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Political Psychology Bulletin - Summer 2020
Editorial: Is change really happening?Show content
Is change really happening?
Ashley Weinberg, chair of Political Psychology section
The killing of George Floyd in the US relit a spark that has quickly energised a force for positive change. In light of the devastating and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds here in the UK (Aldridge et al, 2020) and the endemic inequalities reflected in many ways in society, it is clear that positive and meaningful change is long overdue.
The focus on statues is just one indication of how tolerance of something which should not be tolerated requires the attention of all of us. For example, it is sobering to consider both sides of the debate over whether a physical monument should be left in place as a reminder or removed.
This is indicative of what also remains; also let us consider the individual legacy for so many and the many unanswered questions for those trying to trace family histories. University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership under Professor Matthew Smith is trying to do exactly that and their database has been visited over one million times (UCL, 2019).
Let us also reflect on the modern day expressions of prejudice which have become strangely tolerated, yet remain unacceptable. The wider societal context means that for people from BAME backgrounds there are increased dealings with agencies of law enforcement, reduced opportunities in the job and education spheres, as well as an historically hostile environment. 183 deaths of young black men in police custody in the UK over the last 30 years underline that the tragic impact of brutality is not limited to the United States.
The role of intersectionality is also crucial. For example in the UK, why are there so few university professors who are women of colour? The McGregor-Smith Report – along with similar reports in recent years – flags up the daily difficulties experienced in this country by ethnic minorities in accessing as well as succeeding in the jobs market.
There is a clear role for political psychology in highlighting such issues, the reasons behind them, as well as potential solutions. So what are the key actions that will bring about change, both needed and permanent?
There is consensus around the valuable role to be played by education, in helping to ensure that from school age people of all backgrounds are aware of the history of the UK that has not so far featured in taught curricula, despite its implications for so much that is happening. Without this, how will the UK come to terms with its role in the history of slavery?
How many will also know of the role of the UK in supporting the Confederates during the US Civil War? The North-West of England supplied ships to the pro-slavery ‘South’ long after the UK’s Abolition of Slavery Act had been passed. Indeed mindful of his chances of a more sympathetic response, the last Confederate naval commander sailed to Liverpool to surrender. It is curious to note that President Abraham Lincoln seized a little known political opportunity and supplied aid to the North-West where the cotton mills lay dormant because of the Civil War – yes, the North compensated the British workers who were going hungry. His statue stands in Manchester not far from the scene of Peterloo.
Equally the taught history of the British Empire suggests that victorious armies and naval forces exported a particular way of doing things as well as military might. What is less recognised is the contribution coming back to the UK from the nations who became part of what today is known as the Commonwealth. For example, Edward Reade, British Governor-General of the United Provinces in India became friendly with the Maharajah of Benares (now Varanasi) who asked him of his life back in the south of England.
Reade described the abject poverty of his village and the need for people to share used water which was passed onto the next family so that they might drink and wash. So appalled was the Maharajah that he donated the money to build the first of many wells in Stoke Row and the surrounding Chilterns, so that people in the UK might drink clean water. Gandhi’s visit to Darwen, Lancashire in 1931 - to see the difficulties faced by mill workers following the boycott of their products by the Indian independence movement – further underlines that the history of the UK is also the history of many nations.
There is much to add in terms of comparatively little-known events, however decades and centuries do not diminish the themes of human experience that point to ongoing struggles with daily need. In seeking to contribute to understanding the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Political Psychology Section hosted its first Zoom event on 4th June.
‘Psychology, politics and the pandemic: Sharing perspectives’ featured excellent contributions from presenters and around forty members of the Section. Within the impact of Coronavirus, our speakers explored the types of division the virus has made clear in society.
It was instructive to hear how these could be addressed not only through everyday behaviours – from simply listening to actively engaging – but also by interweaving values of compassion and kindness into political discourse and thereby setting the tone and context for an inclusive and necessarily considerate approach to making policy.
Furthermore the need to consider the in-built inequalities in our systems is clear. This represents a vital starting point for change in any society and positive change is very much the lifeblood of political psychology.
It is perhaps something we don’t always need a government to advise us how to act on, but behaviour change is necessary at all political levels and the potential for useful insights and recommendations from political psychology is considerable. Currently individual behaviours are charged with pointing the way to each of us playing a part in rebuilding something of which we can all be proud.
Gavin Sullivan began the symposium by considering the experience, role and political consequences of collective emotions and co-presence online during the pandemic.
Peter Bull and lead author of the accompanying article Maurice Waddle, considered the impact of the national Coronavirus crisis on the nature of oppositional politics during Prime Ministers Questions.
To complement this focus on politicians who may (or may not) set the tone for action, Karen Hagan presents her enlightening analysis of leadership discourse from familiar politicians with differing approaches to the pandemic.
Kesi Mahendran’s presentation ‘StayHome or #StayElite?’ examined populism and two embattling tendencies in public health messages during the pandemic and public protests too. Her article for this Bulletin builds on the emerging issues: ‘Locating George Floyd between equality and elitism in the third wave of decolonisation’.
Steve Flatt posed the tantalising question, ‘Is disaster so bad?’ as a way of exposing clear political issues and power inequalities, leading to proposals for positive change through community cooperation and use of communications technology.
Sarajane Aris championed ‘pop-up compassion’ and her article co-authored with Patrick Roycroft, highlights the potential for Psychology to act as a force for good, using its scientific insights to inform a more caring approach to all walks of life, both off- and online.
You can read the articles by all our presenters in this issue and if you missed the event we are hoping this will be available from BPS soon. As we continue to reflect both on change that is happening and change which is overdue, we hope you find ways to thrive this summer.
Please let your editorial team of Jen and I know your thoughts and ideas, including things you’d like to see in the autumn Bulletin – your contributions are not only welcome, but help to energise key debates as well as change. We look forward to hearing from you.
Aldridge RW, Lewer D, Katikireddi SV et al. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups in England are at increased risk of death from COVID-19: indirect standardisation of NHS mortality data. Wellcome Open Res 2020, 5:88
BBC (2011). When Gandhi met Darwen's mill workers.
McGregor-Smith, R. (2017). Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review.
University College London (2019). Black History Month: An Interview with Professor Matthew Smith, incoming Director of the LBS.
Collective emotions and Covid-19Show content
Gavin Brent Sullivan, Professor of Social and Political Psychology
Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.
When the Covid-19 lockdown was instituted by communities and the UK Government towards the end of March, the country was in unknown territory. The imposition of social distancing and regulations to prohibit mass gatherings created an oft-repeated ‘new normal’ that has had a multitude of ongoing effects on families, organisations and communities (some of which may not be apparent for months or years into the future).
For many psychologists and social scientists, the global public health response to the pandemic has come to represent a kind of massive ‘natural experiment’. Understanding and predicting its impact has, in turn, required the testing and extension of existing theories and studies (e.g. of reactions to previous pandemics, disasters, terrorism etc.).
Social identity theorists have been prominent in their public commentaries due in part to membership of groups such as SAGE (e.g., Reicher, 2020). They have emphasised issues such as the role of myths of collective panic in shaping people’s initial responses to impending shortages, the collective resilience of groups in the face of disasters, the importance of collectivising responses to the pandemic, and explaining why public behaviour should not be blamed for the spread of Covid-19 (Drury, 2020).
In this brief article, my aim is to highlight the contribution to understanding social and specifically political features of the pandemic, in terms of the specialised, interdisciplinary area of research on collective emotions and efforts to analyse related forms of personal and communal affective practices (Wetherell, 2012; Sullivan, 2015, 2018).
Many philosophers, sociologists and social psychologists have developed nuanced analysis of offline collective emotions in terms of particular types of collective emotions (e.g., collective pride; Sullivan, 2014) and the conditions in which they occur as well as their changes in intensity, differences in time course (e.g. peaks of emotion may occur due to features of performance or the unfolding of events beyond the group’s control; Sullivan, 2015), valence and ‘quality’ (Goldenberg et al., 2020).
Collective emotions include group-based emotions and ‘infuse’ collective practices
When people feel emotions there is often an urge to express emotions with others, particularly if they are intense, and to share them verbally: in the sense not only of articulating experiences and feelings that are thought to be largely private, but also to talk about them in order to seek further information, make sense of those emotions and form a common reaction (Rimé, 2009).
