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Discourse Analysis Essay

Discourse Analysis is one of the qualitative research methods, and is one that I admit I didn’t get on with very well myself. One of my recent assignments was to write a 600 word essay on Discourse Analysis, and I was very pleased to get an A grade for this (a combined grade with another assignment that I will post here soon).

Explain what Discourse Analysis is and why you would use it to analyse your qualitative data. Discuss the underlying theory, the basic tenets, analytical terms, and include a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the method.


Discourse analysis (DA) is an umbrella term for a number of qualitative research methods used to understand the cognitions of an individual through analysing the language they employ. Gee (2005) described language as serving two functions: “…to support the performance of social activities and social identities and to support human affiliation within cultures, social groups, and institutions.”  DA addresses these functions both in terms of the conscious and unconscious goals of the speaker, and analysing discourse as a constructing the social world. DA also looks at how power, inequality, and other social goods are shared and attributed through language.

As a qualitative research method, DA allows the researcher to take advantage of naturally occurring data as well as collected data.

Basic Tenets

One of the tenets of DA is and examination of the function of language. Functions can be direct such as a request, or they more global such as social promotion by disparaging another (Potter, 1987). Function is sometimes abstracted and can only be understood in context, for example an elderly woman complaining about a sore back on a bus is implicitly requesting a seat.

DA explores how language is used for construction of different versions of the world. Gee (2005, p.11) elaborates this by defining seven areas which are said to be simultaneously built by any communication: significance (endowing meaning or value onto things), activities, identities, relationships, politics (the distribution of social goods such as responsibility and power), connections, and sign systems and knowledge.

Particularly over time, an analysis of language can expose variation; an individual may give different and sometimes contradictory accounts. While it is often explored as an element of its own, variation is both tool and by-product of language serving different functions and constructing different realities to support those functions. For example choosing a certain subset of available characteristics to describe someone dependent on your opinion of that individual (Potter, 1987).

Analytical Terms

Interpretive repertoires have been described as the “terminology, stylistic and grammatical features, and preferred metaphors and other figures of speech” (Willig, 2008) which are used in the construction of objects in the text. They are different ways of talking about an object, which are used to construct different realities. For example in one context “youth” may be described as unruly, criminal, and resistant, however in another instance “youth” may be described as disenfranchised, abandoned, and helpless.

Lived ideologies are the “beliefs, values, and practices of a given society or culture” (Edley, 2001), which, in contrast to intellectual ideologies, are not necessarily mutually compatible.  Ideological dilemmas occur when an individual can accept two conflicting sides of an argument. The resulting internal conflict can then be played out through language.

A subject position is an identity that is constructed through language. For example through the language used a woman may identify herself with mother, sister, professional, or lover subject positions in different contexts, however discourse can also position others. Edley (2001) wrote, for example, of wartime posters positioning the reader as “British” with the text “Your country needs you.”

Strengths and Weaknesses

By working so closely with the data and being flexible DA allows the researcher to open up new areas for research that would otherwise not have been apparent, and the established analytical terms provide a powerful tools for mining the text for meaning. Unlike quantitative methods, DA can open up new areas of interest for research.

DA has some disadvantages; it is highly labour intensive and can only be employed on a small scale, usually only considering single cases. DA remains unclearly defined, with multiple and occasionally contradictory explanations of the method and process. This makes it difficult for new students to master, and means that different cases cannot be compared. Also by restricting focus to the texts being analysed, DA overlooks “the influence of who the speakers are and the broader social context in which the texts are produced” (McMullen, 2011) when compared to some other qualitative methods.


Coulthard, M. (1985), An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (2nd ed.). Essex: Longman Group UK.

Edley, N. (2001), Analysing Masculinity: Interpretative Repertoires, Ideological Dilemmas and Subject Positions in M. Wetherell (Ed.), Discourse as Data: A Guide for Analysis, (pp.189-228). London: Sage.

Gee, J . P. (2005), An Introduction to Discourse Analysis Theory and Method (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

McMullen, L. M. (2011), A Discursive Analysis of Teresa’s Protocol in F. Wertz (Ed.), Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis (pp. 205-223). The Guilford Press.

Potter. J. (1987), Unfolding Discourse Analysis in J. Potter & M. Wetherell (Eds.), Discourse and social psychology: beyond attitudes and behaviour (pp.32-53). London: Sage.

Willig, C. (2008), Discourse Analysis in J. Smith (Ed.) Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods (pp.160-185). London: Sage.

Memory Experiment

Yesterday and today I took part in an experiment that looks at memory. I can’t go into much detail because the experiment is still being carried out with other participants, but I would like to give you an idea.

At the start of the experiment I was read twelve words, then asked to recite them. If I missed any I was reminded of them then asked to recite the list again until I could reel off all the words twice without missing any. I actually used a memory technique to help me remember: I turned the list of words into a story which I visualized in my head.

Next I was shown a series of pictures, each depicting an object. I think there were about fifteen to twenty. Once I had seen them all I was shown another series of pictures and for each one I was to indicate whether I had seen the presented object in the previous set or not. I got a perfect score on this one, once again helped out by a bit of storytelling. Next this was repeated with faces and I didn’t do as well – I didn’t “recognise” any I hadn’t seen but I did fail to recognise several I had seen!

Up next came a drawing task. I was shown a drawing, something called a Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure which was designed as a test of “visuospatial abilities, memory, attention, planning, and working memory”. First I cold copy out the figure while looking at it, then I had to do so from memory, and finally again after performing another task in meantime. I would love to learn more about this test and how it is scored!

