How social psychology will change your life

The typical CCCU Psychology student is drawn towards clinical, health, forensic, and/or educational psychology. But the sub-discipline of psychology that I love is social psychology, because of its relevance to everything that goes on in the world. Let me give you two examples:

In March 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner crashed his plane in the French Alps, killing all passengers and crew. Media coverage of this tragic event quickly centred on his mental health and the security provisions on board. But, as if the event itself had not been shocking enough, the reader comments added to various online articles were soon full of speculation about a catastrophic safety failure on an aged and poorly maintained aircraft, now systematically covered up by the airline and the investigating authorities in France and Germany. An obvious but seldom asked question about this event is thus: Why were people so ready to believe these complex and sinister ideas, when the official investigation had suggested the (subsequently confirmed) suicide and murder early on?

There is a young but growing body of social-psychological literature about conspiracism, some of which features in our second-year module, Influences on Social Functioning. This literature suggests, for example, that people may believe conspiracy theories because big events prompt them to seek big explanations (Leman & Cinnirella, 2007). It also supplies some evidence of projection processes, whereby people will tend to believe in actions that they would be willing to take themselves (Douglas & Sutton, 2011). A possible – unproven – explanation for the belief in conspiracy theories around the 2015 airline crash is therefore that people could imagine complicity in a cover-up but not in the suicidal intentions of a single person causing the tragic deaths of so many.

The second example of how social psychology offers a different perspective on current events is very current indeed: The British EU referendum on 23 June 2016 will determine whether the UK leaves or remains a member of the European Union. Throughout the debate about a potential “Brexit”, I have been struck by speakers’ attempts to focus on economic arguments, when the issues so obviously involve identity, solidarity, power, and nationalism. As will be well known to students of our third-year module, The Psychology of Nations, there is evidence from discourse analytic studies that English interviewees may avoid talking about national pride for fear of appearing prejudiced (e.g. Condor, 2000), but commonly use references to “being an island” to highlight distinctiveness from other European nations (Abell et al., 2006). The way people feel about national and European identity does not seem to be well represented in the political arguments about the referendum, and important complexities in precisely these areas seem to be in danger of being overlooked prior to such an important decision. A quantitative study by Cinnirella and Hamilton (2007), for example, found significant negative correlations between British and European identity (r = -.25) and between British identity and attitudes towards Europe (r = -.46) among white British participants, but positive correlations between the same measures (r = .74 and r = .41, respectively) among British Asians. Perceived compatibility between Britishness and Europe is obviously variable and deserves to be part of the debate.

So here is my promise and challenge to you: Social psychology will help you think differently about current affairs. When following the news, try to apply this perspective and think about what it adds to your understanding. Feel free to send me your ideas – I’ll be interested in hearing about them!

References

Abell, J., Condor, S., & Stevenson, C. (2006). “We are an island”: Geographical imagery in accounts of citizenship, civil society, and national identity in Scotland and in England. Political Psychology, 27(2), 207-226. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00003.x

Cinnirella, M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). Are all Britons reluctant Europeans? Exploring European identity and attitudes to Europe among British citizens of South Asian ethnicity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(3), 481–501. doi:10.1080/01419870701217530

Condor, S. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Identity management in English people’s talk about “this country”. Discourse and Society, 11(2), 175-205. doi: 10.1177/0957926500011002003

Douglas, K.M., & Sutton, R.M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 455-552. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02018.x

Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2007). A major event has a major cause: Evidence for the role of heuristics in reasoning about conspiracy theories. Social Psychological Review, 9(2), 18-28.

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Read all about it!

As we come to the end of the 2015-16 academic year, it’s time to update you on our recent news and events. Our latest CCCU Psychology Newsletter introduces our new Director of Psychology – Dr. Amanda Carr. We also cover: highlights from “Psychology has talent”, student stories, research project updates and more. We hope you enjoy keeping up to date with CCCU Psychology. Don’t forget you can also connect with us via Facebook (CCCU Psychology), Twitter (@CCCUPsych) and LinkedIn (CCCU Psychology). Finally, good luck to our current students for the last round of deadlines and exams!

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The Horse as a Therapist’s Assistant

Philosophers and practitioners alike have recognised that humankind has had a long and enduring relationship with all things natural. Jung had suggested that our over-civilised selves could do with some re-wilding! One route to this is to re-connect with our animal brethren, and for those who have suffered psychological trauma, a more specific approach is through animal-assisted therapy. While many animals provide comfort at a simple psychological and physiological level as ‘companions’, others elicit different responses and experiences. Compare, for instance, being in the company of a whale or goldfish. In the company of a large animal, it is possible that a sense of awe triggers regression to development periods that reflect similar relational experiences during childhood, which enables a process of resolution and self-development. Moreover, people with severe trauma or those for whom talking is difficult, such as young children and people with autism, non-linguistic and embodied communication may be more important. Animals are able to ‘read’ these signals and respond and interact in a way that is perceived by many as safe and therapeutic.

