Psychology Will Eat Itself

You probably never heard of the obscure jangle band “Jamie Wednesday”. But you might know a quote, from an interview with the band in 1986, predicting that cannibalization will be the downfall of pop music due to the endless recycling of old songs.

Pop did, indeed, start to eat itself. The first course was a rebranding, briefly, as Britpop (Oasis rewrote the words for, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). But after Britpop came Simon Cowell, chef for the main course, and pop was subjected to the indignity of a public vote. Pop music became Cheryl Cole removing last night’s bhuna from the microwave to check for hotspots before serving it to Louis Walsh: “Ooh, it’s even cheekier the second time around isn’t it, pet?”

Psychology, like pop, will eat itself… psychology, at least the scientific study of psychology, will eat itself because it has become so utterly fixated on justifying its status as a scientific discipline it has forgotten why it existed in the first place. I say this with sadness, as a psychologist. I believe psychology is a science. I believe the world needs scientific rigour in understanding behaviour and its causes. The world needs psychology, but psychology will eat itself.

The discipline has had a problem with identity, with self-worth, for a long time. Maybe it’s the origins in introspectionsim and Freudian approaches. Maybe it’s that public consciousness has never really understood what modern, scientific, experimental psychology is all about. If there is widespread misunderstanding of psychological science, that isn’t the public’s fault. If a date doesn’t get that I am really a full on alpha male rather than a beta, tailor-made for the friend zone, that’s down to the vibe I’m sending out!

And so, today, we talk of participants rather than subjects but never really get the significance of the change in language: I suspect many think it’s pseudo-legal terminology introduced for insurance purposes. Few researcher psychologists have truly been comfortable in their simultaneously scientific and human skin. Many shed the latter at the lab door, and the researcher skin is typically harder and less sensitive than the human one, and senses participants as objects in the world, data on a sheet, or red blobs on a scan. Psychology got so fixated on avowing itself as science it forgot what it was about: people.

In the fields of the sciences, psychology occupies a certain turf. Unlike other sciences, in psychology you don’t have the luxury of pointing to something – a planet, an atom, a cucumber with ears – and saying, “you don’t understand that thing there, that’s science, that’s what I do”. In psychology, the “things” talk back. That’s especially true for studies of cognitive processes like memory, attention, language because, whether low or high level, human beings are reflexive. People are complex, fascinating, and importantly they are self-aware. That should be a boon to the field, but it has become its curse because psychology has never really shaken off the baggage of behaviourism and its objectification of subjective experience.

That fixation on proving scientific credentials is the root cause of the malaise. The English version of the patient has been symptomatic for many years: wrangling over HEFCE banding, an appropriate REF panel… I don’t know a colleague who hasn’t got a story of hostility amongst colleagues based on sub-disciplinary allegiances, or of PhD students bullying one another, reproducing their supervisor’s anxieties and prejudices. But the symptom that indicates that the case is now terminal is the vitriolic and downright nasty open science debate.

Look, no one in their right mind wants inaccurate data. No one wants fraudsters in science. Academia has sat passively while a system has been created where publication and citation are valued over ideas, diligence and ingenuity. That isn’t science – that is politicians and policy makers screwing up science. That is the marketisation and metrication of ideas, innovation and intelligence. How Trump would laugh to see academics turning on one another for p-hacking a study on power posing, while he can get on with denying climate change, inciting racism and grabbing pussies!

Replication. Yes, a lot of classic studies in psychology don’t replicate. What’s the big deal? The science moved on and, in case you haven’t noticed, the world isn’t standing still. Lots of old studies in physics, chemistry… in any science don’t replicate. Chemistry grew out of alchemy; medicine out of quackery. False findings happened not because the scientists were dishonest (although some were), they happened because the norms and standards for evidence changed, because subsequent generations of scientists respectfully challenged their predecessors, and maybe because the initial research wasn’t great after all. The history of science, all science, demonstrates that it is an organic and continually developing process with discoveries and revelations, breakthroughs and setbacks. Science, like life, is messy.

Yet we find ourselves in a cycle where replication is required for almost any formative study, any idea, any hypothesis (yes, I mean hypothesis) in psychology. Researchers have to register their work and earn badges to prove their credentials. This is not happening in other fields. It is happening in psychology (and particular virtiol is directed against social psychology, unfairly caricatured as the “soft end”) because of the discipline’s angst about its objectivist credentials. There is a veritable industry of Simon Cowells, Mr Nastys (steroidy, white men), mob-policing the discipline without any interrogation of the grounds for their authority.

The future will happen elsewhere: disciplinary boundaries are breaking down because real problems need thought (and thinkers) to solve them, and thought is not owned by any discipline, scientist, social scientist, artist or person. Thinking develops and is evaluated through respectful debate, discussion and argument. That is absolutely not to say we should be casual with the truth or the facts. No, it is to say the good science is about good ideas and honest research. Those who stick to a rigid and constrictive science are missing the trick.  Academic disciplines and the boundaries between them mutate and always have done. And change, innovation is good. But psychology never really had the self-confidence to contribute in its own right – it will eat itself.