The final test on that day was based on memorising objects and positions. A 2×2 grid was laid out on a table and two chairs in front facing diagonally on to the table. I was then asked to sit in one of the chairs and close my eyes while two objects we’re laid out somewhere on the grid. I was then instructed to open my eyes and was told what category the objects fit into such as “kitchen” or “animals”. This was repeated a number of times with different objects, categories, positions, and with me sat in a different of tho two seats. At the end I was given a category name and asked to remember what the objects were, where I was sat, and where on the grid the objects were placed. I did surprisingly well at this, managing to remember everything for almost all the trials and even remembering a lot of details that were not necessary, such as “there was a green and black tractor there with a man inside wearing a blue and black outfit” or “there was a Palmolive Naturals hand soap there, milk and honey”.

The next stage of the experiment came the next day when I was fed into an fMRI scanner (which had been upgraded since my last visit!) this time I was shown photos of objects on the 2×2 grid taken from the position of one of the two chairs, and I had to indicate whether it was the same as I had previously seen, and how confident I was in my answer. Despite being so tired that day that I actually fell asleep in the machine and missed at least one question (I suddenly woke up to see the screen asking me how confident I was in my answer when I hadn’t consciously seen any scene!), I did rather well.

The strange thing is I am sure I have a poor memory. I forget a LOT of things, and have particularly poor retention for faces, names, and dates. Yet for objects and scenes, particularly in short term or working memory, I seem to perform fairly well. I think part of it may come down to focused attention – I was actively trying to notice and memorise details whereas usually I wouldn’t even notice them.

It got me thinking about my memory quite a bit. And it doesn’t hurt that I earned £15 and get a copy of my brain on disc!

What are the similarities and differences between conformity, compliance, and obedience?

Here’s another one of my first year assignments for your casual reading. Please bear in mind that this is all written by myself as a first year student, so it’s accuracy is not to be taken as gospel! Having said that this essay bagged me an A grade, so it can’t be all bad 🙂

What are the similarities and differences between conformity, compliance, and obedience?

This essay looks at the concepts of conformity, compliance, and obedience and lays out the similiarities and differences between them by looking at the factors that influence each. It concludes that conformity stands apart from compliance and obedience, which share more similarities than differences. The reasons for this may be evolutionary in nature.

Conformity, compliance, and obedience are forms of social influence which strongly affect our behaviour is social situations, from following fashions and unwritten social norms which organise our behaviour, to committing immoral acts because we are commanded to by someone who appears to be in a position of authority. This essay looks at the similarities and differences between the three, looking specifically at the factors that influence each three. In conclusion we find that two of the forms of social influence are very similar, almost interchangeable, while the third stands alone with influencing factors different from the other two.

1. Conformity

Conformity is the tendency for people to change their behaviour and paradigm to fit social norms. Experiments (Asch, 1951; Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2003) have shown that when confronted by social norms individuals will often adjust their paradigm and behaviour to closer approximate the perceived norm. The Asch (1951) experiment involved subjects performing a perception task, saying which of a selection of lines matched a control line in length. Unbeknown to the subject the other participants in the room were all confederates, and the seating was arranged so that the confederates would each give their answer to the trial in turn, with the subject giving their answer last. On critical trials the confederates would all give the same incorrect answer to the question. The experiment showed that around 76% of the subjects would conform to the incorrect answer at least once. In the Aarts & Dijksterhuis (2003) experiment participants who were exposed to pictures of a situation where there is a social expectation of silence, a library, were later quieter on a pronunciation task than the participants who were shown pictures of a normally noisy situation, a railway station. This showed that the normative behaviour of being silent had been unconsciously activated in those subjects who saw the library picture.

There seem to be three main reasons for conformity: a need to be accepted into the societal group, an aversion to conflict, and informational social influence. Each of these could be argued to have ethological roots: improving the accuracy of an individual’s perception of the world, allowing them to assess threats more accurately for the latter reason, and improving an individual’s chances of being accepted into, and protected by, a “tribe” for the former two reasons.

2. Compliance

Compliance is one person yielding to the requests of another. Much research has been carried out into what influences compliance. After participating in training programs of various professions which depend on the professional’s ability to elicit compliance, such as sales and marketing, Cialdini (as cited in Baron, Branscombe, and Byrne 2006) established a list of six main factors that impact compliance rate: friendship / liking, commitment / concistency, scarcity, reciprocity, social validation, and authority.

3. Obedience

Obedience is defined as being “Simply, acting in accordance with rules or orders” (Reber, Reber, & Allen, 2004). Conformity has been studied most famously by Milgram (2010). In his experiment a subject was told to apply electric shocks of increasing strength to a learner, actually a confederate, whenever they made mistakes on a memory task. If the subjects expressed concern the experimenter responded simply with pre-arranged stock sentences such as “The experiment must continue”. Around 65% of participants showed obedience up to the level of administering shocks they believed to be highly dangerous.

4. Similarities

The three concepts of conformity, compliance, and obedience are interrelated and share a number of similarities.
Both compliance and conformity have been shown to be improved by positive inter-personal attitudes. Ingratiation and flattery has been shown to correlate with improved compliance, as has performing small favours for the subject and a positive self-presentation (Gordon, 1996). Drawing attention to incidental similarities between the requestor and the requestee has likewise been shown to improve compliance (Burger et al., 2004) by improving the “friendship” between the two. Similarly cohesiveness of the group has been shown to affect conformity (Crandall, 1988).