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In particular, the use of horses for aiding recovery from trauma, typically Equine Assisted Therapy, has been gaining some interest and practice recently. A forthcoming chapter in a book addressing various forms of outdoor therapy, Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice edited by Martin Jordan and Joe Hinds, details the ideas, benefits and practice behind Equine Assisted Therapy.

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The horse encourages people to act and behave in a way consistent with their actual thoughts and feelings (congruence), which may potentially be overlooked or under-developed within the counselling room. The horse responds with honesty and without a hidden agenda reacting to the internal world of the person, regardless of their efforts to conceal it.

Direct experiences with a large animal can produce a sense of perceived mutual understanding – there is a substitution of verbal cognitive communication for a basic or primal communication that is symbolic and directly dictates behaviour. The human response to a large animal will often be attuned to its physical presence and its movements and may, through the tactile, embodied and physical quality of the animal encounter, enhance important unexpressed emotions and build relational aspects of the self that have been thwarted or under-developed. Martin Clunes the actor experiences this directly in the video below:

In short, these experiences can prompt authentic moments, whereby the statement ‘actions speak louder than words’ has added significance.

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Fancy an Insect?

Last week’s evolutionary psychology seminar was on the topic of emotions, and why we have them. There are six basic human emotions (and some of them are shown in many animals as well). They are happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. Across the globe, people of all cultures and backgrounds produce the same facial expressions for each of these, and they are universally understood. In our seminar, there were very few happy faces (it was Friday afternoon in January…), but not too many sad, angry or scared people. One of the papers we discussed was on the reasons disgust would be useful for our survival. To demonstrate the feeling and to evoke the facial expressions, students were offered a dish with dried mealworms and crickets (produced for human consumption…).

I am making a disgusted face as I am typing this. But why would a nutritious, free snack be so off-putting? Insects are high in protein and minerals and, therefore, a valuable treat. In many countries, insects are a staple food (the eating of insects is called entomophagy). Interestingly, these insects are all vegetarian. Insects that feed on contaminated matter, such as excrement, dead meat or blood, are not used as human foods.

For a person with a European upbringing, the eating of insects is unusual (I am not talking about the flies swallowed by cyclists, or aphids eaten with a salad). But why, when we can easily overcome unfamiliarity with new foods from different parts of the world (sushi, anyone?), do we have so much trouble with eating insects?

We all show disgust. It helps our survival by making us avoid from things that might make us sick. We are disgusted by body excretions and parts, slimy, damp and stinky items, and rotten food. And if you dare to think about what might be an indicator that food has gone off, or what wiggles in excrements, you will come up with worms. They are also slimy and damp. They trigger our ‘do not eat!’ alarm. And therefore we show disgust on our faces, just by thinking about the kind offer of a dried mealworm with our tea. Humans from insect-eating cultures will be equally disgusted by our European habit of eating meat stuffed into the colon of animals (sausages), or sheep intestines encased in the animal’s stomach (haggis). But, overall, the emotion of disgust serves an evolutionary purpose, to enhance our survival. Basically, hygiene is in our genes.

(Mealworms don’t taste of much, but leave a lingering, rather unpleasant aftertaste. And no, I didn’t try the crickets.)

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Oscar unable to convince judges “it’s raining”

In a country where 50 people are murdered every day, with only half of all murder cases being sent to court, and a shocking 12% of which result in a guilty verdict (South Africa Statistics Association, 2015), South Africa is considered the ‘the most murderous society on earth’ (Nedcore Project, 2015). The South Africa Statistics Association (SASA) recently revealed that next to war torn countries, the high murder rate makes this country the worse conflicted area in the world (McCafferty, 2015). The statistics speak for themselves, it is clear that the South African Criminal Justice System is failing. Arguably, that was until yesterday… perhaps things are starting to change in a society that is deemed to have the highest rates of violence against women in the world (Faul, 2013).

For over two years, millions of people across the world have watched the South African Justice System unfold in the Oscar Pistorius trail. Prosecution and defence have traded blows over what happened the night Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The reason as to why Pistorius shot four deadly blows through a locked bathroom on 14 February 2013 is likely to remain a mystery. Whether Pistorius knew it was Steenkamp behind the bathroom door, or an intruder, will perhaps be debated for years. But the shock that exploded across the world when Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide, spending only one year in prison from taking an innocent life, was uncontested. Indeed, in one survey only 7% of the British public believed him to be innocent (Dalgreen, 2015).