Not all of psychology will be consumed. Some will be transformed, some will be reconstituted into its constituent ingredients. Clinicians will retreat into medicine and health sciences, social psychologists into sociology, and cognitive psychology is already reinventing as cognitive neuroscience (which enticingly includes the word science in its name but doesn’t hand over the keys to the wet lab). Either way, the integrated study of psychology, of behaviour and of cognition, emotion and self, that will go. Psychology will survive as an undergraduate entry or a vocational degree, but it will not retain its disciplinary autonomy as an area of research…

Pop ate itself, and no one under thirty tunes in to the X-factor any more. Psychology will eat itself on a diet of futile replication and reproducability… like Cheryl Cole’s reheated bhuna.

Nasty… and not in a nice way!


There’s always been a competitive side to science, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a rotten apple in every departmental barrel. But what I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so across academic life is gradual deterioration in the tenor of scientific discourse, freying at the fabric of collegiate relationships, and a kind of power-posturing approach to intellectual debate. Many academic scientists, certainly in social media posts, now use the kind of language and approach that isn’t a million miles away from Trump. Life, within the scientific community generally, has gotten a little nastier.

You can be nasty in a way that isn’t not nice, and not just in the Janet Jackson sense of the term. One of first paper rejections I got as a PhD student felt pretty nasty. My supervisor went ballistic which involved rolling his eyes, groaning, and chaining Galoise for at least an hour. A reviewer had pretty much claimed we had no knowledge of the field and proceeded to question our intelligence. I took it on the chin. The review could have been a lot kinder, but at least they had gone to the trouble of writing something. Fundamentally, on reflection, I think the reviewer was attempting to inform us – it was a perhaps senior colleague (possibly affronted at our failure to include their work) giving a junior researcher a stern and rather patronising (anonymous) dressing down. After a day gnashing teeth I comprehensively digested the work I’d been told I’d ignored and reassured myself there was a lesson to be learned. It wasn’t a nice experience, but the nastiness served a certain purporse. The paper finally got published somewhere else (a higher impact journal, in fact) and I subsequently had an “interesting” night out in Seattle with the person I firmly believe was that reviewer. (Social psychologists say you can have a destiny or a growth approach to relationships: in all but a few, tragic cases, I opt for growth…)

There is an excellent, thoughtful and gentle piece of writing by Harvard geneticist Pardis Sebeti that recently appeared in the Boston Globe. Sebeti criticises the over-zealousness and sometimes downright bullying of the self-proclaimed Open Science brigade. He points to instances of bullying, partial evaluations of evidence and information, and what at times amounts to harrassment on social media. His article drew a big reaction, both from supporters and from others.

Some time ago I also wrote a pretty gentle (by my standards) piece on what I felt were problems with Registered Reports. My points were, in essense, that (1) compelling academics to use this particular format for manuscript and grant submission endangered diversity and opportunity for scholars from nontraditional backgrounds and in novel and emerging areas of research, and (2) that the prescription for an undoubted problem in psychological science was too severe, amounting to bathing the baby in acid before throwing out baby, bathwater and all.

The responses I received were like nothing I have seen before or since. No debate, no discussion, no intelligent engagement with the arguments. Just nasty. The issue of diversity was completely ignored. And when I say that the responses were like nothing I have received before, bear in mind that I have faced the full force of personal vitriol from contributors to the Daily Mail and Fox News website comments section. No reasonable person would disagree with a call for greater transparency in science, but Pardis Sebeti is right about the downside of revolutions. This isn’t scientific debate; we shouldn’t stand for it.

Stopping it begins on a local level – resisting a casual culture of bullying or calling out lies. It goes without saying that the culture in different institutions, and different departments, varies wildly. That shows us that a universal slide into nasty science isn’t inevitable. Two years ago I suddenly realised how great life at work can be when you are not having to contend with placating “me, me, me” colleagues and when there is a genuine focus on using science to solve real world problems rather than mitigating the egos of colleagues set on persuing narrow self-interest at any cost. That was an ontological as well as an institutional shift for me, and it may be that in bigger ponds there is more opportunity to find friendly fish. But I should also say, from my experience, many who hold themselves up as big fish tend to swim in smaller ponds for a reason.

The nastiness is likely the consequence of a few co-occuring elements. RAE and REF, league tables, TEF up the ante in terms of workload pressure. And they do so in a particular way, by driving a wedge between and attaching differing values to different academic roles: researcher, teacher, administrator. These pressures breed a culture of disrespect and allow the bullies and the narcissists to flourish. The subtle, careful, considered academic can find it hard to negotiate such a minefield. It is academia, science, and all of us who lose in the end. Because the real casualty is that what matters and, yes, the desire for knowledge and truth, trails out of focus and in it’s place are some people’s versions of the way things should be… and heaven forbid that you should argue against them!


There’s a new project brewing – working title: Rudie Can’t Fail – and that’s why my blogging has been and will be less frequent for a while… More on that soon.

Life on Mars

Escapism: it’s no longer a godawful small affair. In May this year, at the cost of around $300 million, NASA will launch its Insight Lander to Mars to (hopefully) land an deploy a probe to test for, amongst other things, evidence of life.


The possibility of life on Mars has, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, for a long time been one of humanity’s “known unknowns”. Cultural theorists often speak of the underlying motivations for the deluge of sci-fi films in 1950s American cinema – linking this to the Cold War, existential angst, an emerging space programme. The films may have tapped an underlying sociopolitical Zeitgeist, but they did so in a specific way: they offered a palliative for an underlying need for escape, diagnosed by a particular pulse. Public fascination with possibility of extraterrestrial life endures even though what exists out there might be so unknown that what ends up counting as “life” requires us to redefine and re-imagine the parameters.


