Category: Psych to rescue

Psychology to the rescue

The fortnightly email version of the BPS Research Digest, first launched in 2003, has today reached its 200th issue. To mark the occasion I’ve asked a handful of leading psychologists to write 200 words on a time in their lives that their psychology knowledge or skills came to their rescue. Here’s what they had to say:

Simon Baron-Cohen: Cycles of abuse
Vaughan Bell: Living with ambiguity
Sue Blackmore: Coping with demented patients
Paul Broks: My confession
David Buss: Derogation of competitors
Susan Fiske: Nerdy but nice
Chris French: Seeing what we want to believe
Howard Gardner: Forming a synergistic team
Emily Holmes: My inner CBT therapist
Bruce Hood: Storytelling
Brian Knutson: (anti)complementarity
Ellen Langer: Combating ageism
David Lavallee: The Zeigarnik effect
Scott Lilienfeld: The unnatural nature of scientific thinking
Elizabeth Loftus: Prestige-enhancing memory tricks
Catherine Loveday: An insurance policy
David Myers: Advocating hearing assistance technology
Tom Stafford: Avoiding bystander apathy
Robert Sternberg: Understanding love
Jon Sutton: Pride before a fall
Essi Viding: A “good enough” child-rearing environment

I’m extremely grateful to all the contributors for taking the time and having the candour to share their stories – Thank You!

Readers: Please do use comments to respond and tell the world about your own experiences of using psychology in real life.

If you enjoyed this special feature, you may also enjoy reading similar features we’ve published in the past, including leading psychologists on one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves.

Find out more about the BPS Research Digest.
Find out more about the British Psychological Society.
-Access our monthly magazine, The Psychologist.

Essi Viding: A "good enough" child-rearing environment

In today’s world, young parents, like myself, are consistently bombarded with information about the “right way” to enrich our children’s lives. Books and TV programmes marketing the latest, typically entirely unproven “right way” have high visibility and prey on people’s anxieties about providing the best for their children. This is where good psychology research has come to my rescue. I have been confidently uncompelled to buy various DVDs and books claiming to enhance my child’s abilities and development. On the other hand, psychology research has furnished me with good evidence that in a “good enough” environment (loosely consisting of “love, feed, clothe, be reasonably consistent and provide opportunities”; i.e. common sense backed up by data), my children are likely to thrive according to their individual abilities and characteristics.

Essi Viding is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at UCL, where she co-directs the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit with Dr. Eamon McCrory. Her research combines genetic and neurocognitive methodologies to study different developmental pathways to persistent antisocial behaviour and has been recognized by several awards, including the British Academy-Wiley Blackwell Prize for Psychology and the British Psychological Society Spearman Medal.

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Jon Sutton: Pride before a fall

This tale predates my formal interest in academic psychology. That began one fateful afternoon in the sixth-form library, when I spotted a psychology textbook on the desk of a girl I very much wanted to talk to. I approached with the immortal and completely untrue line, “You do psychology, don’t you? I was thinking of taking it at university.” (Gross, it was. The textbook, I mean.)

That was the moment Psychology snuck up on me, gave me a voice and whispered in my ear “You’re mine now!” But I see now that I had been at its mercy for years. I certainly was one snowy evening circa 1982, as I waited for a lift to Cub Scouts.

We were outside Dunstan’s house, woggles straightened, caps neatly perched on our innocent heads. Then someone said: “I dare you to chuck a snowball at that car”.

Now I know it’s hard to believe, but I didn’t used to be the socially confident, key influencer of today. No, really. In fact, foreshadowing my later research into bullying as a group process, I was prone to going along with anything that kept me off the bottom of the pile.

But I was no mug. Again suggesting some kind of strange quantum echo of my future research interest in mentalising and theory of mind ability, I realised that I only needed to make the assembled group think that I intended to hit the car. “Aim really high,” I thought, “they’ll never know”. I did just that, and said “nah, missed!” as I turned to accept the plaudits for my chutzpah.

The car screeched to a halt. The driver got out, and lurched menacingly towards us. I noticed that his glasses were hanging off, and a river of slush slid down his furious face.

