Ethics: not just a checklist

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”


General Norman Schwarzkopf

The British Psychological Society introduces its resources on ethics by stating that they are “… central to everything we do whether in research or practice”. They’ve certainly been front and centre for me over the last few days in the context of planning the research for my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to make sure that my proposal adequately addresses the ethical standards that the university expects us to comply with. I’m hopeful that what I’m proposing will prove to be relatively unproblematic. I’m not going to use deception in my research (I’m not Milgram), nor am I going to set participant against participant (I’m definitely not Zimbardo). But even though I won’t be emulating their practices, which seem hopelessly unethical by today’s standards, I still have a duty to make sure that I try to protect me and my participants from any unintended consequences that may arise from my research. So I’ve been taking ethical considerations seriously in my design, rather than viewing it as simply a checklist to get through.

Most of my ethical concerns are around making sure that I have permission from the organisation I’m working with to gain access to participants and data, that the research setting I use for interviews is safe and comfortable, that I take adequate precautions to protect participant confidentiality and that the electronic and physical security of the data I collect is assured.

Paraphrasing the words of General Schwarzkopf, I hope that I’ve figured out the right things to do – and that I remember to do them in the midst of the battle that juggling study, work, family and health will undoubtedly be in 2016.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd December 2015.

Digital psychology: why the paperless tax disc has failed to deliver benefits

I’m a huge fan of online services (or “digital”, to use the term beloved of marketing departments everywhere). I make a substantial part of my living from evangelising, designing and helping to deliver them. But sometimes it makes little economic sense to do digital for the sake of digital, as the government has found out today.

Here’s the then director of Government Digital Services (GDS), writing in December 2014:

… work goes hand-in-hand with deep business transformation. With the abolition of the paper tax disc, the DVLA have gone from being a department that processes millions of pieces of paper each year to becoming one of our digital flagships.

And here’s the apparent result of that transformation, as reported by the BBC today:

The number of vehicles without road tax – Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – doubled to 560,000 this summer according to the Department for Transport’s survey, months after the paper tax disc was abolished in October 2014.


The Department for Transport admits these changes probably caused the increase in untaxed vehicles.


The loss in revenue for the government is “significant”, he [David Bizley of the RAC] said, having risen from £35m in 2013 to an estimated £80m now “and, it has to be pointed out, far exceeds the forecast £10m efficiency saving”.

It’s right that online services should be used to save money and improve convenience, but not at the cost of the taxpayer (or consumer). DVLA had been delivering both of these aspects successfully by allowing people to pay for the tax disc online a long time before this particular transformation.

Why did it go wrong? My analysis is that the impact of displaying a paper tax disc was hugely important psychologically – far more so than the digital transformation evangelists ever acknowledged. The removal of the behavioural “nudge” that the act of displaying the tax disc created meant that the DVLA were gambling on the benefits of removing paper outweighing the costs of removing the nudge.

Instead, it would appear that an annually recurring £35m cost to the taxpayer has resulted directly from this transformation (assuming that the efficiency saving referred to in the BBC article was an annual one resulting largely from eliminating printing and postal costs).

The lesson? Always ensure that your transformation initiatives have a robust business case behind them and that they consider the psychological impact of change as a variable that can materially alter your benefits forecast.

I’m not sure what the DVLA will be able to do to resolve this problem now, as I suspect that they can’t simply roll back this change without incurring even greater costs. To me, it underlines that imposing behavioural changes of this kind on your customers can never be viewed as a “Beta”.

I hope that this experience is giving HMRC food for thought as they strive to become a “digital tax titan” over the next few years. For them to be successful, the psychological aspects of digital service design must be front and centre in their thinking, followed closely by a robust business case analysis.

Otherwise, we may all be even poorer at the end of austerity than we thought we were going to be.

Dissertation proposal progress

I’ve just realised that it’s been rather a long time since I wrote about the progress of my dissertation proposal. August, to be precise. So with the deadline for submission rapidly approaching and making that gut-wrenching, whistling, wooshing noise that all deadlines seem to make, it means that it’s probably time to update you on my progress.

