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’.

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:

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:

Down the Back of the Couch: The Problem with Big Brother

Poor George Orwell must be turning in his grave. Two concepts from his dystopian novel 1984, have been mauled and distorted beyond recognition to form two of the naffest TV programmes, namely Room 101 and the interminable Big Brother.

So what’s wrong with Big Brother? Well, for starters, doesn’t it now just stink of desperation as the producers  seek to wring every last bit of advertising revenue from a tired old format that never lived up to its promise? Each season the choice of contestants gets  more bizarre and tasks become more degrading in a attempt to boost the flagging ratings. Isn’t it just all a bit sad that this is what passes for entertainment today? Once billed as a ‘social experiment’, yeah right! It’s a delusion to suggest that this so-called ‘reality TV’ programme tells us anything about human social behaviour in real life, except how people behave in the Big Brother house. That’s it!

If you want to find out about social behaviour then get yourself a social psychology book. It’s all in there. You can real about the Obedience to Authority experiments of Stanley Milgram, the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo and the inspirational work of Jane Elliot with her Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes experiment. And there’s so much more. A great deal of the material to be found in the humble social psychology book gives us real insight into why we behave in the way we do, how we behave in strange situations and why. Big Brother has added nothing apart from  maybe footnote here and there.  Reality TV has never had anything to do with reality.

So what exactly does Big Brother offer? Well, it tells us that people desperate for celebrity status will do almost anything to achieve it. It also tells us, that programme makers can broadcast people sleeping using night vision cameras some members of the audience will stay up into the early hours in the vain hope that someone will snore or better still ‘let one off’ and startle the other house mates! Oh how we’ll laugh! It’s also the modern day equivalent of Bedlam, where the programme makers create insane situations and people behave insanely.What a surprise.  In the past, a ‘gentleman’ would take a lady out for a nice fish supper then off to the lunatic asylum to laugh at the mad people. What foreplay! Nowadays, you can just order a pizza and stay at home and watch the mayhem from the comfort of your own couch. You can also vote on the fate of the inmates, which is a great way for the producers to get the audience involved and make a lot of money. It’s perhaps a sad indictment that many people are more likely to vote for ‘reality TV’ than they are at elections.

Much has been made of the ‘shrinks‘ who advise on the show stringent psychological screening process for contestants, but let’s have a reality check here. ‘Psychologists’ or ‘counsellors’ or ‘therapists’ (we are never clear which) band together to make sure that the contestants are psychological sound enough to undergo psychological distress. Surely that’s a conflict of interest for any psychologist. Maybe there’s a temptation to let a few borderline cases through to spice up the show a little. Watching the predictable meltdowns each and every year, it’s clear that some vulnerable people do ‘slip through the net’. Maybe, the best qualified shrink associated with Big Brother, is the shrink in ratings.

Now hands up, I confess,  I have been involved with a spin-off of the show, appearing on Big Brother’s Little Brother (many moons ago). It was my first live TV appearance and an amazing learning experience. I was treated very well by all involved on the show. They were all very nice people and a pleasure to work with. The mistake I made was believing that the show wanted any real psychological input. The sad fact is that ‘psychobabble and pseudoscience’ just sound a lot sexier, especially as there’s no issue with making up quirky theories to fit the events. And yes, I have to agree with colleague Petra Boynton that the producers have settled on a motley crew of analysts. I just wouldn’t want to be sitting on the same couch with many of them, much in the way that any reputable trades person would want to be seen to endorsing the kind of cowboys who appear on consumer programme Watchdog.

Occasionally a suitably qualified commentator does some manage to fly in below the  radar and offers some  insightful comments and may even, occasionally,  sneak in a bit of psychology. However, they are in the minority, as a number of regulars are have no qualifications whatsoever, although they claim to be psychologists and one even claims to be a psychiatrist. Now a psychiatrist has a medical degree but having checked the website of this particular BBLB regular all I can find that remote applies to anatomy is the ability to walk in high heels!  I suppose the equivalent is saying you are a surgeon, just because you own a craft knife. The sad thing is that instead of any real psychology getting out there, we get to hear utter drivel. It’s dressed up to sound significant but is more often than not just stating the bleedin’ obvious.