“Who threw that?”, he bellowed. It became clear that his sunroof had been open (why?!), and that I had scored a direct hit.

Having got me into this mess, psychology at least had the decency to help me out. Display rules of emotion took over … I cowered, whimpered and generally made it clear that despite my apparent attack I was in fact no threat to anyone. Thankfully his Violence Inhibition Mechanism (Blair, 1995) kicked in and I was spared, to toddle off to Cubs and learn how to “be prepared” next time.

So my psychology was my salvation, but – as so often – it was my downfall too. I’m keeping score.

Dr Jon Sutton is Editor of The Psychologist and a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Find him on Twitter @psychmag and @jonmsutton

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Robert Sternberg: Understanding love

I have always solved my problems through psychology, but usually by creating my own theories rather than by using other people’s theories. I was at a point in my life once in which I was in an intimate relationship that seemed not to be working as I once had hoped it would; but I could not quite figure out why. I did some reading on the psychology of love but the reading I did somehow did not adequately address the problems I was having. It was at this point that I started to think about the psychology of love. Exactly what is love and what are the elements that lead to success or failure? The result of my deliberations, building on work of others such as Ellen Berscheid, Elaine Hatfield, Zick Rubin, and George Levinger, was the triangular theory of love. According to this theory, love has three components – intimacy, passion, and commitment – and different combinations of the components yield different kinds of love. Intimacy alone is liking; passion alone is infatuated love; commitment alone is empty love; intimacy plus passion is romantic love; intimacy plus commitment is companionate love; passion plus commitment is fatuous love; and intimacy, passion, and commitment together constitute consummate or complete love. My colleagues and I later created scales to measure the components of love and published data showing the construct validity of the measurements. The theory, addressed to my own relationship, left me with a clear sense of what was not working. The relationship eventually ended. At this point in my life, I am fortunate to have the best marriage (to Karin Sternberg) one could possibly hope for, and after a long search, have found the consummate love I long sought.

Robert J. Sternberg is Provost and Senior Vice President and Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma State University. A leading authority on intelligence and creativity, he has also studied many other topics including love, and has written about 1300 journal articles, book chapters, and books.

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Tom Stafford: Avoiding bystander apathy

Psychology actually helped me come to someone else’s rescue once. One day, after lunch, I was heading back to the University of Sheffield Psychology department when I saw that a car had broken down in the middle of the road. Traffic was building up in both lanes, and I could see that the driver was a young mother, with her baby in the back seat. I wanted to help, even if it was just to push the car to the side of the road where it wouldn’t be in the middle of the busy traffic, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to it alone. As an academic I don’t have to use my muscles, except for the ones in my fingers for typing, so I knew there was no way I could push car and mother and child up the slight hill to safety without help. But, as a psychologist, I was also familiar with the classic studies on bystander apathy and the diffusion of responsibility that can stop people helping others out. I determined that I wouldn’t fall victim to this phenomenon. So, rather than standing by the car shouting for assistance from everybody and anybody, I identified two lads who looked like they’d be handy in pushing a car and pointed at them and said clearly “You – I need you to help me push this car”. Once identified and given a specific request, I knew that no diffusion of responsibility could prevent them helping out. We pushed the car safely to the side of the road and got on our respective ways. I never told the driver how psychology had come to her rescue.

Tom Stafford is a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield. He takes two blogs into the shower, not one: and

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David Myers: Advocating hearing assistance technology

Inspired by my UK sojourns, I am working to transform the way the USA provides listening assistance to people with hearing loss. If I am having difficulty hearing in most UK auditoriums, churches, or cathedrals, or at a post office window or in a London taxi, I need only push a button and, voila!, my hearing aids become wireless loudspeakers that deliver sound customized for my hearing needs.

Here in the USA the prevalent hearing assistance technology ignores what human factors psychology teaches us—to consider the human user. It requires people who are having trouble hearing to get up, locate, check out, and wear conspicuous FM or infrared receiver/headset units that deliver generic sound. Alas, few people with hearing loss will do so. We much prefer hearing assistance that is simple, convenient, and customized.