With the current pandemic, the loss of a wide range of normal practices has been described by some as a form of ‘collective grief’ (Weir, 2020). Feelings of loss of previous forms of life as well as of financial security and broader concerns about the numbers of deaths and the impending global economic crisis, have involved a complex mixture of grief and anxiety or concern about the future.
Collective grief seems to be a plausible candidate for an emotion that can be attributed towards whole groups and used to identify forms of group behaviour and collective action (under conditions which will be outlined below). It contrasts with the widely used but deeply problematic notion that the initial impact of the virus was felt in terms of a widely shared or even collective panic (Rubin & Wessely, 2020).
For example, it seems that initial complacency about the pandemic in China was quickly replaced by widespread concern and fear about the potential national and international consequences. Such group-based concerns were reinforced by different social and behavioural policies enacted at a national level, including the closing of borders to non-nationals. Although there is some evidence that support for preventive behaviours and related pandemic policies is generated more by concerns about friends and family than society (Raihani & de Wit, 2020), group-based and collective concerns still have considerable potential to generate emotions that are shared with others and potentially contribute to intergroup relations (Mackie & Smith, 2017).
In an early published review of how social and behavioural science can support the response to the pandemic, Van Bavel et al. (2020) highlighted several collective emotion processes and their outcomes but otherwise limited their analysis on this topic. For example, they argued that describing groups in terms of widely shared concern or fear rather than panic is strongly preferred, emotional sharing of online content contributes to political polarisation during health crises and it is important to align individual and collective interests to mitigate the worst effects of a pandemic.
A brief suggestion at the end noted that the topic of collective emotions generated via social media was worthy of further research. There is, however, a host of highly relevant information that addresses the need to understand and explore a role for collective emotions and to show how these are felt, articulated, acknowledged, managed or ignored in collective practices and action.
In the limited space available here, it is important to note that collective emotions include emotions that people feel on the basis of group membership (their social identity or identities) and the communities that they are bonded or feel bound too (i.e. communities and other groups that provide sources of bonding capital and that a subset of individuals may feel themselves to be personally ‘fused’ with).
Thus a Conservative voter may feel a sense of dismay about the way that the government has managed the pandemic crisis and in sharing these feelings with others, a sense of a shared or collective emotion might become apparent. Such group-based emotions might then be reworked and reach their zenith in widespread collective anger toward the actions of a certain Special Advisor in undertaking travel to Durham during the lockdown (Mattinson, 2020).
Usually, group-based emotions can be shared with others in person as well as online and these aggregate group-based emotions may result in collective action; for example, a newly formed group may experience collective pride when acting together as a group leads to a positive outcome (e.g. a protest is successful in achieving the group’s goals).
During a pandemic, however, a crucial question arises as to whether genuinely collective emotions of potential political importance can occur through purely online communication or require instead a combination of offline and online practices.
Collective emotions: the importance of co-presence and the consequences of its absence
Having briefly outlined group-based and collective emotion, it is important to emphasise the role of co-presence before highlighting its political importance. In Durkheim’s (1912/1995) highly influential early theory of the affective power of the participation of Indigenous Australians in religious rituals, the phenomenon of collective effervescence is central; he wrote, these are feelings he described as “a sort of electricity … generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” (p. 217).
More recently, Collins (2004) has presented an updated account in which emotional intensity is used to capture patterns of affectivity in groups that emphasises the importance of ritual performance by the group, a common focus of attention and physical co-presence.
The empirical literature from sociology and social psychology has added convincing detail to aid understanding of the causal processes involved. Synchronised actions and verbal expressions can generate feelings of affiliation and more intense emotions, particularly when they are combined with awareness of the physical presence of others.
Garcia and Rimé’s (2019) analysis of tweets after the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 highlights, for example, how mediated peer-to-peer sharing of emotions reaches ‘astronomical’ levels that are not possible through in-person conversation alone. Such ‘emotion-sharing feedback loops’ (p. 618) indicate a kind of direct access to emotion expression and sharing, with collective emotion here seeming to be what most people perceived others were feeling.
This perceived synchrony of one’s feelings (rather than a group-defined behaviour) with the emotions of others via Twitter did not, of course, take place during a lockdown and it is debatable whether for online peer-to-peer and one-to-many communication, ‘crowd gatherings and peer-to-peer communications elicited by upheavals rest on common ground’ (p. 618).
Of course, until recently the UK (and much of the world) has been in a situation where there were ‘new rules’ governing everyday life: for example, ‘people must not meet in groups of more than 2 in public places’ (Public Health England, 2020, p. 5) and the only alternatives are online versions of previous group interactions and experiences. Much has been made of the way that social media (for those with access to it) during the pandemic have transformed many of our everyday affective practices.
For example, some people have found meetings via web-based technologies such as Zoom facilitate a depth of sociality and communality that they have not felt previously. In contrast, while it is deeply upsetting to not be able to be physically present to comfort a dying family member or to attend the funeral of a relative or friend, communication via a videolink and streaming can provide an alternative to no contact at all.
With the creation of online experiences such as virtual pubs and online choirs, it would seem that the situation has become one in which philosophers such as Osler (2019) are correct in challenging the extent to which ‘a fully-embodied interaction is really required for we-experiences’ (p. 1). It seems that we can have some sense of the awareness of the emotions of others—such as the large numbers of retweets of an angry comment or likes for an online Facebook rant—meaning that emotions can spread and become widely felt and coordinated in their expression online.
Have we therefore reached a point, hastened perhaps by our reliance on technology to communicate during the pandemic, where purely online collective emotions are possible and, if so, what are the implications for understanding how people have lived through and reacted towards social and political features of the pandemic?
Political implications of offline/online collective emotions
Some provisional conclusions can be made about the relations between offline and online practices and their capacity to generate politically significant emotions.
Forms of ‘identity leadership’ (Van Bavel et al., 2020) and ‘top-down’ evocation of emotion norms that can take place using traditional media. For example, in the Queen’s televised speech to the UK, she anticipated future collective pride in current actions: ‘I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge’ (Telegraph reporters, 2020). She also suggested a genuine collective pride rather than what sociologists describe as the diffuse but high-energy affective state of collective effervescence: ‘We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us’.
Such top-down narratives are likely to have an effect on group membership and collective action; especially when they are consistent and coordinated with emotions generated in bottom-up emotions shared, amplified and coordinated by others, often in the form of hybrid offline and online discussion, enactment and aligning of group norms.
Restrictions on gathering in public have not undermined people’s enthusiasm for public political protest. The @MOBILISEProject has reported preliminary findings that people in Argentina and Ukraine were still willing to protest during the pandemic despite 55% being afraid or very afraid of getting sick (Onuch, 2020). There have been protests in the USA, Germany and the UK about the lockdown as an infringement on people’s freedom and civil rights (Parveen, 2020).
In terms of collective emotions, this suggests that collective action tendencies to assemble publicly to address matters of political importance continue to be an important litmus test of depth of feeling; that is, more than purely online forms of meeting and emotion sharing. Social media can spread emotions quickly and widely because of the availability of social media (e.g. over traditional face-to-face forms of conversation), but the problem remains that the emotional availability of others to share can create a false sense of how intense and widely shared those emotions are.
New forms of collective action have also been organised online (Chenoweher et al., 2020) and have subsequently led to public protests before the end of restrictions on public gatherings. The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have also shown that concerns about COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions were not enough to dissuade people from assembling in public to protest. Criticism that such protests were ‘risking’ the hard won gains of the lockdown and potentially encouraging a second wave of the virus, proved ineffective in discouraging many people from assembling.
Lack of compliance with social distancing at these events also appeared to be a result of mixed government messages about correct actions (e.g. mask wearing) and what I call ‘nested collectivisation’ in which the importance of protesting over the death of George Floyd and commitment to highlighting this cause (e.g. with a nested or rival group of friends, colleagues or family members) outweighed previous concerns about contributing to the national ‘fight’ against COVID-19.