I’ve taken my own advice from August to heart and I’ve wisely decided not to boil the ocean. Having originally approached the dissertation with the vague idea of doing some research into the factors that affect the performance of salespeople (I now realise after much reading and thought that such a list is quite likely to be an infinite one), I think that I’ve finally ended up with a reasonably focused research question to investigate.

That’s good news, but perhaps what is less good news is my belief that the research question I’ve chosen lends itself to a qualitative, interpretative and post-modernist approach. While I’m excited about my research and the way in which I plan to do it, I’m still somewhat concerned that I didn’t force myself to come up with what would have been – for me – a much simpler quantitative, experimental and modernist approach. Oh well. Only time will tell if my social constructionist convictions have written a cheque that I won’t be able to cash.

I’ve a bit of fine tuning to complete on the proposal (and especially on my project plan) over the next couple of weeks. I’ll then be able to take a bit of a break from study over Christmas before the reality of the research process kicks in again early on in the New Year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd November 2015.

Welcome back – the OU re-launches psychology masters degrees for 2016

Update 23/12/2015: The links to all of the MSc courses and the foundation module below now go to an error page. My understanding is that they have been postponed until October 2017.

Last year, the Open University announced that it intended to start offering masters qualifications in psychology again from 2016, after mysteriously withdrawing them a few years ago. More details of the qualifications being offered are now available on their website.

The MSc choices appear to be Psychology (F74) – wisely, they seem to have dropped the idea of calling it Contemporary Psychological Studies – or Forensic Psychological Studies (F73). There’s also a related MA in Crime and Justice (F75).

At present only the 30 credit foundation module, DD820, is described in any detail. It will start for the first time in October 2016, with registration opening next February. Assuming that the OU meet their published timetable, the final module required for the MSc Psychology qualification (the dissertation) will start for the first time in February 2018. I guess this means that the first new postgraduates will be receiving their awards later on that year or in early 2019. However, they do say that you are allowed to take up to 10 years to complete the qualification if you wish to.

Neither MSc appears to be accredited by the British Psychological Society and the fees for the first presentation of DD820 haven’t been published yet. Assuming F73 and F74 are classified as science qualifications, the guidance offered at the moment suggests that the total costs will be somewhere between £5,244 and £8,222 (2015 prices).

You’re fired! Why “The Apprentice” wasn’t all about negotiation this week

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “The Apprentice”. It’s back on our screens at the moment and this week’s episode featured one of my favourite tasks – the scavenger hunt. The teams were asked to source nine different items, at the lowest possible cost, and deliver them back to the boardroom. This year’s twist was that some members of each team were sent to France, with the others remaining in Kent.

One of the things that always strikes me about the scavenger hunt is the claim often made by the contestants (and sometimes by the people in the boardroom who really should know better) is that the heart of the task is all about negotiation. However, that’s not really the case.

Firstly, this task is about good research and planning. Lord Sugar rightly lambasted the teams for not doing this well enough, even though (unusually) they had been given several hours to think this through before being let loose on unsuspecting sellers. You need a ‘plan A’ for each item, but having a ‘plan B’ (and even a plan C or D) is useful too. Psychological flexibility – having the courage to dump plan A when it doesn’t work out – is really important here. But of course, in an artificial environment like The Apprentice where everyone is out for themselves (it’s a zero sum game after all, as there can only be one winner); flexibility is often constructed as weakness.

Secondly, it’s about thinking rationally. While there’s a fixed penalty of £50 for each item missed, there’s a variable penalty added on depending on the market value of the item too. So it’s worthwhile investing more time in finding the higher value items. It’s usually the case that the lower value items are easier to source anyway – a quick trip to any market or supermarket in France would have rapidly netted 3 of the 9 this time around (mussels, snails and cheese). And if you’re going to spend time haggling over the cost of an item, it’s better to spend that time doing it well for a few percentage points off something costing £250, than failing to get a discount off something sold for €15. Especially if the person making the purchase doesn’t speak French very well!