So, mindful of the power of message repetition, social networking, and group polarization, I have launched a website, sent e-mails, written articles, and found common cause with fellow hearing advocates and professional hearing associations. In some states we have crossed a tipping point for the adoption of this user-friendly technology, featured recently in the New York Times. Happily, momentum is accelerating.

David G. Myers is a social psychologist and a communicator of psychological science to college students and the general public. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist, the American Psychologist, and Psychological Science.

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Catherine Loveday: An insurance policy

The truth is that I don’t know yet whether psychology has come to my rescue, or at least to what extent, but I think I have been encouraged by my experiences to take out something of an insurance policy. On a train journey home a few months ago, after a conversation with a particularly wonderful memory patient, I was reflecting on the massive impact that amnesia has. I know that I am a psychologist, a musician, a mother etc. but what I had come to appreciate is that it is not enough to just know this; all the personal specific memories of becoming and being these things are absolutely central to my sense of who I am. Similarly, the relationships I have with my family, friends and colleagues depend crucially on my memories of shared time with those people.

It’s tough to watch the struggle people face when these memories are torn from them but through my research I have learned that even in the most severe cases of memory loss it is often possible to trigger some episodic remembering. Experience and a growing body of evidence, suggests that this is most likely when an individual is cued by something that has been recorded in some way by themselves: a personal diary entry, a photo that they took, even a trivial piece of memorabilia. Even when these things are not powerful enough to provoke a memory, the fact that they were recorded by that individual means that they are far more valuable to them as a record of the past than anything anyone else could tell them.

So I have begun in my own way to preserve significant moments in my life. I don’t have time to keep a regular diary but I have a book in which I make ad-hoc entries and I also archive little bits of correspondence. I have a little scrapbook for tickets or programmes from concerts and events, a box to put little bits of memorabilia in and of course the usual selection of photos and videos. This is all done on a fairly modest scale and maybe many other people already do this but I certainly didn’t and I have begun to feel a sense of security knowing that on whatever scale my memory might one day fail me, I will still have the means to try and piece together an autobiography that comes from me and belongs to me.

Catherine Loveday is a Principal Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Westminster. She has a long standing research interest in the neuropsychology of memory.

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Elizabeth Loftus: Prestige-enhancing memory distortions

I’m a psychologist and I do experiments. Well, actually, these days I help design experiments with graduate students, and the actual experimentation is carried out by a mini-army of student researchers. Typically if a publication results from these efforts, the graduate student most involved in the project becomes first author, and I typically occupy the last spot in the author line. Others whose contribution warrant it are given intermediate spots. A near-crisis emerged some years back when two graduate students (I’ll call them Mary and Jim) were each insisting that they deserved to be first author. They both had worthy reasons (albeit different ones of course) for why they were deserving of the coveted first position. I was wracked with indecision about how to resolve this dilemma. Someone was going to be unhappy and stew over the injustice of my decision. I could see no good way out of this dilemma.

Over the next few days I spoke to Mary and Jim privately. One thing I told them about was the psychological research on prestige-enhancing memory distortions. People remember their grades as better than they were. People remember that they voted in elections that they did not vote in. People remember that their children walked and talked at an earlier age than they really did. These are some prime examples of how we distort our memories in ways that allow us to feel better about ourselves, and perhaps allow us to live a happier life. But another finding is that people overestimate their personal contribution to a joint effort. If you ask people who have contributed to joint effort to provide a percentage that is their contribution, the total might add to l50 per cent. Recognizing this human tendency allows one to adjust the estimate of one’s own contribution and feel less frustrated with our partners (whether these are life partners contributing to the housework, or work partners contributing to a research effort, or any collection of two or more who work for a common goal). I talked with Mary and Jim, individually, about this phenomenon.

