Right-Brain / Left-Brain: Fact, Theory or Myth?

What is the right-brain/left-brain theory?

The basic premise of right-brain/left-brain (pop-) psychology is that each side of the brain is said to control different types of thinking. For each of us, one side of the brain is supposed to be dominant. So if the left side of you brain is dominant, by the theory, you would be a logical, methodical, objective, analytical scientific kind of person. However if the right side of your brain is dominant you would a more creative, artistic, intuitive, expressive, subjective kind of person. Knowing what side of brain is dominant is presumably helpful in explaining why we might meet problems with certain tasks and indeed what we might do to balance out the ‘one-sidedness’. The theory of brain-dominance is something that frequently crops up in discussions in my confidence-building workshops. Sometimes these kind of theories provide comfort because on first glance seem to offer a way to explain and structure our experience. So let’s look at the evidence.

Considering the evidence for the right-brain-left-brain

Supporters of the theory might argue that this is supported by scientific evidence, and yes of course, as with many pop-psychology theories there is a grain of truth. However, when reviewing evidence, it depends on how old the research is, whether up-to-date research has challenged initial findings, whether the original research is generalizable to the general population and who is interpreting the evidence. It’s common to see newspaper journalists report evidence-based research in a headline grabbing way. There is no space for the fine detail.

The right-brain-left-brain theory is based on the work of Roger W. Sperry in the 1960s. In psychology it’s known as  the the lateralization of brain functionOur brains are comprised of two hemispheres connected by a structure called the corpus callosum which facilitates inter-hemispheric communication. So it the normal, undamaged brain, there is ‘dialogue’ between the two sides. Sperry studied epilepsy patients and discovered that seizures were reduced or ceased when the corpus callosum was cut. Through a series of experiments, Sperry (and others) were able to determine which parts of the brain were involved in various functions, including language, maths, drawing and so on.

This is the basis for the pop-psychology theory. I heard one self-styled new age guru claim that ‘old psychology is dead’ and we need to usher in the new psychology. Apparently he didn’t see the irony of citing research from the 1960s. It’s also important to correct the misnomer of two brains. A neuroscientist would not use this terminology, unless to criticise the theory. We have one brain with two hemispheres. So if you see or hear someone waxing lyrical about ‘right brain’ this and ‘left brain’ that, chances are they probably don’t have any qualifications in neuroscience or psychology.

Apart from the passage of time, there is another key point to be made here. The research was based on people with epilepsy and who had their corpus callosum cut, therefore ending communication between the two brain hemispheres. This hardly sounds like a sample representative of the general population. It’s a pretty select group.

So what does up-to-date research have to say?

Contemporary evidence for the right-brain/left-brain theory

Inevitably there has been a wealth of research published on neuroscience since the 1960s. Unfortunately, much of this will not find its way into newspaper headlines of pop-psychology books.

In an attempt to better understand brain lateralization with a view to treating medical conditions (rather than myth-busting), scientists at the University of Utah in analysed more than 1000 brains to see if people had dominant sides. They found no evidence. On average, both sides of the brain were essentially equal. The study’s lead author, Jeff Anderson, explains that while it is true some brain functions occur in one side or the other (language: left; attention:right), ‘[P]eople don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection’.

The overall conclusion from this an other up-to-date research is that the two sides of the brain communicate through the corpus callosum to work together to perform a variety of tasks.

Why does the popularity of the right-brain/left-brain theory persist?

Searching online I found some interesting and amusing exchanges between the supporters of the right-brain/left-brain theory and its critics. In response to a discussion of up-to-date, peer-reviewed research from leading neuroscientists, the striking thing is that supporters of the theory offer personal anecdotes to ‘disprove’ the research. The subtext is, ‘that’s all very interesting but it doesn’t apply to me’. Here’s one example:

When I am studying math or chemistry intensely I find the left side of my brain hurts, Whereas when I am writing a report or something along the lines of literature, the right side of my brain hurts. It’s a nice pain though. I was not aware of this right brain left brain theory until I started noticing this happening and researched it for myself. Amazing really.

