What have the psychologists ever done for us?

There’s a wonderfully thought-provoking piece that’s been published on The British Psychological Society’s website in the last few days called “Where is psychology’s non-stick frying pan?“. I’d encourage everyone to read Phil Banyard’s article in full, but if you’re in a hurry, the beginning reads rather like John Cleese’s rant asking “What have the Romans ever done for us” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only for a large number of examples to be offered.

Roman Road in Nora, Sardinia 2015

One of the roads that the Romans built in Nora, Sardinia

Phil does concede that even if psychologists can’t point to vast numbers of discoveries or inventions like other scientific disciplines, psychology has at least enabled us to explain our existence in non-superstitious and non-religious ways in what has become an increasingly secular world.

It’s not the first time that questions of this kind have been asked about the value of psychology. In 1967, an American social psychologist, Kenneth Ring, concluded that the subject was in intellectual disarray(*) as practitioners appeared to spend most of their efforts devising laboratory experiments that were divorced from any kind of social context, as well as delighting in the publication of counter-intuitive, but trivial, findings. His paper was a precursor to much discussion about a crisis in social psychology, with one of the responses to it being the development of critical social psychology. Unlike the experimental tradition, critical social psychology disciplines all emphasise the importance of creating understandings of individuals situated in their social and historical settings, as well as taking into account the way that other people influence us, our multiple identities and how discourse positions individuals in society(+).

The occupational psychology field isn’t immune to the same kind of challenges. For example, I recently came across a study from the mid 1990s that produced some startlingly counter-intuitive findings about the way salespeople and customers interact. On closer inspection however, the paper described a laboratory experiment where a number of college students role-played at being salespeople and customers for a couple of minutes. So there was no real commerce taking place, the salespeople weren’t salespeople, the customers weren’t really buying anything and the timescale of the interaction was too short to be meaningful. Yet this study had been published by a respected peer reviewed journal and had been subsequently cited by a number of other authors. It’s moments like these where I do have some sympathy with the argument that psychologists really haven’t delivered very much in the way of truly meaningful insights over the last century or so.

And yet, there is much of value that has come from occupational psychological research. For example graphology and unstructured interviews have been shown to be useless or poor recruitment tools. The development of understandings about how leaders and their followers can become more effective in the workplace have resulted in more profitable organisations. Improved methods of training and development in the workplace have resulted in more competent employees.

While all of these things may not be as immediately tangible as having access to a good non-stick frying pan to use when I want to rustle up my dinner, their importance should not be underestimated.

So what has psychology ever done for you – or what do you wish that it could do?


This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd August 2015.


(*) Ring, K. (1967). Experimental social psychology: some sober questions about some frivolous values, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 113-123.

(+) Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: Past and Present. In Hollway, W., Lucey, H. & Phoenix, A. (Eds.), Social Psychology Matters (pp. 1-32). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

On not boiling the ocean

Over the weekend my studies reminded me of a photograph I took last year. It shows two families of elephants trying to cross the Chobe river from Botswana to Namibia. Unfortunately the groups became tangled up, so much trumpeting and manoeuvring was required to ensure that they all crossed successfully. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At one point it looked as if the whole river was boiling, such was the effort being expended by the elephants to stay afloat, keep with their respective families and cross the river at the same time.

Elephants at Chobe 2014The reason I was reminded of this picture was because of the effort I’ve been putting into refining my dissertation topic so that I can produce an interesting, but limited in size, research question. One of the many pieces of advice that we’re given as MSc occupational psychology students is not to be over ambitious with the scope of our research – as less is often more. The topic area I’ve chosen is rather like the first photograph – lots of elephants of different sizes, all swimming around and trying desperately to attract my attention, when what I need is clear sight of a single elephant …

Elephant at Chobe 2014… and preferably, quite a small one.

Young elephant at Chobe 2014Anyway, at the risk of stretching this analogy possibly a little too far, I think I’ve managed to find my elephant. At the moment I’m still not completely sure whether the elephant I’ve found is too big, too small, or just the right size, as it’s still partly hiding behind the bushes of “more research required”, but at least I now have a photograph(*) of it pinned above the desk in my study.


(*) Not really a photograph, but a piece of A4 paper with my provisional research question printed on it in large type. I did say that I’d probably stretched the elephant analogy a little too far …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 18th August 2015.

The continued resurgence of computer science?

There was some encouraging news for the IT industry in the data released by UCAS today. The number of students accepting places on computer science courses at university has increased by 12% compared to last year’s intake.

