Should the British Psychological Society’s Blogpost Read Like a Lads’ Mag?

I was shocked to see a post on The British Psychological Society‘s Research Digest Blog Post and as a member I have complained. The post claims to offer ‘evidence-based’ instructions, but appears more as a list of sexist, blokey tips that might you’re more likely to see in a very old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. One might easily miss the links to research on account of the arcane language. I know I did on first reading.

However, what one cannot miss is the heteronormative bias and generalizations about what men and woman do and prefer. Which men? Which woman? The answer is ‘lady’ women and ‘gentle men’. The language used in the post sounds like something from the 1950s, not from a professional body. I appreciate the importance of communicating psychological insights to a lay audience. However I do not expect it to read like an article from a lad’s mag! The post concludes with: “Apologies for male, heterosexual bias”. Should a blog on the BPS’s official site, be offering a biased article that waves aside diversity with an apology.  I cannot imagine an article ending with ‘apologies for the racial bias’. Don’t apologise, just don’t do it! It simply is not what a professional organization should be doing. It’s clear the author needs a lesson in appropriate terminology (that is, 21st Century) and a lesson in diversity before being let loose as the friendly face of The British Psychological Society for relationship issues.

Read the blog post and form your own conclusions:

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/02/evidence-based-tips-for-valentines.html

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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:

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’.

Vegetarians Don’t Eat Meat and Proper Psychologists Don’t Gossip About Celebrities!

To many non-vegetarians the concept of what constitutes meat is a bit of a grey area.  Many moons ago, not long after becoming a vegetarian I visited a friend’s house. His ever-hospitable mother offered me a ‘lovely chicken sandwich’ and I had to tell her that I no longer ate meat. Unperturbed, she offered corned beef on the assumption, I guess, that I could just focus on the corn. After I respectfully declined that I was offered wafer thin smoked turkey. Presumably the thinness and the smoking process eliminated the meatiness. We eventually settled on a cheese sandwich which she dressed with a little salad on the side and some crisps (potato chips). . . roast chicken flavour. Ironically, they are one of the flavours that actually don’t contain meat. However, I’m not sure that she knew that.

Ultimately I suppose the meat non-meat thing is a values clash. I remember watching a discussion on a chat show talking about vegetarians. A meat-eater stood up and said ‘How dare vegetarians force their values on their children’. It hadn’t occurred to him that meat-eaters do exactly this!

So what’s all of this got to do with celebrities. Well, as a psychologist I’m often called upon to offer some insight on media stories, whether news stories or general discussions on social issues. Over the past couple of weeks, surprise, surprise, I’ve had a lot of calls to discuss ‘infidelity’. When I ask, what’s inspired the story (as if I don’t know), of course, it’s the alleged extra marital affairs of a well-known sporting personality.  .  . okay you know it’s Tiger Woods so I may as well type it.  Now I tell them that I don’t talk about celebrities lives as it’s unethical.  I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of celebrities and neither do the two-bit hacks who cough up pithy insights for self-aggrandisement. My refusal comes as a shock, even for the producers I routinely work with. It’s become so normal to gossip about celebrities that it’s difficult to get the point across! Psychologists should not be gossiping and speculating on the inners workings of people’s minds! If they are clients then it’s confidential, and if they are not clients then they have no insight anyway. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with fellow psychologist Dr Petra Boynton who shares my view and endures the same nonsense. Basically it brings the name of psychology into disrepute and it’s against the British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines. Programme producers will complain ‘Well Dr ‘Pops-up-a-lot’ discusses celebrities all the time. I reply ‘Yes I know ‘it’ does and being a member of the BPS ‘it’ should no know better’! What invariably follows are a series of ‘what ifs’ of the ‘wafer thin smoked turkey, corned beef’ variety. Each time I decline until they run out menu choices. If it’s got celebrity in it. . I’m not going to bite, get it? They only time I make an exception is when everyone jumps on the bandwagon and bullies a celebrity, as in the over-night fame of Susan Boyle and subsequent press intrusion and ‘expert’ (fakexpert) speculation. . . even then it’s only to counter the BS.

I’ve read of so-called reputable psychologists (read ‘gossipologists’) offering mental health diagnoses of celebrities. I’ve also seem them discussing the mental states of celebrities’ young children. Nothing they say is ever meaningful and it’s certainly unethical. It’s gossip, plain and simple! The fact that someone has a degree in psychology or a PhD in ‘the social impact of jogger’s nipple’ does not mean they have any valid insight into the mental state or deepest motivations of any celebrity.

Psychologists should abide by a common set of values that shouldn’t be prostituted for a one-liner in ‘Celebrity Life’ magazine. Surely these values should be higher than picking over the bones of skeletons in celebrities’ closets. Where juicy, meaty titbits of gossip are concerned, shouldn’t psychologists be ‘vegetarian’?