This inspired a particular pointed (cruel) response:

You should see a doctor. It’s not amazing, it sounds more like you’ve sustained a stroke.

In a follow-up comment, the same ‘wag’ makes another important point:

Wow, from some of the posts . . . you would think the world is full of neuroscientists that are all incapable of doing a simple internet search for information.

This last comment is quite telling, It highlights a phenomenon in social psychology, in particular the subject of stereotypes. A stereotype is a generalized, over-simplified packet of knowledge about something. We can see in the realms of prejudice where are a stereotype can act as a filter for new information. Anything that contradicts the stereotype is rejected. So, yes, all this neuroscience may be very interesting but if it contracts a strong belief in the right-brain/left-brain theory, then the scientists must have made errors. The results have to be rejected. The fact that the research went through a rigorous review process does not matter. At the same time the supporter of the right-brain/left-brain theory will overlook the lack of a generalized sample for Sperry’s research. By time the belief is firmly held, the whole question of research may not even matter anymore. ‘My head hurts on the left hand side when studying maths, that’s good enough for me’.

There is also the question of exposure to information. Magazines and reality TV pundits like to offer a ‘bit of science’. For the purpose the ‘science’ needs to be easy to comprehend. So idea of right-brain/left brain keeps popping up. The more a thing is repeated leads us to question whether ‘there must be something in it’.

How to interpret right-brain/left-brain tests

Common magazine pencil-and-paper test of right-brain/left-brain begin with the assumption that there is specialization. This is written into each of the questions in these tests. The results are foregone conclusions. Reducing human experience to a binary is always problematic. Nature never creates a dichotomy. That’s something we do to help explain thing. Black and white categories are easier to process. Rarely do these over simplifications map onto real-world experience. So at the very best, treat these tests as a bit of fun

A better strategy is to spend time taking stock of your own abilities and strengths. It’s easy to look for evidence to contradict the test’s verdict. Instead, balance things out and look for any evidence that contradicts the result. Think of your life experience. The longer you spend on this phase, the more evidence you will find to contradict the results and the more you will realize is what modern neuroscience tells us: you’re using both sides of your brain pretty much equally. What you will have is a better picture of yourself as resourceful, psychologically rounded human being.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThat’s got to be a boost to your confidence and self-esteem. Much better than believing you’re living only half of the human experience.

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Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

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Being Happy: Psychology, Champagne and the World of PR

I received a telephone call from a PR company promoting a well-known champagne brand about a campaign they are about to run. Essentially they wanted suggestions for visual images that evoke happiness. These images are going to be used on TV screens in the back of a limousine. The idea being to associate happiness-evoking images with drinking this particular brand of champagne.

Now I routinely offer psychological insights and coaching tips for news stories and magazine features. The rule is that the journalist will have a couple of questions and would take up about 15 minutes of time and they then mention me in a magazine. I’ll do brief radio and television interviews too on a similar basis.  I’m listed on the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) media-friendly psychologist list. Most of the time I am. The main rule is that it has to be an opportunity to offer real psychology not gimmicks and syndromes made up by editors and producers.

So back to the ‘champagne campaign’. In this case it’s just a PR company taking liberties. I ask if they would like to consult with me on the project. She says ‘No we just want some suggestions’. I reply ‘I’m sure you do’ explain the ‘quotes for credit rule’ and then asked  bluntly ‘What do I get out of this?’ I was told that they would mention my name on the screen in the back of a limo. I politely declined as it sounded too much like advertising without the scope to inject any evidence-based psychology. I told her I would have to pass on this one. However she continued ‘Well we don’t have to credit you. We just want your suggestions’. Clearly, she was not getting the point. I asked if the PR company randomly telephones other professionals for free advice. I didn’t get a response to that one.

Now I’m assuming that the PR company will be paid handsomely for its services. I assume the person wasting my time on the phone was also being paid, so why is it acceptable to expect me to give up my time for nothing? If it had been for a charity or something of public value then I wouldn’t have even quibbled. The issue is how in PR companies’ eyes, the psychologist skill-set and expertise has become so devalued. Unfortunately this is in part down to some hack-psychologists who’ll comment on just about anything.