In graphical form, the change in the relative numbers of students accepted onto computing courses since 2011 looks like this:

Computer Sciences 2011-2015The figures look encouraging if you only consider the intake over these five years. However, given that there was a decline of 23.3% in the number of computer sciences undergraduates between 2002 and 2012, it’s clear that there’s still a way to go before demand for these skills outstrips supply in what is a growing industry in the UK. Skill shortages are also increased by the limits the current government is imposing on granting visas to non-EU foreign nationals, despite the negative consequences for the economy this policy has.

Spondon in colour 1956: Before the Borrowash bypass

Many of you enjoyed the black and white photographs of the A52 bypass being built through Spondon I posted here a few weeks ago. I’ve also managed to unearth a few colour slides of Spondon in 1956. These were taken before the bypass was built, presumably in late spring / early summer judging by the state of the foliage.

Willowcroft Road 1956Willowcroft Road – with no bridge!

Kirk Leys Avenue 1956The view across Willowcroft Road towards Kirk Leys Avenue

Spondon Methodist Church 1956Spondon Methodist Church

Lodge Lane 1956Lodge Lane

Derby Road 1956Derby Road

I can place the exact location from where the first four of these photographs were taken quite easily. The fifth is a little more puzzling to me. The original slide is labelled Derby Road, but I’m not sure which section it is or the direction that the photograph has been taken towards. My best guess is that it’s facing towards Spondon Garage, taken from around where the Asda roundabout is today. However, there seems to be too many houses on the right hand side of the image for that to be right.

Any help you can give me in working out where the final slide was taken from would be appreciated!

Mind your language

I mentioned in my last post that I was knee deep in reading for my dissertation proposal. I’m still knee deep, but the ideas are starting to become a little better formed now. One thing I can confidently say is that all of the questions I’m interested in researching involve understanding the way that language is used in the context of business to business selling – something I’ve been involved with for most of my professional career. This means that I’ll almost certainly be using a qualitative methodology, one of the many variants of discourse analysis, to undertake my empirical research into the topic. This is not the conclusion that I wanted to come to, based on my past experience of how much time qualitative projects consume!

As part of my undergraduate degree, I undertook two full-scale psychology projects. One of these was an experiment, which gratifyingly gave me and my partner in crime two significant and one insignificant result after the stats had been crunched. As far as I was concerned, this kind of ‘split decision’ was brilliant as you can learn just as much, if not more, from experimental results that don’t conform to your expectations. It also makes producing an interesting write-up straightforward, particularly if you follow the standard psychological report-writing conventions. In the grand scheme of things, it really didn’t take that much effort to produce something that I was happy with.

The other project was a qualitative one requiring the use of critical discourse analysis. For all kinds of reasons (transcribing interview data is one – I figured out that I can only manage this at a rate of about 16 hours of effort for 45 minutes of data), this type of research takes far, far longer to do well. Probably the most challenging part of a qualitative project is interpreting the data. With experimental research, there’s usually only one (correct!) way you can crunch the data through a stats software package. With data from a discourse analysis project, there are endless ways to analyse how the participants are using language to take positions to either justify themselves or to blame others. Analysis is hard work, and crucially, you also have to consider the way that your own experiences and interests influence your conclusions. The researcher is explicitly present in the data, rather than a factor that has been assumed to be ‘controlled out’ through good experimental design.

If you’ve had experience of quantitative and qualitative research, which do you prefer – and is it the same approach that you feel gives you the greatest insight? For my own part, I certainly prefer quantitative research from the point of view of simplicity, but the insight that rich, qualitative data gives is often worth the effort.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 5th August 2015.

Never auto-renew your car insurance with Allianz (or with anyone else, probably)

Martin Lewis over at moneysavingexpert.com offers this excellent advice when it comes to car insurance:

Never auto-renew. Loyalty is expensive

Nothing better illustrates car insurers preying on loyal customers than Sarah Cooper’s tweet. “My car insurance renewal is £1,200. New policy with same company is £690. How do they justify this?” They don’t. They just do it.

I’ve had my car insurance renewal notice from Allianz today. Comparing it with last year’s premium, they want an additional 51%! Nothing has changed – except that I’ve had another claim free year, bringing my total to 10. A quick check of a couple of price comparison websites showed that for the same cover the cheapest quotation was around £15 less than I’d paid this year, with 10s of quotations clustered around £10-£20 more expensive than last year. There were three or four (out of a hundred or so) that were more expensive than the Allianz renewal, but they were offering free unicorns as well. (OK, I’m fibbing about the unicorns).

I rang Allianz up. I was calm. I politely explained the situation. I was reasonable and persuasive. I asked that they considered renewing my policy at around the same price as last year, or perhaps on or around the median quotation I’d found for this year.