Links:

Celebrity Body Language

Therapists Boasting of  Celebrity Clients

Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Phone rings. Number withheld. It’s a journalist who wants some expert insight into why it is that men get all ‘letchy’ (lecherous) after a drink. It’s for a magazine article aimed at young women. Of course what she doesn’t want to hear is that women get ‘lairy’ (loud) after a drink.  Why is that? I say ‘tomarto’ she says ‘tomayta’. . she says ‘letchy’. . I say ‘lairy’. . . oh let’s call the whole thing off. . . and move on to some hack who doesn’t quibble about gender differences. . .and has not expertise in anything except saying what journalists want to hear.

So why could it be that men get more ‘letchy’ or ‘flirty’ after a few drinks in a sexualised commercial environment such as a night club? Er. . . perhaps that would be the effects of getting drunk, exactly the same as for women. I know that ‘letchy’ and ‘lairy’ are exactly analogous . . but the point is that alcoholic lowers inhibitions irrespective of the contents of our undergarments. It can also make us more aggressive. Check out the police statistics. . .it’s not just the blokes who are kicking the living daylights out of each other on a Saturday night. . . no mere spectators. . . ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’.

During the brief exchange, I was asked about body language in the context of ‘men getting letchy’ after a drink’. Well what’s the body language of anyone who has drunk so much that they have lost control of their cognitive and motor faculties. . . a quick lunge for anything they can get hold of before falling to the ground and rolling around in their own vomit!

Now I like the occasional tipple as much as the next ‘lairy letch’ (well maybe not that much). . . and I know that these gender stories may seem like a harmless bit of fun. . but such excursions in gender psycho-babble serve to over-emphasise the differences between men and women or create new differences that only really exist in the world of magazine sales. The fact is: when we get drunk we all make arses of ourselves! Binge drinking is a massive problem with both men and women, especially with alcoholic drinks designed to taste like soft drinks.

These one-sided gender-based stories are there just to raise a smile and fill up a bit of space, but in the process they fuel gender stereotypes. They create a ‘gender filter’ whereby we look for differences where there aren’t any. Of course the additional of a bit of ‘body twaddle’ (sorry I mean ‘body language’ ) always makes things look a bit more scientific. It’s interesting the most of the ‘leading lights’ in body language have no qualifications. Many of them offer conjecture and home spun, common-sense, back-porch, pseudo-Freudian waffle presented as ‘evidence’. Many of them confuse ‘biological sex’ with ‘social gender’ and over-emphasize sex and gender differences and seem oblivious to the fact that Western gender roles have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.  Whereas the evidence shows that predominantly, men and women have more things in common than things on which we differ. And surprise, surprise. . .Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Links:

Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz

Pic: Dr Gary Wood - Author of Sex, Lies & StereoypesWe have many taken-for-granted assumptions about the biology of men and women. So, I offer this, provocative, human anatomy quiz to help explore and unpack some of those assumptions.

The Questions:

  1. True of false? Women are biologically the weaker sex.
  2. True or false? Men have male hormones and women have female hormones.
  3. True of false? Women have testosterone.
  4. True of false? The anus has an erotic capacity for both men and women.
  5. True of false? The anus has an erotic capacity irrespective of sexual orientation.
  6. True or false? The correct name for the female genitals is the vagina.
  7. True of false? A clitoris is like a tiny penis.
  8. True or false? The clitoris is the only organ in the human body with the sole function of sexual pleasure.
  9. True of false? The ovaries and the testes are formed from the same embryonic tissue.
  10. True or false? Biologically, the ‘default’ value of humans is female.
  11. True or false? Women are incomplete men.
  12. True or false? Men and women are so different that they may as well be from different planets.

The Answers:

  1. False. Men are biologically the weaker sex  (on account of the Y chromosome which means it doesn’t protect the male so well from hereditary diseases)
  2. False. Men and women have the same hormones; it is only the relative levels that differ. Furthermore, men differ from other men and women differ from other women in terms of hormone levels.
  3. True. Women have testosterone. Men also have progesterone and oestrogens.
  4. True. The anus has an erotic capacity for both men and women. As the genitals and the anus share much of the same musculature and nerve endings, it is often difficult to tell where an impulse originates.
  5. True. The anus has an erotic capacity irrespective of sexual orientation (gay, straight, bi or indifferent).
  6. False. The vagina is the birth canal; the collective term for the female genitals is ‘vulva’.
  7. False. A penis is an enlarged clitoris. See also answer 8.
  8. True. The clitoris is the only organ in the human body with the sole function of sexual pleasure.
  9. True. The ovaries and the testes are formed from the same embryonic tissue.
  10. True. Biologically, the ‘default’ value of humans is female. That is why the penis is an enlarged clitoris and also why men have nipples.
  11. False. More accurately, men are women who made a bit of a detour (in the earlier stages of development)
  12. False. From biological evidence, the similarities between men and women are greater than the differences.