Back to the story. Aside from the waste of my time there is a more serious issue here. Essentially, the psychologist who will eventually agree to help with this campaign will be sending out the message that ‘drinking expensive champagne in the back of a limo’ will make you happy. I wouldn’t promote alcohol as a substitute for psychological well-being. Champagne does not make people happy. It temporarily alters mood as does all alcohol, but that is not happiness, no matter how prettily you wrap it up.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to offer suggestions for what will make you happy, check out the following posts.

I’m Sorry But This “Research” is Just Another Crummy, Half-Baked, PR Stunt

I took part in a radio discussion today for BBC Coventry and Warwickshire to discuss some new “research” about how “Brits” apologize too much. I’m sorry but it’s not proper research and the figures are meaningless. It’s another one of those thinly veiled PR stories that masquerades as real research. (I should know, I have been a part of them in the past, so I know how it works). The amount of free coverage in newspapers, radio and television is translated in to figures of ‘how much would this have costed if we’d have to pay for advertising’? Of course, tabloids and local radio, love this kind of stuff. It fills a few column inches or a few minutes of airtime. And so to the “research” which is really about selling a factory-made bagels, which incidentally may be full of sugar and highly processed flour and so are very unhealthy. Sorry.

Apparently, we “Brits”, if such a thing exists as the typical Brit exists, apologize eight times a day.That’s 2,920 times a year and 233,600 times a year, according to this half-baked research. It assumes that there is only one possible meaning for the word “sorry” and that every time it’s used is for an apology. It totally overlooks the subtleties of the English language and how context and tone of voice play a crucial part in defining what we say. We can use ‘sorry’ to express disgust, to be sarcastic, to imply the other person is at fault, to express disbelief, instead of ‘excuse me’ and to interrupt a conversation, as well as using sorry to mean ‘sorry’.

The crummy PR stunt (sorry, research) also offers “brashness coaching” via a helpline so that Brits can become more like New Yorkers, which according to this research means being rude and presumably throwing out all vestiges of subtlety from our language and eating more bagels.

Yes, we use the word ‘sorry’ a great deal. In fact, according to Professor Susan Hunston (University of Birmingham), the other expert on the radio programme, ‘sorry’ is used 318.3 words per million. Whereas, ‘please; is used only 192 words per million. So rather than reducing the number of times we say ‘sorry’, maybe we should increase the number of times we say ‘please’.

The ability to apologize is a mark of strength, generosity and empathy, all of which are qualities more enviable than is brashness. So let’s not apologize for saying ‘sorry’. It’s a marker of the subtlety of our language and how playful we are with words. It’s also an indication of the subtle ways in which we manage our social interactions. Sorry is an extremely effective shortcut to flag the violation of social norms whilst simultaneously taking the heat out of confrontation. ‘Sorry’ has multiple meanings. Eating too many factory-made bagels will massively increase your calorific intake, expand your waistline (and hips) and may contribute to your premature death of multiple obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart-disease. Unlike being unnecessarily brash and eating too many bagels, saying sorry is unlikely to kill you!

How’s that for directness?

Sorry!

Not!

Measuring Sexual Identity: Fundamentally Flawed, Practically Worthless, Irresponsible or Dangerous?

What’s wrong with ‘Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report’ (2010) from the Office for National Statistics?

Well for starters, the authors admit that its methodology is fundamentally flawed by using a single measure and if they had they used a more appropriate measure then the figures for gay, lesbian and bisexual would most likely have been higher! The report misleads over refusal rates and does not adequate addresses the age, emplyment status, education, and ethnicity biases in its figures. In spite of evidence to the contrary the authors slap themselves on the back for a success’ whereas they should be slapping each other in the face for this unmitigated disaster.

Having taught statistics in several UK universities at all levels and  with a PhD in gender stereotypes and attitudes to sexuality (from an accredited university), I recognise, in this report,  many of  pitfalls I’ve taught undergraduate psychology students to avoid.  If it was an undergraduate report, I’d struggle to give it a ‘pass’. So let’s look at some of the main problems:

Attraction, Behaviour, Orientation, Identity
The report distinguishes between sexual attraction, sexual identity,  sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. So the expectation is that the report will take a multidimensional approach. However, it does not.  It states that whereas legislation focuses on sexual orientation, the report choses to look at sexual identity. It  also clearly states that behaviour may not form a basis for identity but goes on to argue:

‘Research during the development of the question also deemed sexual identity the most relevant dimension of sexual orientation to investigate given its relation to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ (p4).

