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The Society's London Lectures continue to entice psychology's next generation. In December, over 800 students packed out Kensington Town Hall with demand so high that the venue could have been filled twice over.
Rhiannon Turner of Leeds University opened the event with an overview of the contact hypothesis - Gordon Allport's idea that meaningful contact between social groups reduces prejudice. Turner's research has shown that the benefits of contact are mediated by reduced anxiety and increased self-disclosure between members of different groups. It's as if, by mixing with each other, we learn that we're not so different after all.
A problem when attempting to apply the contact hypothesis to real situations is that segregation remains rife and inter-group contact isn't always possible. To overcome this, Turner presented fascinating findings showing that prejudice can be reduced by extended contact (having a friend who has a friend from an outgroup) and even by merely imagining a positive encounter with an outgroup member.
Turner is currently looking at how the effects of these different forms of contact interact - for example, perhaps experiencing extended or imagined contact first could increase the likelihood that face-to-face contact will be beneficial.
Next up, Rosa Hoekstra of the Open University (standing in for Simon Baron-Cohen) focused on the causes of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). She discussed the assumption, common until the 1970s, that autism was caused by 'refrigerator mothers', describing how this gave way to a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between environment and genes.
Hoekstra explained that autism came to be understood as a spectrum condition; an extreme accentuation of traits common in the general population. A wealth of twin studies helped demonstrate its high heritability, undermining the notion that responsibility lay with parenting style. She stressed, however, that there is no single genetic cause for autism, with almost every chromosome containing at least one gene implicated in ASD.
In the Q&A session that followed, Hoekstra discussed the complications involved in finding a 'cure' for this complex range of disorders. She mentioned that those at the more high-functioning end of the spectrum would not necessarily benefit from a cure, given that their day-to-day functioning was not so much impaired as merely different from the norm.
Sports psychologist Dave Shaw of Lancaster University began the post-lunch slot with candour ('I keep marrying women who don't like sport' he lamented), before listing several indicators that psychology plays a key part in sport - top athletes are similar to each other physiologically; someone who breaks a world record is unlikely to break another; and having won one gold medal, most athletes are unlikely to win more (people like Steve Redgrave are the exception). Or, Shaw said, consider a classic study from 1980, in which Rejeski and Ribisl instructed two groups to exercise at the same intensity, one of them for 20 minutes, the other for 30 minutes. When both groups were interrupted at 20 minutes, the participants who had expected another 10 minutes were less tired, even though they'd been working at the same intensity. A striking example of mental attitude having a physical effect.
Shaw also dealt with the question of whether it's all just common sense. For example, he highlighted the contrasting approaches of different football managers including Fergie's hair-dryer treatment and Eriksson's cool, reserved style. 'Totally different ways of motivating players...that's why we need to do the research [to find out what really works best],' Shaw said.
Attachment was next on the agenda as John Oates of the Open University described some cutting-edge research showing how genes and the environment interact to affect attachment style. He focused on the gene that codes for the D4 dopamine receptor: DRD4 (dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reward). Most people have a version of this gene with a section that repeats four times and codes for efficient D4 dopamine receptors, whereas about one in five people have a version in which the same section repeats seven times, producing less efficient receptors. Crucially, the DRD4 gene variant a person has appears to interact in complex ways with the parenting style to which they are exposed.
In transpires that children with the longer 7-repeat DRD4 gene variant are less likely, than bearers of the shorter DRD4 variant, to respond to bad parenting by developing a disorganised attachment style, characterised by, among other things: apprehension towards their parent and contradictory behaviour, smiling one minute, crying the next. Paradoxically, when parenting is good, the longer, 7-repeat variant of the DRD4 gene is actually a risk factor - in this case, children with this gene variant are more likely to develop a disorganised attachment style.
What are the mechanisms underlying these effects? 'This is theoretical because this is very recent research,' Oates warned. The D4 type of dopamine receptors, he explained, are concentrated in the mesolimbic pathway, which is involved in vigilance and attention regulation towards rewards. In children with the 7-repeat version of the DRD4 gene, the mesolimbic pathway will be less easily activated. 'This means,' Oates said, 'that [these] infants are likely to be less easily entrained by positive, rewarding stimuli in the environment and there will be reduced opportunities for their sustained engagement and interaction with their parents.'
The day ended with a delightful series of gasp-inducing visual illusions presented by Peter Thompson of York University (e.g. the hollow mask illusion, see: tinyurl.com/cos3as). As well as debunking the fashion myth that horizontal stripes make you look fatter (Thompson's counter-intuitive research shows the opposite is true), these illusions teach us an important lesson about the mind. 'Your visual system is trying to deal with too much stuff, which is coming in too fast' Thompson said. 'So we have to have tricks, we have to have short-cuts, we have to make up what we see.' It's these 'top-down' processes that affect perception and lead to the experience of visual illusions. 'Every time you wake up in the morning, you open your eyes and you see the world...in colour, in three dimensions and that is an absolute miracle,' Thomson said, 'because your visual system may play all these tricks, but by God, it really does work.'
--Christian Jarrett & Abi Millar
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