Compliance and obedience also have a similarity in the foot-in-the-door approach. Studies have shown that having the participant commit to a small act, such as accepting a taster at a supermarket, can improve later compliance to request (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). This is reflected in the Milgram (2010) experiments on obedience where the subject built up from smaller shocks to larger ones.

Conformity, compliance, and obedience are all subject to the effects of informational social influence. Conformity is obviously based on informational social influence and studies (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1990; 2000) have further provided evidence for the normative focus theory; that the saliency of the social norm has a significant correlation to conformity. Compliance is subject to informational social influence under Cialdini’s category of social validation (as cited in Baron, Branscombe, and Byrne 2006), which draws on the subject’s desire to fit with the actions and expectations of society. Studies have also shown that the rate of obedience to destructive commands drops sharply if the participants are reminded that the weight of responsibility falls on their shoulders (Hamilton, 1978), i.e. that they are stepping outside the socially expected behaviour.
Finally obedience and compliance can, for the sake of much of the above, be considered the same thing as while compliance is a request and obedience is an order, both are requesting that the subject comply with the demand.

5. Differences

Compliance and obedience have one main difference: one is a request, a question, and the other is a direct command. While one invites the subject to decline, a command carries with it the social expectations of obedience.
Conformity is strongly affected by whether the culture in question is orientated to individualism or collectivism (Bond & Smith, 1996), however compliance and obedience are less likely to be affected by this particular factor.
Conformity is generally an internalising of the social norms, where the subject takes these and incorporates them into their own paradigm. Conformed behaviour can be shown to become “automatic”, i.e. unconscious, such as in the experiment by Aarts & Dijkersterhuis (2003). However public compliance and obedience do not necessarily belie private attitudes and beliefs.
While compliance and obedience are the result of social expectations, self-gain, and fear of conflict or punishment, conformity also has a stronger ethological cause: The perceptions and behaviours of the majority are likely to be more accurate and conducive to survival than those of the individual or minority.

6. Conclusion

Conformity, compliance and obedience have many aspects in common, however there are more similarities specific to compliance and obedience than those shared by conformity. Most of the differences identified above are between conformity on one side and compliance and obedience on the other.
Conformity is usually internalised by the individual (Aarts & Dijkersterhuis, 2003), whereas compliance and obedience can occur even in the presence of cognitive dissonance. Ethologically conformity can be considered a survival instinct, and may well have preceded our ability to communicate and thus compliance and obedience may be relatively new to us.
Finally obedience is a submission to power, however conformity and compliance are based on more positive driving forces of survival and coherence of the social group.

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The Silence of the Library:Environment, Situational Norm, and Social Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 84 (1), 18-28.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men (pp. 177-190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Baron, R., Byrne, D., Branscombe, N. (2006), Social Psychology 11th Ed, Pearson Education
Bond, R., & Smith, P. (1996). Culture and Conformity: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) Line Judgment Task. 119 (1), 111-137.
Burger, J., Messian, N., Patel, S., Prado, A. d., & Anderson, C. (2004). What a Coincidence! The Effects of Incidental Similarity on Compliance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 30, 35-43.
Cialdini, R., Kallgren, C., & Reno, R. (1990). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 58 (6), 1015-1026.
Cialdini, R., Kallgren, C., & Reno, R. (2000). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: When Norms Do and Do Not Affect Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (26), 1002-1012.
Crandall, C. (1988). Social Contagion of Binge Eating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 55 (4), 588-598.
Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-In-The-Door Technique. Journal ol Personality and Social Psychology , 4 (2), 195-202.
Gordon, R. (1996). Impact of Ingratiation on Judgments and Evaluations: A Meta-Analytic Investigation. Journal or Personality and Social Psychology , 71 (1), 54-70.
Hamilton, V. (1978). Obedience and Responsibility: A Jury Simulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 36 (2), 126-146.
Milgram, S. (2010). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Pinter & Martin Ltd.
Reber, E., Reber, A., & Allen, R. (2004). Dictionary of Psychology (3rd Edition ed.). Penguin.

The Parasite That Changes Your Personality

Image from Wikimedia

Meet toxoplasma gondii. This lovely looking fellow is a parasite who finds host in cats, however it is also found – in the asexual stage of it’s life cycle – in other warm blooded animals, most commonly rodents but also birds and – you guessed it – humans. Luckily the parasite is kept in it’s latency stage by the human immune system, although if you have a compromised immune system it can raise it’s ugly head a little. But for the majority of people infected with this parasite, they have absolutely no idea they have a stowaway in their body. Which is quite lucky really, since about 22%-84% (Desmonts, 1974) of the worlds population is thought to carry this beastie!

The lifecycle of toxoplasma gondii, in a nutshell, goes something like: Infected rodent is eaten by a cat > parasite reproduces in the cat > parasite excreted through the feces > infects another warm blooded animal, like a rodent > form cysts in the brain, heart, and other tissue > repeat. This is why pregnant women are told to keep away from cat litter trays – because the parasite can be passed on in-utero and would certainly do a baby some damage! Even if you are not a cat owner, do not consider yourself safe. It can be ingested from unwashed vegetables for example, since the oocysts that exist in cat faeces are as persistent as a two year old with an ice-cream van outside: “These oocysts contaminate the surrounding environment; a 20-g cat stool can contain between 2 and 20 million oocysts, and after faecal decomposition, the local soil contamination can be as high as 100 000 oocysts/g and remain infectious for more than 1 year”  (Webster, 2001). Also a study of meat samples in shops in the UK found up to 38% were infected with T. gondii! (Aspinall et al., 2002)

