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Legacy of psychology Blog

All stereotypes are in the mind of the observer, but I do now think I could reliably identify the satellites and acolytes of the three main political parties in the UK.

In Brighton (the Liberal Democrats) and Birmingham (the Conservatives) it was strikingly easy to navigate the journey from railway station to conference venue – just follow the people who clearly look as if they’re heading for your target (I could find my way to the Liverpool Labour venue, of course.)

For the Liberal Democrats, casual clothes were the order of the day, matching friendly and earnest discussions about commissions of inquiry and proposals for policy forums. With eight MPs, conversations on the theme of power were rare.

For Labour, the dress code was subtly different. And the conversations, with the Corbyn leadership issues in the foreground, were all about power, or more specifically the current lack of power experienced by the official opposition party, and their obvious desire to regain office.

In Brighton, with the Conservatives, the streets were full of people usually seen around the City and boardrooms of FTSE100 companies. And, of course, the theme was – overtly and implicitly – about power. The well-dressed were there because the economy (probably legitimately) is fuelled by political decisions. The streets were well policed, for obvious reasons, and the conference was well-attended by people like me. (I met several colleagues and even, surprisingly, my own niece, who is now a lobbyist.)

Of course, when we actually meet with serving Ministers, the typical response is to recommend that we meet again in Whitehall, with civil servants present… which is what we’d do anyway. But it’s important because, as I’ve said before, the decisions made by politicians are important. Really important.

Laws and related policies profoundly affect our relationships. The divorce laws, laws on same-sex marriage, pre-nuptial agreements, child-care arrangements, pension laws, benefits regulations and rules for flexible working practices all impact on relationships, and are all matters for politicians. Relationships are at the heart of psychology, and this means that we as psychologists need to be engaged in the debate.

Politicians and government departments have very significant responsibilities in shaping education and employment practice. Most education is state-funded in the UK and therefore politicians and civil servants are responsible for the range, quality and equity of education. As psychologists, we recognize these key social determinants affecting child development, and we have an obligation to be involved in these discussion.

Employment law is also very significant, and taxation rules, rules on benefits and investment decisions by government – as well as the more fundamental health of the economy – all impact on the quality of our employment and will therefore affect our wellbeing. Work that we value, and which gives our lives value, is vital to our wellbeing, and unemployment can be disastrous for our psychological health.

Through the laws it chooses to enact, the government even affects important spiritual aspects of our lives: the role of religion in our political and cultural life, the interpretation of human rights as they apply to freedom of speech and expression.

Similarly, issues related to our arts, culture and leisure are, of course, matters for government, not least through planning and investment decisions. Crime and criminal justice matters are, of course, quintessentially matters for legislators. And, finally, of course, politicians have a key role in drawing up policies and strategies in the arena of mental health.

And all that means, despite the stereotypes, despite the fact that the parties that are not in power are, um, not in power, despite the fact that the party in power exercises that power through a complex, constitutional, civil service... it’s important that we were there.

Wed, 05/10/2016 - 12:09


Promoting “the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied” and “the efficiency and usefulness of members” are core to the charitable aims of the Society. Members expect the Society to represent their views and defend their profession. And that means, in part, discussing the distinctive contribution of psychology and psychologists.

This is an undeniably complex topic – we celebrate the values, knowledge and skills that we share, and yet we also celebrate and promote our distinctive contribution. This overlap between generic and distinctive competencies is not unique to psychology (medical practitioners, for example, have much in common but also defend their vital specialist competencies). There is considerable overlap between the Society’s Divisions and that overlap is asymmetrical. There is a complex, asymmetrical mosaic of shared and distinctive competencies and the individual career paths of practitioner psychologists make this even more complex.

In my view, our professional identity – and indeed greater opportunity - is best served with greater clarity of the different domains of specialism within our wonderful and diverse profession. As I suggested in my blog post last week, it has implications for the professional regulation of applied psychologists  as well as for training 

In regulatory terms, it is important to recognise the generic skills and values of all healthcare professionals, of all psychologists, but also those specific standards of proficiency that mean it would put the public at risk if any of us claimed to be competent in areas in which we have no specialist skills. I have been clear that we should not permit colleagues to claim, by implication, skills that they do not possess. 