Thirdly, the contestants usually mistake haggling for negotiation. They sometimes remember to ask for a discount, but they’re not in a position to make concessions on the quality of the item (who will ever forget the paper skeleton saga from last year’s show), when it can be delivered to them (they have an immovable deadline), what publicity they might give the seller (the BBC has editorial control) the form of payment offered (it’s cash now, take it or leave it) and so on. They don’t really have anything to negotiate with. Business negotiations are invariably more flexible and complex affairs that provide lasting value to both parties. Once you’ve recognised that you’re actually haggling, rather than negotiating, the best thing to do is to politely ask for a ridiculously large discount to start off with and then cajole the seller into revealing their hand. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Ultimately however, successful candidates on The Apprentice understand how language can be used to justify their own actions and blame others, in the context of the expectations that Lord Sugar and his team have. This week’s unsuccessful project manager understood this only too well (Lord Sugar has often said that he detests non-triers), so although she failed on most aspects of planning, flexibility and rationality during the task, she successfully positioned herself as a trier. The contestant Lord Sugar eventually fired was positioned as the non-trier, and so lost.

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

Post-40 Bloggers

Taking the plunge and registering for DOP conference

A year ago I mulled over whether or not it would be worth the investment to go to Glasgow in January 2015 for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference – or DOP conference for short. In the end I wasn’t able to go because of ill health, but having spoken to a couple of fellow students who did go, I wish that I could have gone. So with the January 2016 DOP conference being held in Nottingham, I’ve decided to take the plunge and register. The location means that I won’t have to pay for accommodation because I’m fortunate enough to live in nearby Derby.

The three day, non-residential package for current students is £179 if your booking is received before 29th October (it increases by another £50 after that date), with the somewhat complicated application form and instructions for receiving the discounted rate available here.

As part of the event, you get to pick from a number of different workshops as well as attending the main presentations and exhibition. While I was tempted by the media training workshop, I’ve decided to attend the creativity at work one instead. First time attendees like me can also apply to become an ambassadee, where a seasoned OP professional helps to ensure that you get the best out of the event and the networking opportunities it presents.

I’m excited to be going – at last – and I’m looking forward to providing a report of the event here afterwards.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 26th September 2015.

Explaining the Labour leadership contest using social identity theory

How does a candidate with a policy position that is perceived to be much more extreme than the consensus within a party win a leadership election? Social identity theory – SIT(*) may have the answer.

If the Labour leadership election had been held when the members(-) of the party (the ingroup in SIT terms) perceived the threat from the Conservatives and others of keeping them out of power for a long time was not great, then it is possible that the debate and decision-making process within the party would have been conducted primarily an intragroup contest, as illustrated below.

Labour leadership contest as an intragroup decision
How Labour party MPs thought the leadership contest would be fought

The candidates would have been keen to distinguish themselves from one another and the perceptions of differences between each would have been heightened by debate within the party. However, the likelihood would have been that the candidate who best represented what party members held in common would be seen as most relevant (prototypical) – resulting in a victory for either Burnham or Cooper.

However, these aren’t the circumstances that Labour finds itself in. May’s election results came as a huge shock to many of their members and they trail the Conservatives (the outgroup) by a large margin in the polls nationally. SIT research would suggest that this external threat therefore makes the leadership campaign an intergroup contest instead of an intragroup one. Presumably, the Labour MPs that opposed but lent Jeremy Corbyn their support anyway during the nomination process weren’t SIT aficionados. In such cases, SIT would suggest that the most left-wing of the quartet gains in relevance amongst party members as they are perceived to be the most different to the outgroup.

The Labour leadership contest as an intergroup contest
How the Labour leadership contest has really been fought

So if Jeremy Corbyn does win the contest in a few days time, SIT suggests that it will have been less to do with internal problems of left-wing entryists and rather more to do with external macro-political pressures.



(*) Social Identity Theory was originally developed by Henri Tajfel and others to try to understand why people believe that the social groups they belong to are better than the ones that other people belong to and why enmity often accompanies these beliefs.

(-) By members, I’m including everyone that Labour has decided is eligible to vote in their leadership election.

(+) Diagrams are adapted from page 109 of Psychology in Organizations – The Social Identity Approach (2nd Edition, published 2004) by S. A. Haslam.

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.