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.

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.

This is not hello

In August last year I wrote a blog post for the University of Leicester with the title “This is not goodbye“. In it I talked about my initial lymphoma diagnosis (the post was written before I’d had the precise variant identified) and that I’d therefore decided to suspend my studies for a year to fight it off. It was also written about a week before my mother died, so given that my brother and I are still sorting out the estate, postponing the final year of my MSc was, in hindsight, an even better call.

My post also promised my Leicester readers that “I’d be back”, to paraphrase The Terminator.

Today, after some thought, I’ve written to the university asking to take up where I’d left off from – starting on 3rd July. As I haven’t fought the lymphoma off just yet, these aren’t quite the circumstances I’d imagined I’d be restarting in. But as my “watch and wait” checkup today has brought encouraging news, I’m now hopeful that I will have enough time to get the course completed before I do finally need “proper” treatment. At worst, I might be in the early stages of treatment towards the end of it.

So I’m about to become a distance learning student again – with all of the late nights and long weekends that brings. On the plus side, I only have 4 of the 13 assignments left to complete. However, as they account for over 2/3rds of the weighted marks, there’s definitely no time for slacking. At least I have a reasonably well thought out research question to submit with my dissertation proposal (I’ve been thinking of little else, academically speaking, for the last six months) – even though it’s going to require lots of effort. This is because the topic and the research question I’ve written lend themselves to a qualitative approach (and a discursive one at that). See what you did to me, DD307.

Even though I feel more daunted about the prospect of study than I have ever done since I first started this journey with the Open University’s Exploring Psychology module back on January 27th 2007 (I just checked the exact date on StudentHome – amazingly, I still have an OU login that works!), I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think. Please remind me that I wrote that as soon as I inevitably start whingeing about the workload and feeling tired again. It will be my own fault …

While the cat’s away …

… student life carries on much as normal for those of us who are on distance learning courses. This weekend I managed to submit the first Psychology of Organising assignment on time, and I’m now straight onto planning the second, which is due in at the end of August. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of the dissertation proposal deadline approaching at the speed of a formula 1 driver lapping Silverstone. Other students may be well into their summer break by now, but for us mice on the distance learning treadmill there’s no time to play.

Not that I’m complaining you understand. While I’m not convinced that I’ve written my greatest assignment ever, the Psychology of Organising module is absolutely fascinating. I think as far as my grades might be concerned I should have spent more time planning and writing than following the fascinating but endless literature trails through the theories of transformational and authentic leadership. So much of what I’ve experienced during my working life has its roots in the theories that have been presented. Some of the insights I’ve been given about motivation and leadership would have been so useful to me 20 years ago – had I learnt those lessons before I tried to manage people they would have certainly saved me (and no doubt, the people who’ve worked for me) from a significant amount of angst. However, as Edith Piaf might sing, “Non, je ne regrette rien”. It’s always been the journey, rather than the destination, that I’ve found to be the most fulfilling – or self-actualising, as Maslow might have said.

As ever, there always seems to be something that I find while studying a topic that I can’t get out of my head. I know that I’m going to endlessly use (and probably misuse) this little gem to the distraction of my colleagues over the coming years, so I apologise to you all now. This time, it’s a paper by Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding(*) of the Bradford University School of Management critiquing authentic leadership theory (located within positive psychology), by arguing that – wait for it! – the only way that you can be an authentic leader is to be inauthentic.

Even without necessarily buying into the object relations theory that they base their critique on, it certainly seems to me that the authentic leadership model is self-defeating, as if the only thing a leader is allowed to express to their followers is positivity and optimism, where is the authenticity in that? They argue that it’s not just an academic nicety, but a real concern for organisations who are tempted to adopt authentic leadership. Because, if there is no possibility for a leader to admit that they have “a dark side”, increased anxiety for everyone within the organisation will result, leading to “dire consequences”.

Definitely food for thought. But for the time being, I need to file the paper away for another day as I have to get on with my reading around the topic of change management. And I’ve already found something there that looks equally fascinating too. Who needs playtime?

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 28th July 2014.

(*) Ford, J. & Harding, N. (2011). The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership. Leadership, 7(4), 463-479.


Good news – OU psychology MSc courses to get a reboot in 2016

Good news reaches me from the Open University. After a gap of several years, the foreseeable future has arrived and there are now plans to offer three different masters qualifications in psychology from 2016.

Details are fairly sketchy at the moment, but it appears that they will be offered as two-year, part-time qualifications consisting of a 30 credit foundation module, 90 credits of taught content and a 60 credit dissertation. The degrees are planned to be offered in Contemporary Psychological Studies, Forensic Psychological Studies and Criminological Studies.

There are no plans to have the qualifications accredited by the British Psychological Society, which seems a bit of a shame, but my understanding is that this shouldn’t be a concern if your undergraduate qualification has already given you the graduate basis for chartership (GBC), which the OU degree in psychology (B07 or Q07) does. I expect that this omission will help them to contain the costs of tuition, which are currently unknown but expected to be in line with other OU masters qualifications.