In my opinion, yesterday, the courts in South Africa have made an unprecedented leap in the justice system, when Pistorius’ original verdict was overturned and replaced with murder. This conviction (which carries a minimum of 15 years in South Africa) comes unanimously from five judges, stating that Pistorius ‘never offered an acceptable explanation’ for firing four times through closed doors. Although we may never know exactly what happened the night Steenkamp was killed, one thing is certain, the logistics of Pistorius’ account is by all means a far stretch of the imagination. Perhaps Judge Judy summed it up best when she stated that defendants provide such elaborate stories…‘don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining’.

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Follow up: Dogs in the Courtroom and Forensic Psychology

This guest post is by Sessional Lecturer Nicole Holt

For the first time at Christ Church University, a lecture (in the second year forensic and investigative psychology module) was given on the use of dogs in forensics. The focus then moved onto the use of dogs in the court rooms. Not only that, two charming greyhound reading doggies in training came and joined us! (Thank you, Olivia Noble.)

The main uses of dogs in forensics and policing more generally include: sniffer dogs/drug detection, search and rescue, tracking, training, fieldwork, victim recovery, explosion detection, arson detection and, of course, most people’s favourite – therapy doggies which can be used in prisons, court rooms, waiting rooms, and counselling.

Dogs have been used by law enforcement agencies for over 100 years. Bloodhounds were used when searching for Jack the Ripper in 1888, and during that time they allowed canines to accompany police on patrol (Bell, 2004). However, more broadly, written recognition of the relationships of human–animal bonding dates to the 1700s in York, England, where the Society of Friends established a facility called The Retreat to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill. It was recognised that having patients care for the many farm animals on the estate would aid in the patients’ rehabilitation (Hart-Cohen, 2009). Furthermore, others throughout history note the benefits of dogs such as Florence Nightingale. This then eventually led onto the use of pet therapy animals being more widely accepted and charities set up to provide these facilities. This finally led to dogs being used in court rooms in America.

It would appear that one of the original courthouse dogs to aid young victims was a German shepherd named Vachss, used by the Children’s Advocacy Centre (CAC) in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, in the 1990s. In 1994 Vachss was presented with the Hero of the Year award for his role comforting children in the courtroom while they testified in abuse cases. The way in which a dog in the court room helps is that the dog tends rests at the victim’s feet during every interview and also sits with people outside the courtroom as they wait to testify. Some go up to the witness stand with a person and stands beside them at sentencing (Wallick, 2005). Sometimes people who are due to come to court go to see the dogs and bond with the dogs prior to attending.

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. Therefore our next step is to explore the use of trained therapy/reading dogs in certain environments like court waiting rooms and, after our lecture, we have some keen students who are very willing to help us! We really feel this is an area which would be worth further exploration. We truly hope that in the next 20 years dogs will become a regular feature in UK courts across the country after all… it’s time our friends with paws had their day in court!

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Dogs in the Courtroom?

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. A horror movie come true. You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world turns upside down; your body trembles in fear, your mind stunned with fright. Physically, mentally and wholeheartedly overwhelmed, you drop to the floor and cry out ‘Why me?’ Whilst the shock of the ordeal is still in the forefront of your mind and your whole body still imprisoned by terrorized fear, you are asked by prosecutors to relive the experience that completely paralyses your core; even worse, you are asked to recount the event in a courtroom of strangers. Emotionally destroyed, you look over and see your attacker staring at you, the defence counsel pressuring you to hurry up your testimony. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, as you are asked by prosecutors to provide a detailed account of your nightmare, a special dog rests at your feet in the courtroom. The same dog waited with you outside the courtroom as you prepared to testify – walked by your side as you made your way to the witness stand – stands beside you when the jury makes their verdict – and accompanies you when the court hands down their sentence. At each stage of the ordeal you look down at your four-legged friend, stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. You feel calm knowing that your friend is there for you, providing you the strength to get through your nightmare.

Whilst this scenario is merely an example of what could happen if the UK court system allowed the use of trained dogs in the courtroom, it opens up the potential for alternative forms of support in courtrooms around the country. This idea may be new to the UK but it has been successfully implemented in a number of States across America.

Advocates from the Courthouse Dogs Foundation (2015) in America proclaim that when a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place, so involving dogs to support these victims during this ordeal is a type of therapeutic jurisprudence that helps to calm and support many victims. Stephens (2011) pointed out that, typically, the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head, which often provides comfort. Uncontestably, studies (e.g., Sandoval, 2010) have confirmed that animate touch (e.g., holding a dogs leash or petting a dog while testifying) often leads to a psychological sense of well being, decreased anxiety, lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions, and heightened mental clarity.

Along with supporters arguing that the use of service dogs in the courtroom can be very useful in helping reduce stress to emotionally traumatized witnesses. More recently, it has been contended that the use of dogs in the courtroom can further aid in securing more witness testimony, as victims who may otherwise refuse to testify due to the stress of the ordeal are being provided with more support and comfort than before. This could ultimately lead to a boom in the criminal justice system, as more criminals could be brought to justice (Dellinger, 2009).

