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Milgram: Beyond the numbers…

A new angle on Milgram

Although there is no shortage of resources available for the teaching of many of the so-called “classics” in Social Psychology, such as Milgram’s obedience studies, I thought it was still worth blogging about an article In August 2015’s The Psychologist magazine entitled “Rhetoric and Resistance”.

Stephen Gibson (Department of Psychology and Sport, York St John University) writes about the importance of qualitative data and qualitative analysis to really understand what Milgram’s research tells us about human behaviour. The article, published in the British Psychology Society’s member’s publication, has the potential to offer a familiar context for students to learn about qualitative research methods for A Level Psychology.

Experiments and qualitative research methods

It can be easy for students to get the impression that qualitative research methods are used by researchers who don’t like experimental methods and that researchers might somehow fall into two camps distinguished by those who favour “scientific” experiments and those who prefer the richness and flexibility of qualitative methods. Many experiments in Psychology aim to tell us what humans might do under particular conditions but qualitative methods are also often employed and are vital for telling us why participants might have behaved in a particular way. Both Asch and Milgram gathered extensive data from post-experimental interviews in order to try to find out why they did or did not conform or obey and the content of these interviews has given insight that numbers alone cannot provide.

Is it really obedience or something else…?

The author of the BPS article focusses on an often overlooked source of qualitative data collected by Milgram which has the potential to challenge assumptions made about what Milgram’s study revealed about human nature. In his classic obedience studies, where a participant is given an order to give electric shocks to confederate for making errors in a memory test, Milgram revealed high levels of “obedience” measured by a willingness to deliver a shock to the “learner” (the confederate) up to 450 volts. Stephen Gibson, however, suggests that the audio transcripts of the interactions between the participant and the experimenter issuing the order reveal a social process that may not actually be obedience at all. Gibson suggests that contrary to popular belief the audio reveals that the experimenter did not stick to the standardised “script” and appeared able to improvise in their interactions much more than reports of the study seem to suggest was the case. This might suggest that participants showed more resistance to the request to carry on and deliver the shock than the quantitative data might imply. The validity of Milgram’s research, therefore, may be in doubt if this source of data is taken into account.

The BPS article includes a section of the transcript of the audio from the experiment where a participant is asking for reassurance from the learner that they are ok and willing to continue. Although we might assume that the experimenter would have simply repeated that the participant must continue, the audio reveals a much more drawn out discussion involving some negotiation rather than standardised orders.

The author points out that it is the recording of this qualitative data that makes this scrutiny possible and makes the case that it is important to gather qualitative data and recordings of the interactions between participants and investigators in experiments, rather than focus solely on the outcome of the experiment.

In the A Level Psychology classroom

The article caught my eye because it offers an angle that could be useful for exploring concepts related to qualitative data analysis and the validity of the experiments such as Milgram’s (AQA AS Psychology – Social Influence 3.1.1: How well does Milgram’s research actually enable us to explain obedience?; 3.2.3.2 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 4.2.3.2 Data handling and analysis: content analysis, coding, thematic analysis).

The article ends with the following line: “If we attempt to analyse what happens in experiments without exploring the use of language, we risk missing the social processes that should be at the heart of the study of social Psychology”. I love quotes to stimulate discussion in lessons and I think this closing line from Stephen Gibson would make a great starter or plenary for a lesson on Milgram’s research which has the potential to either simply introduce the importance of qualitative research methods or as an extension for those who you are encouraging to take opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.

The article includes extracts of the transcripts of the audio of the interaction between the participant and the confederate acting as the experimenter. If you are not eligible for membership with the BPS you can become an e-subscriber for a small annual fee and access the full article and much much more…

 

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Attachment: Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

Attachments in the New Specification

The new specification for AQA places more emphasis on the formation of attachments and has removed the need to explore the impact of day care. The topic of “Attachment” now starts by exploring the early interactions between infant and caregiver that are the building blocks for the development of this bond.

babyAlthough the introduction of the concepts of reciprocity and interactional synchrony are welcome additions, the newly published textbooks seem to offer a blurry and, sometimes interchangeable, definition of these concepts. This is particularly important to point out because even the AQA approved books seem to offer slightly different definitions to the historically popular books (e.g. the companion series). I queried this with AQA and was told that candidates need to be aware that the concepts overlap but that they should be able to define the terms separately. They were very helpful and the senior examiner recommends referring to Condon and Sander (1974) which is on page 16 of the Scheme of Work on the AQA website and is discussed further below.