Unfortunately, the research on which this conclusion is based is by the Office for National Statistics. It’s a classic example of groupthink. Much cutting edge research would dispute this assumption.  I certainly dispute it. It became clear very early on in my research that a single question to measure sexual identity or sexual orientation, at best would be misleading. So I didn’t.  It could be considered irresponsible to publish  research based on an imappropriate tool. In fact, the curremt report probably would not be published in any peer reviewed journal.

This report warns:

“[N}o single question would capture the full complexity of sexual orientation. A suite of questions would be necessary to collect data on the different dimensions of sexual orientation, and to examine consistency between them at the individual level (p4).”

The report goes ahead and uses a single question anyway! Whether or not a person labels their sexual orientation should not be the issue where ‘experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ are concerned. Clearly, the reluctance to feel able to or be comfortable in declaring one’s sexuality is also a form of disadvantage and an aspect of discrimination. The current approach distorts the issue through over simplification.

So what’s the difference between attraction, behaviour, orientation and identity. Well, identity is how we describe ourselves or how others label us. Well people who are attracted to the same gender might not act upon it. People who act upon sexual attraction may do so in very specific circumstances. Orientation may be indicated by attraction, behaviour or a label with which a person identifies. I would argue that behaviour and attraction are more important than the label a person uses. For instance, in sexual health there is a recognised category of ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), who do not identify as gay. They see themselves as straight men who occasionally have sex with other men. The rest of the time they lead ‘straight’ lives. In sexual health services and health promotions, ‘men who have sex with men’ are at risk from sexual transmitted infections, and are targeted as a specific group.  However, assumptions made by this report concluded:

“Testing showed that respondents were not in favour of asking about sexual behaviour in a social survey context, nor would it be appropriate in general purpose government surveys (p4)”.

Again, this conclusion was based on reports from the Office for National Statistics.  In the present study, worryingly, the authors state:

‘As in the UK, deriving an individuals sexual orientation from a suite of questions results in higher LGB estimates in the US compared with using a single sexual identity question (p15)’

It is accepted in attitude measurement that single item responses are unsuitable.  Using a multiple response measure, properly administered would produce a more accurate figure. Furthermore, research suggests that this figure would have been higher.The figures cited in the report for more methodological sound research range from 5% to 9% ( Joloza, Evans and O’Brien, 2010, p15). The current report says 1.5%.

In a survey with such political impact, the decision to use a single item is ill-advised and  arguably reckless. Research convenience should not compromise validity. In this instance, it does.

Sensitivity of Measurement
Having abandoned the methodologically sound approach of using a ‘suite’ of questions, one might hope that at least the report would use a sensitive measure beyond crude, simplistic nominal categories. Actually no. In the 1940s, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey developed a more sensitive  ‘sliding scale’ of sexuality. Instead, the present researchers ignore this and opt for the bluntest of instruments: Straight, gay or bi. This report didn’t even bother to include transgender in its analysis.

Firstly, consider the approach of ‘measuring’ ethnicity based on a ‘Black, White or Mixed’ categorisation. How accurately would this categorisation produce a representation of ethnicity in the UK? Any reputable survey offers a whole range of options for ethnicity with quite subtle distinctions. Even then, people may declare ‘other’. I would argue that sexuality is more complex than ethnicity.  So why is measurement tool in the present report, measurably more simplistic? The answers is: ‘because the study has not been properly designed to fit the subject matter’. It has little or no ecological validity, that is, it means very little in the real world, except perhaps to fuel prejudice.

The Kinsey scale requires a respondent to use a zero to six scale. Where zero equals ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and six equals ‘exclusively gay’.  This gives varying degrees of bisexuality, that is, from one to five. Now clearly, these sensitive data can be collapsed into cruder categories if needs be. The problem with collecting crude data from the outset, is that we can do little else with it. It offers nothing very meaningful just the willingless of people to use a limited set of labels.