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. The question as to why remains uncertain to me. In my opinion, if dogs have been shown to provide comfort to victims, reduce their stress and make them calmer in a legal system that is a direct descended of the English courts, then surly this is something we should consider within our own courts. Sure, opponents could argue that the presence of a dog assisting a witness in court prejudices the jury’s perception of the witness. The use of a dog may signal that the witness is frail and weak and result in undue jury sympathy that then interferes with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But courts could counter argue that historically witnesses have always been entitled to comfort items when providing evidence, from blankets and dolls to relatives and support advocates. A dog in the courtroom can simply be viewed as another comfort item.

The law is not and should not be static. The proof is always in the pudding and in this instance it is clear that court service dogs provide important benefits to both the prosecution and defence. The courts in America have already recognised this and its time that the UK, at the very least, explore the benefits of allowing the use of service dogs for emotionally traumatized witnesses.

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Music and Memorisation

Whether concert soloist or conductor, artists often perform astonishing feats of memory. Yesterday afternoon’s prom (no 22), by the increasingly prominent Aurora Orchestra brought a new perspective to both programming and memorisation.

Under the baton of Nicholas Collon, Aurora embraced a bizarre choice of programming. The afternoon was topped and tailed with two Pastorals, Brett Dean’s (2000) and Beethoven’s (1808). The former was an astonishing work that almost forced the listener into visualising musical ideas through Dean’s clever use of electronics and sampling of real world sounds. It brought to the fore the terrifying, frightening, and raw beauty found in the natural and manmade world. Whereas the latter is a symphony that even the newbie classical listener would recognise. In between was one of the most perfectly poised and tailored renditions of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto (as you’d expect of soloist Francesco Piemontesi), and Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler.

The sub-theme running through this prom was memorisation. Meredith’s Smatter Hauler was a piece intentionally composed to aid memorisation – although an interesting idea I would question the value of composing for memorisation. Meredith appeared to chunk both the physical stage space occupied by the musicians and the musical text into groups. The concept of chunking is a core part of psych 101 – psychology and memory – how is it that we retain information in our short term (STM) and long term memory (LTM)?

Miller (1956) suggested our STM could hold approximately seven pieces of information at any one time. For example, instead of trying to memorise CRAHEDUPPNEWKOO (which is pretty tough) we could chunk it into smaller groups: CRA HED UPP NEW KOO. If we then encoded that information as a mnemonic, by making up a poem or a rhyme that sets the chunk into a linked context ‘the CRAnial nerve HEDs….’, or by taking the first letter of each group (C H U N K), we would be able to remember the groups of information and how they linked to each other.

So how do musicians memorise music? It is initially easier to memorise tonal rather than atonal music, because atonal music often lacks the aural structure and so needs to be memorised by rote rather than relying on previously learnt patterns or expectations. Beethoven’s pastoral is of course tonal. It helps if the piece is not new because this will remove some of the initial difficulty in memorisation as the musician will have a context for learning, and, yes, many of these musicians will have played it, as some movements were the staple musical food of youth orchestras. It takes time, and a lot of practice, and some good strategies to commit a piece to memory.

However, there is not only the auditory memory to consider, but muscle memory to consider too. This is the sense that when one performs action X then action Y will follow, and although we call it muscle memory it is not so much just the action of the fingers of a violinist but the training of their motor cortex.

Once you’ve learnt your part then there will be the social and musical cues to follow too: when you hear the horns play a particular chord, you know you must come in with your entry, or the conductor may cue you (and you’d better recall where you are)! Add to this the pressure of performing in a sold out Albert Hall, the need for perfect memorisation of your part which you may or may not be playing with your colleagues (violins will play the same as those around them, whereas the woodwind and brass are usually one to a part), and that they played standing up (changing the effort required to sustain notes for any woodwind or brass player).

Beethoven’s pastoral is, of course, tonal, and for many it won’t be the first time they have played it. Yet it is still an incredible feat by every single member of that band. It is a task which will have required many hours of dedicated practice, a process which no fully established band could afford to pay their musicians to do. (Many orchestral, West End, and session musicians will have little time to practice together before a gig, let alone to memorise entire symphonies).

For me, musically memorising and standing up completely changed the feel and sense of the piece; somehow there was more energy in the maidens I imagined skipping through the fields, and although at times the rendition felt looser than a piece from score with seated instrumentalists, there was a sense of new energy about the work.

On hearing the audience reaction—‘Wow, that raises the bar!’—I’m left thinking maybe it does, or maybe it is a fabulous audience experience, a heart-pounding musical task, a fabulous applied experiment in group memorisation and communication.

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