The Over Lap

The concepts in this area are describing the metaphorical dance between infant and caregiver. It looks, feels and acts like a conversation between infant and caregiver. Though no words may be uttered (not on the baby’s part anyway) this two-way interaction has two active contributors. The interactions will be rhythmic and mutual; infant and caregiver are likely to appear to be in harmony as they take turns in this attachment promoting conversation which is likely to involve the infant and caregiver responding to each other with similar sounds, emotions and behaviours. Infant and caregiver are able to anticipate how each other will behave and can elicit a particular response from the other.

What does it look like? The caregiver who smiles at their baby in response to a smile-like facial movement from the infant or who opens their mouth in mock surprise when the infant scrunches up their face, is engaged in this two-way pattern of interaction and is laying the foundations for an attachment to form. The infant that cries and elicits a sad expression and look of upset on their caregivers face or the caregiver who laughs in response to their infants giggling sound and tickles them, is experiencing synchronised interaction.

Defining the Terms Separately

Reciprocity

The word reciprocal means two-way, or something that is mutual. Infant and caregiver are both active contributors in the interaction and are responding to each other. This is referred to as reciprocity.

Interactional synchrony

The word synchrony means a simultaneous action or occurrence. Interactional synchrony relates to the timing and pattern of the interaction. The interaction is rhythmic and can include infant and caregiver mirroring each other’s behaviour and emotion.  The infant and caregiver’s behaviours and affect are synchronised because they are moving in the same, or a similar, pattern.

Condon and Sander (1974) have investigated interactions between infants and caregivers in particular in relation to responses to adult speech. In their paper they report “As early as the first day of life, the human neonate moves in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.

According to research by Meltzoff and Moore (1983) infants as young as 3 days imitate the facial expression of adults. This implies that this ability to mirror is an innate behaviour.

Beyond the course

Learners may be interested in the applications of this knowledge in Psychology. Music therapists and other therapists who work with parents and infants/children who have experienced disruption in their attachment formation (e.g. when children are adopted and attachments with foster carers need to be transferred to adoptive parents) recognise the importance of reciprocity and interactional synchrony in their therapeutic work. For example, caregivers are encouraged to mirror and share their child’s emotion by imitating facial expressions and engaging in reciprocal behaviour in response to music or other stimuli.

 

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Psychopathology: The Return of the “4th” Definition

Defining Abnormality

There are a few new (at time of posting) additions to the Psychopathology topic in the AS and A Level course for AQA but I thought I would blog about the return of the “statistical infrequency” definition of abnormality in the revised specification. This definition has a history of being in and out of the AQA spec and it is back, some might say rightly so, for September 2015.

Statistical Infrequency

Put simply the definition states that abnormal behaviour is statistically rare behaviour. Any behaviour that does not occur very often is regarded as abnormal and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. So the focus is on the numbers of people showing the behaviour rather than the acceptability (Deviation from Social Norms) or the impact the behaviour has on day to day life (Failure to Function Adequately).

The AQA scheme of work suggests bringing in the normal distribution (from research methods) at this point, which makes sense. Most textbooks will include a normal distribution graph showing the symmetry of the distribution of IQ scores across the population. Obviously few people will have a very low IQ and few have a very high IQ and most of us are somewhere near the middle.   This would suggest that having a very low IQ (or high for that matter) would be considered abnormal.

Showing understanding by using precise language

In my experience students often make the mistake of referring to frequency of behaviour when they are actually describing the deviation from social norms definition (DSN). For example, I have repeatedly encountered reference to a behaviour being abnormal because “most people don’t do it” in student answers, mixed in with reference to the acceptability of the behaviour.  Although an unacceptable behaviour is also likely to be uncommon, this merging of concepts is dangerous territory for students as it can imply they don’t really understand the definition.

A useful activity to reduce the lack of clarity and emphasise the need for precise language involves displaying a set of behaviours and asking students to explain why each one in turn might be considered abnormal (or not) using each of the definitions. This could work as a sort of reverse Taboo game. For example, usually in the game taboo you would ban words that are relevant to the definition in order to ensure students can explain the concept rather than just rote learn some key terms. In this “reverse” version you could provide the name of the definition and a list of words related to the other definitions which must be avoided in order to be successful.

