six years later in their various secondary schools and found that the experimentals, despite no further intervention following the first study, were still reading more than a year ahead of the controls. Another interesting factor emerged. The controls were clearly also reading at a higher level than expected. This fits with an observation made in the full report on the original RCT – ‘children became excited about print’ (MacKay, 1995, p.21). The project was infectious, so there were spinoff benefits for the controls too. The declaration study The experimental part of this study was carried out in East Renfrewshire. The sample was 565 children in eight primaries and four nurseries. I was asked to do a study on literacy and expectations, the only condition being that it must be completely new and quite different from what anyone had ever done before. I still remember the scepticism that greeted me from a large gathering of educational directorate, head teachers and class teachers when I told them: ‘We want

taken from the november 2008 issue

psychology and human welfare


our research specification but was also economically feasible – Toe by Toe (Cowling & Cowling, 1993), a highly structured scheme for mastering all the basic skills of reading. A quasiexperimental study in one secondary school increased reading ages by an average of two years following a threemonth intervention. A further gains score study of over 100 primary school children in 32 schools showed average gains of over one year in five months, using as tutors volunteers with a maximum of one day of training. At the start of the project in 1997 over 21 per cent of our children left secondary school functionally illiterate. By June 2007 the total was three pupils. All of this has been made possible by applied psychology – using the evidence base of educational psychology and other applied fields. Crucial to the project was understanding the psychology of long-term organisational change, and how we sought throughout 10 years to maximise our five ‘context variables’ of vision, profile, ownership, commitment and declaration. When we seek to change the world we are ultimately changing the lives of individuals. As one secondary school pupil said in addressing one of our conferences, When all this started I couldn’t read. I was a failure. Now I have a cupboardful of books at home. Now I am a success.

A vision for psychology Psychologists must grasp a bigger vision – a national vision, a world vision – if they dream of promoting human welfare

to raise children’s reading levels by doing nothing different from what we are already doing – except getting them to declare that they will do it.’ The idea was simple to the point of naivety. All the children had to do every day was to make bold declarations about their future levels of reading achievement. It could be done individually or in groups or as whole-class chants. Listening to 60 children in nursery chanting joyfully their own declaration – ‘Reading is fun, reading is cool, we’ll all be great wee readers because we’re going to school!’ – can be a powerful experience. It was the results, however, that were impressive. After one term the experimentals showed not only gains in key early literacy skills, but also positive changes in their attitudes to reading and their own beliefs about whether they would become good readers. The whole idea almost seems contentfree. No teaching methods, no glossy

materials, no sophisticated literacy programme. Yet it draws its entire rationale from the evidence base of multiple fields of mainstream psychology – attitudes, selfconcept and self-esteem; expectations or ‘expectancy’; cognitive dissonance; social and interactive learning; motivation; attributions; goal setting, self-efficacy; visual imagery. Declaration led to behavioural change. As one bright fouryear-old girl in nursery said, ‘Yes – I’m getting better. We’re doing more than we normally would.’ The individual support study This was the final part in our armoury for wiping out illiteracy by school leaving age. Our programme was so successful in reducing the numbers failing that we could invest in intensive individual tuition for the small percentage who were still not fully literate. We selected the one remedial programme that not only met

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Psychology is able to do very much more to change the world than eradicating illiteracy from our schools and communities. Yet ‘too often we settle for too little’ (Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997, p.4). What is our vision as psychologists both academic, in providing the scientific evidence base, and applied, in turning that evidence base into programmes to promote human welfare? I believe that psychology can play a central role in tackling the issue of crime in our cities, litter on our streets, pollution in our atmosphere, breakdown in our international relations, obesity in our children and perhaps ultimately, oppression and injustice in our world.

I Professor Tommy MacKay is at Psychology Consultancy Services, Ardoch House, Cardross, Dumbartonshire G82 5EW



What makes a good psychology lecturer? Seh Hyun Rho’s winning piece in the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network’s essay competition, plus a selection from the other entries

‘Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.’