Escape, fantasy, is as necessary condition for reality in the same way that the impossible is required for the possible. Impossibility has to be possible. And if anyone ever tells you “nothing is impossible” tell them a triangle with four sides is impossible, and so is a machine that would give a true/false answer to every statement. The laws of maths define a triangle and the machine couldn’t give an answer to the statement, “This machine will not say that this sentence is true”. (Warning: there is a danger you might get punched in the head if you actually try this… or break Alexa). Similarly, we need the unknown to reassure us about the known, to help us stay clear from the precipice of Cartesian doubt…

Of course, you can convince yourself, or choose to believe that a triangle with four sides is possible. Just like Andrew Neil can (allegedly) deny climate change, or Lady Elizabeth Blount can choose to believe that the earth is flat. You can be wrong without being delusional. Positive escapism, like a good conspiracy theory, sits somewhere in between the possible and the impossible, between reality and fantasy.

And there are positive sides to escapism. At its best, escapism is a helpful coping strategy and we indulge in many different types of it every day. It is flight rather than fight, and if you can fly to your happy place all the better. Escapism is a kind of drug and if you learn how to administer the dose safely and effectively, and recognise that it’s a panacea, not a cure, why not?

There’s no doubt that there is a positive escapism. But there’s a negative one too. It can atrophy your ability to pursue purpose. Getting out-of-your-head gives a hangover in the morning. A curious but lovely Japanese study into adolescents’ internet escapism – splitting your life into real vs online versions – found, over time, that those who had experienced some distress had increased internet addiction and problems in daily functioning. The escape, the flight path, did not lead to a sucessful recovery.


Worse, it can lead to a kind of cycle of mental self-harm. You see it in relationships where, regardless of the levels of psychological abuse, individuals remain with a damaging partner regardless. That negative escapism inevitably damages not only themselves, but their relationships with others and prevents meaningful personal development. If you stay on an escape route for too long you may not end up in prison, but you are permanently on the run; you are Jean Valjean.

And if you don’t descend into a more permanent state of psychosis, the best you can hope for is that the next morning reality invariably shows up to wreck the party. In a worst case scenario that’s coming back from a great night out to find that someone recorded over The League of Gentlemen with the Mrs Brown’s Boys 2015 Christmas Special. There’s reality right there – suck it up. For NASA’s Mars Insight Lander, which touches down in November, reality for now is discovering that alongside the scientific equipment will be two silicon microchips containing the names of over a million people who requested “boarding passes” for the journey. On the face of it, boarding passes are a great way to engage children, others, and inspire them to dream. But if the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, and somehow Toby Young managed to inveigle a pass, you have to ask if that is a level of risk you can tolerate. It might be just the motivation needed for any primordial soup lingering under the Martian ice caps to get it’s act together, evolve and weaponize.

A Spoonful of Sugar? Parenting in Christmas Movies

Christmas. Family. Christmas. Ah… Time for a nice sit down, to put feet up, and spend time with the family. ‘Cos that’s what its all about isn’t it? Well, that and finally getting a chance to clear some emails, and cleaning up and getting pissed on a week night. And family. And once the house has deteriorated into bickering and the inevitable argument, any sane parent switches on the TV and settles everyone down in front of a classic Christmas movie.

But are Christmas movies effective or perhaps even damaging models for successful parenting? Are families in need really getting the best support and advice at a time of year that is a well-known pinch point for family stress and breakdown? Is the optimal strategy to promote a grieving family’s recovery to hire a rebellious nun as governess? Or how should we positively parent two sisters, one with a rare disability involving ice, who seem to be drifting apart? What about the virtues of a bit of hands-off parenting over Christmas, what we’ll call the McCauley Culkin model? That turned out all right in the end… on screen at least.

Below is a handy holiday guide to see for yourself if you’re getting the best parenting examples from your potential Christmas viewing. Enjoy the science. Of course, if your strategy if just to stick the kids in front of the TV to get a chance to stack the dishwasher while scouring the left over wine glasses for any remaining traces of alcohol from Christmas lunch… you’re about a 3 on the five-point scale. Which, as Sandra Scarr (1992) would say, is probably good enough parenting when all is said and done. Happy Christmas!

wonderful lifeIt’s a Wonderful Life: James Stewart wishes he had never been born, so an angel comes to make his wish come true. But first, he has to go through a sort of karma audit and he changes his mind. Redemptive stuff. Happy holidays.

Concern – Father has mental health problems.Signs of encouragement – Appears on path to recovery. Additional notes – Family history of financial mismanagement. Parenting style – Believe in angels

frozenFrozen: In modern days Elsa’s disability (turning stuff to ice) could qualify her for entry to the X-men… but in Arandelle, a backward and feudal regime, it is regarded with suspicion and often met with prejudice! Elsa and her sister Ana’s parents die in a rather predictable boating accident towards the start of the film. But their parenting approach prior to that, during the girls’ early childhood, clearly wouldn’t be regarded as best practice. For instance, Elsa refuses to build a snowman with Ana although that is one task she is clearly ably equipped to assist with. Far from encouraging snow games, their parents lock Elsa away… like the first Mrs Rochester. Cruel.