The Clap for Carers ritual that began on Thursday March 26th at 8pm and which continued in some places for 10 weeks appears to have been the only form of collective public ritual that spread online and via traditional media to create widespread feelings of solidarity. By clapping from windows, doorsteps and balconies (Brooks & Morris, 2020), many communities connected with their neighbours and overcame initial feelings of self-consciousness to express gratitude for carers and key workers. As the objects or targets of those emotions, many carers and keyworkers appeared to initially enjoy or accept this gratitude and raised (some might say inverted) status in the community.
However, as the lockdown went on and it became clear that not all key workers were ‘in the same boat’, resistance to this support became evident (e.g., doctors ‘took a knee’ in a protest close to Downing Street during the clapping). Performing the ritual contributed to feelings of unity, increased feelings of agency among people who otherwise had no opportunities to take part in collective action and participation; it generated intense respective emotions of pride and appreciation. It is significant that the woman who initially proposed the clap subsequently asked to ‘stop it at its peak’ (referring to a potential decline of unity and solidarity) and because the narrative was changing to become politicised and negative (Addley, 2020).
The genuineness or ‘performativity’ of the emotion was also judged—especially in politicians—in terms of support for related political issues; such as changes to immigration visas fees for many key workers from outside the UK and support in Parliament for increases for NHS staff and an increase in the minimum wage.
The temporary use of video monitors in the British Parliament removed the role of the possibility of co-present parliamentarians coordinating their vocalisations in affective practices that can be broadly defined as supportive and affiliative or derisory and disaffiliative (Wells & Bull, 2007). The noisy style of debate which became intensely polarised and febrile during the Brexit process could not be enacted without immediate bodily co-presence during the virtual proceedings of a ‘hybrid’ House of Commons. Mortimer (2020) lamented the subsequent attempt to stifle this innovation: ‘If the reason for shutting down the virtual proceedings is because there’s not enough cheering and jeering behind the PM, this is a travesty’.
Thus, despite many changes during the pandemic in which new possibilities for experiencing collective emotions in hybrid online/offline forms seem to have been found, the end of the lockdown appears to herald a return to forms of co-present affective practices, suggesting that any transformation of everyday life towards more purely online political collective emotions has been temporary; that is, at least, until technologies improve or public health conditions require that social distancing becomes a permanent part of public life.
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Drury, J. (16 June 2020). Don’t blame public for COVID-19 spread, says UK scientist.
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“Of course I’m going to ask about that”: the politics of opposition during a national crisisShow content
Dr Maurice Waddle, Lecturer in Psychology, University of York and Peter Bull, Honorary Professor in Psychology, Universities of York & Salford and Visiting Professor Universities of Antwerp & Sapienza University of Rome
The motives and actions of national politicians during an international crisis have formed the basis for widespread political science research, particularly in the US. A sizeable proportion of this is in association with what has become known as the rally ‘round the flag effect (RE).
Proponents of the RE claim that a nation’s involvement in an international crisis is likely to boost the popularity of the incumbent President (Mueller, 1970). Perhaps the most salient example occurred during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In the following days, the approval rating of President George W Bush surged by almost 40% – to an all-time record of 90% (Gallup Inc., 2020).
As to what drives the RE, one explanation highlights the role of patriotism (Lee, 1977). Based on Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) – which includes the notion of enhanced in-group support during intergroup conflict – the patriotism account relates to the tendency for people to unite behind a national leader during a real or perceived external threat.
In this article, we consider how the current, undoubtedly real threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic relates to a specific area of UK politics.
Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)
The body of RE research on this side of the Atlantic is not so widespread. However, a recent study of ours investigated whether an associated effect could be observed in PMQs (Waddle & Bull, 2019). This followed up on our earlier research of personal disrespect across the dispatch box over a 37-year period (Waddle, Bull, & Böhnke, 2019), which assessed the level of personal attacks between the Prime Minister (PM) and the Leader of the Opposition (LO). Our original study showed the highest level during a period of David Cameron’s premiership, when 62% of his replies to LO Ed Miliband contained personal disrespect.
However, our follow-up study, which took account of debate topic, showed foreign policy exchanges to be significantly lower in personal disrespect than those of a domestic focus. Seemingly, not only was the LO more likely to refrain from personal attacks at such times (if not for patriotic reasons, then at least to avoid appearing unpatriotic), but the PM’s responses were similarly more polite.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis like no other. However, in terms of the threat it poses to both the population and the stability of the nation, it has parallels with an international crisis.
As such, this poses a particular problem for opposition politicians – a problem associated with the RE phenomenon. Namely, if they attack the government, they may be seen as unpatriotic. However, if they fail to attack the government, they may be seen as toothless and ineffectual. Here, we took a close look at recent PMQs exchanges, assessing the communicative styles of LO Keir Starmer (a former human rights lawyer) and PM Boris Johnson during this unprecedented crisis.
We considered Starmer’s, reportedly, forensic approach (Forrest, 2020) in his use of focused questions targeting the government’s responses to the crisis, how he makes use of quotations, how the PM attempts to switch the focus back to the LO, and his follow-ups to Johnson’s replies.
At the time of writing, Johnson and Starmer have faced each other across the dispatch box at six sessions of PMQs – all during the Covid-19 crisis. Of the 36 LO questions from those sessions, all but two were strongly connected to the pandemic.
Starmer’s questions covered a range of areas involving the government’s response to the crisis, most notably, the reporting of death rates, fatalities in care homes, the application of testing, tracking and tracing, and school/workplace safety.
Over two-thirds of Starmer’s questions included quotations. He quoted the words of scientific experts, medical professionals, and community and organisation leaders. However, most notably, many of his questions featured quotes from the government and the PM himself. For example, in his final question on 13 May:
'The Prime Minister says his decisions were, and I quote, ‘driven by the science, the data and public health’. So, to give the public confidence in the decisions, can the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific advice on which they were based?'
The following week, his first question included:
'Last Friday, the Health Secretary said ‘Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes’ […] Yesterday, it was flatly contradicted by the chief executive of Care England […] He said, ‘We should have been focusing on care homes from the start. Despite what is being said, there were cases of people who either didn’t have a Covid status or were symptomatic who were discharged into our care homes’. The Government advice from 2 to 15 April was that, and I quote ‘Negative tests are not required prior to transfers or admissions into care homes’. What’s protective about that?'
The use of quotations – a common approach in PMQs (Fetzer & Bull, 2019) – can be a challenging form of discourse. In the above examples, Starmer adds emphasis to the statements with which he is taking issue by saying ‘and I quote’. The second example shows how he uses expert quotes to challenge the validity of government claims.
In his replies, Johnson directs a number of his responses personally at the LO. Nothing unusual in that at PMQs (see above), but what becomes apparent is the increasing use of criticism suggesting the LO should be more supportive, not of the government, but of the efforts of the nation.
For example, on 20 May:
‘I think he should pay tribute to all those who have helped to fight that epidemic across the NHS and across our local services’; and in response to a question on test and trace, the PM accuses Starmer of ‘feigned ignorance’ and that he should ‘abandon his slightly negative tone and support it’.
'On the same topic two weeks later, he accuses the LO of ‘casting aspersions on the efforts of the tens of thousands of people who have set up the test, track and trace system in this country’.'
The PM’s repeated use of such attacks seem indicative of a strategy, probably one prearranged with his advisors, to deal with the LO’s questions via a narrative of patriotism.
A further example on 10 June:
‘As for what this country did to fight the epidemic, I must say I strongly disagree with the way he characterised it’ – again attempts to position the line of questioning as counter to national interests.'
Starmer’s subsequent response:
‘I know that the Prime Minister has rehearsed attack lines’, shows such tactics from the PM have not escaped his attention.
The above retort from Starmer highlights the opportunity he has to follow up on the PM’s response – a benefit not afforded to backbench MPs who can ask only a single question, whereas the LO has a quota of six. He uses follows-up to take issue with what he deems shortcomings in the PM’s response.
For example, when the PM berates his ‘negative tone’, Starmer retorts:
‘34,000 deaths is negative. Of course I’m going to ask about that’.
In another follow-up on the same occasion, he expresses disappointment when Johnson declines to condemn the healthcare surcharge for foreign nationals working in the NHS. He details the actual costs, with quotations from medical associations who deem the surcharge unfair to those, ‘who are serving this country at its time of greatest need’, then urges the PM to reconsider.
The following day, the government announced their intention to drop the surcharge for migrant NHS workers.