Within a few days, I heard back from the students. Mary came in to my office first and said that she had decided that Jim could be first author. I felt some relief. Then, the next day, Jim came in and said that he had decided that Mary could be first author. At this point, I actually started to cry. It brought to mind the O. Henry sentimental story about a married couple enduring severe economic difficulties that made it hard for them to buy Christmas gifts for one another. She sold her beautiful hair to by a chain for his prized watch. Not knowing this, he sold his watch to by combs for her lovely hair. These mutually sacrificial gifts were compared to the Magi of biblical times – wonderfully wise men who brought gifts to a new-born King. Mary and Jim were my Magi.

Elizabeth F. Loftus is Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science at University of California, Irvine. She is the world’s foremost authority on the fallibility of human memory.

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Scott Lilienfeld: the unnatural nature of scientific thinking

One way in which psychology has come to my rescue is by reminding me of a crucial point: scientific thinking does not come naturally to the human species. Much like a foreign language, scientific thinking needs to be taught, mastered, and continually practiced. In many respects, science is “uncommon sense” (as Alan Cromer, Lewis Wolpert, and my Emory colleague bob McCauley have noted) because it requires us to override our natural propensities toward confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that is not), naïve realism (the erroneous belief that the world is exactly as we see it), and allied biases. Without scientific thinking tools as safeguards against these errors, even educated people can be fooled.

I can attest to this principle using an “N of 1” personal example. As a young teenager, I eagerly read books about ghosts, flying saucers, and ancient astronauts, and was taken in by many of the claims. It was not until college, and especially graduate school, that I learned to think scientifically and to question many of the assertions I had accepted uncritically.

This lesson regarding the unnatural nature of scientific thinking has come in handy to me as an educator on more than one occasion. From time to time, I encounter bright and intellectually curious psychology students who hold poorly supported or even downright bizarre beliefs. Several years ago, a student in a critical thinking seminar I was teaching admitted to being a devout believer in crystal healing, ghosts, and astrology; another confessed to me that she was a dyed-in-the-wool creationist. In my darker moments, I must confess to occasionally experiencing exasperation with such students. Yet reminding myself that scientific thinking is deeply unnatural – and that I too had once fallen prey to unsubstantiated beliefs – has been a valuable antidote to my hopelessness. It has made me more patient with such students and helped to me appreciate their perspectives, even as I disagree with them. I have come to recognize that most of them are every bit as intelligent as other students, but that they have not learned how to evaluate evidence scientifically. As Keith Stanovich’s work shows, scientific thinking is surprisingly independent of general intelligence.

In the case of both students, psychology came to the rescue, because I spent much of the semester hearing them out, attempting to address their concerns open-mindedly, and providing them with scientific thinking skills for sorting out well supported from poorly supported claims. Both students emerged from my course as profoundly changed individuals: the first became an ardent skeptic of paranormal claims, and the second abandoned her creationism in favor of natural selection. I like to believe, although I do not know for certain, that my course played some role in their intellectual transformation. Of course, not all of my stories have been unqualified successes; but as an educator, one learns to savor such modest victories. I credit these triumphs in no small measure to psychology.

Scott O. Lilienfeld, is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. His primary interests include personality disorders, psychiatric classification and diagnosis, and the application of scientific thinking to psychology.

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David Lavallee: the Zeigarnik effect

The Zeigarnik effect recently came to my rescue when my family and I were moving into a new house. After several weeks of packing nearly identical boxes, we realised we packed several important items and needed to find them prior to the moving company arriving. Surprisingly, we were able to identify all the boxes with relative ease and find the items without a detailed inventory. Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist who first identified the tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed or uninterrupted ones in the late 1920′s. Zeigarnik made her discovery after her doctoral supervisor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that waiters and waitresses at a local café remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served. The custom at the café was that orders were not written down but rather waiters and waitresses kept them in their head and added additional items to them as they were ordered until the bill was paid. The researchers’ subsequent experimental work showed the phenomenon has widespread validity, and it became known as the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect has applications in advertising, teaching, software design and media production (e.g., long-running soap operas, cliffhanging dramas).

David Lavallee recently moved to Scotland to become Professor and Head of the School of Sport at the University of Stirling. He is an Associate Fellow and Chartered Psychologist of the British Psychological Society, and founding editor of Sport & Exercise Psychology Review.

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