Journeys to the summits of psychology

10 May 2018

Daryl O’Connor, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Research Board, has been to more conferences than most. And yet at the end of this string of Society award talks, he was proclaiming them the best consecutive sessions he had ever seen. That tells you all you need to know about the character and quality of those honoured.

First up, Anne-Lise Goddings (University College London) received the Award for Outstanding Doctoral Research Contributions to Psychology for her work on the development of social emotion during puberty. Scanning brains from the age of 7 through to 20, Goddings has found evidence for some pubertal influence on structure, function or connectivity of the brain, summarised in a recent review in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. For example, the anterior temporal cortex is used more with pubertal development. ‘You’re not having to recruit your executive function so much to work out how to react, you’re starting to know how to react.’ Knowing more about the structure helps us to understand functional change, but pubertal indicators still only explain a small proportion of the variation.

The Spearman Medal was shared, between Claire Haworth (University of Bristol) and Rachael Jack (University of Glasgow). Haworth’s journey ‘from observational to dynamic genetics’ began as a non-identical twin: ‘I want to know why people are different from one another, and the role that genetics can play’. According to Haworth, there’s considerable evidence that both genes and environments are important for most traits, ‘but the most striking finding of my career so far is that it’s a moving target’. For example, the heritability of general cognitive ability increases from around 40 per cent in childhood to 70 per cent in young adulthood. Haworth’s work looks to bring individual differences to intervention science, using the environment to overcome genetic risk. If you tell people to go out and perform acts of kindness (‘with adults, you need to do five, but the teens would only do three) and write letters of gratitude, why do some people get more of a boost from those same activities? Baseline influences have an important impact, but Haworth also looks at non-shared environmental factors. The challenge here is to measure behaviour in a dynamic way, to see those changes in real time: Haworth has turned to Twitter as a ‘real measure of mood, with weekly patterns, and highs and lows through the year’.

Rachael Jack’s work also considers emotions, of the facially expressed variety. Understanding their meaning, grammar and syntax involves working with computer science and social robotics. Importantly it’s a cross-cultural approach, looking at variance from Ekman’s standard six (‘Made up by three white Western men’). Using computational social psychophysics, Jack’s team can generate a large library of ‘action units’, which are then combined to create a stimulus. Participants are told ‘only choose a label if you really think that’s what the face represents’. This research reveals that in east Asians, it’s the eyes signal emotion (and they may therefore struggle with some of Ekman’s faces); and that there are perhaps four universal expressions, not six (but with 60 variations within). Each is associated with a broad signal of valence and arousal. Now we can move towards a ‘face algebra’, including morphology and complexion. This can then equip robots with the language of facial signalling. ‘Our models are rated as substantially more humanlike’, Jack concluded. It was fascinating to see psychology placed firmly at the centre of the emerging field of social robotics.

He may have won the Presidents’ Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychological Knowledge, but Marcus Munafo’s ‘headline message’ in ‘A psychologist’s journey’ was ‘I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.’ He argues convincingly that we ‘give people a big paintbrush and ask them to paint themselves into a corner’; his approach has been ‘wandering through areas of science’ in order to draw out and synthesise best practice. ‘Every discipline does something well, something that’s different.’ Munafo’s early forays into genetics may have bestowed upon him the image of ‘grumpy old statistician’, but that research on smoking serves as a clear example of how biology can drive behaviour in ways we’re not really conscious of (for example, people smoke high and low tar differently, in order to titrate their nicotine levels throughout the day). Such work with Olivia Maynard informed UK policy on standardised cigarette packaging. The experience of working in genetics / genomics, where components of open science such as sharing data were mainstream, also sparked Munafo’s current passions.

There was also a sense of journey in Dr Emmanuelle Peters’ (IoPPN) Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in Practice. 20 years ago, her field was dominated by the view of psychosis as a disorder of the brain. The sense was that ‘the last thing you wanted to do was talk to someone with delusions… you may just end up reinforcing them.’ Things have changed dramatically. Psychologists and other people started to rebel. A basic cognitive model began to formulate people’s psychotic appearances, asking ‘what meaning do you assign to symptoms’? Now Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for psychosis looks to establish links between thoughts, feelings and actions related to distressing psychotic experiences and emotional problems. It’s about reframing beliefs and experiences, changing thinking biases, promoting alternative ways of coping, reducing emotional difficulties. But the field is still developing: for example, Peters calls on clinicians to look not just at symptom severity, but at a psychological outcome such as whether the person carried on with injurious behaviours. She concluded that targeted CBT and individual formulation ‘works, we reduce costs, people are super satisfied… and in our clinic there’s not a psychiatrist in sight!’ Peters emphasised a service-user quote to finish: ‘I no longer see [professionals] as the enemy in difficult times, or to be avoided at all costs.’ ‘We’ve come a long way from token economies,’ she said proudly.

Finally, Peter Hegarty (University of Surrey) generously marked his Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity with a whistlestop tour of ‘the people who are fabulous who promoted me, through their work and what their work challenges and inspires in me.’ Each and every collaboration Hegarty described was utterly fascinating (and we hope to feature an article from him on them at a later date). Mona AlSheddi’s work on moral identity in the UK and Saudi Arabia found that what it means to be moral is very different in these different cultures. Sapphira Thorne considerd concepts about diverse people. Do we have equality just in theory? For example, some aspects of love do not crop up when heterosexual people discuss same sex couples: ‘all they do is shag each other’, Hegarty paraphrased: ‘they don’t think about each other during the day, and who’s going to pick up the pasta on the way home.’ Carmen Buechel’s research led to changes in APA guidelines around what is framed by order as ‘the norm’ in terms of gender, sexuality and the like. Suzanne Bruckmuller’s studies continued this theme, of which group is positioned as the figure, in Gestalt terms? Such linguistic framing changes how we think about power, it’s clearly of real world import. ‘People lose jobs over this kind of thing,’ Hegarty said, referring to Fabio Fasoli’s work on ‘auditory gaydar’: ‘Do I sound gay, do I want to sound gay?’ And there was more: Orla Parslow-Breen on the capacity of lesbians for elder care; Katherine Hubbard on ‘recovering lesbian lives’; Jacy Young on where sexual harassments sit in the history of social psychology; Meg-John Barker on heterosexist ambivalence in ‘gay’ bars; Y. Gavriel Ansara on cisgenderism in psychology. ‘It’s about mashing up the perception of who we consider to be the norm,’ Hegarty concluded, and the best studies have often been viewed (in Hegarty’s colleague Sebastian Bartos’ term) as ‘dirty work’… ‘I certainly got those messages, I had to resist that’. 

- Find out more about the Society awards

You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.