From this initial examination of these LO-PM exchanges we have highlighted some expected behaviours during this unprecedented crisis, and perhaps some we might not have predicted. Claims of a forensic approach from lawyer Starmer were in evidence throughout these encounters: from his detailed focused questions, quoting experts and previous government claims, to his measured follow-ups. Somewhat less predictable was the government’s U-turn on the NHS surcharge.
Whilst Starmer may not take sole responsibility for this shift, the timing was telling. Indeed, his approach to questioning the PM has been commended – a likely factor in a recent poll which saw the Labour leader overtake the PM in personal approval ratings (Forrest, 2020).
Another not entirely expected development is the apparent strategy by Johnson to make the exchanges an issue of patriotism. To date, Starmer has maintained his measured approach and merely made reference to what appears to be a tactical plan to deal with the LO’s cross-examination via ‘rehearsed personal attacks’. How this all plays out in the eyes of the electorate remains to be seen.
Fetzer, A. & Bull, P. (2019). Quoting ordinary people in Prime Minister’s Questions. In A. Fetzer & E. Weizman (Eds.), The construction of ‘ordinariness’ across media genres (pp. 73-102). Amsterdam: John Benjamin.
Forrest, A. (2020, May 13). Keir Starmer more popular than Boris Johnson for first time, new poll shows. The Independent.
Gallup, Inc. (2020). Presidential Approval Ratings – Gallup Historical Statistics and Trends.
Lee, J. R. (1977). Rallying around the flag: Foreign policy events and presidential popularity. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 7, 252-256.
Mueller, J. E. (1970). Presidential popularity from Truman to Johnson. American Political Science Review, 64, 18-34.
Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel, & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Waddle, M. & Bull, P. (2019). Curbing their antagonism: Topics associated with a reduction in personal attacks at Prime Minister’s Questions. Parliamentary Affairs. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1093/PA/GSZ010/5423856
Waddle, M., Bull, P. & Böhnke, J. R. (2019). “He is just the nowhere man of British politics”: Personal attacks in Prime Minister’s Questions. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 38, 61-84.
Three fathers: locating George Floyd between equality and elitism in the third wave of decolonisationShow content
Dr Kesi Mahendran, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology, The Open University, UK.
As we take tentative steps towards post-pandemic renewal, citizens across the world are calling into question the reliance on white imperial capital by populist leaders. Such citizens are becoming increasingly aware of how populist leaders use ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisive logic which arouses hyper-partisanship (Singh, 2017) and conflictual thinking (Spruyt, Keppens & Van Droogenbroeck, 2016).Citizens are developing counter-narratives such as a one world narrative to interrogate the long shadow of colonial border constructions (Mahendran, 2017). This article brings into focus three fathers to call into question who will be at home, in what I propose is the third wave of decolonisation.
A focus on three fathers speaks back to Spike Lee’s short film Three Brothers (available on Youtube). Decolonisation appears to occur in waves, at once advancing and then receding. The first wave led to the independence of former European colonies in the 1940’s and 1950s. The second wave led to desegregation and rising black political consciousness in the 1960s. It is worth bringing to mind the Black Power movement which became worldwide in its political and cultural influence (Hall, 2017, p.99). It is hard to escape the extent to which we are, today, entering a third wave.
The beginnings of the third wave can be located after the post-racial discussions of the Obama US presidency and Blair/Brown centre-left UK government, but before the Covid-19 pandemic. Where the first wave was about emerging independent nation states and the second about desegregation, this third wave is post-national and sets its sights on a post-imperial consciousness. Rhodes Must Fall and Why is my curriculum white? campaigns, the Windrush scandal and the global lightening rod of the death of George Floyd all contribute to this third wave.
Who protects the next George Floyd?
Populism interrelates political and psychological processes through its appeal to a sense of threat, resentment and vulnerability (Mols & Jetten, 2014, Staerklé & Green, 2018). Populism, in short, makes the streets dangerous. It finds expression in the public killing of George Floyd, it finds expression in Boris Johnson’s decision to protect his special advisor Dominic Cummings. Yet it also finds expression in the dialogue used by David Merritt when he speaks for his son Jack Merritt.
All three fathers, Floyd, Cummings and Merritt were at home in the sense they were citizens both by jus soli (by where they were born) and jus sanguinis (by blood), at the time they caught the public’s attention. Yet their sense of being at home is distinct. When George Floyd said ‘I can’t breathe’, he amplified a global dialogue on decolonisation. Yet, his words did not save his life. The on-lookers around him, challenged the police officer Derek Chauvin: they said, ‘He can’t breathe’ and if you can bring yourself to dialogically analyse those 8 minutes 46 seconds, local citizens offered rational argument explaining that George Floyd was no longer moving - there was no need for Chauvin to continue. Eventually one of the last comments is simply ‘987, you just killed that man, bro’ – there is some debate whether 987 related to Chauvin’s ID number or 187 an American slang term for an unlawful killing.
George Floyd was a father to two daughters, and he spoke eloquently about his worries for the next generation in the film made by his family and friends shortly after his death. Could a bystander saying ‘he is a father’ have cut-through to Chauvin?
Could this relational identity have helped? It depends partly on the ways in which George Floyd was dehumanised in Chauvin’s mind. It depends also on what George Lipsitz called the possessive investment in whiteness (Lipsitz, 2018) which profits from keeping men like George Floyd unsettled. The nationalist populist conditions of the USA today, locates Floyd as out of place, just as Trump tells congresswomen born in the USA ‘Why don’t they go back and fix the totally broken crime invested places from which they came?’ (Donald Trump, Twitter, 14 July 2019).
For the citizens surrounding Floyd they cannot risk challenging the four Minneapolis police officers at that point. But that use of ‘987/187 you just killed that man’ attributes responsibility to Chauvin for the act of killing George Floyd. Official utterances may be centralised, but unofficial utterances decentralise and disunify to create, ‘the two embattled tendencies in the life of language’ (Bakhtin, 1981, p.272).
It seems impossible to me, situated in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, to escape the parallels between George Floyd (46) and Dominic Cummings (48). Both are fathers to small children and broke the law with relatively minor offences. In Dominic Cummings’ case the Durham police indicated that he broke the law when he drove 260 miles to his father’s estate to self-isolate.
It is striking how different the consequences were for each man. Cummings was immediately defended by Boris Johnson as following the ‘instincts of a father’ and despite enormous political and public pressure, he remained in office. Bystanders could witness, but ultimately, not protect George Floyd.
Towards equality in the third wave of decolonisation
The differing fortunes of these two fathers, shines a valuable spotlight on the question of how we measure equality in this third wave of decolonisation. In their analysis of post-colonial identity formation in Singapore and Malaysia, Reddy and Gleibs explain, ‘Race has retained its role as the prime apparatus of administration and control’ (Reddy & Gleibs, 2019, p.4) In the UK and USA, it is worth considering how much it retains its administrative role.
In the UK, the Equalities Act (2010) aims to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation of people with certain personal characteristics. These are stated as age, gender reassignment, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave, disability, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. People who identify as having these characteristics are protected across the UK in the workplace, in education, as a consumer and when using public services.
A key oversight of the way that we work toward equality is that we do not consider the people who are already protected and privileged such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. Though it is commonplace to gather equalities data for staff on each of the nine characteristics, it is virtually unheard of for employers to be required to measure whether staff are privately educated.
This data gap means, as citizens, we cannot begin a public dialogue on the role of private education. We cannot benchmark the reach of private education or assess the state/private education pay gap. We cannot assess how much private education could be leading to group-think. You might reasonably argue that this creates class envy or indeed the very anti-elitist position associated with populism. Does this proposal to measure the extent of private education in workplaces suggest populist antagonistic ‘us’ and ‘them’ reasoning. This brings me to the last father.
In November 2019 on London Bridge, as with the killing of George Floyd, the final death of Usman Khan was filmed. Earlier Khan had killed Jack Merritt. Jack Merritt like Dominic Cummings was also Oxbridge educated – he did not live long enough to become a father, dying at the age of 25.
When Johnson wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday saying ‘Send me back to No 10 and I will end automatic early release of violent offenders and terrorists’, David Merritt our third father, spoke out forcefully against attempts by Boris Johnson to make populist capital out of Jack Merritt’s death. He described his son as a ‘champion’ for those who had been ‘dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system’ (The Guardian, 1/12/2019).