Students might find it useful to see sentences (e.g. those below) using precise language to ensure they understand the different angle each definition takes. Learners could then be asked to put these sentences in the context of the given behaviour.

Example writing:

Statistical Infrequency The behaviour could be considered abnormal because few people show this behaviour. As the behaviour is rare it may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. 
Deviation from Social Norms The behaviour could be considered abnormal because other people would find it unacceptable. As the behaviour goes against the implicit and explicit rules of society is may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. 
Failure to Function Adequately The behaviour could be considered abnormal because it impacts on the individual’s ability to carry out their day to day activities. This disruption to their daily functioning may be a change in their behaviour and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.

 You could think of one for deviation from ideal mental health.

Evaluating statistical infrequency as a definition of abnormality

The specification no longer refers specifically to the “limitations” of the definitions so strengths and weaknesses should be considered in order to prepare for an “evaluate” or “discuss” question.

Strengths Weaknesses
The definition can provide an objective way, based on data, to define abnormality if an agreed cut-off point can be identified. Some rare behaviours are desirable and don’t seem to indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Having a very high IQ, having a STM digit span of 20 or having exceptional musical ability are all rare but actually highly desirable rather than “disordered”.
The definition (unlike DSN) does not make judgements about the acceptability of behaviour. The behaviour is rare rather than wrong. It can be difficult to know where the draw the line between behaviour that is frequent enough to be normal and rare enough to be abnormal. This makes the definition highly subjective. The definition also does not take into account the severity of the behaviour only whether it is common on not.
The definition is limited because some behaviours are rare in some cultures but not others. This suggests that caution needs to be taken when judging the behaviour of individuals from a different culture.

Using real statistics

Ask students to consider some real statistics related to the rates of diagnosis of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Statistics are often reported in the media which show an increase in mental health issues and reference to the claim that “many” of us will experience mental health problems at some point over our lives is often made in campaigns which aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness (“Fact: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year”, reported on www.time-to-change.org.uk). Asking students to interpret real data will not only develop their data analysis skills but will also give them the opportunity to identify a criticism of the statistical infrequency definition of abnormality given that some mental health problems may not actually be that rare. Students could discuss these statistics and comment on the implications for the definition. This could also include a discussion about the increases in self-harming behaviour in teenagers and whether this definition would imply this is becoming a “normal” behaviour for this age group. I would recommend seeking advice about how to manage this sort of discussion sensitively and appropriately (always assume you are teaching individuals who have self-harmed or who are self-harming to be on the safe side).

An article on the the role of culture on mental health reported that “the prevalence rates for major depression varied from 2 to 19 percent across countries” (Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General). Students could also discuss this finding in relation to the limitation of the definition regarding culture.

I’m sure there are lots of other useful stats out there! Share if you find some.

Useful links:

http://www.simplypsychology.org/abnormal-psychology.html

http://study.com/academy/lesson/normal-distribution-of-data-examples-definition-characteristics.html

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/mental-health-statistics-facts

 

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New Specification: Sperry’s Split Brain Research

Now that the A Level Psychology specifications for September 2015 are approved and published, I thought I’d focus my blogging attention on the near future.

Prize winning research

brainThe brand new AQA specification features a number of new areas including hemispheric lateralisation and split brain research (AQA A Level; 4.2.2 Biopsychology). This week on Twitter I came across an interesting article which may provide a useful opportunity to debunk a neuroscience myth whilst teaching A Level students about Sperry’s Nobel Prize winning research (Prize for Medicine awarded in 1981).

Split brain

Sperry’s research (1960’s and 1970’s) revealed that when the two hemispheres of the brain are disconnected, they become functionally separate. Studies of patients whose corpus callosum had been severed, disconnecting the left and right halves of the brain, revealed this insight.

Click here for more on lateralisation and the procedures and findings of the experiments.

Watch this video for a demonstration of the experiments.