Concern – Parents deceased. Oldest daughter has disability. Signs of encouragement – Family managing well financially. Additional notes – Low quality and almost absent sibling interaction; parents have dabbled in alternative therapies. Parenting Style – Rule bound and unresponsive. Parents appear to be stigmatising ice-disability

actuallyLove Actually: Lots going on, but the one family is Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s with a child who has to wear some ridiculous costume to the school play. Alan’s shagging his secretary. Emma’s stoic. Oh, and she’s the sister of the Prime Minister Hugh Grant.

Concern – Marital breakdown. Signs of encouragement – Love is all around them. Additional notes – High profile (mother’s brother is Prime Minister). Parenting style – Unclear. Seem uninvolved. Or is that just Emma’s schtick?

snowmanThe Snowman: Animated fluff from Raymond Briggs and ball-breaking vocals from not-a-sex-pest Aled Jones. Child is abducted from his house and taken on a “flight” through the snowy English countryside – and out of the country without a passport – by an unknown older man who is naked apart from hat, scarf and, bizarrely, buttons. You probably love it. Frankly, I can’t see the point. The child’s parents are nowhere to be seen.

Concern – Youngish child, abducted during the night. Signs of encouragement – Little positive; parents appear unaware of child’s absence. Additional notes – High risk of repeat absconding, abduction and risk of abuse. Parenting style – Neglect

poppinsMary Poppins: First one up for Julie Andrews, still the archetypal perfect parent/nanny/ governess/parent-in-waiting. Two young children are caught in the crosswires while their parents play out an Edwardian social power struggle between finance and the emerging movement for women’s suffrage. Sadly neither parent realises the effects of this on the children. Luckily, Julie turns up to show them a middle way involving weird fantasies including animated horse racing. Some evidence she introduces the children to controlled substances cut with sugar and laughing gas.

Concern – Children appear to be developing delusional thoughts. Signs of encouragement – Family enjoy help from extensive domestic staff. Additional notes – Children home-schooled and nanny does not appear to be following national curriculum. Health and safety concerns.. Parenting style – Father – authoritarian; mother – neglect; Nanny –  permissive. No wonder the kids are confused…

musicThe Sound of Music: Julie Andrews again. There’s a rather unsavoury set of pages on the internet about whether Julie is more desirable as Mary or Maria. The answer, of course, is that either is unthinkable.

Concern – Large family. Evidence of emerging sexual impropriety in oldest daughter 16 years (going on 17). Signs of encouragement – Family shares an interest in music. Father has developed effective techniques for disciplining the children.. Notes – See Mary Poppins (above). Father has history of being detached and absent. There are also Nazis.. Parenting style – Father – very much authoritarian; Governess – permissive

The Muppets Christmas Carol: Another firm favourite is The Muppets Christmas Carol, which does feature some family scenes ostensibly with Kermit and little Kermit playing Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchett respectively. On the whole, it conforms to the staple of warming, wholesome, salt-of-the-earth type stuff of family relations as resilient in the face of social injustice, a parent grappling with an unsustainable work-life balance dilemma, and being non-hibernating amphibians during a really cold snap.

Concern – Social deprivation. Signs of encouragement – Warm family environment. Additional notes – Amphibious. Parenting style- Authoritative/Permissive

elfElf: Buddy (Will Ferrell) is raised as an innocent, wide-eyed Elf, and he’s told way too late that he’s actually human. When he’s officially outgrown the North Pole, he’s sent to New York to live with his own kind.

Concern – Child in foster care, problems leaving care. Signs of encouragement – Good plan for rehabilitation; Evidence of positive experience of inter-species foster care. Parenting style – Christmassy

Die Hard: There is a family in the background there – wife in a hostage situation… and somehow this now seems to qualify as a Christmas movie. But the parent’s “us time” isn’t exactly high quality and there seem to be some background marital issues. Bruce Willis’ approach to solve these is effective but, one suspects, short term in the context of the marriage.

Concern – Parents disagree on fundamental issues. Father has alcohol problem?. Signs of encouragement – Family stay in touch regularly by phone. Parenting style – Father modelling violent methods of conflict resolution

aloneHome Alone: It’s more easily done that you’d think. We once left our youngest in the hall in her baby seat and were half way towards Junction 2 of the M40 before we realised we were missing one. But it seems to happen to the McCallister family every Christmas… Still, Home Alone was set in the days when parents would think nothing of letting their 7 year hang out “down the Mall” for the entire vacation.

Concern – Large family, parents unable to count the children. Signs of encouragement – Youngest child shows evidence of precocious independence and self-sufficiency. Frequent family holidays. Additional notes – Repeat offenders; crime is rife in the neighbourhood. Parenting style – Neglect


Top of the Whats? Marketing UK Psychology Departments

Last week I spoke about the futility of thinking positions in league tables mean very much (apart from marketing). Strangely, some people haven’t been listening! VCs from around the country have been wheeled out to talk about their Gold TEFs, just as they were lauding their Athena Swan awards and all manner of REF permutations. But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. The CMA means that any claims made on webpages/brochures have to be accurate. This has led, unsurprisingly, to a proliferation of ingenious and selective statistics adorning departmental “about us” pages online.