In Spike Lee’s film, all three black brothers face the same fate. This third wave of decolonisation needs to widen the lens to reveal the figures sitting in our peripheral vision.
There is an illuminating difference between the three fathers: George Floyd, would fall on the right side of equalities legislation, but is not at all protected; Dominic Cummings is entirely overlooked by equalities legislation, yet he is entirely protected even when breaking the law; David Merritt who remains active on social media since his son’s death, acts towards the Other, and seeks, like his son, to protect those more vulnerable.
When George Floyd said ‘I can’t breathe’, he amplified a dialogue about how citizens are so easily rendered out of place and the new decisions about ‘us’ and ‘them’. As statues of slave traders are coming down, they are judged by some to be out of place. Perhaps, in the UK, representation of privately educated people needs to be understood more clearly.
We need to begin a political psychological dialogue which contributes to this third global wave of decolonisation by understanding how much what Hannah Arendt called ‘imperialist character’ (Arendt 1950) still structures our daily lives. Political psychology can contribute to a post-imperial consciousness, by analysing how private schools act as an imperial training ground which structures periodic reassertions of paternalism and patrician authority and more uneasily our own slavish deference to them.
The #stayelite hashtag, attached to the Dominic Cummings scandal, is no longer trending on social media in the UK. If the third wave of decolonisation is to have the focus of the second wave, it will need to disentangle the masculinist and racialised logics that caused Derek Chauvin to kill George Floyd; relating them to the same logics that caused Usman Khan to kill Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones and for the mainstream media to focus only on Jack Merritt.
Saskia Jones was a criminology graduate co-leading with Jack Merritt at the rehabilitation conference in Fishmonger’s Hall by London Bridge on November 29 2019. Saskia Jones was 23.
Thanks to the attendees at the on-line BPS Political Psychology Section webinar titled ‘Psychology, politics and the pandemic: Sharing perspectives’ on 4th June 2020. Thanks also to Paul Adlam at the Poetry Society in London and Ken Bryan for comments on the structure of this article.
Arendt, H. (1950). The Imperialist Character. The Review of Politics, 12(3), 303-320.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1975/1981). The dialogical imagination: Four essays, M. Holquist (Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. (Original work published 1975).
Hall, S. (2017/2018) Familiar stranger: A life between two islands. London: Allen Lane/Penguin.
Lipsitz, G. (2018). The possessive investment in whiteness: How white people profit from identity politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Mahendran, K. (2017). Public narratives on human mobility: Countering technocratic and humanitarian refugee narratives with a ‘one-world’ solidarity narrative. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 27(2), 147-157.
Mols, F., & Jetten, J. (2014). No guts, no glory: How framing the collective past paves the way for anti-immigrant sentiments. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 43, 74-86.
Reddy, G., & Gleibs, I. H. (2019). The endurance and contestations of colonial constructions of race among Malaysians and Singaporeans. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
Singh, R. (2017). ‘I, the people’: a deflationary interpretation of populism, Trump and the United States constitution, Economy and Society, 46(1), 20-42.
Spruyt, B., Keppens, G., & Van Droogenbroeck, F. (2016). Who supports populism and what attracts people to it? Political Research Quarterly, 69, 335-346.
Staerklé, C., & Green, E. G. (2018). Right‐wing populism as a social representation: A comparison across four European countries. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 28, 430-445.
Is disaster so bad?Show content
Steve Flatt, Director of the ‘Working Conversations’ group of companies, James Street, Liverpool.
We live in a world that is changing faster than it has done in any time in our previous history or pre-history for that matter! In the last 30 years technology has changed the way we behave and the way we think and view the world. We only need to look at the way that the telephone has evolved since its inception on 25th June 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. We have changed our environment so much as a result of many different forms of technology, but this is also impacting hugely upon the ways we think and behave.
Jerry Kaplan puts it very nicely when he says, ‘we should resist our predisposition to attribute human traits to our creations and accept these remarkable inventions for what they really are—potent tools that promise a more prosperous and comfortable future’.
What he doesn't say is how differently the human race needs to think in order to be able to take advantage of that more prosperous and comfortable future.
It is possible that Coronavirus has changed the world forever. Yet the thinking has remained the same so far throughout the pandemic. Thoughts are in terms of disaster, problem solving (and yes there are problems that need solving) but there is little thought as to how we, as a species, have to find a meaningful exit to the lockdown.
Politicians are hoping for a return to ‘normal’ and ‘business as usual’. I rather suspect portions of the population are beginning to see things rather differently and re-appraising their lives, life’s meaning and its purpose.
In the light of this massive shift we can no longer afford to simply attempt to solve problems or, if adopting a medical framework, diagnose, formulate and produce problem descriptors. The whole of the human race needs to start developing common goals globally; to consider sustainable environments; to consider what leisure and work will look like in a world that is more equitable and sustainable for all human beings and the other creatures with whom we share the planet.
We know that the greatest predictors of health are social and environmental in nature, not medical. As Cormac Russell points out, ‘Health is not a product; Citizens/patients are not customers; Doctors and medical professionals are not tools; the hospital and doctor’s office are not factories’.
The fatalities due to the pandemic provide a poignant example and give us cause to think about ourselves in a new way. The UK has had one of the highest death tolls as a result of Covid-19 of any country in the world, regardless of how it has been measured (data correct as of June 22nd 2020, World Health Organisation).
Total cases Per 1000 Total deaths Worldwide 8,195,817 1.15
US 2,299,714 6.95 121,512 Brazil 1,067,579 5.02 49,976 Russia 592,280 4.06 8,206 India 425,282 0.31 13,699 UK 304,335 4.48 42,632
This pandemic has highlighted so many weaknesses in our political and economic systems that should be addressed.
- We have an archaic and outdated system for governance in this country that is embodied in the Houses of Parliament. It is an environment that is most suited to those that have been brought up in it, which disproportionately includes public school attendees, as well as an hereditary and appointed House of Lords. It is a system that provides political majorities for parties who win a minority of the vote and whose leaders can then go on to respond to crises using political gain as the yardstick rather than science. Furthermore, the system largely prevents any form of meaningful challenge. Even the traditional form of protest - the march – appeared beyond public reach during the pandemic. Though, since I wrote these words, we have seen protests worldwide over the killing of George Floyd.
- A system prevails in which money buys power, whether it is for individual billionaires or corporations. Even in this situation many contracts have been handed out to private organisations while existing systems within the NHS are lying idle, for example testing or supplying Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) (The Guardian, 2020a). The management and the distribution of PPE has been outsourced to a private company, Movianto, which was subsequently sold for $133m (£107m) by its owner, a large US healthcare group. The warehouse in question was also fire damaged.
- The overwhelming focus of the government is an attempt to return to some kind of ‘normality’ in economic terms. The fragility of the national and global economy with the emphasis upon cost rather than value, illustrates priorities of a political system that is more interested in making money than caring for the people who elected them. Headlines such as ‘Downing Street has finally published a detailed plan for easing the Covid-19 lockdown’, accompanied by suggestions of ‘widespread confusion following PM Boris Johnson’s address to the nation…slammed for lacking clarity’ (RT, 2020), begs a significant question: is this confusion the result of incompetence or of deliberate action?
If we cannot trust our political system to have the best interests of the population at heart, what can be done? The issues that arise for me are as follows:
There is much work being done the world over that looks at how communities come together and put aside their political perspectives in order to focus on what can be achieved for the benefit of the community. One of the best examples in this country is Frome in Somerset (Independents for Frome, 2020).
Indeed, there are examples of this kind of future-focused politics across the world. In Portugal, the People’s Participatory Budget allows citizens to decide on public investments in different governmental areas. Also adopted in Porto Alegre in Brazil, this collective exercise has given ‘a voice to people who had traditionally been ignored by the political process… Today, 15,000 locals take part in the “orçamento participativo” each year – and one in 10 citizens have taken part at some point or other’.
It is time to start working seriously on models of cooperation and community that are inclusive. There are many instances of communities coming together to look after each other in a specific environment, sometimes these are physical environments, sometimes they are virtual, but the awakening seems almost undeniable among increasing portions of the population.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it is the ability to work through the technology we have developed. It may not be ideal or desirable in its totality but our ability to discuss online and bring people together who would never have met previously is undeniable. Human beings are social creatures and certainly social activity is much richer in face-to-face situations but ironically, Zoom has enabled far more people to be able to talk together and find solutions where our political Masters continue to find problems and short-term fixes.