Real World Research

I’ve been fortunate to have been spending a few days on the other side of the planet – Maui, to be precise. As tempting as it was, my notes and books didn’t stay at home in rainy Derby and have accompanied me on the trip. After all, if you’re going to be a distance learner, then there aren’t too many other places you can travel to that are this far away from the University. Let no-one suggest that I go in for half measures …

One of the books that accompanied me out here was Colin Robson’s “Real World Research”(*). I’m just over a hundred pages in and it’s quite the best book that I’ve read on the topic of social science research. I really wish I’d known about it when I was taking my undergraduate psychology degree – it would have saved me a lot of effort.

The clarity with which he discusses the various different approaches to social research, their histories and how the question that you’re trying to answer influences the best design to use has probably been the most useful aspect of the book so far. However, I can already see that it’s going to be indispensable in helping me through the jungle of obtaining ethical approval, providing encouragement when the research isn’t working out quite as I’d hoped and with the all-important aspect of data analysis. The book gives equal treatment to quantitative and qualitative methods and (speak it softly, particularly if you’re stood next to a committed methodologist of one persuasion or another) suggests that sometimes the right approach is to use both – multi-strategy research.

The book hasn’t helped me to finally decide on a topic for my research of course, but it has given me the confidence that provided I follow its recommendations, whatever I choose will be achievable.

It’s time to get back to my sun-lounger before I have to set off on the 27 hour journey to home later on this evening. It hasn’t been all work (or study!) while I’ve been out here and instead of leaving you with the rather uninspiring book jacket of what is an incredibly well written book, here’s a picture of the sea turtle I met a few days ago. Aloha!

Sea Turtle(*) Robson, C. (2011). Real World Research. Chichester: Wiley.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st May 2014.

Occupational psychology course conference – looking back

Before I talk a little about my experience of this year’s course conference, here’s my recommendation to future students:

If you’re able to attend, then do so!

It was a very interesting and useful two and a half days. This year the event was held in Stamford Court at the university and included a talk from a former student, interactive workshops on leadership selection and ergonomics, advice on the dissertation process, help with quantitative and qualitative research methods and a presentation on chartership. The chance to meet 1:1 with your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor was also offered. Just over a dozen students from both the first and second years were able to attend, some of whom had flown more than halfway around the world to be there, and others, like me, who’d only had to brave the vagaries of the M1 to get to Leicester.

The course content was excellent, and the ability to chew the fat with both tutors and students alike outside of the more formal sessions was particularly valuable. Being a distance learner can be a challenging experience at times, so simply being able to put faces to names should make it easier to approach someone to talk to if I need to in future I think.

And yes, the socialising was great too. The quiz on Thursday evening certainly helped us to get to know each other a little better and I think that I may have given the impression late in the bar on Friday night that I was ready to lead a tank convoy down the M1 and take over the government of the country. But as I appear to be writing this from home and it was the usual suspects that were being interviewed on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday morning rather than me, I suspect that it didn’t happen. Perhaps it was simply the red wine and whisky talking …

So it’s back to reality today and I’ve started to pull some readings together to help me with the first ergonomics module assignment due in on the 12th May. However, I’m already counting down the days until next year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 6th April 2014.

From personnel selection and assessment to ergonomics

Last weekend saw me submit the second and final assignment for the Personnel Selection and Assessment (PSA) module. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the end of this module (I’m not!), but I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll get a reasonable grade for it having had a very pleasing result on the first assignment.

Of the half-dozen compulsory modules on the Occupational Psychology MSc, PSA was the one that I was looking forward to the least. While it wasn’t anything like as bad as I’d feared and parts of it, just like the curate’s egg, were excellent, I did become rather frustrated by the constraints placed on me by the assignments. This was because that both of them had to be written as reports for a hypothetical managerial (and hence non-academic) audience.

Now, given that Occupational Psychology is an applied discipline, I do understand the need for us to be able to write assignments in this way. It’s a very useful skill to develop. However, (and yes, I can see the looks of complete incredulity on my undergraduate colleagues and tutors faces as I write this), it would have been very exciting to have had one (or even part of one) of the assignments as a traditional academic essay. This is because there is so much conflicting evidence about the best methods to use for selection and assessment – as well as so much bunkum about the topic that’s been written that just deserves to be, well, debunked.

Sadly, neither assignment was really able to let me go in this direction … because the last thing any manager reading a report wants is a debate. They need analysis, recommendations, conclusions and actions – so that’s what I produced!

Anyway, I’ve now moved onto the Ergonomics module. A quick skim through the unit material last night had me scrabbling around in the attic for my trusty OU Cognitive Psychology textbook this morning, as the links that the module makes to topics including attention, perception and memory was immediately obvious.

This afternoon, (I think that) I’ve managed to fight my way around the library catalogue with its myriad of logins, new windows, mysterious instructions, pages of allowances, charges and fines and issued the necessary incantations required to request the loan of a book on human factors engineering. The irony of my struggle in trying to request a book on how to create things that are easy to use wasn’t lost on me. I just hope that the right book turns up at the right place at around the time that I need it!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd March 2014.