If we think about it, there have been ten seasons of Big Brother with what, 12 people per show (120 in all)? Now this tiny sample is in no way selected to represent the general population, just in the likelihood that the people will ‘kick off’ or ‘crack up’. So, in terms of the psychology of social behaviour in general, it tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t even tell us very much at all about the people on the inside, except how they cope in a particular season in the Big Brother house. Again, not an every day occurrence and in no way generalizable to the real world.

One spin off show, Big Brother on the Couch, offers the kind of detritus usually found stuck down the back of the couch! We are served mainly crumbs of psychobabble largely from a bunch of phonies and quacks who engage in meaningless discussions about manipulated clashes and disputes in a make-believe house full of self-absorbed people, duped in to believing that this could be their big break, and placed under psychological stress for the amusement of others. What does this say about us? Even George Orwell didn’t dream it would get this bad! Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ but perhaps today it’s the cult of reality TV.

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Has Britain Got a Talent for Spite?

Following the aftermath of the Britain’s Got Talent final, I’ve been asked for quotes and analyses of the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon, with the news that she is suffering from exhaustion and allegedly being assessed until the Mental Health Act. Given that one  in four of us will suffer some form of mental health problem, it’s important to put it all into context. An assessment is different from a diagnosis.

I’ve been asked if I thought Susan Boyle’s behaviour was ‘weird’ after the result. Reporters and presenters have commented that she didn’t make eye contact with Ant and Dec and even showed her leg, which apparently was disturbing. Had it been a 28 year old showing a leg, I doubt whether the same comments would be made. Again, let’s put it into context. Looking at the footage, we can see that she smiled and applauded Diversity, and was very gracious. As for her ‘strange behaviour’. It’s important to acknowledge that she has had little or no media training. Ant and Dec make it look effortless but they have been in the spotlight for nigh on 20 years. Again, it seems that the body language brigade and spouting its usual bullshit. Susan’s Boyle’s body language was not different from most people in her situation. And as for the wiggling and leg flashing, well wasn’t that intended as a bit of fun? Do we all do strange things in strange circumstances? Also, reports of her back stage tantrum have more than likely been greatly exaggerated. Even a seasoned professional would not be a model of composure given the same amount of pressure.

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and interpret any behaviour as symptoms of ‘mental illness’ once you’ve made up your mind that someone is mad! There’s a classic 1970s study where researchers went undercover and pretended to have mental health problems, and made notes throughout their assessment. The only people who realised they were faking it were the real patients. One of the interesting outcomes was that the phrase ‘patient engages in writing behaviour’. So, the field notes had become a symptom!

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Susan Boyle phenomenon was the run up the final with news reports of her verbally abusing strangers in the hotel lobby at which she was staying. But although they were strange, they weren’t strangers. They were journalists deliberating goading Susan Boyle to lose her temper so they could get a story and spoil her chances in the competition. It seems that sometimes, Britain has a talent for spite. I lose count of the vile text jokes I’ve seen and cruel cartoons. Let’s again put this into context. She entered a talent contest, she’s not war criminal! I think it’s sad that we can’t just be happy that someone is enjoying success.

The question has also been raised as to if Susan Boyle has been looked after properly by the producers of the show. The answer is a qualified no. But who could have predicted the reaction to the original audition with an unprecedented number of hits on YouTube in such a short space of time? Also, we have to recognise that all reality TV is basically exploitative. However, hopefully she will be looked after and supported and given the coaching and training she needs to deal with the media spotlight, as well as carry on with her new career.

I wish her every sucess and I know the well-wishers outnumber the ‘haters’ because although her story has shed a light on the more unseemly side of the British psyche, it also represents what none of us can live without: Hope!