We should be developing these informal networks into something far stronger and resistant to those who would wish to divide and rule. Parliamentary officials raced to get an unprecedented virtual chamber up and running during the Coronavirus lockdown. However, the Government backtracked and wanted MPs to ‘set an example’ as the rest of the country started to head back to work. The irony of government action seems to have been missed in this.
In three short months a significant proportion of the UK’s population has moved from an overwhelmingly positive view of the British Government to one in which Johnson’s popularity has plummeted to minus figures.
The population has become more aware of the nature of information and where to find it, for example the internet and social media. This is not always a good thing as much information on social media can also be inaccurate or indeed ‘fake news’.
This is an opportunity to capitalise upon that awareness and find new ways of getting information to the population that does not involve traditional forms of news reporting and journalism or the doubtful sources that are also available. After all, as the saying goes, ‘A lie has been twice round the world before the truth has got its boots on!’
Psychology has a huge part to play in addressing these issues. Psychological professionals the world over need to consider whether it is worthwhile fighting over theories and models that are forever changing and developing due to the dynamic nature of our environment, or getting active and beginning to ask useful questions about what is wanted and what would work.
Psychology is about people who are fundamentally political, with a small ‘p’, it cannot be otherwise.
Independents for Frome (2020). Independents for Frome.
Kaplan, J. (2017). AI’ PR problem. MIT Technology Review. 3rd March.
Russell, C. (2020). Rekindling democracy: A professional’s guide to working in citizen space. Kindle Locations 1958-1961. Kindle edition: Cascade Books.
The Guardian (2020a). UK government 'using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to private sector', 4th May.
The Guardian (2020b). Revealed: Private firm running UK PPE stockpile was sold in middle of pandemic, 22nd April.
The Guardian (2012). Participative democracy in Porto Alegre, 12th September.
World Health Organisation (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports.
Be kind to one another: Psychologists and the new normalShow content
Sarajane Aris and Patrick Roycroft, Chartered Consultant Clinical Psychologists
‘Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind’. Henry James.
In the midst of the pandemic which has left so many dead or disabled, disrupted social and economic activity and changed the world in which we live, we are also witnessing great courage, compassion, kindness and creativity and a revival in some communities of a sense of connectedness and belonging. How can we build on these moments of truth and kindness as we discover the ‘new normal’? What role can psychologists play too in enabling this new reality?
Pop-Up Kindness and Compassion
Pockets of kindness, generosity, care and compassion have been reported around the world: restauranteurs volunteering their time and resources to feed those in need; thousands volunteering to help and support elderly persons ‘locked in’ at home; musicians performing on street corners or on the balconies of apartments to provide solace to their community; fundraising for healthcare workers, including the £33 million raised by Captain (now Colonel) Tom; free learning and support for learners of all ages, including courses and workouts for physical and mental health.
Given the social and economic impact of the pandemic, returning to life ‘as it was’ is not going to happen. Some of the businesses closed during the lock-down will not re-open and a global recession possibly lasting 2-3 years will have a permanent impact on the global patterns of work, learning and leisure. In the UK, unemployment and social disruption will be significant, with some regions and industry sectors being more adversely impacted than others. A new normal will have some components of the old, but many will not return to the life they once had or to the trajectory of the life they anticipated, instead experiencing the stages of loss that Kübler-Ross (1969) so diligently described.
In a conscious and strategic move to the emerging new normal, how can the experience of the pandemic and the spirit of kindness, community and compassion shown by some be developed and sustained? What specific actions are needed to develop, strengthen and expand personal, organizational and community resilience?
Psychologists Need to be Popping Up Everywhere
There are a great many potential roles psychologists as scientists and professionals can play in sustaining kindness, connectedness and compassion in society and supporting the emerging new normal. Here we describe four key roles.
Role 1: Sharing and developing the psychological science for the ‘new normal’.
Psychologists as scientist practitioners and experts in psychological formulation have a unique intimate relationship with science that we need to share in direct and meaningful ways. This science can be used to sustain and embed the kindness, connectedness and compassion arising from the pandemic.
There is a wealth of relevant psychological evidence but it is spread across divisions (e.g. Clinical Psychology), sections, faculties, special interest groups and other pockets and networks within the BPS. The BPS research priorities and Covid-19 workstreams have started a process ‘to bring psychological scientists together to work on solutions to the problems posed by the pandemic, and avoid the silos that have hindered work in the past’ (BPS, 2020a). These workstreams could each be used to look at ways to sustain, build on and embed the emerging culture of compassion, connectedness and kindness.
Grant (2018), Gilbert (2019) and others demonstrate evidence that generosity is one of the best anti-anxiety medications available: it is beneficial to both the person giving and the recipient. Research also shows that helping others is a ‘protective factor’ for our brains, feelings and bodies when managing and dealing with stress and distress (Hansen, 2019) - something extremely important to us when confronted with challenging life circumstances. Other research suggests that the practice of compassion can slow down the aging process and improve relationships and connections, which indirectly boost health.
The science also shows that connecting compassionately with others goes hand in hand with courage, creativity, flexibility and growth. These basic evolved human capacities have powerful motivational force (Gilbert, 2019) and can be nurtured and learnt. Psychologists, in sharing the science, can enable this learning.
Neuroscience suggests that NHS and Social Care Services are powered by people who develop skills of compassion and innovation to a very high level: ‘Neurones that fire together, wire together’ (Hansen, 2019); in other words, teams who work together to help others can function at the highest level of collective decision making, making effective use of resources to sustain compassionate care (West, 2018). As psychologists we therefore have a key role in understanding how professional and public acts of kindness and creativity can be supported to grow and sustain. We need to strengthen our understanding of the specific processes that enable this through a focused research agenda.
In the UK and elsewhere in the world, psychologists are taking up advisory roles to health commissioners, managers and planners in social care and to local and national governments. So far these roles have generally been about population behaviour change. This work also needs to be used as an opportunity to support individuals and communities in building on the kindness, compassion and connections already developed during the lock-down. Building personal, organisational and community resilience should be the focus for this work.
Role 2: Supporting the development of psychologically-informed environments and healthy teams within health, social care, education, politics and businesses
Health and social care staff have been a focus of attention nationally and internationally. They do not have a monopoly on courage, compassion and creativity, as evidenced by the behaviour of key-workers and many other individuals, but there is much we can find of use right now in their stories of kindness, compassion and creativity.
Psychologists in many health and social care settings have worked hard with their skilled colleagues to build and maintain psychologically healthy environments which can support natural relational processes of recovery and can also reduce needs for individual counselling and therapy. Clinical Psychologists have for years fought for the right for staff to have time and space to connect and reflect on their changing feelings and needs, to co-produce compassion and innovation in order to deal with threats, losses and changes experienced by all.
The BPS Covid-19 Staff Welfare Group has recently produced guidance on the psychological needs of healthcare staff as a result of the pandemic (BPS, 2020b). This needs to be shared widely and used as the basis of a learning programme for the next generation of these workers.
Role 3: Supporting the development of psychologically-informed environments in communities and workplaces
The demand for formal one-to-one therapy is likely to outstrip supply even more than it has pre-pandemic. As well as having a key role in developing new ways of delivering much-needed therapy, psychologists are already supporting communities to care for each other.
The same principles of compassionate psychological care developed for healthcare settings can also support people who have been engaging in the more informal and ‘pop up’ networks of kindness – supporting neighbours, raising funds or working in hostels or similar environments. Psychologists of all sub-disciplines can help to build more of these sustainable psychologically healthy environments, by drawing recognition towards the value of what they have done and by developing micro-credentials in compassionate care for those engaged in this work.
Role 4: Helping public and social media become more humane, caring and compassionate.
The BPS has produced guidelines for accessing and using social media (BPS, 2020c). Informed commentators in the mainstream media, including psychologists, are challenging the idealising narratives of politicians and others which put pressures on frontline health and care staff to be heroes, who should ‘fight on’ despite the risks to their own lives caused by the lack of supplies or by over-work or bullying (Francis, 2013).