Colonel Gaddafi – also a great lover of medals…


What doesn’t help is that there are multiple sources you can cite for your rankings, ratings and awards: with REF,  TEF, NSS and so on you can include the main component but you can also cite a rank in any one of the many individual elements. Then there are newspaper league tables: Guardian, Complete University Guide, Times, Sunday Times, QS… and, of course, you can cite any components you want of those and, for all of the above, historical data going back to the beginning of such things a decade or more ago. With such a range of statistics to select, it’s a wonder any department isn’t in the top 10 of at least something. It’s enough to make you call for a neat system of, say, three medals, to evaluate performance. Then again, maybe not! See, again, last week’s blog

So, with that in mind, I have been on a brief online tour of every psychology department in the UK’s webpages (that I could find, some don’t have one). A quick note on my general approach to this is at the bottom of the post… Scientific, it ain’t.

How then do UK Psychology departments strut their stuff online? There seems to be a trend. There are those “top” Russell Group institutions who really can’t be doing with statistics and merely give a handful of casual statements about being brilliant. Less is more and, anyway, maybe there’s something a touch vulgar about this whole marketing business. So Oxford throw in that they’re “1st in the REF” and Cambridge, modestly, that they are “3rd in the world (QS)”. UCL don’t even bother with stats and just say they’re “world leading”. But I reckon around 20 departments are claiming that. At King’s IoPPN we say we’re the world’s second largest and leading centre for research and education in mental health (after Harvard – trust me, it’s CMA compliant), peppered with the odd “world-renowned” and “world class”.

Other Russell Group departments are a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of self-publicity. Size matters for Cardiff too, “one of the largest and best departments in the UK” and then a challengeable claim that, Cardiff psychology “consistently obtain the highest scores possible for our research”. Possible for who? Cardiff? Harvard? Anyone? Bristol – pretty much rock bottom on scores for diversity and state school admissions – just have “an elite science faculty” (someone at Bristol hire a copy editor!)

Russell Group newcomers, York, adopt a curious strategy, describing themselves as “one of the world’s top psychology departments” and then linking through to the QS rankings which shows them unclassified in the #51-100 range. Hmmm, that’s a crowded summit! More obscure, still, St Andrews’ pages qualify assertions of being world class with a legally compliant statement that they have been in the “top category in every research assessment exercise”. That’s like saying Leicester City won every Premier League in 2016. Both St Andrews and York are somewhat cagey on REF2014 (I guess the penny dropped that it’s power tables that matter now)! Birmingham just say they’re, “Ranked among top 5 departments for research”; Exeter, rather modestly, announce that they’re, “top 100 worldwide for psychology” – clever reverse psychology, Exeter, but York got there first!

What of the others? Well, as you look around you see an increasing creativity in the appropriation of statistics. I’ve picked out a few that catch the eye: Nottingham Trent, say they (not, interestingly the students), are, “5th satisfied with quality of course, 6th satisfied with assessment and feedback (Guardian 2016)” and that their “research impact and output is the highest of any UK psychology department with an equivalent research environment.” Clever, you can’t challenge that without a close scan of scores in each of the REF categories and agreeing criteria for equivalence. Good job, NTU CMA manager. Stats geeks at Lincoln have been hard at work on the NSS spreadsheets to prise out extra value: “5th/114 in 2018 [Guardian] for per cent satisfied with feedback” and “11th average all questions”. Quite a few have been getting down and dirty with NSS stats on Excel from a couple of year’s back: “Psychology at Edge Hill University is ranked in the top 10 in the UK for both Assessment and Feedback and Personal Development, as well being ranked in the top 20 when averaging all other measures that assess the quality of Psychology Degrees in the UK (National Student Survey, 2016).”

Another strategy is to limit the scope of your competitor group: Abertay Dundee are “… the highest rated modern University in Scotland for psychology research in the UK Research Excellence Framework 2014”. Reading psychology, intriguingly, is quiet about psychology but, “Top 10 in Aural and Oral Sciences 2017” [CUG]. Or you can take a different tack – invent a competitor group? Loughborough‘s psychologists are, apparently, members of the “golden six of elite universities”. Who are the other five? This feels like an affluent yet shadowy cartel – I want in! For me, Essex win marks for mixing fact and whimsy, declaring themselves to be, not only a “leading centre for research and education in psychology” but also an “intellectual playground” (yeah, I’ve been at some conferences like that and believe me, I was happy to get back to lessons!)


Of the around 100 (very ballpark) psychology departments going I have counted at least 30 claiming to be “Top 10”. And no end of others claiming to be world leading. Do they believe any of it? Do they care? You know, I think some staff probably do get kudos from it. And what’s wrong with feeling good about yourself or making yourself feel a bit better? Nothing. But don’t swallow the massaged statistics hook, line and sinker. What matters is the science and the quality of the teaching, and that you’re happy and productive in your work.

Perhaps most inventive are those that play with dates. You also wonder when some departments last updated their webpages!  The University of Buckingham has a no-holes-barred approach to marketing – don’t react to the stats, make them work for you! If you land on their webpages you are greeted with: “Welcome to the Psychology Department at the University of Buckingham, the number one university for student satisfaction in the UK (National Student Survey 2006-2015).” That, I think, is averaging across that period but who can tell how they arrived at that ranking? Still, it’s all downhill from there, folks… whenever that was.

 * Departmental webpages were accessed between 28 and 29 June 2017. usually the “about us” to get a picture beyond the applications base, or prospectus parts of webpages.Very much not a scientific approach guided by ease of googling (which I suppose is a proxy for something).

Congregation of the Pillar Saints

To know the Lord, climb mountains (Mark 3:13)

God bless Tiny Tim (and his fatal ukelele); God bless Joanna Lumley (even if she is one of the national treasures whose political views you suspect you’d rather not know); God bless post-post-truth, the Office for National Statistics; God bless the CMA; and most of all, God bless us all!