In my opinion we could do more to recognise the shared competencies of all applied psychologists, and benefit from greater unification of the profession. But of course, the distinctions between the different branches of psychology are meaningful. I do not have all the competencies possessed by colleagues in different branches of psychology (indeed I do not have specialist competencies possessed by some other clinical psychologists, for instance skills in working with children and families), and it would be inappropriate for me to claim that. We need to be judicious in when we emphasise those distinctions, and do so when it benefits the public, but only when justified. 

As I’ve said in other blog posts if you possess the relevant qualifications and offer a service to the public, you should register with HCPC. If you don't possess such qualifications, don't imply that you have. Jobs should be planned, and then advertised and recruited to, on the basis of competencies, from which any use of adjectival title should follow. If psychologists from several Divisions could fulfill the requirements of a particular post, then it's wise to maximize your chances of successful recruitment, and recruit accordingly. baby boy eating cake

We launched a Presidential Task Force to investigate and make recommendations in this area. I encourage members to debate this issue, including with other colleagues in your relevant Division, and to communicate with me directly. We will be looking at examples of best practice - including such things as innovative curricula for the training of psychologists, novel approaches to supervised practice and clinical placements, examples of job descriptions and recruitment advertisements - as well as listening to members’ views on Society policy in the areas of training and regulation. As the Presidential Taskforce begins its work (and we are having our first meeting this week), we will explore how we can encourage greater visibility of the “efficiency and usefulness” of members and promote the competencies of our various branches of psychology. 

Sometimes common sense – rather than ideological polemic – is a good guide to working things out. We value our distinctive competencies, and the public benefit from clarity about what skills we each do or don't possess. These are all matters for the new Presidential Taskforce to address. But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t both claim distinctive competencies are important on the one hand, and dismiss their relevance on the other.  


Wed, 10/08/2016 - 12:10


The current edition of Private Eye (publication date 4th August 2016) outlines concerns about the regulation of psychologists. In particular, the journalists comment that; “providing psychologists don’t use one of the … so-called protected titles … any can offer their services without the need to be registered and regulated by the UK’s watchdog the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Even if serious concerns or complaints are raised about them, they remain immune from investigation because they’re not registered”.

Many BPS members have raised this issue with me and my predecessors. So what’s the solution?

One option might be to press for regulation of the title 'psychologist'. That may well close the loophole to an extent, but it’s far from perfect. Protection of the public from charlatans is vital, but it may be seen as disproportionate to require all who call themselves psychologists to pay to register with HCPC. Our academic colleagues, who do not offer services to the public in that sense, may find that onerous. That solution would require legislative change and wouldn’t do anything to bring people legitimately using titles such as ‘psychotherapist’ or ‘cognitive therapist’ into the regulatory fold (and thereby help protect the public). The unscrupulous would merely avoid that new regulated title and would continue to mislead the public with new variations on the theme.

But we probably don't need that solution, as I believe the HCPC already has more power to act.

Under Article 39(1) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, it is a criminal offence for a person, with intent to deceive (whether clearly or by implication), to: – claim that they are on the HCPC Register; – use a title protected by the Order to which they are not entitled; or – claim falsely that they have qualifications in a relevant profession. It is clear to me that a person who uses a title such as 'consultant psychologist' is by implication claiming qualifications or professional status that they do not possess. 

In other words, we do seem to have the legal powers to act, but seldom do. Perhaps a better question, then, would be to ask why HCPC don’t avail themselves more often of this route. It’s at least possible that we, as psychologists, are complicit  assuming that there’s a legal loophole and not complaining. 

At the same time, we need to get our house in order. Those of us who are legitimately qualified and experienced professionals who provide a service to the public but feel it is acceptable not to be registered because they don’t use a protected title should consider this as a call to action to reflect on their own accountability. The Society is improving its professional practice guidelines and could use them in collaboration with HCPC to outline more clearly the standards of professional behaviour that we value.