Neuro-myths

In an article entitled “Right Brained, Wrong Brained: How Caltech Neuroscience became a Buzzfeed Quiz” (Los Angeles Magazine, Feb 9th 2015), author Jason G. Goldman highlights the inappropriate use of Sperry’s research to suggest that people can be left or right brained. The idea that people can be categorised as being one or the other, to account for our strengths and weaknesses, is a neuro-myth. The article points about that the brain needs both sides to function but that both sides need the corpus callosum to communicate. The misreporting of the findings – and a human need to find ways to explain and predict our success and failures – seems to be responsible for the widespread misuse of this finding.  The idea of right or left “brained-ness” is popular probably because it seems more scientific than horoscopes or out-dated personality classifications.

Follow this link for more about this myth.

A quote for a starter

“”The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you.”

I think this great quote (above) from Roger  Sperry himself, according to www.nobelprize.org, would make a great starter to get students thinking about the focus for the lesson and reveal any existing knowledge – or misconceptions – about the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

 

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Attachments: Rutter Versus Bowlby

Rutter’s Challenge: Is Monotropy a Valuable Concept?

Most, if not all, A Level Psychology textbooks make reference to the challenge made by Michael Rutter regarding Bowlby’s concept of monotropy (the idea that infants need one bond that is stronger than all the rest) but they make this reference fairly superficially. I often find that students are aware that Rutter made a challenge but don’t really understand the grounds on which Rutter disagreed with part of what is arguably one of the most important and influential theories A Level Psychology students will come across.

Good Old Radio 4

radioBBC Radio 4’s science programmes are, in my opinion, exceptional. In June (3rd June 2014) an episode of The Life Scientific was aired which focused on the work of Michael Rutter. The interview with Rutter (still available to listen to at time of blogging) is a must listen for any A Level Psychology teacher, student or anyone interested in Developmental Psychology.

From the Horse’s Mouth

horseI love hearing about how researchers got into their field, what motivates them and what sort of people they are more generally. You don’t get this knowledge from the pages of a textbook and so taking the opportunity to hear learn first hand from the researcher, rather than simply reading a (possibly false) biography online, should not be missed. One of the things that particularly struck me was that Rutter is in his 80’s and is still working; he talks about how he still works with the individuals who were part of his study of Romanian orphans who were adopted. In a society where many people are driven by making as much money as possible then retiring as soon as possible, it is refreshing to hear someone value the meaningful nature of their work and for someone of his vast experience to hold great value too. This is something I would make explicit when discussing this interview with students as the potential benefit in the classroom goes much further than the content of the A Level specification.

In the Classroom

About 15 minutes in to the episode, Rutter refers to the differing approaches of the Tavistock Clinic in London (taking a Psychoanalytic approach), where Bowlby was working, and South London’s Institute of Psychiatry, where he was working. It could easily be assumed that Rutter and Bowlby were rivals or enemies but during the interview, Rutter speaks highly of Bowlby’s work. Rutter models the use of evaluative thinking, a vital part of being a Psychologist which can be used to help dispel the myth that this is an Assessment Objective that is purely the task of A Level students. This gives students the opportunity to see (or hear) that analytical thinking is a vital skill to master in order to be an effective learner, in or out of formal education, and is not something you do (or appear to be doing) at school then switch off when you think you are not assessed anymore.

I would either ask students to listen to the episode (or part), with some questions to focus them on particular aspects, for homework or play all or part of the episode in class. You might ask students to defend Rutter’s challenge using what they have learned and possibly counter criticise by thinking about how Bowlby might defend his position regarding monotropy. Rutter basically suggests that it doesn’t make sense to need one (usually maternal) bond more than any others because if that bond was broken the cost would be so high.

I’m not going to repeat the interview here; listen to the episode and hear Rutter make his case (he talks about the differing effects of deprivation and privation too). This audio resource puts the detail on a blurry textbook representation of what is arguably a key evaluative point of Bowlby’s  Attachment Theory. Rutter also talks about his study of Romanian orphans in a way makes criticising on knee jerk methodological grounds seem somewhat churlish. A great opportunity to stretch students thinking and avoid relying too heavily on weaknesses of research in evaluative writing.

Other scientific lives

Another useful episode of the Life Scientific for A Level Psychology is an interview with circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster.

 

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Demystifying the Language of Bowlby (and other theories)

Vexing vocab = struggling students

Many theories in Psychology appear riddled with new and complex terminology for often very abstract concepts. This can be hard for many students to cope with, particularly if they have struggled to decode language throughout their education.