There is a monk in Georgia who has lived on top of a mountain for 20 years to get closer to God. According to The Teleraph, “Maxime Qavtaradze is following in the ancient traditions of the Stylites, or Pillar Saints: men of the Byzantine world who believed residing up pillars would remove them from temptation and provide ample opportunity for prayer and contemplation.” Max (let’s call him Max) is not up there for a great selfie or better phone signal. He believes that by raising himself away from humanity he can become a more godly person.


Literally, God only knows if this will work: from my perspective Max seems to be taking one heck of a gamble on whether there actually are any pearly gates. But at least he’s gone one better than the latter day Pillar Saints who, frankly, seem to have opted for the homespun DIY solution to get closer to God. Anyhow, why a pillar? If you really want to remove yourself from temptation, lock yourself in a potting shed or fritter your time away aimlessly googling about things like Georgian monks with the family protection filter on. Ermmm… either way, a pillar is never going to trump a mountain in terms of altitude… you don’t need to be Buzz Aldrin to see that! (And now I come to think of it, Yuri Gugarin allegedly said of his trip to space that he, “looked and looked but couldn’t see God.”)

I don’t have time to worry about Maxime too much and, although I admire his devotion, I have my own problems. So, on to more philosophical matters… is there virtue in being at the top? No, not virtue, although people often erroneously conflate excellence with virtue (as psychology has very ably demonstrated, almost since its inception: it’s a kind of halo effect although I subscribe more ardently to the horns effect in making character judgments). There is perhaps virtue in trying to be the best you can be, but nothing inherently virtuous in distinguishing yourself from the hoi polloi. Quite to the contrary, there is considerably more virtue, in my book at least, in helping others. You can probably point things out to people from your lofty position, but it’s a challenge to dress a wound or break up a fight if you’re stuck on top of a pillar.


UK HE is awash with metrics and tables now: TEF, REF, Athena Swan. And it’s crowded at the top! By my reckoning (see below for more next week) we have around 20-30 “top 10” psychology departments in this country. It’s getting crowded up there… sorry, up here!!! But there is nothing saintly about the rush to get to the top. Oh no. The desire to acquire top rankings is motivated by decidedly impious matters, although to judge by some of the proclamations emerging from publication of the TEF you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Maybe some academics believe all these ranks mean something real? They don’t: they’re marketing tools.

Heaven forbid, universities have started to dabble in the sort of selective presentation of statistics, spin and downright misrepresentation that has given politics an even worse name recently than it had before. As long as we recognise it’s a game all well and good. When we recognise it’s a game we can identify why it’s a stupid game and fight back, protest or disengage (as some have done) from it. I bet LSE are mulling over whether to withdraw from the next TEF… the rebels! But when the pursuit of a gong becomes your goal you lose sight of why you are doing it in the first place.

So no, there’s no inherent virtue in performing well in the TEF, the REF or even (dare I say) in Athena Swan. They are crude mechanical levers for generating change, that’s all. And when someone is pressing a lever, the immediate question should be “change to what?” Those universities, those departments that crack open the champagne on a Gold Award, a notch up in the newspaper league tables or a decent REF outcome are not better because of it… they are celebrating a less hostile marketing situation and the opportunity to fill their webpages with images of metalwork which is perhaps preferable to trying to fill them with any serious content!

Coming soon… “Top of the Whats?” or, How many Psychology Departments claim to be “Top 10”, “World leading”? I’ve been googling…

Narrowlands #1

If you linked in to this blog to find information about the loud band from Sydney called Narrow Lands – “gentle people who like violent music” – I am sorry, but there’s a chance you might be disappointed. This blog is about the importance and ethereal quality of interdisciplinary research. That you landed here is a weakness in the google algorithm. But stay! I am always keen to expand my dwindling fan base, so if you really are simultaneously as gentle and violent as you say you are, keep reading… maybe we can make interesting music together.


Keep reading, because those who have been here before know that my go-to rhetorical device is to set up a straw man juxtaposition, then tear it down and preach peace and love to all. You, Narrow Landers, are not my straw men and women. If my eyebrow muscles appear to twitch that’s merely the close proximity of the words “gentle” and “violent” in a sentence; it’s the pedant in me and that pedant is in permanent combat with a curious soul who wants to understand and experience new things… It’s ying and yang, chalk and cheese, Mary Berry and Gordon Ramsey.

Hang around, though, because wouldn’t a Mary Berry-Gordon Ramsey mash up be a thing of potential beauty? For me it might pack more surprises and more of a punch than a mundane pairing of similar phenotypes: Robson and Jerome didn’t surprise us and they may have sold records but I’d argue they created anything novel (they literally only did covers); they are not Serge Gainsborough and Jane Burkin. Admittedly Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s Little Drummer Boy was an off-the-wall matching and not an unqualified success. That’s the thing with interdiscpilinarity: it’s rather hit or miss. But when it hits, it hits far harder than any safer, run-of-the-mill, predictable offering.


And so back to the real Narrow Lands, the gentle but loud band from Sydney whose eclectic discography includes numbers like Whores Rule, Gifted Children and December Clone. The album was recorded “over one weekend in a shed, on a farm near Barry [the town], NSW”. Some reviews, (which would make the promotions paperwork I’ve been reading recently much more interesting if the assessors adopted the same approach): “Brutal octavers”; “An album with a lot of layers to explore. Currently hogging my turntable”; “as brutal and catchy as your favourite wart!”; and, “Sludge… so much sludge”. You can judge for yourself if you click on the album cover above (this one, I promise, doesn’t lead to an advert for a pregnancy test!) And you too may discover that, although you are a gentle person, you too like violent music… Sadly, I didn’t!


Patrick Leman is returning to earth next week… and may even be writing “Narrowlands #2″… which will be a much more acerbic, but much less obscure, look at the state of modern research in psychology and a call for interdsciplinarity. This was just the whimsical warm up!

Double Whammy

Below… the article from The Psychologist of their interview with me on Brexit and science funding…

(There’s a link here for the online version)

Brexit is coming, and with it comes much uncertainty in countless areas of life. There are particular fears for science funding in the aftermath of the exit, with many institutions relying on large EU grants and international collaboration. Psychology may be one of the more vulnerable subject areas.

Between 2007 and 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU, and contributed €5.4 billion, for research, development and innovation, making it one of the largest recipients of research funding in the union. While the government has announced that EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects that were applied for before the referendum would be underwritten, and budgeted an extra £4.7 billion for science, research and development over four years, many at higher education institutes are concerned for their future.

The uncertainty doesn’t just lie in funding: indeed the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report on Brexit and higher education said the uncertainty surrounding EU staff and students, regarding issues such as residence and tuition fees, needed to be reduced immediately. Similarly, many have been advocating to remove overseas students from net migration targets to ensure our universities will continue to attract EU students and those outside the continent.

We spoke to Patrick Leman, interim Executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN – King’s College London) about the future, the state of science, and how we can make the public at large believe in the importance of research.

The IoPPN is Europe’s largest research centre for mental health research. Professor Leman, who said there is still uncertainty over funding post-Brexit, said: ‘It seems increasingly likely, if we get a hard Brexit, that we won’t remain automatically connected to the raft of EU funding streams that the UK has benefited from. Then, of course, the funding for science inevitably becomes more a matter of parochial UK concerns, which arguably offers less protection to innovation and independence than it had as part of a larger EU budget with 27 nations lobbying for a broader range of scientific and social agendas.’

Around £36 million of the IoPPN’s research funding came from the EU over the past five years, which is close to 10 per cent of its overall research income in the same period. However, some other institutions receive as much as 91 per cent of research income from EU funding schemes. So while the IoPPN is less dependent on EU funding than others, thanks partly to large-scale funding from UK bodies such as the Medical Research Council, NIHR and UKRI, Leman said there was ‘a general sadness’ due to possible implications for the international diversity of UK science, the sharing of expertise, and our reputation overseas.

Leman said any loss in funding means that impactful and important research doesn’t happen. He said: ‘The percentage figure for IoPPN rather understates the loss to the country because that’s science that’s being done on things like psychosis, depression and dementia. You can do a lot with £36 million of research to solve problems in those areas, and it is the medium- and long-term societal benefit of that research that’s vulnerable after Brexit. Those institutions which have been heavily dependent on EU funding, and that includes many psychology departments, may struggle.’

Psychology received almost 26 per cent of its research income from competitive EU grants between 2006 and 2015. Leman explained that the proportion of EU grants going towards the cognitive- and social-science-focused studies in psychology was much higher in the UK compared with the other big European research nations, France and Germany. ‘British institutions have done particularly well in terms of gaining EU funding for the social sciences and humanities. The knock-on effect we may see depends on what flavour of government we get and what they will prioritise. The mood music so far, as I read it, is they will prioritise health, physical and life sciences, because those are the areas where, arguably, they believe research can make greatest impact. Whether a future government reproduces that proportionately high-level investment in UK social sciences and humanities is questionable.’

The US faces its own science crisis, with Trump proposing cuts to a number of institutes and agencies. Leman said that there was a ‘double whammy’ of concern for academics and scientists in the UK and USA: ‘Like any business you want stability in funding in order to plan and develop, and at present we have uncertainty. But there’s also the undermining of the very basis and legitimacy of a lot of scientific thought. It’s difficult to know how to take on, as an individual, a political context that appears to be moving towards devaluation of the importance of science. This is not a matter of the science community engaging with itself, “virtue signalling” on the benefits of science to like-minded followers on Twitter, but about getting the message across to society through properly impactful research, and communicating and disseminating the importance of science.’

By demonstrating the usefulness of our research, and understanding governments, Leman said we can have impact: ‘Governments want to solve important problems, and all areas of psychology can do so much for that. But we need to convince governments, as well as the people voting for them, that science is important and that psychology, as a science, is important too.’


For some reason, I really don’t understand why, I have gotten myself onto an email list from the Cabinet Office’s “Emergency Planning College”. I am not complaining, it’s a useful heads up for plans on safety at festivals and sporting venues and major accident hazard COMAH sites in my area, even if Position Paper 6 and Occasional Paper 19 turned out to be a little dry… A quick summary: it’s all about resilience and I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that the thrust of the advice here is, “Don’t panic (unless you need to) because other people will”.


That opening paragraph alone is probably enough to get me removed from the list and, when I think about it, I am probably on it because of something to do with my current job. In which case: (a) I needn’t have bothered with the stuff about sporting venues and (b) everyone in Denmark Hill can rest assured that I am bookish and sad enough to have read all of the messages and have been rendered so terrified by the threat of a failure in Business Continuity that I have become entirely risk averse. Anyway, King’s were kind enough to give me a very realistic crash course in crisis management by simulating one just as I took up my role as Executive Dean. My own family have been helping in that area too. So we’re covered for most things apart from alien first contact and a volcano. And I am sure those emails are due over the summer.

Katastrophenschutz (literally, “Catastrophe Protection”) is something we’ll need to learn more about in the next few years. At some stage, surely, the incessant stream of virtue signalling that swarms across my social media feeds will have to stop. Please?

Then what? Well, at some stage the liberal left will develop a coherent narrative that appeals to a broad coalition of voters. Surely they must or what’s the alternative? A true horror show, a return to the spectre of an isolated Little Britain where we’re haunted by the returning ghosts of Mary Whitehouse, Enid Blyton’s casual racism, and conductor Jack from “On The Buses“.


My son has been bed bound for some time, and he’s resorted to any TV channel he can find to relieve the boredom. One day he chanced upon an episode of “On The Buses”. Genuinely, he thought it was hopelessly unfunny and some sort of nightmare from another dimension. It was or rather is… but my advice to all of us is that, “you’d best start believing in ghost stories… you’re in one.”

Time for some Katastrophenschutz. But perhaps, this time, without risk aversion…

Tactical Hoping

It would be a fool who would deny the political logic of Teresa May calling a snap election for June. That logic is, has, and always will be about Tory party and individuals’ self-interest: politics for the Tories is about getting into power and of course they will do so again, and with an increased majority, because while we all gnash our teeth at the inaccuracy of recent opinion polls in truth not one in recent decades has been more that 6% away from the final result on polling day. Recent polling errors have been largely attributable to regional variations (Trump, Cameron’s 2015 victory), the inability to assess novel issues and tap into how these connect with key demographics (the Brexit referendum), the last vestiges of conscience and social desirability in “shy” Tory and UKIP voters (Major, 1992), and of course the peculiarities of the first-past-the post system.

So the Tories will win, with an increased majority, and lots of awful things will follow from that for the NHS, schools, universities (there are already mutterings about cutting research budgets), the care system, people with disabilities and those deemed to be aliens! But that doesn’t mean there is no point in voting. There is every point in voting. But let’s not delude ourselves that tactical voting will make much sense. Because, in the end, a great deal of tactical voting is a mass exercise in game theory; for every Labour supporter shifting their vote to the Lib Dems (even if “we are all sinners”), there could be a floating Lib Dem/Tory thinking they might try and offset that with a vote for Teresa May. You don’t know. You can’t guess or play the system so easily, and the reality is that those who think you can are lacking a fundamental awareness that others’ perspectives are often different from our own or hold a belief that somehow they are much cleverer than others and can outwit them.


You’ll notice here I am writing this from a particular political perspective. I am tribal Labour, although deeply depressed at the current state of my party and the left across the Western world generally, and those are my underlying values. The left, here and elsewhere, lacks a persuasive narrative – it needs to find one soon before the far right start to fill in the gaps. That lack of narrative means this election is all about the Tory party and how to handle opposition to that. this explains the preponderance of “how to vote” guides to “get the Tories out”. No one wants that more than me. But I do also know that there needs to be a positive and coherent message for change to win. I can’t see one yet – maybe one will emerge.

For tactical voting to work you need the alliance to be open, out there and on the table. That could make sense in genuine marginals. So a grand coalition – Lib Dems standing down in Tory/Labour marginals, Labour doing the same in Lib Dem/Tory marginals, and everyone just giving Caroline Lucas a pass in Brighton – could work! But no party would do that – that is an electoral suicide note! So unless you are convinced of your mind-reading powers, don’t really care, or fancy taking a pretty weighty gamble, the inescapable logic is to vote for the party you want to see win.

There’s more mileage in getting the large number of non-voters, or not registered voters to sign up and vote. This in particular applied to younger or new voters. The numbers here could shift results, but note a couple of caveats. First, the June date will likely be outside of term time for many university students, so while a handful of university town constituencies might achieve critical mass if university students turn out and vote en bloc for Labour (or the Greens – cannot imagine why a single student would vote Lib Dem after what happened last time, that really would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas). These mostly middle class students will likely return home to vote in Tory stronghold constituencies and again, their influence will be scuppered by the first-past-the-post system. Second, it’s missing the fundamental issue of disengagement in politics among a significant chunk of the youth.

Of course, younger voters should be encouraged to register. Everyone should. There was a significant push for this in the run up to the Brexit vote but, largely, it failed to get sufficient numbers to register. As we know that was a key factor in the eventual, disastrous outcome. My social media feeds have been awash this week with messages to get young people to register. Great, but too little and way too late: the problem is that the chunk of younger voters who are failing to register are doing so because they are disengaged. And, more to the point sisters and brothers, they are not following you on twitter. They are on instagram and Snapchat.


Engineering change in voting patterns and demographics is complex and sending out reactionary messaging in the echo chamber is not a substitute for hard work and purposeful, long term activity to address fundamental issues in the political and social system. Virtue signalling is at best useless and at worse damaging narcissism which does everything for the individual making the post and nothing to solve the problem.

Just vote Labour. And to finish, here’s a recent article on the maths of tactical voting, if you remain unconvinced…