Now imagine, we take three measures of attraction, behaviour and identity all of the sliding ‘zero to six’ scale. Wouldn’t this be a far more accurate reflection of a person’s sexuality orientation? It’s just a pity they didn’t do it in their report for the Office of National Statistics. Would it produce a higher percentage of lesbian, gay and bisexual people? Well, Joloza, Evans and O’Brien (2010, p15) would probably say ‘yes’. So why didn’t they do it?

So what exactly does this study measure? Well it doesn’t measure sexual identity in the UK. It measures the percentage of people sampled  who are willing to declare a sexual identity label from a limited choice  in interviews, with or without others present, in a particular time frame (for a study with poor ecological validity).

But the problems don’t end there. The report also reveals questionable interpretation from by its authors.

Confidentially and the Willingness to Respond
One statistic almost jumps out of the page to indicate that there’s something wrong with this study:

[P]eople (aged 16 and over) who identified as LGB had a younger age distribution than heterosexuals – 64.9 per cent were aged under 45 compared with 48.6 per cent of people who identify as heterosexual (p16).

In other words, younger people are more likely to report a ‘non-heterosexual’ identity than are older people. With no evidence to support the notion that older people are less likely to be gay, it has to be an artifact of this research. That is, older people either don’t identify with a ‘gay, lesbian or bisexual’ so readily, or are not so predisposed to tell a stranger with a clipboard. As such, the one-shot sexual identity is not fit for purpose. It’s possible that older people are more likely to remember the days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and police entrapment strategies. It’s possible that they don’t use the word ‘gay’ and may prefer ‘homosexual’. It’s possible that they don’t like to divulge personal information to strangers unless absolutely necessary. There are definitely confounding variables at play and not just age.

According to this study gay, lesbian and bisexual have better jobs and are better educated. Again, the myth of the pink surfaces. Could it not be that young, well-educated, finnacially secure people are more likely to divulge their LGB sexual identity to a stranger? This means that less-empowered people more in need of support and services are not. Again the one-shot measure doesn’t appear to do its job.

The report makes a claim in the face of its own evidence that confidentiality basing this on the refusal rate:

There is no evidence of an adverse impact on response rates confirming the general acceptance of the question. Our analysis suggests response rates are broadly in line with earlier quantitative testing. Non response to the question was low with less than 4 per cent of eligible respondents refusing to answer, saying they did not know the answer or not providing a response  (p26).

Perhaps this  should read  ‘no adverse impact on response rates, except for older, less financially secure, not-so-well educated, non-professionals’.  For those in routine and manual occupations, the most frequent response to the sexual identity question was ‘other’ at 31.1%, more ‘popular’ than heterosexual at 29.4%. Almost a half (49.1%) of those who identified as gay and lesbian had managerial or professional occupations, compared to less than a third (30.6%) who identified as heterosexual/straight? Furthermore, 38.1% of Gay/Lesbian had a degree compared with only 21.9% of Heterosexual/Straight. Doesn’t all this seem odd? Yes! It suggests a significant bias in the sampling, the method and the results. In short, the flaws are evident but largely overlooked by the authors. Failure to do this in an undergraduate report would be severely penalised. But far more is at stake here. This report may inform social policy!

Looking at ethnicity, there’s a bias here too. For Heterosexual/Straight people 90.7% are White, whereas for Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual its 93.5%. However, for the ‘Other’ category for sexual identity, 14.1% are ‘other ethnic group’. For the ‘Don’t knows’, the figure for ‘other ethnic group’ is 18.2%. People from ‘Other ethnic groups’ were almost twice as likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as say ‘Heterosexual’ (9.3%). They were almost three times more likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’ (6.5%). This suggests either a reluctance to declare sexuality or that they did not understand what the terms meant. Either way, it’s a shortcoming of this research.