Helping journalists, bloggers and social influencers understand the psychology of compassionate social engagement and communication and the consequence of damaging stories, social media posts and uncritical acceptance of ‘news’ and information, are becoming critical roles for psychologists. The BPS should play an active role in an enhanced strategy for communications review and commentary.
Already we see professional psychologists acting as scientist practitioners, advisors, innovators and agents of individual, organisational and community development working towards the ‘new normal’. They are working alongside a network of psychologically-informed colleagues to influence our rapidly changing environment. All of their work needs to be informed by an integrated understanding of the available science and best practice – which means getting past siloed views of the science.
More roles and pathways will emerge over time for building resilience, connectedness, kindness and compassion as hallmarks of the ‘new normal’. The BPS and psychologists need to demonstrate these behaviours in all of their work and to be champions of a kinder, compassionate and resilient new future.
BPS (2020c). Supplementary guidance on the use of social media.
Francis, R. (2013). Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry: Executive summary.
Gilbert, P. (2019). Living like crazy. Amazon.
Grant, A. (2018). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success’. Youtube.
Hansen, R. (2019). ‘Neurodharma’: 7 steps to the highest happiness’. Blackwells.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Scribn.
West, M. (2018). Compassionate and collective leadership for high quality healthcare. Youtube.
Book review: Making uncertainty work for youShow content
By Ashley Weinberg
This highly readable book by experienced organisational psychologist Richard Plenty and executive coach and former Chief Executive of the Psychology Society of Ireland Terri Morrissey, is part of the ‘MindYourSelf’ series, edited by Marie Murray and published by Atrium (part of Cork University Press).
There could not be a more timely point for such a publication. Recognising the individual and collective impact of uncertainty on our mental health and well-being, the authors help us consider the inevitable dilemmas and choices that arise from facing unpredictability. For those who are grappling with any notions of control during these times, there is welcome encouragement to think strategically, act decisively, experiment productively and develop competencies which seek to turn the challenges of uncertainty into a positive resource. Richard and Terri underpin their logical and helpfully structured approach to a more adaptive outlook in changing times with their own ‘Richmor Model’.
It is worth noting this book was written before Covid-19, yet in capturing the lived experience of individuals and organisations, Richard and Terri have drawn on their considerable experience in consulting and in academia, to inspire the reader in imaginative ways which apply to the here and now. Through real-life examples, lessons from history, entertaining cartoons and motivational stories, the book is designed to appeal to all and to help orientate readers to manage risks and seize opportunities in a ‘VUCA’ (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world.
Always engaging in its tone, the authors have successfully infused the book with personal touches as well as valuable professional insights. Warmth and good humour shine through - and we could all do with a good dose of that to help us figure out the next steps in our lives!
A critical discursive psychological analysis of leadership speeches during the Covid-19 PandemicShow content
By Dr Karen Hagan, Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in Psychology, Open University, Belfast
Theorising the categories of leadership styles can be valuable, but there is a risk they may reduce complex and dynamic discursive work by leaders to static or superficial understandings of leadership. A critical discursive psychological approach treats discourse as action and not simply as representative of cognitive processes. Discourse is constitutive of social life in that it builds the meanings of the social world.
In this crucial time of pandemic and lockdown, psychological knowledge of leadership, and its contribution to social action, has an urgent contribution to make. A critical discursive psychological analysis of how three leaders – Johnson in the UK, Varadkar in Ireland and Arden in New Zealand - announced a reduction in lockdown measures demonstrates, not just differing styles of leadership, but how power relations between the state leaders, the public and public health are constructed. It reveals how fluid, relational subject positions are constructed by leaders employing rich rhetorical devices in their exercise of power.
Information presented at the beginning of each encounter carries a disproportionally weighted network of meanings that pervades the rest of the encounter, such that it may shift the overall message and be hard to counter. The extracts below were taken from the first few moments of each leader’s announcement of the loosening of lockdown restrictions in their respective jurisdictions:
‘Achieving zero cases two days in a row is the result of New Zealanders demonstrating our level of commitment and discipline to our goal of winning the fight against COVID-19, that we can all be undeniably proud of. It points to our lockdown doing exactly what we’d planned it to do, break the chain of transmission’ (Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, 05 May 2020)
‘It is now almost two months since the people of this country began to put up with restrictions on their freedom – your freedom – of a kind that we have never seen before in peace or war. And you have shown the good sense to support those rules overwhelmingly. You have put up with all the hardships of that programme of social distancing.’ (Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, 10 May 2020)
‘I can confirm that it is safe to proceed with Phase 1 of our plan to ease the COVID-19 restrictions on Monday. Cabinet made these decisions this morning on foot of advice from NPHET. I spoke to the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland immediately afterwards by phone. This gives us reason to hope, but it is not a cause for celebration. We have a long way to go yet. There will be bumps in the road and we have to keep our guard up.’ (Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, 15 May 2020)
Two themes emerge during these initial sentences and develop throughout the speeches: the construction of certainty, uncertainty and risk; and the management of responsilbity, authority and blame.
Each of the leaders draws on discourses related to risk and constructs a future vision of emerging from lockdown with varying degrees of certainty. Johnson’s generalisations about a ‘sense of a way ahead’, the ‘shape of a plan’ and ‘sketch of a roadmap’ delivers uncertainty from the outset which is reinforced by rather convoluted messaging about who should work and how they should get there. Varadkar creates a future of ‘balance’ based on risk assessment, ‘everything is provisional and reversible, and our progress depends on us all continuing to do what we have been doing.’ The gist formulation shifts from uncertainty to caution; they should ‘hope’ but not ‘celebrate’.
Arden dramatically shifts uncertainty and risk to a more positive and certain framing. Her discursive focus is on ‘innovation’, ‘adaptability’ and ‘new ways of working’. She provides examples of willingness to adapt that the public can relate to, ‘Greg and Sam have willingly changed their hours of work…’. Decisions and actions have explicit rationales as well as exemplars, and even her final line establishes an expectation, if not a certainty, of opportunity: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if we keep seeing innovation throughout our alert levels and across the country.’
The management of responsibility, authority and blame
All three leaders do discursive work to manage proximity to decisions and to manage future contexts of criticism and blame. For example, Johnson’s conditionality is a discursive device that may be used in future. His later statement, ‘although we have a plan, it is a conditional plan’, can become an escape route if the plan doesn’t work. In failure, the conditions were not met, rather than the plan was bad. Responsibility and blame is dually allocated in a formulation of the problem caused by others, and the formulation of the competent fixer, ‘We must sort out our challenges in getting enough PPE to the people who need it, and yes, it is a global problem but we must fix it’. Johnson’s simultaneous management of his proximity to the problem and to the fix is a device for drawing in authority and opportunity for approval, while distancing himself from the source of the problem and establishing future face-saving opportunities.
Varadkar mobilises a safety/danger dichotomy in his risk assessment as a rhetorical device to perform justification for his actions. Triangulation with experts and other governments is used by Varadkar to manage potential criticism. While endowing a legitimacy for his claims, these groups can be apportioned blame. ‘I can confirm’ creates a messenger status that manages potential blame or criticism – away from him and toward the experts.
Variable use of ‘us’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’ and a process of ‘othering’ performs relational positioning of leaders, the public and experts to lockdown decisions. A tension arises in Johnson’s sympathetic rhetoric when embedded in a series of ‘othering’ devices. The unwelcome restrictions on freedom and hardships he sympathetically laments are consigned to the ‘other’. ‘Othering’ constructions are often part of a binary conceptual framework of us/them whereby the other is bad/contemptable. Hence, Johnson’s sympathy with the public may be less convincing, and public collaboration with experts can become complex.
Arden immediately presents a coherent identity for listeners as New Zealanders and positions herself as within this identity and group. Contrary to both Johnson and Varadkar, Arden avoids directly telling people how to act, by following directly after the Director of Health and celebrating the medical experts and good practice, ‘I just want to acknowledge that (National Midwifes Day) and also of course World Hand Washing Day as well’. She triangulates in a communal manner, drawing on claims of joint thinking and action between New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia; the decision-making responsibility is contained by her but within a powerful group. In contrast to ‘othering’ Arden mobilises compassion-based language, referring in familiar terms to people, communities and connections and using strategic devices, such as ‘we should be proud’, to reward and motivate.
Each of the leaders is situated in their wider, dominant national discourses. However, contrasting the function of Johnson’s compromised sympathy with the mobilisation of compassion and solidarity more evident in the other two leaders, particularly Arden, their relative discourses perform very different actions in the pandemic with remarkably divergent outcomes.
Ardern, J. (2020). Available here.
Johnson, B. (2020). Available here.
Varadkar, L. (2020). Available here.
The more the merrier: joining the Political Psychology sectionShow content
In the national and global context and with the challenges facing our communities, there has never been a more critical time to further our understanding of how political processes interact with psychological thoughts, feelings and behaviours at all levels. It is arguably our most pressing need and Political Psychology is about doing exactly this. Whether you’re interested in everyday politics in your workplace, community or your home, or indeed in party politics, then this new section aims to reach out to all BPS members, including practitioners, academics and students.
This BPS section is an exciting development seeking to exchange ideas, foster research, host conferences and workshops and to share events with like-minded organisations, such as the UK’s Political Studies Association. We aim to facilitate a range of activities and interests for all BPS members, for whom political issues in psychological and other work are of daily importance. In other words, political psychology is not just about those we recognise as ‘politicians’, but also about the politicians we don’t always recognise – all of us!
We do hope you’ll encourage others to join – membership for this year is £10 but we aim to use fees to provide conferences and events free at the point of delivery wherever possible.
Updates from Political Psychology Section
Brexit and Me - symposium at BPS Annual Conference 2019Show content
Political Psychology Section features at the BPS annual conference:
May is a busy month in politics and so it is in political psychology too! The new Political Psychology section presented its symposium called ‘Brexit and Me’ to a packed audience at the BPS annual conference in Harrogate on May Day. Members of the section, presented a symposium which considered the psychological impact of the Brexit process (whether the UK leaves or not) on various communities.
Dr Kesi Mahendran (Open University) started the ball rolling by considering how we might move from polarised public opinion on ‘freedom of movement’ within the European Union to public dialogue. Kesi described her experiences and evidence from two qualitative studies conducted in England, Ireland, Germany, Scotland and Sweden, in which she has been mapping participants’ own degree of mobility along a migration-mobility continuum. Kesi emphasised the implications and importance of moving away from oppositional forms of ‘we/they’ dialogue towards non-oppositional forms of we/they dialogue. Her analysis shows citizens work with a model of the public as having freedom of movement, freedom through movement and freedom from movement.
Ivett Ayodele, completing her MRes in social policy at Salford University, presented her paper on 'Hungarian workers’ experiences and future plans in post-Referendum Britain', which compared themes she elicited in interviews before and after the EU Referendum. Ivett detected a shift in participants’ emphasis from the challenges in seeking upward mobility in the labour market before the vote, to the shock, mistrust and uncertainty which followed. Intriguingly she finished with the current position where a number of participants refused to believe that their erstwhile British neighbours now held different (and negative) views about migrants; rather they chose to believe that their British neighbours were fundamentally good people who had merely been temporarily misled.
Christopher McClelland, completing his BSc (Hons) Psychology and Criminology at Salford and possibly the only undergraduate speaking about their research at the conference, presented his findings from interviews on 'How Brexit is shaping ethno-national identity in Northern Ireland'. Discourses around identity, the border and uncertainty in and around workplaces were perhaps to be expected, but Christopher’s paper also highlighted how people felt they had been overlooked as well as the potentially damaging impact of uncertainty surrounding the ‘Brexit’ process for individuals and communities where a UK-EU land border may materialise.
Professor Peter Bull (York and Salford Universities) spoke about his research into Prime Ministers Questions. His results appeared not only that day on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, but were actually quoted in Parliament by an MP during Prime Ministers Question time just before the symposium began! His research showed that Theresa May was the least likely of Conservative Prime Ministers in the last 45 years to answer a question during media interviews and answered only 11% of questions posed during Prime Ministers Question time in the House of Commons. Peter has highlighted how different techniques of equivocation enable politicians to evade awkward questions; Theresa May’s favoured strategies were ignoring the question or responding to her own rephrased version of it. He considered how such forms of equivocation can result in a lack of political dialogue, creating uncertainty, ambiguity, and a lack of trust.
Professor Richard Kwiatkowski (Cranfield University) rounded off the symposium with his insights based on a 21-year longitudinal study inside Parliament and in this presentation he featured interviews with MPs before and after the Brexit debates. He combined ideas about their voting intentions, the power of party, voter and media pressures, MPs’ anxieties about the outcomes and anticipation of citizens’ and colleagues’ reactions, as well as the impact of the present milieu on cognition, emotion and government. Richard drew parallels with other periods of high emotion, cognitive overload, uncertainty as well as personal and collective threat, including Iraq, the expenses scandal, and the Syrian vote. He considered the impact of these on decision making and optimistically ended with a pleas that psychology might be able to help our politicians, given what they do impacts on all our lives.
Questions and discussions among the eager audience showed that the themes highlighted by the symposium ‘Brexit and Me’ have already had an impact and that psychologists may be well-positioned to do more to help those who feel vulnerable, let down or angry about the Brexit scenario, whichever side of the debate they favour!
The photograph below shows the front page of The Daily Telegraph, featuring Peter Bull’s research, held by symposium chair Ashley Weinberg. Left to right in the image are Ashley, Kesi, Chris and Ivett, Peter and Richard.
First Political Psychology Conference - some reflectionsShow content
Manifest destinies, Brexit identities in flux and how the media draw the battle-lines – the 1st UK Political Psychology Conference
The Institute for Conflict, Cooperaton and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham was host to the first annual UK Political Psychology Conference on 18th December 2018. This inaugurated the newly established BPS Political Psychology Section. The conference arose out of a collaboration between BPS Political Psychology Section, the Political Studies Association and the European Consortium for Political Research. These origins meant the conference benefitted from a variety of disciplinary interests and methodological approaches. With interdisciplinary dialogue a key focus, the conference opened with an interdisciplinary methods workshop. The workshop, chiefly aimed at post-graduates and early career researchers, focused on cognitive mapping, field experiments, experimental design and structural equation modelling.
The delegates then gathered together for the conference keynote. Professor Helen Haste spoke to a rapt audience of delegates about the political psychology of storytelling. Helen Haste started from the premise that if you can change the story you can change the world and examined how 'manifest destinies', hero figures and the norm-creating role of stories all work together to make these changes. Delegates then chose from parallel sessions on human values in the political arena or social identity in an age of European flux. In the afternoon there was another difficult choice between papers on how the media draws the battle-lines in politics or the political psychology of conflict and cooperation.
The conference closed with a timely session on publishing and grant applications in the context of changes to the funding landscape. This final session brought together insights from Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor Helen Haste, Professor Dan Stevens and Dr Tereza Capelos. Together the stimulating mix of innovative research papers, practical methods advice and professional development heralds a promising future for the section.
Political Psychology at the European Association of Work and Organizational PsychologyShow content
At the end of May, two members of our political psychology section were invited to speak at the 19th European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology congress in Turin. Sponsored by the Division of Occupational Psychology’s International Working group, Dr Ashley Weinberg and Dr Madeleine Wyatt were asked to join a symposium examining the global effect of politics on the wellbeing of organisations, alongside presenters Professor Jo Silvester and Dr Ritsa Fotinatos-Ventouratos.
The symposium covered issues such as the impact of Brexit on well-being policies in EU organisations (Dr Weinberg, Professor Cary Cooper and Dr Alexander Antoniou), the complexities of political work undertaken by clerks and professional staff in the British House of Commons (Professor Jo Silvester), the role of feedback in developing female politicians (Dr Elena Dolor, Dr Madeleine Wyatt and Professor Jo Silvester) and the importance of economic transparency for wellbeing at work (Dr Ritsa Fotinatos-Ventouratos, Professor Cary Cooper).
The symposium served to highlight the importance of politics, at national and international levels but also within organisations, for the study of wellbeing at work. It also forged bonds between the Political Psychology Section and our colleagues in the Division of Occupational Psychology (DOP) which we look to pursue in the coming months for future collaborative events. There will also be a political psychology themed issue of the DOP’s Work-Life Balance Bulletin out soon.
Featured Articles - April 2020Show content