A prime example: Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (AQA) is a good example of a theory with what seems like many brand new complex terms. Teaching students about Bowlby’s ideas without considering the origins of his terminology can leave students feeling that they are learning copious amounts of brand new language. They will struggle to apply this learning if they acquire it without full understanding.

I don’t think that there is much chance of A Level students retaining knowledge of Bowlby’s Theory, or theories like this, and using the terms in the appropriate context if they don’t consider why he chose the words he did to describe his concepts. Students can easily be under the impression that theorists simply make up words and terms to sound clever and make other people feel inadequate. A term that has no semantic associations in our memory is likely to be quickly forgotten.

Laying the foundations

foundationsWhen teaching Bowlby’s theory I start with an activity where I display a list of words associated with Bowlby’s proposals about how attachments develop. For example, the list includes: evolve, adaptive, innate, continuity, hypothesis, internal, model, mono, critical, sensitive and period. I ask students in small groups to identify words they are familiar with and those they are not. I also ask them to use the words in a sentence and to identify words with several meanings or uses. As a class we then unpick the words, considering what they mean and the ways they are used; this is to ensure students are all familiar with what will make up most of the key terms for the lesson.  I generally find that many are quite confident about doing this; however, there are always a significant number of students who are not at all confident with the use of many of these quite common words.

Reducing new learning, lightening the load and maximising memory

Understanding the meaning of the list of terms above makes Bowlby’s theory quite predictable and so much easier to understand and remember. I think that unpicking the origins of these words reduces the amount of genuinely brand new learning that students are exposed to. I have found retention of Bowlby’s theory to be much better since using this approach, in no small part because they had somewhere old to put their new learning (or however, you want to describe it or analogise) and the new learning didn’t actually feel so new.

Narrowing a gap

Students who were familiar with the terminology already are able to see why Bowlby chose to combine words and use terms such as continuity hypothesis, internal working model and critical period. The consequence of this is that they also understand it better now. Using literacy skills, such as being reminded that the prefix mono refers to one thing suddenly makes terms like monotropy make much more sense and in turn increases the chance it will be remembered.

The students who are learning theses terms for the first time in this lesson are also benefiting from this approach. These students have learnt these concepts twice, which in itself is a benefit, but they have also had the opportunity to fill in the blanks in their vocabulary and to have experienced the process of decoding language when it is not familiar. This is a vital skill for good literacy and making this skill explicit has a place in every lesson in every subject.

Beyond Bowlby

I think this type of starter is appropriate for many theories in Psychology and would work well to introduce the main approaches in Psychology too.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in A2, AO1, AQA A Unit 1, AS, literacy, Starters/plenaries

 

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Attachment: Timely topical revision

A revision stimulus for AS Attachments (Unit 1)

A couple of days ago (at time of writing) @TimesEducation tweeted a post that would make a great stimulus for some broad revision of the AS (AQA spec A) topic of Attachment.

@TimesEducation: “End of the road for childhood” as nurseries open all hours”.

Is this the future of day care?

Is this the future of day care?

After Easter I plan to simply display this tweet and invite students to speculate about the content of arguments in the article it refers to. With access to the full article I could display it and ask students to annotate the piece with their knowledge; backing up or refuting the content and suggestions made in the piece will give ample opportunities to find, use and refile their learning. There’s lots of scope to consider bias in the way the article is written and whether research has been reflected accurately and in a way that shows that research is tentative not 100% conclusive (How Science Works). The link in the blog post only gives the opening paragraph (a subscription is required) but even this has enough to get a reflective discussion going.

Some ideas for the classroom

Here are a few suggestions of how this article might be best used in the AS Psychology classroom:

  1. The first line of the article suggests that longer hours for nurseries may “risk insitutionalising young children”; a bold claim with much scope for a two sided class or small group debate.
  2. Put students in pairs – where one is the journalist and one the “expert” – and ask the journalist to imagine the article has not been written yet and they want to interview an expert as research for writing the article. A fictional section of the article, drawing on research into attachments, disruption and day care could then be written by the pair collaboratively.
  3. Ask students to write a comment (in the style of those posted in response to news articles online) about the content of the article given their knowledge of research in this area.
  4. Students could give advice to nurseries planning to open for long hours about how best to avoid institutionalisation and promote attachment and social development.

It is important that students do not start to mix up institutional care and day care; a carefully managed discussion and consideration of how and why the article is using the term “institutionalisation” should help prevent this.

 

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