Their call handler was lovely, but her response was:

We don’t price match sir. I could re-quote you, but the result would be the same.

They wouldn’t budge by even a penny. I hate being taken for a fool and her excuses became less and less convincing as I suggested that they were guilty of sharp practice. I’ve cancelled my policy with them and I’ll do everything I possibly can do to make sure that I don’t use Allianz again any time soon.

So if customer loyalty is as worthless as it appears to be from this example, I wonder why so many software companies are marketing customer experience management and customer loyalty solutions?

Perhaps they’d be better off trying to sell customer disloyalty solutions instead.

Why #PartTimeMatters

A copy of the 2015 edition of the Open University’s magazine “OpenMinds – for enquiring alumni” was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. There’s some great content in it – for example, articles on the Philae Lander, driverless cars and research into social exclusion, all of which OU academics and alumni have contributed significantly to. All this success makes the leading article written by the OU’s new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, a particularly disturbing read.

Peter points out that five years ago before the changes to university funding in England (a.k.a. the trebling of undergraduate tuition fees), more than 580,000 people across the UK were studying for a degree part-time. In 2014 this number fell to just under 370,000. England has borne the brunt of the decline, with a 41% decrease. Even though the OU says that it has managed to grow its market share, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate OU students is down by approximately 60,000 in this period.

The obstacles being put in the way of access to part-time learning in England come at a point in history when the 9-5 job for life has gone, replaced more typically with 5-9 jobs during a working lifetime. The ability for adults to learn new skills has therefore never been more important. However, the costs for those who have a degree that needs updating or who dropped out of university first time around are becoming increasingly prohibitive. The OU does provide excellent value at £2,700 per 60 credits (£16,200 for a degree instead of the more usual £27,000 at a ‘brick’ establishment), but four years ago, OU students in these categories would have only needed to find around £4,000-£5,000. One of the consequences of the last few years (in England, at any rate) is that university level education is no longer seen as being a public good – but a cost to the taxpayer that must be avoided, as education only benefits the individual receiving it. Which is a political choice of course, but utter nonsense. Just ask the Germans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers, who should be significant beneficiaries of investment in part-time learning, now appear reluctant to directly fund their employees. Figure 14 on page 26 of this Universities UK report shows that the number of employer-funded part-time undergraduate students dropped from just over 40,000 in 2011-12 to around 22,000 in 2012-13.

For someone without a degree there have been some crumbs of comfort, as non-means tested loans have now been made available to part-time learners in England. However, part-time students are still not treated equally, as their repayments start after four years of study (2/3rds of the way through a three-year degree), rather than after graduation.

The tuition fee reforms of the coalition government were bad enough for the part-time sector and those who wished to use it. However, the apparent intent of the current Conservative government to go back on their promise to uprate the £21,000 salary threshold for student loan repayments (in effect increasing the financial burden on recent graduates and nearly-graduates still further), along with their manifesto pledge to divert FE funding for mature learners to apprenticeships, look set to damage the interests of part-time, mature students still further.

In his article, Peter Horrocks asks all OU alumni to “… join the whole OU community and help fight for part-time eduction. [and to] Tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers and create an imperative to tackle the problem.

I’m fairly sure that the contents of this blog, from when I started it in 2008, witnesses to the power of part-time education in my own life. And as this video says, the most important thing that everyone learns at the OU is what they’re capable of.

Hell hath no fury like a woman in pink

Thank you to all of the readers of this blog who took the time to sponsor “Team Holyoake” in the Race for Life today. Unfortunately, as Emily is recovering from major abdominal surgery, only Jessica was able to run. But she did herself and her sister proud – a new Holyoake record of 1:19.45 for 10k set in the exceptionally wet, windy and very cold conditions at Westpoint, Exeter, this morning.

Westpoint Car Park 26-07-2015Our view of the car park as we arrived at 0800 … it didn’t stop raining until the race started at 0930, only for a howling gale to take its place!

Determined face at the start!– Jessica’s determined face at the start!

– Sprint finish!

So far, they’ve raised the magnificent sum of £620 between them. Jessica’s also written an account of the day – it’s great, go read it, look at her photographs and donate if you haven’t done so already!

After the raceJessica’s poster was slightly the worse for wear after she’d finished! (Photo © Jessica Holyoake, 2015)

It was a great day. A special thank you needs to go to the army of volunteers who made this event happen despite the typical Devon summer weather.

There’s also one other person who I feel deserves a special mention due to their blind optimism in the face of the elements. Take a bow, Kelly Whip :)

The optimist

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