So where does this take us?

Well, in the direction of a twelve point personal research plan to check out the answers and then consider how these facts impact on our social interpretation of biological sex, that is our gender roles (and our attitudes to sexuality).

[Material adapted from Sex, Lies and Stereotypes, by Gary Wood]

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Links:

Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?

Magazines seem to be filled with paparazzi shots of celebrity couples with captions and comments from body language ‘experts’ and speculating who’s in love, who’s out of love, who’s breaking up and who’s faking it. With such amazingly specific analysis, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it all actually means something and we are getting hot celebrity gossip before the news even breaks. It doesn’t and we aren’t. For every stand-out expert ‘hit’ we remember, there are countless ‘misses’ we  forget.

The body language experts with psychological training know that they are not educating or communicating anything psychologically meaningful but rather just there to entertain.Those without a background in psychology will just make it up as they go along in the hope that if they repeat something often enough it will become true. Ultimately the sound byte caption over the pap snap gives us no insight to celebrity relationships but speaks volumes of our obsession with other people’s lives.

Get out your own holiday snaps and inspect them. Do your red eyes mean you are possessed by the devil? Do you closed eyes mean you are actually sleep walking? If you’re caught in a few snaps with your hands covering mouth does it mean you are an habitual liar or trying to wipe ketchup from your chin or simply that you don’t want your picture taken? So despite the talk of hand positions, finger and positions, the authenticity of smiles, it actually means very little. It’s just gossip with a bit of psycho-spin to give it an air of credibility. But credible it is not.

One of the most important things we ‘know’ about body language is not true! It’s based on a distortion of research by Albert Mehrabian. Body language does not account for 55% of the message in all communication. This figure is only relevant The 55% figure is only relevant when we are forming an attitude (like or  dislike) of someone. The fact that some ‘experts’ incorrectly trumpet this blatant misreading of the research (intentionally or through ignorance) simply distorts our perception of the importance of body language over words, and over context in the case of pap snaps. It really means very little in celebrity snap shots and would have to be so obvious that we wouldn’t need an expert to decode it, such as one person strangling the other. Yes, it offers an example of a particular body language sign but to say it actually applies in a particular case (such as a photo) is at best guess work and most likely flim-flam! It’s there to entertain and titillate not to inform or educate!

Setting aside the fact that psychologist shouldn’t be speculating about the private lives of celebrities, body language (non-verbal communication) isn’t as exact as the ‘experts’ would have us believe.  Context and congruence are all important. One ‘classic’ signal may conflict or be overridden by other signals. A snapshot cannot possibly provide all the information necessary to make an educated guess let alone a definite statement. We need to take a video approach over the snapshot approach. To gain any insight into the state of a relationship the signals we need to consider a broad range of signs and behaviours over a longer period of time, rather than cherry pick based on a snap shot. It’s worth remembering that a turd with a cherry on the top is still crap!

Links:

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

Links:

Flirting & the ‘Golden’ Age of Gender

In examining flirting tips from the various main stream pop-psychology books on body language I’m struck by the prevalence of gender stereotypes and the absence of the acknowledgement that not everyone is heterosexual and not everyone wants to have children. Surely flirting need not depend on these.

Many tips involve ‘men making themselves more masculine to attract ‘delicate’ women’ and ‘women making themselves more ‘delicate’ to attract ‘big strong, rugged, men’. This all presupposes that we all want the same thing. Some women like ‘skinny’ men who wear glasses and hate football. Some men, small in stature, like full-bodied, amply curvaceous women. Some, delicate, petite, perfectly made-up women, may prefer women in sensible shoes to a hunk in football boots. Some rough and tough, deep voiced, sporty men don’t necessarily fancy women at all. Yes I know it’s all very obvious, so why the hell don’t the pop-psychology books acknowledge it? One reason is that the classic body language books are from ‘the golden age of gender’ when the world was a very different place and, sadly, gender stereotypes do sell.

Different people are attracted to different things and gender roles have moved on enormously since the 1950s. So telling every women to become like a 1950s housewife or a screen siren from the golden age of Hollywood is hardly like to work for all. Telling every man that he needs to ‘butch-up’ and take up forestry  is hardly like to work either, unless of course you know someone who’s into that sort of thing.

Flirting is about having fun. Flirting is about putting yourself across in a ‘good light’. It’s not about aping outdated stereotypes and it’s open to all! So the best advice I can give is:

  • Relax
  • Be yourself but be your best
  • Smile and have fun
  • Avoid any flirting tips that get you to act out a stereotype unless that’s what you are really into.

Links (to other ‘gender-based’ posts):