It’s interesting to note that option one on the interviewers card (market research style) was ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ and option two was  the less formal ‘Gay or Lesbian’, with option three as ‘Bisexual’. It’s interesting that whereas ‘both terms in option one and three can be applied to either men or women. For option two, you can’t have a lesbian man!The options do not use comparable terminology. If different terminology had been used, would the results have been different? If the options had been re-ordered, would the results have been different?Why is heterosexual the first option? Did this slightly increase the heterosexual figure. Research into research and experimter bias suggests it might.  Had the survey not been carried out in a market research format would the results have been different?Did interviewer the tone of voice affect the way in which the questions were answered. I’s done endless market research interviewers on the street and most of the time I can work out what the researcher ‘wants’ me to say. Are you heterosexual <smiles with rising intonation? or gay <frowns, with falling intonation> or bisexual <spits>? It’s a slight exageration but it does happen.

Now let’s turn to the ‘less than four per cent refusal rate’ that caused the authors to discard the other evidence.

The authors state:

‘Prior to developing and testing work on the sexual identity question, the expectation was that the higher the number of adults in the household, the higher the proportion of item non response. This is be because some household members might be reluctant to disclose their sexual identity in the presence of others. However, the results from the IHS do not indicate this (p12).’

However they don’t make the connection between non-response rates and the willingness to declare a true label:

‘Another observation here is that the proportion of people reporting to be LGB in a household decreases as the number of adults in the household increases. There is currently no explanation why this is the case but this is something that could be considered for further investigation in future (p12)’.

One explanation might be that, the more people in the house the less likely people are to declare themselves to be ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’. They didn’t necessarily refuse they may have felt the need to protect their own privacy and lied or said ‘don’t know’.

So for people identifying as the as the number of people living in the house increases, the figure for ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ increases slightly. For Gay/Lesbian it falls from 1.3% in a single person household to only 0.3% in a four person plus household. The figures for Bisexual remain roughly the same. For ‘Don’t Know/Refusal’ the figures increase slightly as the number of people in the house increases.  This suggests that there is an element of self-censorship in responses.

Think about it logically. If you want to keep your sexual identity secret from other members of the house, do you ‘refuse’ and cause the other house members to ask why, or do you just lie?  Or if you live a ‘heterosexual’ life for 95% of the time and have recreational sex, exactly how do you respond to the stranger on the door step with the crude market research question?

What’s clear is that the current report has not adequately addressed the numerous problems it has generated with an inappropriate methodology for a complex subject. White, Black and Mixed would not be good enough for ethicoity, so why is it good enough here, for a subject arguable more sensitive and complex?

Improvements
It’s important to remember that the Kinsey Team in he 1940s put the gay and bisexual figure as high as 37%. Of course the sampling has been criticised over the years. It probably did lead to an overestimation. Nevertheless the measure on which the Kinsey team based their research was exemplary. A one-shot question does not work for something as complex as human sexuality. The Kinsey measurement was complex and fit for purpose. It is not good enough to side step the issue of instrument accuracy with protests of convenience and acceptability to researchers. Rather than go for the easy, convenient option, get better researchers and design a better study where appropriate measures can be used.  Otherwise all you get is conveniently produced meaningless results. Garbage in, garbage out.

Conclusion
So is this report, fundamentally flawed, practically worthless, irresponsible or dangerous? In my professional opinion, considering the plitical climate, I’d have to say that it’s all of those things. The ONS needs to stop engaging in groupthink and stop treating the complex notion of sexual orientation as some crass market research exercise.  Patting themselves on the back, the authors conclude:

‘The introduction of the sexual identity question. . .  in January 2009 followed rigorous testing and feasibility testing by ONS. The findings of this report suggest its implementation on the IHS in the first year has been a success (p26)’.

A success why what standards? Certainly not of academic rigour. We need high quality research data on which to make sense of our world and inform our social policy decisions. Sadly, this report fails to deliver and cannot be treated as anything other than a pilot study from which serious lessons need to be learned.  The simplistic method does not work evidenced by the reports own figures. It fails to meet the standards of an undergraduate report, on which one can only conclude ‘must do better next time’. Sadly, the decision not to consider the ethical ramifications of publishing a flawed report is inexcusable and sheds light on the ability of the ONS to produce high quality data. It’s argubale negligence. Researchers have a responsiblity to consider how their research will be used. The ONS has  failed to recognise its responsibility.