lbert Camus encapsulates the challenge for all lecturers: to capture and sustain a hungover and disgruntled student’s attention at 9am; convey the intricate details of a study in a clear, concise and coherent manner as well as link it to broader debate; and whet the students’ appetites and pique their curiosities for knowledge even further. The cardinal sin of any lecturer may be to simply read out from Powerpoint or handouts, but what qualities are needed for a good psychology lecturer? Lecturers need to mentally bend down to meet the students’ intellectual eye and convey vast amounts of complex information. How to explain the numerous gene–environmental interactions of schizophrenia, or the

inherently problematic nature of factor analysis? Although this can be achieved via excellent skills in pedagogy and organisation – structuring lectures, providing an overview and delivering the lecture in a coherent and comprehensive manner – psychology itself is open to a plurality of approaches to enable robust learning. William James describes the trade of a lecturer as: ‘…paid to talk, talk talk! It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.’ Putting aside philosophical alarm, psychology lecturers are at an immense advantage in comparison to other disciplines. Psychology lends itself to approach from a variety of routes and through diverse entry points: diagrams, logic, auditory stimuli, video presentations, everyday examples, case studies and even humour. What better way to learn than to see the Necker cube illusion first-hand to

suggest perception is constructive; the McGurk effect to argue speech perception is multimodal; or a patient performing a line bisection task to observe the detrimental effects of blindsight? More students can be reached as some learn better through stories, equations or watching videos in addition to promoting robust understanding by not conceptualising a topic in a single way. Especially crucial to psychology is the need to think systematically, critically and creatively: how to study the issue empirically; what control groups to marshal; how to analyse data; and how to revise the hypothesis in the face of challenging evidence or eliminate alternative explanations. Lecturers should perpetually nurture scientific thinking – not to confuse correlation with causation – as well as lateral thinking to devise new ways of thinking about a problem. Students with such capacities are essential for continued progress beyond university and this will benefit them in any areas they choose to pursue. Lecturers who expose students to different solutions, methods of arriving at solutions and criteria for evaluating solutions will achieve this. By presenting a lecture on the history of the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia, its modifications and competing theories, students will learn more than mere facts. For example, students will learn how different studies can narrow understanding of the role of

The 21st-century lecturer Of course, a truly good lecturer can be identified by having a solid The 21st-century lecturer has changed from their predecessors of the partnership between themselves and their student group. But what 19th or 20th century. No longer is it about the 50-minute monologue does this mean? It means having the enthusiasm, the passion to with the lecturer professing from the front lectern to a room full of stimulate and encourage. It means having the students’ interests at (sometimes awake) students. Now the lecturer must engage, enthuse, heart but not pandering to unrealistic or inappropriate expectations. It motivate, facilitate and may use a range of new technologies – podcasts, means being on top of the subject but being able to make material virtual learning environments, avatars or electronic games and accessible, relevant and meaningful. simulations, to name but a few. The lecturer has moved It means being constructive, developmental but from the front of the student group to behind them – critical and analytical. nudging, enthusing and promoting irrespective of the So what makes a good lecturer? To a large location (whether it be the lecture room, the computer extent, it depends on who you ask and when you suite, the lounge or study). ask them! It also depends on your philosophy of There are, of course, characteristics of a lecturer that pedagogy, your subject matter, your experiences students may consider ideal but that certain lecturers may and, of course, the student group. However, there shy away from. Some students want to have full handouts, are some key characteristics of a good lecturer that with lecturers presenting all of the information in a clear transcend these factors and that all seem to agree and concise manner. Many lecturers would agree that on. There are the technical skills of lecturing – information has to be presented clearly and engagingly, but organisation, presentation and clarity for example – lecturers may want to signpost, to promote and facilitate but most importantly the passion, enthusiasm, and independent learning. The ‘spoon feeding’ of complete approachability of the individual. information is anathema to many. Lecturers should No longer leading from Professor Dominic Upton promote active learning rather than passive presentation of the front – but nudging, Chair, Division of Teachers and Researchers in information, irrespective of how clearly and concisely this is enthusing and Psychology organised. promoting


taken from the september 2008 issue

teach and learn

transmitters, the interactions between genes and the environment, and the inadequacy of relying on one neurotransmitter to explain a heterogeneous disease, thus suggesting other ways to study the same topic. Furthermore, excellent lecturers promote synthesis of knowledge. Psychology is a broad and multifaceted discipline combining neuroscience, genetics, computation, social sciences, statistics, and even philosophy. Although lecturers dissect the topics, the goal of education is to apply it in real life in a variety of contexts. This requires the power of synthesis, both inside and outside the domain of psychology. A lecturer who presents the limitations of dual task via an article announcing a new law prohibiting talking on mobile phones whilst driving illustrates the importance of the topic, its implications and future directions. Lecturers should foster outward thinking by forging links with other topics to promote concrete understanding that is robust. As Jean Piaget writes, ‘the principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers’. Simply to regurgitate the lecturer’s notes is futile, but to entrench the new knowledge in a meaningful context will be eased by the lecturer’s competence. However, perhaps the most critical attribute of a successful lecturer is their genuine passion. Enthusiasm is contagious: opening a Pandora’s Box of understanding and consequent pleasure, wonder and interest in the lecture hall breeds hunger for further knowledge elsewhere. Any lecturer’s unbridled devotion imbues students to hunt down and read original papers from the early 20th century in the library; search the internet for the most recent developments on epigenetic research; and discuss controversial ethical issues during lunch breaks. A typical one-hour lecture is, at best, a narrow window into the vast realm of competing theories and empirical evidence accrued for decades or centuries that some have dedicated their whole lives to study. Students must feel motivated to dig deeper on their own. Overall, any lecture hall should be suffused with three magic ingredients: Intelligence, Interaction and Inspiration. All lecturers must be up to date with recent findings, technological advances and future directions. Lecturers who demand students interact with the material rather than being passive recipients – to experience, challenge

Other views ‘When I look back on my four years of university education, the lecturers are one of the first memories that comes to mind. They are the most important element of university life.’ General attributes ‘I have asked several people the question of this essay. Without so much as a glance at technical lecturing skills, the unfailing answer is in just one word – passion.’ ‘Outside the lecture theatre, the good psychology lecturers, in my view, are the approachable ones. There are plenty of pompous academics with time only for their research, but the ones that you feel you can stop on campus, or knock on their office door without trepidation are the ones I respect the most.’ ‘The biggest mistake that a lecturer can make is to show fear.’ ‘Talking to you for two hours and making you feel as though you have only been listening for half an hour.’ Lecturer/student interaction ‘If you are new to lecturing, or you are nervous, it is never a good idea to show it. We don’t know it, so don’t make it obvious! If you take a class like you’ve done it a dozen times before, likely you can fool us – we’re not that smart!’ ‘A good lecturer is one that is responsive to the audience, their cues, priorities and needs. In some settings this may be achieved by asking people what they want to get out of your lecture, and being responsive to this if you can.’ ‘A good lecturer is one who takes the time and effort to listen to students and to provide an interactive learning environment, in which questions and answers are exchanged.’ ‘It is communicating in a way that reminds students that whilst they are here to learn, they are also part of psychology’s academic community that is ever evolving.’ Lecture structure ‘Coming out from the lectern, adding to the slides and being organised will hold your students attention and keep them fully into the subject matter.’ ‘A good lecturer has an agenda and at the beginning of the session, will outline the direction of the lecture by providing students with the aims and objectives. This gives students an idea of the overall meaning to be gained from the lecture.’ Context and anecdotes ‘Contextualising ideas is also excellent – many theories are difficult to understand and remember in abstractions. However, taking an idea into real-world and daily situations can make it both more memorable and penetrating. For instance, I never remember social exchange and equity theory without also remembering my lecturer’s blood-donating anecdote. Having been in a serious accident in his twenties, he needed a large blood transfusion. Many years later, when he himself became a donor, he remarked that he realised he’d become less concerned about donating when he had equalled how much he had received.’ IT, videos and other materials ‘The most surprising thing happened in a recent lecture: we watched a YouTube video! Students always love videos, and there is a particular abundance of them in psychology. The strategic use of technology and multimedia materials can enrich a lecture or tutorial, really bringing it alive for us all.’ To read more comments and add your own (members only), see

and understand its implications – are excellent. Lastly, the ability to inspire students to seek further understanding is perhaps the most essential yet the easiest to achieve, given the lecturer’s own interest in psychology. If all psychology lecturers could achieve this, future generation of psychologists would be equipped to avoid ethical pitfalls, advance current technology and illuminate further

read discuss contribute at

the complex underpinnings of our wonderful discipline. I Seh Hyun Rho is at Somerville College, Oxford University.



What do psychologists do? If you are one of the thousands of new psychology students receiving this issue free, read on as Jon Sutton illustrates some potential career paths ahead of you


lthough this may be the first step of your journey in psychology, perhaps you already feel like a psychologist. Perhaps you are spending your first weeks at university pondering how your new social groups are forming, or the effect of alcohol on the brain. Now that you have started your studies, you are embarking on the path that could take you from being an amateur psychologist to a professional one. How can you turn your growing knowledge of psychological theory and research into a career in which you solve practical problems in society and improve people’s quality of life? This article will try to give you a picture of different areas to help you to decide whether you want to find out more. We’ll meet psychologists working all around us – in schools, hospitals, prisons and workplaces – to find out how they have put psychology to work, and what they love and hate about their jobs.

Where do psychologists go? Psychology graduates are pouring out of universities as the popularity of the subject continues to rise. In 2005 there were over 10,500 new graduates. Can there really be jobs for them all? In fact, only around 15 to 20 per cent of psychology graduates end up working as professional psychologists. But this doesn’t mean that the majority of graduates do not use what they have learnt. On the contrary, many employers appreciate the scientific grounding, statistical know-how and critical thinking skills a psychology graduate has gained – see to discover just how employable you will be! This article will cover areas in which recognised training route has developed over the years, leading to membership of a Division of the British Psychological Society and eligibility for the Register of Chartered Psychologists – a seal of approval that employers often seek (see for much more information). We’ll turn to these main specialisms now, but don’t get too hung up on them: psychologists working in any of these settings are likely to use knowledge from right across the breadth of the discipline.

Clinical psychology

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Psychology is a helping profession, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the field of clinical psychology, which aims to reduce psychological distress and promote

If you are interested in finding out more about a career in psychology, your first port of call should be There you will find information on what psychologists do, accredited courses, frequently asked questions, and a range of resources and links. To seek careers advice and work experience from the psychological community, Society members can use the online discussion forum at


psychological well-being. It’s demanding work. You would deal with a wide range of psychological difficulties and serious mental illnesses. Clinical psychologists work largely in health and social care settings, including hospitals, health centres, community mental health teams, child and adolescent mental health services, and social services. They usually work as part of a team with, for example, social workers, medical practitioners and other health professionals. Most clinical psychologists work in the NHS, but some work in private practice. Others work as teachers and researchers in universities, adding to the evidence base of the profession. The work is often directly with people, assessing their needs and providing therapy based on psychological theories and research. But as Glenda Wallace (a UK psychologist now working with Otago District health Board in Dunedin, New Zealand) explains, these people can be a great resource themselves: You are face to face with another human being who can bring you richness, and if you are lucky you can give them something back. This is not dismissing our profession, but acknowledging that people are a wonderful resource even without the wealth of theory under their belt that we are supposed to have.

Places for training are in short supply and a first- or an upper second-class degree is required. Relevant experience is also important: this could involve working as a psychological assistant, research assistant or care nurse/assistant, either before or after graduation.

Counselling psychology If you love to talk people through their problems – really get to the bottom of

Society members can also search for jobs (by type and geographical area), and sign up for suitable e-mail alerts and RSS feeds, at Advertisers can reach this prime online audience for just £150 (NHS and academic) or £250 (commercial), and at no extra cost when placing a job ad in The Psychologist. To book, e-mail Kirsty Wright on or telephone +44 116 252 9550.

taken from the september 2008 issue


them – perhaps you should consider counselling psychology. You would work with others to explore issues underlying a diverse range of human problems. How, for instance, would you go about helping a man who had just lost his wife of 50 years? Perhaps more importantly, how would you help him to help himself? As human problems are pretty universal, you could end up working virtually anywhere. Counselling psychologists work within the NHS, in general and psychiatric hospitals and GP surgeries; in private hospitals and in independent practice; within education in schools, colleges and universities; in industry and in public and private corporate institutions. It’s this diversity that keeps Linda Papadopoulos (London Metropolitan University) hooked: I’ve done everything from work on acute psychiatric wards and GP surgeries, to giving lectures to dermatologists and plastic surgeons. I’ve battled with statistical analysis, travelled all over the world to listen to and talk about research, even sat on Richard and Judy’s couch!

Educational psychology The small girl sits sullenly in the corner, her education (her future?) slipping away before the teacher’s eyes. What’s her problem? Can you find it and help? As an educational psychologist you would tackle all kinds of problems encountered by young people in education, from learning difficulties to social or emotional problems. Work can be either directly with a child (assessing the problem through observation, interview or test materials, or giving counselling) or indirectly (with parents, teachers and other professionals). The majority of educational psychologists are employed by local education authorities (LEAs), working in schools, colleges, nurseries and special units. They liaise regularly with other professionals from the departments of education, health and social services. A growing number work as independent or private consultants. The very competitive postgraduate training courses look for candidates with ‘relevant experience’: usually with children in education, childcare or community settings. But a rewarding job awaits you at the end of the long road to qualification. Independent educational psychologist Kairen Cullen says:

of all, in my view, is the possession of a total commitment to one’s own learning and ongoing development. The psychological processes around how individuals, groups and organisations function most effectively are complex and fascinating. As an educational psychologist I use my knowledge of psychological theory, training in hypothesis formulation, and testing and analysis, and create unique solutions for unique problems.

Forensic psychology The newspapers often explain the popularity of psychology at university by reference to dramatic television depictions of forensic psychologists. But according to Jane Ireland, a forensic psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and Ashworth High Secure Hospital: The work of a forensic psychologist is much more diverse than that depicted by the media. You may be disappointed if you see yourself as a full-time ‘offender profiler’, helping the police catch criminals.

But if you’re interested in working with challenging groups of individuals, in developing and delivering offendingbehaviour programmes, working with victims, conducting in-depth offender assessments to inform on decisions about the risk an offender poses to themselves and the general public, in training staff, conducting applied research and providing a consultancy service, then this may be the profession for you. There’s clearly a lot riding on this type of work and, according to Professor Ireland:

This is, unarguably, a satisfying and rewarding occupation and will use an individual’s academic and personal qualities to the full. Most important

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It is not a career that should be taken lightly. We often find ourselves making decisions that impact significantly on others. The compilation of forensic risk assessments, for example, can contribute to the length of time that an offender or patient will remain detained. It’s also not a career for those seeking a ‘9 to 5’ job or whose primary wish is to make individuals ‘better’. Rather, the focus of some psychological intervention with offenders, for example, is on making them ‘safer’ for their eventual return to the community and in doing so increasing their quality of life. This can be one of the hardest lessons learned by those new to the profession. You either accept the reality of how difficult the work can be or become disillusioned with it and

seek a career within another branch of applied psychology.

Health psychology ‘Just say no!’, ‘If you do drink, don’t do drunk’, ‘Smoking kills’, ‘Eat five a day’… We are constantly bombarded with health-related messages, and the relatively new field of health psychology uses theory and research to make sure they work, and to understand how they work. Charles Abraham (University of Sussex) explains how psychological principles are used to promote changes in people’s attitudes, behaviour and thinking about health and illness. Many professionals aspire to change people’s health behaviour. Health psychologists work on understanding how the processes that underpin behaviour patterns and behaviour change can effectively be altered. So in the case of preventive health behaviours (such as using condoms) and adherence to medical advice (e.g. taking medication as directed) health psychology research can help professionals offer their patients and clients the right advice in the most effective manner. For example, we have analysed the messages contained in leaflets promoting condom use and moderate alcohol use across a number of European countries. We were able to distinguish between research-based leaflets (which are more likely to be effective) and those containing messages that do not correspond to the psychological antecedents of behaviour change. This work provides guidelines for the production of health texts and helps to establish a foundation for evidence-based health promotion practice.

Neuropsychology Imagine you are in an accident and your brain is injured. If you can’t remember your life pre-injury, including giving birth to your son, how do you relate to him now? Or if you can’t lay down new memories – you’re stuck in the past – what is your emotional life like? If you can only respond with an eye blink, how do you share your thoughts with others? These are the kinds of questions that fascinate Camilla Herbert, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist with the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust and Hurstwood Park Neurological Centre: Neurorehabilitation is about people struggling with events and injuries that none of us would choose to



endure. The courage and resilience that many people show is inspiring, and compensates for the day-to-day frustrations of slow progress, chaotic lives and missed appointments. What can you expect? The joys of home visits, sitting on vaguely damp sofas drinking brown liquids out of dirty cups . . . talking with families about the changes they are experiencing, laughing with a client as they describe their latest memory failure, whether it was leaving the dog outside the post office or a bucket of dirty water in the boiler cupboard ‘to come back for later’.

Neuropsychologists most commonly work in acute settings, concerned with the early effects of trauma, neurosurgery and neurological disease; in rehabilitation centres, providing post-acute assessment, training and support for people who have sustained brain injury, or who have other neurological problems; and in community services, supporting those who have returned to community living. Research is an important aspect of neuropsychological practice. In fact, Professor Barbara Wilson OBE believes that neuropsychology is a wonderful field if one wants to combine theory and practice. It is a broad discipline with an intriguing mixture of normality and abnormality. It encompasses many theoretical models and approaches, and it welcomes creativity and flair in adopting and adapting theories and models in the quest to improve the lives of patients and their families.

There is a serious national shortage of neuropsychologists, most acutely in paediatric neuropsychology, and prospects for professional advancement are very good.

Occupational psychology If you want to use your psychological knowledge to change the lives of large numbers of people in one shot, perhaps occupational psychology is for you. The wheels of industry are oiled by happy workers, performing to the best of their


ability in a safe and healthy environment. This is where you would come in as an occupational psychologist. What psychological knowledge would you use to increase the effectiveness of organisations, and to improve the job satisfaction of the individual? Occupational psychologists usually work alongside managers, trades union representatives, training officers and specialist staff from the firm or industry concerned. Their work is broad, touching on research from social psychology, personality and intelligence, as well as related disciplines such as ergonomics and personnel management. Work can be in advisory, teaching and research roles and, to a lesser extent, technical and administrative roles. You could find yourself doing anything from creating a new image for a company, to teaching leadership and conflict resolution, to increasing awareness of ethnic minorities, women and people with special needs. Frank Bond, an Occupational Psychologist based at Goldsmiths, University of London, says: I get to have a positive impact on a large number of people. I work with big organisations to find ways of helping them make their workplaces less stressful but, at the same time, more productive. This is very challenging, but so rewarding when you get it right.

Some would argue that big business is becoming increasingly ‘person focused’ in the drive for profits, and the services of occupational psychologists are certainly in demand. Rewards can be high: there is perhaps more variation in salary in this area of psychology than in any other.

Sport and exercise psychology Imagine combining a love of sport and exercise with the psychological theories you have learnt about, in order to push your client that fraction of a second closer to Olympic gold, or simply out of the door for a walk. Over the last 10 years opportunities in this area have exploded. There is now

a recognised training route, and psychological input has been transformed in the eyes of the public from fringe fad to an essential element in the changing room, training ground and GP’s surgery. Sport psychologists work across a range of team and individual sports, and from amateur to elite levels of competition. They might work with a Premiership footballer to increase levels of confidence using an imagery intervention; advise a swimming coach on how to build squad cohesion; or help athletes to deal with the psychological and emotional consequences of injury. According to Marc Jones (Staffordshire University): Working with athletes can be a very positive experience as you help them achieve their potential. However, this can sometimes be challenging, as athletes may perceive working with a psychologist as a sign of weakness. Demystifying sport psychology and reassuring athletes that the symptoms and feelings they experience are common can therefore be an important part of any intervention.’

An exercise psychologist applies psychology to increase exercise participation and motivational levels in the general public. For example, they might work with depressed people to set exercise-related goals, help menopausal women to improve self-esteem through exercise, or set up and evaluate an exercise programme in a workplace, prison and psychiatric context. Amanda Daley (University of Birmingham) says that it is exciting to see people change through exercise. This is especially true since, quite often, you’re asking a lot. These people may well have been sedentary for months or years. When you first tell them about the benefits of exercise they may be scared or resentful. Sometimes they don’t accept what you’re saying. You have to overcome the common view that ‘rest is best’ after an illness. You have to accept that progress will not be quick, or uniform. And sometimes you fail. Anyone entering the profession needs the ability to cope with this.’

Pay and opportunities vary considerably, reflecting the diverse nature of the field. Although full-time opportunities are increasing, most practitioners see it as a ‘portfolio career’, combining consultancy, teaching and research.

taken from the september 2008 issue


Teaching and research My friend and former colleague David Shewan, who sadly passed away last year, wasn’t your stereotypical bearded, shuffling Prof with tatty tweed jacket adorned with leather elbow patches. He spent a lot of time in the pub. ‘Much of my job involves waiting around in Glasgow bars in order to talk to interesting people,’ he once told me. Then I go back to university and tell all (well, mostly all) about this and get paid for it. Sometimes I hang about in jails instead of bars, but the rest remains the same. The people I talk to are drug users, sometimes drug dealers. I summarise and analyse what they tell me, get it published and incorporate it into lectures.