It’s possible that we also need more explicit legislation to clarify the language and allow prosecution more easily. This could also bring professions such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapists under the regulatory remit. The Government is beginning the process of consultation to consider major reforms that would unify the regulatory Councils. The aim is to improve the legislative approach to address these ‘regulated functions’ rather than merely ‘regulated title’ issues. We have quite a lot to benefit from such changes. We need to close loopholes, and we can learn from the other regulatory Councils. For example, the title ‘doctor’ is not a protected title (that is, instead, ‘registered medical practitioner’) and yet the public is relatively well protected from charlatans pretending “by implication” to be doctors in the lay-person’s meaning of the word. Having a PhD obviously wouldn’t protect me, for instance.

We should engage closely in the imminent consultation, and press for both a more intelligent approach to the regulation of our profession and sister professions, as well as for a closure of the ‘implied competence’ loophole, if necessary. It would be timely to look to improving investigatory processes, and to look at a more mature relationship between the BPS (which has a duty to promote the profession) and HCPC (with a more specific remit to protect the public) as they work together in the public interest. There is a lot to be gained from a unified approach to regulation in health and social care, and I believe that it would be valuable to extend statutory regulation to all the psychotherapeutic professions. However, in the meantime I think that there is a lot that the BPS and its members can do to ensure that those legitimately offering a service to the public ensure that they are registered, regulated and accountable, that they report cases where people appear to be committing offences by implied possession of qualifications they do not possess, and pressing HCPC to pursue prosecution using means that appear to be available by seldom used. 



Wed, 03/08/2016 - 14:53

The Chilcot Report into the decision to go to war in Iraq has highlighted the irrationality and psychological vulnerability of our leaders, and how disastrous the consequences can be.

As the fall-out from the EU Referendum left us painfully aware, there are dangers in making decisions under conditions of high emotion, poor quality information and great uncertainty. Coming so soon after Brexit, we are even more acutely aware of the limitations of our politicians.

Sadly, we have become to expect that politicians will act in their own best interests, avoid direct answers and backtrack on their promises. But I had hoped senior civil servants, military commanders and, crucially, the shadowy chiefs of our intelligence services would take the most rational approach to the process of decision-making.

But the Chilcot Report shows that decisions – life-and–death, world-changing decisions – fell prey the same disastrous cognitive biases to which we are all prone. Psychologists have always known that human beings are irrational. The philosopher and proto-scientist, Roger Bacon suggested in 1266 that a principal source of error was our “false conceit of our own wisdom”.

We find it difficult to retain more than a few relevant facts so use rules of thumb - heuristic reasoning - rather than cool logic. Our decisions are distorted by emotions, by the most memorable information, by irrelevancies and by other people. We seek out information that confirms rather than challenges our assumptions. And we seek the company of people who agree with us.

Once a decision has been made, we naturally feel terrible at the thought that we may have made mistakes. The phenomenon of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – and the psychological discomfort it causes - means that we sometimes try to change the facts to make ourselves feel better. Chilcot said Tony Blair had presented intelligence about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction “with a certainty that was not justified”.

We are cooperative animals. Cooperation has been and remains crucial for our survival. But the nature of human groups means that we form alliances and support our friends in ways that are not always in the best interests of anyone. Political alliances may be of short-term benefit of politicians, but may not always serve the interests of citizens.

But what of irrationality, what of an understanding of flawed human psychology, in this mess? These flaws in human reasoning and in our human relationships all applied in the run-up to the fatal decision on Iraq. Individuals will be blamed, but it’s important that we also understand that psychological biases were at play and to make the necessary changes to legal, constitutional and political processes to improve the quality of decision making and prevent future mistakes.

As with the EU referendum, we should let the lawyers, politicians and civil servants do their jobs. We should actively inform and advise leaders of civil society as they sort out the mess in which we find ourselves. We can offer advice as to how we choose our leaders, form our groups and make our decisions. Above all, we need to choose and select people free, as much as possible, from the conceit of false wisdom.