Maybe it does  not commit the sin of commission of homophobia but it does commit the sin of omission in that it justifies the heterosexist ideology of rendering invisible sexual diversity.

So if we add in the refusals and the don’t knows, if we adjust the figures for age, ethnicity, education, profession and number of people in the household, what exactly would the figue be for ‘non-heterosexuals’? Well, your guess is as good as mine.  It’s disappointing that this overblown, expensive pilot study has thrown up more questions than it answers, and we are back to simply ‘guessing’.

Links:

Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report

Only Words? (Yet another post on the 55-38-7% body language myth)

If any body language ‘expert’ wants to prove the myth that words only count for only 7% of any communication I have a challenge.

Polish up on your open-gestures, upright, relaxed posture and perfect your smile, then next time you are on TV and get to say about 100 words, just work these seven words into the conversation and see exactly how much they count for. According to the myth, your words won’t matter, so let’s see.

Deep breath, relax, smile and repeat after me:

Sh*t, P*ss, F*ck, T*ts, C*cks*ck*r, M*th*rf*ck*r, c*nt.

Keep smiling and  try it in church, at a job interview or to a police officer. Visit hospitals and old people’s homes. Work the words into a family member’s eulogy or at the bingo hall instead of ‘house’.

So your posture, gestures and lovely tone of voice got you through all of these situations without even the ‘batting of eyelid’ or the raise of an eyebrow? Thought not.

Now actually read the research and stop talking out of your ar$€ !

Links:

Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

Look Out! Look Out! Psychobabble Blue Monday is About! The Most Gullible Day of the Year

Every year I get asked by journalists and producers to comment on ‘Blue Monday’. . .the supposed most depressing day of the year based on a cod-equation. Every year I tell them that it’s just a PR exercise dreamed up by a PR company to promote a travel company to encourage us to cheer ourselves up by ‘booking a holiday’. One factor in the equation includes the longest gap between paydays. . which means ‘blue monday’ always falls in January, since most people are paid earlier in December so they can spend, spend, spend at Christmas.

So isn’t it just a harmless bit of fun? Well apart from bringing the subject of psychology into disrepute and trivializing depression. . . surely it’s just an innocent bit of trivia to fill a few column inches or tag onto the end of a news programme.  I hoping that the story would have gone away by now, but every year it re-appears like a  kind of journalistic herpes!

So why does it matter to me? Well, I was one of the psychologists originally approached , 22 December 2004, by a PR company with a pre-written equation that they were going to ‘validate’ by ‘research’. They wanted a male psychologist as it would carry more weight.  I turned it down explaining that “I don’t support ‘made-up’ psychology”. The PR company, of course, went on to find someone who would put their name to it.

I’m not anti-media and have fronted campaigns for the Learning and Skills Council to promote adult learning.  If I can legitimately bring evidenced-based psychology to the campaign and its a worthwhile message and it isn’t for a company with dodgy values then I’ll consider it.

It’s no point in protesting that ‘Blue Monday’ is anything but a PR stunt. It doesn’t tell the general public anything about evidence-based psychology. It just illustrates how psychology can be mis-used and gives the impression of the psychologist as ‘side-show, snake-oil peddler  (in my opinion).

So there you have it. May I urge you all on ‘Psychobable Blue Monday’ to go out and do something nice for someone else. Pay someone a compliment, give a small gift, or just smile and pass on good cheer. . . but whatever you do. . . don’t feel manipulated to book a holiday! And if you do make sure it’s not with the company peddling the cod-psychology! And always, always be aware of ‘psychological formulae’. There’s a quote from systems expert Checkland who said ‘Life’s too quixotic to be modelled’.

PsyCentral Top Ten from 2009

Here are the top ten PsyCentral posts from 2009:

  1. Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (& Other Power Tools)
  2. Dematerialization: Crystals & Car Keys
  3. The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains?
  4. Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz
  5. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule
  6. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions
  7. The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness & Biological Fact-ness
  8. Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?
  9. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing!
  10. Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology