Brave Face

I don’t like pictures of myself but, increasingly, I need to have them. I’m not totally averse to a selfie (for Twitter and Facebook friends only) but I’ll almost always include a friend or group to soften the blow. And I certainly view these pictures solely as sources of information; they are definitely not disseminated for any aesthetic purpose. I’d happily remove myself from almost all of those images if it wasn’t (a) a memo to self that I was actually there and (b) a little narcissistic to think anyone would care what I look like… or think I look like… or care what I think they think I look like. Lots of people don’t have a problem with their own photos – the Kardashians, Joey Essex… they’re good looking, so there’s probably good reason for that. But even some pretty ordinary -looking people love to propagate their image across the web, and I know that some attractive people have the same problems I (and lots of others) have. So the “hate my own photo” thing is almost certainly, largely a psychological issue.

Last week, I had a set of photos taken for the Institute’s webpages, email banners and other publicity-type things. Actually, extensive therapy and research for this blog mean that I am for once OK with this set of photos. Jodie the photographer was great – that helped. And I embraced doing the full gamut of emotion expressions for “serious face”, “sad face”, “brave face”, and “good news face”. I’m stopping short of posting these here but as part of my ongoing personal therapy, here’s the first public output from that.


Why do so many people hate photographs of themselves? Inevitably, there’s been some research. First there’s the mirror image or mere-exposure hypothesis: basically, we’re used to seeing ourselves in the mirror but not as others see us as we appear in photos. So we’re accustomed to the mirror image of how we appear to the world, and when we see a photograph – the mirror image of what we are familiar with – that unsettles us and we rate ourselves lower for attractiveness as a result. Apparently mere exposure effects of appearance have even been observed in other species. How one earth did they test that? Next time I look at my cats – who are beautiful – I’ll feel a little sadder knowing that they may be suffering from esteem issues. (I suspect self-ratings of attractiveness were not a dependent variable in the animal studies).

Selfies are different. They are a more recent phenomenon and arguably say something interesting about esteem issues in the world we live in today. Recent research suggests that selfie-takers may have a self-favoring bias. Do not adjust your sets. Actually it’s a proper study and there were no differences in narcissism (NRI) ratings between the selfie-takers and control (non-selfie-takers) groups. Both groups took a selfie and had an experimenter take a picture of them. Those two images were then rated by others online. For both groups, these independent raters felt that the selfie pictures were less attractive and likeable than the experimenter pictures. However,  the selfie-taker group rated their own images as more attractive(and likeabile) than the non-selfie-taker group, compared with the independent raters. In other words, the selfie-takers were furthest away from reality in judging their own attractiveness (and likeability) in a positive way.

You know what – there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a little way off from reality if it gives you a little aspiration and a boost to your self-esteem. But prolonged disconnection with reality, as I’ve intimated before, causes problems.

kardashians selfie


Mind Your Grammar

“Nowhere on the Continent can Compare to Cornwall”, “James Blonde: Why Hiring Boris Johnson as Head of MI6 is Great for Britain” and “The other big Rio winner… Tory values. Team GB’s medal haul is proof of the belief that hard work and dedication lead to success”. All those foolish foreign athletes pursuing a strategy of apathy and torpor – ha! No, these are not spoof headlines from the Daily Mash, but blog posts from Toby Young.

Toby Young’s notable contribution to the world, aside from those blogs of course, was to set up the West London Free School, to inculcate in young minds the sorts of values he espouses in his blogs… and to teach 21st century urban youth Greek, Latin, competitive sports, a revisionist interpretation of World War I and proper, old school grammar. However, Toby found it was harder than he thought to run a school (he appears not to have entertained the possibility that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is) so he gave it up. There are very few people I really don’t like and when I don’t my default is to think that the problem is to do with me, not them. But with Toby Young it’s not me, it’s him. Still, I know life hasn’t all have been a bed of roses for Toby; after all, Mr and Mrs Young chose to name their child after either a jug or a carvery.

Actually, I’ve never met the man and I’m basing my words on his TV appearances, which probably isn’t the best way to go about things. But, either way, you’ll be wondering, at this point, what strange medication I have been taking and/or what this blog is all about. Well, although Toby had an epiphany about the difficulty of running a school it hasn’t dampened his views on education and, specifically, grammar schools. And grammar schools, if reports are to be believed, are coming back. Very much unlike her predecessor, Teresa May went to one (which, interestingly, changed to a comprehensive while she was there).

Are grammar schools a good idea? First, I have to ‘fess up. My two oldest children passed the selection test, the 11+, and go to state grammar schools. My other two will also take the 11+.  So I declare up front a potential conflict of interest. As a parent, my views are my views. However, to put it mildly, the evidence that grammar schools are good for education is decidedly mixed. They don’t seem to encourage social mobility, and actually may act as a hindrance given the alienating effects of failure on selection. There’s more on the debate here: In brief, the aggregate results do not differ between areas with comprehensive education and those with a selective system.

There’s also a more pernicious consequence of grammar education and, particularly, the idea of selection on the basis of an intelligence test at 11 years of age. My friends and colleagues, Yvonne Skipper and Karen Douglas have described how primary school children taking the 11+ in Kent could suffer damaging psychological and possibly damaging effects in the aftermath.

One of the chief aims of education should be to ensure opportunity for all because that is the best way to realise the potential of young people for a happy and successful future. Sure, people are different, have different abilities, or are better suited to some occupations than others. But “natural ability rarely reveals itself at 11 years of age.  Child prodigies do not have a great track record for continuing success into adulthood! At 11 children’s intelligence and knowledge of themselves is still developing. A message, at that age, that you don’t make the cut doesn’t mean a future of inevitable failure but it certainly adds in obstacles and hence limits opportunity.

Toby Young’s view, and of course it appeared in The Spectator, is not that there aren’t enough grammar schools, but that they’re not selective enough. He favours “super” grammar schools where only a small proportion of pupils in a local authority (say 5%) are selected. (In fact, such schools already exist in a few places.) That seems to be the worst of all worlds – uber-selection, which will simply create a smaller elite and, even if you agree that selection is beneficial, restrict even more opportunities than a higher (say 20%) threshold. All the problems of lack of opportunity, essentialism and elitism are compounded and, of course, the schools will still be dominated by children from upper middle class background who were tutored for the 11+. And, Toby, I don’t know, and no one can prove it, but maybe it’s at least as hard to run a nation’s education system as it is to run West London Free School. And you weren’t up to that. They are all extremely taxing and difficult jobs.

Our education system sets the template for our society in the future. Children are all inquisitive and pick up on how society justifies its social institutions and education system and understand themselves through their position in it. (By the way, we’ve just finished the draft and the wonderful Harriet Tenenbaum and I are going to publish a paper on that very soon!)  What do we want? One that divides, classifies, and segregates on misplaced views of ability and intelligence? One that, de facto, limits opportunity? That’s socially unjust and bad economics and can never create the future world we (well, maybe most of us) want.

Sexy Science and Friends with Benefits: Is an Eye-catching Title Ever a Good Idea?

Did I get your attention? I thought I’d choose a title to stand out. I’ve been away – Canterbury, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Tokyo, Barcelona and, in between, Peckham – so I haven’t blogged for a few weeks. And since a few people have told me they actually read these blogs, I felt there was no harm in announcing my return with a little pizazz. I ought to come clean; I won’t be writing about sex, not much about science or even really friends with benefits. Given that some people are actually reading this, I ought to try and retain a modicum of respectability.  Instead I’m writing about paper titles. Specifically, the weird, funny, and not-so-funny, smart-arse, attention-grabbing ones.

The idea came from a question I received at the Early Career Researcher (EPP) Symposium in Yokohama (at the International Convention of Psychology, #ICP2016 – photo below). Interestingly, we touched on the same topic at a subsequent Wiley Executive meeting in Tokyo a week later (again, a “proof of life” picture below). So, how useful is a jokey or eye-catching title for disseminating your research?

ICP Yokohama Leman Wiley Tokyo Leman

ICP Seminar, Yokohama, 23 July 2016 and Wiley Executive Seminar, Tokyo, 31 July 2016

Now, I’ve nothing against a bit of fun. Let’s start with a few examples of the titles I mean. There are a few nice summaries of these I can point to. First from Rolf Zwaan’s blog: Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis;  and Who Took the “×” out of Expectancy-Value Theory?: A Psychological Mystery, a Substantive-Methodological Synergy, and a Cross-National Generalization; and the fabulous, Chicks Like Consonant Music, which actually turns out actually just to be a paper about chickens liking music… Lastly, You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Infants Understand Failed Goal-Directed Actions – a prime example of the superfluous pre-colon title! See, Dillon (1981), for more on that.

There’s a collection of funny, offensive and darker titles here. They include: You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation. Now that’s a good one! And, not so good, and actually a little disturbing; Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership. One wonders whether, in the cold light of day, that paper turned out to be a career high or career low.

Ashley & Pudsey

Ashley and Pudsey: Friends with Benefits?

Common wisdom has it that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’m not sure about that. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re a Kardashian, then probably anything that will keep you on the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame is acceptable. Sometimes it feels like we live in a Trumpesque universe where, to paraphrase Mrs Wormwood from Tim Minchin’s Matilda, “content has never been less important”. But if your ambitions extend beyond narrow self-interest, and I appreciate not all academics’ ambitions do, some publicity can be damaging. An eye-catching title for your paper can certainly backfire.

Before I became Head of Department in my previous job, to get to know my staff, I decided to read one paper from every member of the department. I’ve always felt that what you find in people’s writing, even within the rigid confines of APA and scientific report format, tells you something about the person. For me writing is about voice (or, sometimes, the lack of it) and it is what lies between the lines that often interests me most. For that process I chose papers kind of at random although I must admit that with around 50 papers to read, many outside my area of research, I was a bit of a sucker for an eye-catching title. It was a valuable process in many ways. One abiding impression from that process was that those with the flashy, jokey, punning or eye-catching titles typically reported the least interesting, least innovative and most incremental, slight pieces of research. At least that was my view; they may well have floated other people’s boats.

So back to the question; is an eye-catching title a good idea? In these days of metrical machismo, where the feeble-minded view the size of your H-index as a mark of intellectual virility, anything that gives a researcher the strongest chance of success is worth pursuing. But my advice in Yokohama, and still now, is whatever you do make sure your title is accurate and your work is worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s irritating to plough through a paper that fails to deliver on it’s promise. And, when push comes to shove, what matters is the quality and substance of the work. If you are doing important work, it will have impact. Believe in it.

It turns out psychology papers with “funny” or eye-catching titles are cited less frequently than others anyway (Sagi & Yechiam, 2016). Maybe that’s because authors try to spin a mediocre paper. Whatever the reason, I am sure it’s not a hard and fast rule. Just, if you do go for funny, make it really, really good.