Wed, 06/07/2016 - 14:00

It’s been a busy week. I’ve attended meetings of the BPS Research Board, Education and Public Engagement Board, and had to give my apologies to the Membership and Standards Board (due to an unavoidable clash).

As well as other meetings with interesting colleagues, I’ve also chaired an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prescription Drug Dependence and a celebration on the terrace of the House of Commons, celebrating the birthday of clinical psychology in the UK, because it was 50 years ago that the British Psychological Society was awarded its Royal Charter, and the profession of clinical psychology became an established part of British civic society. I’ve previously written about the charitable objects of the British Psychological Society (“to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”).

And we were celebrating, in part, the fact that psychologists are also at the heart of the Government’s mental health strategy – we helped design and are spearheading the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, and were key partners in the Mental Health Task Force. We’re part of the NHS Transformation Agenda, brining our skills in multi-professional, co-produced formulation to the heart of the skill set in mental health care.

We’re pioneers in working across health and social care – those of you who know my work will know that this is a passion of mine. And, as experts in the science of human behaviour, we’re leading on the drive to ensure that the NHS has the data it needs to deliver care. We look forward to supporting our colleagues in Government and Parliament as they work to make ‘parity of esteem’ a reality… and holding them to account!

The ‘embededness’ of psychology in public life was reflected not only in the business of our Education and Public Engagement Board (discussing our engagement with, and impact upon, education policy, but also our public out-reach activities such with the Big Bang science festival), in the work of our Research Board (liaising with HEFCE about the REF assessment of research quality, organising an event on ‘replicability’ with the Royal Society and publication of a range of research reports) and the Membership and Standards Board (discussing issues as diverse as our relationship with the statutory regulator, HEFCE, and our quality control on the use of psychometric testing), but also in some of my other meetings – with film-makers, theatre directors and colleagues from other charities.

All of this can be seen to have culminated in the fantastic announcement by Lisa Cameron MP, at our celebration on the terrace of the House of Commons, that we will soon have an All Party Parliamentary ‘Psychology’ Group. I believe that – if we step up to the mark – this will offer us a valuable new opportunity to point out the value that psychology ‘pure and applied’ brings to policy-makers and civic society.

My hero, Albert Camus, wrote in his private notebook for May 1937: “Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself.” I think it’s pretty clear that we’re being active… and it’s worth taking half an hour out of a busy week to stand on the terrace of the House of Commons and raise a glass of prosecco in celebration.

Wed, 11/05/2016 - 16:38

Members of the Presidential Taskforce on Refugees and Asylum Seekers

On Monday I attended the second full meeting of the Presidential Taskforce on Refugees and Asylum Seekers. It is a task-focused, cross-Society grouping, administratively under the Society's Professional Practice Board, which represents a new form of organisation for the Society. I hope further such groupings may develop in the future.

Experts have been drawn from the Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Section, the Community Psychology Section and the Social Psychology Section, as well as practitioners from the Divisions with developed experience in the field.

In the short term, the Taskforce is working on preparing guidance to members on working with refugees and asylum seekers and a first draft is anticipated at the end of the summer.

Wed, 06/04/2016 - 14:21

Today, Peter Kinderman, President Elect,  Roxane Gervais, DOP Chair, and I met with David Halpern of The Behavioural Insights Team.

In addition to receiving a briefing on the current work of the BIT, a useful discussion was had about building on the work we have been carrying out this year raising the Society's profile to national and devolved government to increase the impact of the Society and psychology on policy.

You can find one example of this, the Society's behaviour change briefings, on this website.

Mon, 21/03/2016 - 16:53

Thursday and Friday of last week saw me attending the ninth New Savoy Conference at the Millennium Hotel and Conference Centre in London. The conference, 'Psychological Therapies in the NHS' was organised by Jeremy Clarke CBE, who was at the forefront of the New Savoy Partnership of psychotherapy organisations, and was supported by the BPS, together with a plethora of other organisations.

Speakers included the Health and Communities Minister, Alistair Burt, MP, Shadow Mental Health Minister, Luciana Berger, MP, the Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Norman Lamb MP and the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, with the BBC's Home Editor, Mark Easton, chairing some of the sessions.

Other speakers included a 'bench' of Professors: David Clark, Kevin Fenton, Peter Fonagy, Clare Gerada, David Haslam, Simon Wessely and yours truly, Paul Farmer and Jacqui Dyer from the Mental Health Taskforce, together with Karen Turner of NHS England, Dr Matthew Patrick from SLAM, Kathryn Pugh from the CYP mental health programme and Paul Burstow, formerly an MP and now Chair of the Tavistock and Portman Trust.

In addition, however, the Conference saw the launch of the BPS / New Savoy Charter for Psychological Wellbeing and Resilience , following on from work on psychological wellbeing in staff working in psychological therapies by a project team from the BPS DCP Leadership and Management Faculty: Amra Rao, Esther Cohen-Rovee, Gita Bhutani, Neelam Dosanjh and Sanjivan Parhar.

You can find slides, audio and photographs from the two days on the conference website.

Tue, 09/02/2016 - 14:19

On Wednesday, with about 125 others, the whole BPS Presidential Team were at the University of London Senate House to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the BPS Research Digest in blog form. This blog regularly tops half a million page views per month, has 58,000 followers on Twitter, and 38,000 subscribers to the free fortnightly email. The new podcast, PsychCrunch, recently topped the iTunes podcast chart in the social sciences category. Yet our surveys suggest that only around half our membership access the Digest: if you haven’t, please do. It's fantastic and as someone who reads a daily press briefing in my role as President our Research Digest is always up there and being quoted all over the world.

The evening took the structure of a journal paper on the theme of 'Heaven and Hell': ‘ introduction' by our very own Managing Editor Dr Jon Sutton; a (very amusing) ‘methods' section by our superb Digest editor, Dr Christian Jarrett; a terrifying ‘results' section by Professor Andy Field (University of Sussex) complete with animated 2-metre Daemon; and a sublime ‘discussion' section from Professor Uta Frith (University College, London) with lots of William Blake and some superb slides and effects. (Note to self. Must change my presentation software in time for April's Presidential Address at conference!)

The whole evening was sandwiched between lashings of canapés, champagne (well, almost) and cake and the glitterati were all there. A heavenly, overall, if occasionally hellish (thanks, Andy, for reminding me of the inadequacy of the President's statistical prowess) evening - - so Happy Birthday Team!

And, to round the week off, an evening with the Special Group in Coaching Psychology for the 5th European Coaching Psychology Conference and a day trip to Leeds for a meeting with the committee of our Psychology of Women Section.


Fri, 11/12/2015 - 16:02

I spent the first week of December at three separate BPS events, all held in London. Psychology for Students and Psychology for Graduates, both of which I wrote about last week, and the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) 50th anniversary conference.

All had high quality keynotes and this year's DCP conference was definitely among the best that I have ever attended.

I came away from these events with three overriding impressions.

  • Firstly, that the standard of UK Psychology, and our research and practice, is world class
  • Secondly, that there is an incredible amount of talent in our A-level psychologists and our undergraduate, postgraduate, pre-qualification and early career psychologists, and that the future of psychology, pure and applied, is in good and safe hands
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, that there are not yet nearly enough women and BAME psychologists in leadership roles throughout our Society. 

This last point was brought home most strikingly last week when, on several occasions at the DCP Conference, it was pointed out that all the speakers in a symposium, or all the members of a panel, were white, middle-class men. Sadly, this was all true.

I have written before about the gender disparity in leadership roles in the BPS. We really do now need to strive for integrity and inclusivity for all (including on issues of sexuality and disability) in order to empower our membership and to achieve greater influence.

So, I hope together that as BPS members we may encourage all our members, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality or disability, to seriously consider standing for office in this organisation and, if you are someone who is managing or training young psychologists, I ask you to do all that you can to encourage them to also put themselves forward.

Tue, 08/12/2015 - 15:17