This is a good example of how teaching and research in psychology usually go hand in hand. Some teaching staff will have qualified in one of the applied psychological professions already mentioned. They may return to teaching to develop professional practice and conduct research, or simply to share their knowledge. All university lecturers are expected to help extend their subject by gathering psychological evidence on key research questions, and then disseminating it through journal articles, conference presentations and books. Securing funding for this research is a vital part of the career of a teacher and researcher of psychology. Teachers and researchers usually have to be administrators too, involved in student selection, devising new teaching programmes, sitting on committees that allocate resources and coordinating aspects of the life of the department. Most are fairly happy to do their share and can find the teaching very rewarding, but it is often the research they live for – the freedom and flexibility to explore those nagging questions about human behaviour, and the opportunity to discuss these ideas and findings with colleagues at conferences. If you go down the academic path you will get a taste of this freedom while studying for a PhD; most applicants for lecturing posts have one. Essentially an attempt to answer an original research question under the supervision of an established academic, a PhD is a rite of passage that can vary wildly depending on the way you work, the way your supervisor works, even the way your finances work. Many schools and sixth-form colleges of further education now offer psychology

as a subject at GCSE and A-level. You’ll need a PGCE to teach psychology in a state school; for more information see

The future There are several reasons to think that career prospects for psychologists will continue to expand and improve. First, the undergraduate entry levels for psychology are high within most universities, so psychology students tend to be academically capable from the start. Second, BPS requirements for the curriculum ensure that graduates and postgraduates have a tremendous range of skills that employers in many organisations are looking for. In addition, employers in the public and private sector are also finding that psychological knowledge and expertise is often what they need to deal with behavioural questions, and the financial value of being able to anticipate people’s behaviour is central to the marketing strategies of most large commercial and retail organisations. Finally, as the organisation and structure of political and social life become more flexible and less dominated by particular political ideologies, people seem to be increasingly interested in the psychological dimension of one another’s decisions, actions and fate. Psychology is fast becoming the major means of interpreting and understanding what society has been, is and what it may become. We are seeing applied psychologists taking an increasingly leading role in education, health, social care, justice and the workplace. More government money is being pumped into training in order to improve access to psychological therapies. And we are seeing a rising tide of professionalism, led by the BPS and continued by the government’s proposed ‘statutory regulation’ of psychology through the Health Professions Council. It is hard to predict the impact of statutory regulation on psychology, but one possibility is that boundaries will be blurred and the current adjectival descriptors may fall into disuse as the profession come to see themselves first and foremost as ‘applied psychologists’. And psychology is expanding into new areas all the time, such as coaching psychology. It’s an exciting time to be embarking on a career in psychology. As first years, it might seem a bit early to be thinking about such things. But it

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The reality of TV any of you will have had your first contact with psychology through reality television like Big Brother. So what is it like to be a psychologist working on one of these shows? Tomás Chamorro-Premuzic (Goldsmiths, University of London) has made regular appearances on Big Brother. He says: ‘TV is not as glamorous and well paid as people may think. All producers work within a specific budget and would always try to pay as little as possible. Their compensatory weapon is “exposure”, but most psychologists are wary or even afraid of this! ‘The result is a bad cocktail of demanding producers who want top scientists that are able to communicate complex ideas to a low-level audience (well, quite often not as “low level” as they think it is), and snobbish academics who hate or pretend to hate the media. This leads to a clear imbalance between the media’s need for top psychologists who are approachable and good communicators and the supply of such professionals. This explains why more often than not, we see bogus psychologists discussing cliché topics on TV. ‘This is not to discourage people. Quite the contrary – there is a lot of room in the media for psychologists and given the wide scope of application of this science the opportunities are unlimited. The more serious academics we get on board, the bigger the snowball effect will be and the more realistic the goal of making psychology a useful tool for society – if only to encourage debate about topics of interest which have psychological relevance.’


does no harm to have a look at your options: see for links. And try to talk to psychologists: ask what they love about their jobs, and think about whether you would love that too. In fact, just talk to anyone – perhaps you’ll come across a human problem and you will remember an approach or a piece of research and, before you know it, you are a pioneering figure in a completely new area of psychology. As a science and as a profession, psychology is still relatively young. It’s up to you to make an impact and help people in the process. I Jon Sutton is editor of The Psychologist. This article was adapted from his chapter in Davey, G. (Ed.) (2008), Complete Psychology, by permission of Hodder Education. See


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A gift from the British Psychological Society. A selection of articles from The Psychologist, and information on the benefits of student mem...

Student gift  

A gift from the British Psychological Society. A selection of articles from The Psychologist, and information on the benefits of student mem...