Image from Wikimedia

That’s creepy enough. Things got interesting, however, when it was discovered that this parasite actually changes the behaviour of rodents to make it more likely that they will get eaten by a cat, thus allowing the parasite to complete it’s lifecycle. Specifically it was found that rats infected with the parasite did not show the usual fear-reaction and aversion to the smell of cat urine and in some instances even seemed to be attracted to it! (Webster, 2001;  2007) Other studies have also show infected rats to have diminished memory and maze-learning abilities, were more active, spent less time grooming before exploring new environments, and “laboratory mice…have been observed to run in circles and have their heads bent to one side.” (Webster, 2007)

This then raised the question – if this parasite can do this to rodents, does it affect humans too? Well according the the research, yes. Take this rather bold statement for example:

“Previously it was thought to be completely harmless, but the parasite actually changes your personality. If you are infected, you become more daring and unconcentrated, for example it has been noted that people that have the infection, more often are involved in traffic accidents, and even is thought be make a person suffer from schizophrenia.”
(Bech-Neilsen, 2012)

Cats really can drive you mad!
Image from: SXC

While I suspect this statement is somewhat hyperbolic considering the studies into personality changes have only shown subtle (although statistically significant) differences, and the link to schizophrenia is not nearly as clear cut as seems to be suggest here, the quote makes the point well: Your personality, and your behaviour, may be being altered by a parasite in your body.

I’ll say that again. You may have a parasite in your body (22%-84%, remember?). This parasite may be affecting the way that you think and behave without you even realising it.

Scared yet? I am!

In a correlational study looking at on a number of personality trait studies performed using Cattell’s 16PF personality trait questionnaire, a correlation between was found between infection and lower superego strength  and higher vigilance in men, leading to increased tendency to boredom, jealousy, suspiciousness, and temper in men as well as a disregard for social rules. Women, in contrast, were shown to have higher superego strength and higher warmth ratings, “suggesting that they were more warm hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic.” It has also been said to be linked to higher anxiety levels in both genders. Concentration and psychomotor skills deficits were also reported (Flegr, 2007). T. Gondii has been claimed to be responsible for 9% of intellectual disability cases in some regions. (da Silva and Langoni, 2007)

Things get really interesting when you look at T. Gondii with mental health. The link between the parasite and schizophrenia has been considered for over 50 years now, and studies have shown that individuals with schizophrenia have increased amount of T. Gondii antibodies, as well as identifying exposure to cats in childhood as a risk factor for schizophrenia (Torrey, 2003). Moreover, it has been found that many antipsychotic drugs used in the treatment of schizophrenia actually stop reproduction of the parasite in laboratory cultures. This has brought up the hypothesis that many anti-psychotic and mood-stabilising medication may work, wholly or partly, by inhibiting the T. Gondii parasite, giving support to the idea that the parasite may play a role in development of schizophrenia. To test this, a study was carried out where infected rats were treated with antipsychotic medications or water. The control (water medicated) rats exhibited the suicidal attraction to cats and other modified behaviours as described above, however the rats treated with antipsychotics did not exhibit these changes (Webster, 2007).

It’s all pretty interesting food for thought, and one thing is for sure: I’m steering clear of cats and I’m making sure my salads are very thoroughly washed from now on. Although the odds say that I’m probably already infected.If that is the case…I wonder how different I would be as a person if I wasn’t?

(References at bottom of post)


Aspinall, TV., Marlee, D., Hyde, JE., Sims, PFG., 2002. Prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in commercial meat products as moni- tored by polymerase chain reaction—food for thought? Int J Epidemiol. 32:1193–1199.

Bech-Nielsen, S., 2012. Toxoplasma gondii associated behavioural changes in mice, rats and humans: evidence from current research. Preventive veterinary medicine, 103(1), pp.78-9.

da Silva, R.C. & Langoni, H., 2009. Toxoplasma gondii: host-parasite interaction and behavior manipulation. Parasitology research, 105(4), pp.893-8.

Desmonts G., Couvreur J., 1974. Congenital toxoplasmosis. A prospective study of 378 pregnancies, N. Engl. J. Med. 290, pp.1110–1116

Flegr, J., 2007. Effects of toxoplasma on human behavior. Schizophrenia bulletin, 33(3), pp.757-60.

Torrey, E., 2003. Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia. Emerging infectious diseases, 9(11), pp.1375-1380.

Webster, J.P., 2001. Rats, cats, people and parasites: the impact of latent toxoplasmosis on behaviour. Microbes and infection / Institut Pasteur, 3(12), pp.1037-45.

Webster, J.P., 2007. The effect of Toxoplasma gondii on animal behavior: playing cat and mouse. Schizophrenia bulletin, 33(3), pp.752-6.

A brief history of Attachment Theory

What is attachment theory? Generally when we speak of attachment theory these days we are referring not just to the work of one individual, but the culmination of work by a number of theorists and researchers, each building on the work of those who came before them. While Bowlby is credited as the father of Attachment Theory, really we must go a bit further back to understand where he came from and really understand the relevance of his theory.

Please note that this is a very short, very surface level overview of attachment theory. For a detailed and thorough overview of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachement theory I recommend Bretherton (1992).

Melanie Klein (1927)

Building on the earlier work of S. Freud, Klein’s Object-Relations theory puts an emphasis on the mother-child relationship, and dropped S. Freud’s Oedipus/Elektra complexes thus de-emphasising the Eros instinct. Klein also embraced (although never credited) the theory of Hug Helmuth (1912) who believed that children’s behaviour could provide evidence of the role of instincts in children. She combined these in her belief that Thanatos can be revealed in the destructiveness of children’s play, which she believed reflected the unconscious phantasy of the child.

Klein believed that the id and the super-ego of the child were constantly in conflict. On one side they felt hatred toward the mother driven by the id, and coming up against this on the other hand was the super-ego messages that they should love the mother.

Klein is credited with expanding the realm of child psychoanalysis beyond free association and dream analysis, but at the same time she is criticized for her assumption that children are as robust as adults in undergoing psychoanalysis.

Quality of Object Relations Scale (QORS)

The QORS was developed by Piper et al. (1984) and is used as a measure of the quality of object-relations in adults, but not children.

It is completed by the therapist based on their obsevations and reflections on the contents of the therapy sessions.

the most recent version of the QORS (Azim & Piper, 1991) emphasises patterns of interpersonal relationships.

John Bowlby (1958, 1959, 1960)

Psychology is full of battles and conflicts between psychologists, and often between mentor and student (Freud and Jung being the classic example), and this is no exception. Bowlby was trained by Klein and originally viewed himself as an object-relations theorist, however he came to conflict with Klein over how useful children’s phantasy is as data for psychoanalysis.

Unlike S. Freud, Bowlby distinguished between emotional and sexual intimacy, and thus emotional intimacy formed the foundation of his theory. Bowlby’s attachment theory is based on the premise that everyone needs emotional intimacy and this is most commonly provided by the interactions of carer (e.g. mother) and child.

Bowlby described two attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment – Results when the emotional needs of the child are met on a consistent basis, and results in relationship-maintaing behaviours in childhood and adult life.
  • Insecure attachment – Results when the emotional needs of the child are met inconsistently or not at all, and results in relationship-threatening behaviours in childhood and adult life.

Mary Ainsworth (1978)

Mary Ainsworth first started working with Bowlby in one of his research units, and collaborated with him extensively on his attachment theory. Although she has made many contributions to the theory, including some excellent observational studies, she is perhaps best known for her introduction of the two insecure attachment styles: anxious-ambivalent and avoidant.

Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation procedure originally to explore the attachments of children in a general sense, however she was soon struck by particular patterns of behaviour she noticed at different stages of the procedure. The procedure lasts roughly twenty minutes in total, with the infant being seperated from and reunited with their mother in the following stages:

1. Parent and infant alone.
2. Stranger joins parent and infant.
3. Parent leaves infant and stranger alone.
4. Parent returns and stranger leaves.
5. Parent leaves; infant left completely alone.
6. Stranger returns.
7. Parent returns and stranger leaves.

Using this procedure Ainsworth was able to evaluate the infant’s seperation anxiety (the distress of the infant at the absence of their mother), their fear of strangers, their willingness to explore a new environment, and their reunion behaviours (the behaviours shown when the mother returned).

Securely attached children are said to use their attachment figure (AF) as a “secure base”, from which they can explore, but return to in times of distress. In the reunion phase securely attached children are easily comforted and will soon return to play and exploration.

Children who are said to have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style display dependent and clingy behaviour, however will reject their AF’s attempts at interaction. They lack the sense of “secure base” which is manifested as a difficulty in moving away and exploring the environment. They are also difficult to console at the reunion stage. Confusingly people sometimes call the anxious-ambivalent style “resistant style”. These are the same thing.

Finally children exhibiting an insecure avoidant attachment style tend to seem oblivious to the presence of their “attachment figure”, not seeking them out when distressed, showing little or no separation anxiety, and showing a lack of response upon the AF’s return.

For a more visual explanation, have a look at this video:

Main & Solomon (1990)

Faced with a number of children that defied categorisation into the existing attachment styles that Ainsworth defined, her colleague Mary Main proposed a new category called disorganised attachment (Main & Solomon, 1990). These children would cry during the separation phase of the Strange Situation, however when the caregiver returned the child would avoid or ignore them completely, and sometimes showed stereotyped behaviour (rocking, self hitting).

Bartholomew & Horowitz (1991)

Bartholomew & Horowitz contributed to the field when they distinguished between two different avoidant styles: fearful-avoidant and dismissing-avoidant. The fearful-avoidant style is seen in individuals who want emotional intimacy but are unable to trust their partners, and this can often result in relationship-threatening behaviours.

The dismissing-avoidant style is seen in individuals who deny their need for emotional intimacy. As a result of this they may avoid close attachments entirely and see them as unimportant.

Experience in Close Relationships Survey

As the above has made clear, attachment research is ongoing, continually improving and refining our understanding. Since the major developments outlined above, attachment research has moved away from discrete categories like “anxious-ambivalent” toward continuous scales based on the dimensions of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Based on this the 36-item self-report Experiences in Close Relationships Scale was developed (ECR; Brennan et al., 1998), which was then revised in 2001 (ECR-R; Fraley et al. 2000)

It is also being increasingly recognised that people can display different attachment models in different relationships and the ECR-R has been adapted recently to reflect this, giving the Experiences in Close Relationships—Relationship Structures (ECR-RS; Fraley et al. 2011) questionnaire.

The ECR-R has also been adapted into a version for children, the ECR-RC (Brenning, 2011)

You can take an online version of the ECR-R provided by the authors at (I got an attachment-anxiety score of 5.27 and an attachment-avoidance score of 2.11). You can also find more information about the scale on the authors website.


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. ( 1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. ( 1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XXXIX, 1– 23.

Bowlby, J. ( 1959). Separation anxiety. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XLI, 1– 25.

Bowlby, J. ( 1960). Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, VX, 3– 39.

Brennan, K.A., Clark, C.L., & Shaver, P. (1998). Self-report measures of adult romantic attachment. In J.A. Simpson & W.S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. pp. 46-76. New York: Guilford Press.

Bretherton, I., 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, (5), pp.759-775.

Brenning, K. et al., 2011. An adaptation of the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-Revised for use with children and adolescents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(8), pp.1048-1072.

Fraley, R.C., Waller, N.G., & Brennan, K.A. (2000). An item response theory analysis of self-report measures of adult attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 350-365.

Fraley, R.C. et al., 2011. The Experiences in Close Relationships-Relationship Structures questionnaire: a method for assessing attachment orientations across relationships. Psychological assessment, 23(3), pp.615-25.

Main, M and Solomon, J (1990). “Procedures for identifying infants as disorganised/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation”. M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti and E.M. Cummings (eds) Attachment in the Preschool Years. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp. 121–160.

Personality Traits

We’ve all heard of “personality types” and “personality traits”, many of us have heard of the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and many of us have taken personality tests on facebook, websites and so on. Such tests range from the mildy amusing to the scientifically supported and thorough. But what does it all mean, and where did it all come from?

Something I love with studying psychology is looking at how theories have developed, how theorists have worked together, against each other, and even occasionally stolen ideas or had big arguments. I love tracing the evolution of our modern understanding through time, and looking at Trait Theory of personality psychology is a great example of that.

What are Personality Traits?

Trait theories of personality describe individuals personality and behaviour as driven by underlying dispositions or traits that are bipolar in nature (have two opposites, e.g. introvert/extravert), and consistent and stable over time. Individuals are said to have different combinations of traits, or strengths of those traits.

The trait theory of personality goes back as far as the likes of Aristotle and Hippocrates.

Francis Galton

Francis Galton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Francis Galton (1884)

Although the factor analysis approach to personality traits is sometimes credited as starting with Allport and Odbert’s (1936) work, it actually goes back almost a century before that to Francis Galton (1884). Galton made the first investigations into what has become known as the lexical hypothesis – the idea that

  1. Important individual differences in personality will become encoded in the language of the culture
  2. The more important that difference is, the more likely it is to be captured in a single word

“I tried to gain an idea of the number of the more conspicuous aspects of the character by counting in an appropriate dictionary the words used to express them…”

—Francis Galton, Measurement of Character, 1884

Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport, American psychologist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allport and Odbert (1936)

Allport and Odberd went through Webster’s New International Dictionary and picked out just under 18,000 words that they believed to describe personality and mental states. From this they around 4,500 selected words which fit their definition of traits as “generalized and personalized
determining tendencies—consistent and stable modes of an individual’s adjustment to his environment”.

Allport also split traits into three categories:

  1. Cardinal Traits – those traits that are core to the way a person behaves, the most defining traits of a certain individual
  2. Central Traits – those traits that are found in everyone and shape and influence the way we behave, but not in the overriding manner of cardinal traits
  3. Secondary Traits – traits that are only exhibited in certain circumstances or situations

This alphabetised trait list was provided as a resource for other psychologists…

, British-American psychologist

Raymond Cattell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Raymond Cattell (1943, 1957)

Cattell (1943) started with Allport’s trait list, however he felt it was insufficient and added to it “the substance of all syndromes and types which psychologists have observed and described in the past century or so” (Cattell, 1943 as cited in Block, 1995). Based on his own understanding and decisions Cattell organised the list into 161 trait “clusters” (largely by dropping synonyms and combining synonym/antonym pairs into a single measure), to which he added a further 21 based on his readings of intelligence and values, and at some point he must have also dropped some to end at 171 – however how this came about was not documented.

Factor Analysis Aside

Factor analysis looks at the correlations between variables and attempts to identify underlying elements called factors. For example Charles Spearman, credited with the invention of factor analysis, found that children’s performance in a variety of unrelated subjects seemed to be correlated, which led him to the conclusion that an underlying mental ability drove performance in all those areas. This was the start of intelligence research!

Next Cattell asked two colleagues to rate 100 target persons on the 171 clusters of trait terms, which aquaintances of the target persons were also asked to do. Analysing the correlations (a set of 14,535 correlations laid out on 14 square feet of paper) Cattell identified around 67 ’empirical’ clusters of traits. Based on this, combined with analysis of twelve other ratings studies, he drilled down further to 35 clusters. Finally with these 35 traits a number of ratings studies were carried out similar to the first one, which, using factor analysis, led him to 12 factors, which are the foundation of his Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF) (the remaining four being specific to the self-rating model of questionnaires). Those sixteen traits are:

Warmth, Reasoning, Emotional Stability, Dominance, Liveliness, Rule-Consciousness, Social Boldness, Sensitivity, Vigilance, Abstractedness, Privateness, Apprehension, Openness to Change, Self-Reliance, Perfectionism, Tension

You can take a version of the 16PF online free, although I cannot vouch for its accuracy.

And if you thought that was complicated, you should read the full story! (See: John & Angleitner, 1988).
five second order or global factors

In later work Cattell factor-analysed the 16 traits and found five global or “second order” categories, which can be likened to the Big Five Personality Traits that are popular today.

As an aside, Cattell, like Galton before him and Eysenck after him, believed in the inheritability of traits (that personality traits were passed genetically from one generation to the next), and was an active supporter of Eugenics – which caused controversy for all of them and lead to Cattell missing out on a lifetime achievement Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Foundation (part of the APA).

Raymond Christal

Raymond Christal

Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal (1961, 1992)

Despite Cattell’s overlooked five second-order factors, Tupes and Christal are credited with the “discovery” of the Big Five personality traits. Using factor analyses on various samples, five strong dimensions kept appearing:

Surgency, Agreeableness, Dependability, Emotional Stability, Culture.

Cattell saw this as an attack on his Sixteen Personality Factor model, and openly criticised “the five factor heresy”.

Tupes and Christal’s work, partly due to not being published in an archived journal for some years combined with a shift in attitude towards trait theories at the time, passed largely without major impact.

Warren Norman (1967)

Norman compiled an exhaustive list of personality descriptive terms that he considered suitably precise, well structured, and exhaustive for use in constructing personality theory. He started with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and added 171 new terms to Allport’s list, giving a new set of 18,125 words. Norman split the words into four categories: Biophysical traits (e.g. calm, chirpy, pedantic); Temporary States and Activities (e.g. hesitant, sad, smitten, bickering); Social Roles, Relationships, and Effects (e.g. leader, droll, repellant); and Excluded Categories (evaluative terms, physical traits, ambiguous and vague terms, and obscure terms). From the almost 2,800 trait terms in the Biophysical traits category Norman was able to draw out 1,566 trait terms by analysing ratings of 100 students. He was then able to categorise these words into ten clusters, one cluster for each end of the bipolar measures of the Big Five.

Lewis Goldberg (1971)

Building on the work of Norman, Goldberg brought trait psychology back into vogue and coined the term “the Big-Five” in a 1982 paper. Goldberg worked with the lexical hypothesis and produced a list of 1,710 trait terms to use. Based on the self-ratings of 187 college students and 75 categories Goldberg had identified in his list, he extracted the now famous Big-Five traits. These same five traits appeared across a number of different analysis methods. Interestingly, however, and currently unpublished, when Goldberg rotated six or seven factors rather than five, he found that the five split out. In particular on a six-factor rotation Norman’s Factor V split into an ability factor and a culture factor; additionally in a seven-factor rotation categories related to religiosity formed a factor of their own (John & Angleitner, 1988). These findings have paralells in studies by other psychologists.

This photograph is being given to Wiipedia for...

Hans Eysenck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hans Eysenck (1968)

Eysenck moved away from the lexical approach that had thus far dominated trait theory toward a questionnaire approach. This approach examines people’s responses to personality questionnaires rather than trait lists, which allows for more complex personality factors to be captured than the single words of the lexical approach.

Unlike Cattell, Eysenck viewed personality as seperate from intelligence. He also was heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s introversion / extraversion concept, however he saw them as a trait rather than a type as Jung had. Neuroticism (emotional instability) formed the second core trait of Eysenck’s trait model, and for a while these were the only two traits that Eysenck believed underpinned human personality. The Eysenck Personality Inventory (1968) reflected these two traits, however a revision of the survey entitled the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (1975) added psychoticism as a third trait. This inclusion of psychoticism proved to be a step backwards in the theory in many ways as it wasn’t well empirically supported, particularly with creative personalities like artists and musicians scoring highly on this measure.

Eysenck tied his traits to biological sources, hypothesising that differences in extraversion were down to individual differences in the Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS) of the cortex, and differences in neuroticism were linked to individual differences in the limbic system. He provided some evidence for the former, but was unable to provide any for the latter. He also never tied a biological cause to his psychoticism trait, further fuelling the criticism against it’s inclusion.

Cattell and Eysenck argued publicly over the optimal number of traits that should be used in a trait theory model of personality, as did Eysenck and Costa& McCrae.

Costa & McCrae (1993)

Costa & McCrae were driven by the goal of showing that the apparently dissimilar personality schemes at the time were in fact measuring the same things, and they made large efforts to integrate their model with these other schemes.
Costa & McCrae’s model defines five personality traits that can be remembered with the acronym OCEAN:

Neuroticism (N)
Extraversion (E)
Openness (O)
Agreeableness (A)
Conscientiousness (C)

Costa & McCrae’s model formed the basis for what is now one of the most widely used measurement scales: NEO-Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO-PI-R; Costa and McCrae, 1992)

Rodin's The Thinker

Rodin's The Thinker
(Picture credit: Wikipedia)

Food For Thought

As you can see it has been a long and interesting journey in all, and there is quite a lot I have left out for my own sanity as much as yours (I only actually need to know about two of the above for my upcoming exam!). But take a moment to consider these questions:

  • Do you think Trait Theory can capture a person’s personality and predict their behaviour?
  • How useful is it to reduce behaviours and personality to these few dimensions?
  • What criticisms and weaknesses can you think of for the research and theories described above?
  • Should someone’s beliefs in one area (e.g. eugenics) shadow their achievements in another (e.g. trait theory)?

Have a think, and leave a comment!


Block, J., 1995. A contrarian view of the five-factor approach to personality description. Psychological bulletin, 117(2), pp.187-215.

Costa & McCrae, 1992, NEO PI-R Professional Manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment

John, O. & Angleitner, A., 1988. The lexical approach to personality: A historical review of trait taxonomic research. journal of Personality.

Expecting to Fail, Expecting to Succeed

Exams are starting in a couple of days, and I have found myself saying over and over again “I’m going to fail. I’m sure I’m going to fail.” It’s hard not to feel that way right now, with the pressure that is on from five exams, all of which count for 100% of the mark of their respective modules (the exams alone decide if we pass or fail each module, which in turn decides if we pass or fail the year). And of course I have high demands on myself – wanting to get a First class degree. But I am aware that sitting here telling myself I am going to fail is a very bad thing…it could even be a self-fulfilling prophecy…

Expectation is a powerful thing, both consciously and unconsciously. An experiment by Aronson (1962) looked at expectations of participants by setting some up to expect to do poorly on a task, and some to expect to do well. The participants then completed the task and half from each group were told that they did well, and half that they didn’t do well, thus confirming or denying their expectations. A “fault” then occured (actually part of the experiment) which mean the participants had to repeat the task but were allowed to change their answers if they desired. What is most interesting is that the participants in the low expectation group who actually performed well conterintuitively changed a lot of their choices. These participants expressed surprise when they were shown that they changed so many of their choices, and blamed this behaviour either on “faulty memory” or “shifting criteria of judgment.”

There has been quite a bit of research into the power of expectation on performance, even going so far as to show improved muscle efficiency in runners in a high expectation group (Stoate et al. 2012) and motor performance in high pressure tasks (McKay, 2012)! The more certain your expectancy, the more persistent you will be in your task and the better your performance (Dickhäuser et al., 2011) And you don’t even need to believe that you will ace your task; moderate and high expectations have equal benefit (Marshall & Brown, 2004).

So with all that in mind I will pass on this lovely poem that my sister sent to me. I believe this is by C. W. Longenecker.

The Victor

If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost,
For out in the world you’ll find
Success begins with a person’s will;
It’s all in the state of mind.

For many a game is lost
Before even a step is run
And many a coward fails
Before his work is begun.

Think big and your deed will grow;
Think small and you will fall behind.
Think that you can and you will;
It’s all in the state of mind and belief.

If you think that you are out-classed, you are;
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself
Before you can win the prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the strongest or fastest man
But sooner or later the person who wins
Is the person who thinks he or she can.



You can do it.

I can do it.

We can all do it.

Good luck to all students who are sitting or preparing to sit exams at the moment!






Aronson, E., 1962. Performance expectancy as a determinant of actual performance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social, 65(3), pp.178-182.

Dickhäuser, O., Reinhard, M.-A. & Englert, C., 2011. “Of course I will …”: The combined effect of certainty and level of expectancies on persistence and performance. Social Psychology of Education, 14(4), pp.519-528.

Marshall, M. a. & Brown, J.D., 2004. Expectations and Realizations: The Role of Expectancies in Achievement Settings. Motivation and Emotion, 28(4), pp.347-361.

McKay, B., Lewthwaite, R. & Wulf, G., 2012. Enhanced expectancies improve performance under pressure. Frontiers in psychology, 3(January), p.8.

Stoate, I., Wulf, G. & Lewthwaite, R., 2012, Enhanced expectancies improve movement efficiency in runners Enhanced expectancies improve movement efficiency in runners., pp.37-41.

Interview Tips

This article was originally published in the May edition of PsychNews, the Brunel Psychology Society newsletter. You read this article in its original form, or a number of other interesting on

Know What You Are Applying For

Common Interview Questions

Tell me about yourself

Why have you applied for this position?

Why do you want to work for this organisation?

What are your strengths?

What are your weaknesses?

What is your greatest achievement?

What can you bring to this job above anyone else?

Can you tell me more about your interests and activities?

In what ways are you a team player?

What do you know about this organisation?

Can you tell me about a time when you have failed to achieve a goal?

What problems do you think this organisation (or someone in this position) would face, and how would you deal with them?

Can you give an example of when you’ve gone “beyond the call of duty”?

Why is there a gap in your CV?

Why are you interested in Psychology?

What news story has interested you recently?

Questions taken/adapted from Innes (2009)

By the day of your interview most of your work should be done. Spend time to research the company you are applying to, familiarise yourself with their history, principles, services, and key staff. The interviewer may well ask you a question like “what do you know about our organisation?” and if you’ve done your research it’s a free ticket to making yourself look great. Some books quote a statistic of 80% of interviewees not doing any research before their interview, so this puts you ahead of a majority of your competition. Avoid mentioning any bad press however.

If your interviewer has published any articles it can do you no harm to have a read of them then mention them at this point too, but avoid criticising them!

Also spend time researching the role you are applying for, both in general terms of the role title and if possible in specific terms of the position you are being interviewed for. For example if it is a research assistant role find out as much as you can about the research you will be helping with.

Prepare Your Answers

Most interviewers use pretty predictable questions, and you can turn this to your great advantage by planning your answers well in advance. For each of the questions I have listed in the side box, write down exactly how you would answer it in the interview, then think hard about your answer. What is the interviewer actually looking for when they ask this question? Have you addressed what they are looking for? Have you painted yourself in the best way? If necessary rewrite your answer until you’ve got it right. But remember: you don’t want to appear rehearsed or scripted in the interview itself!

Not only does careful preparation of answers to the common questions make the difference between a good interviewee and a great one, but it will also greatly improve your confidence in the interview which will come across clearly to your interviewer.

Look the Part

When you go for your interview first impressions count (Barrick et al. 2010). It is said some interviewers make their decision within thirty seconds of meeting candidates, so you really need to present yourself in the best possible way, and a big part of this is your physical presentation.

Top Ten Interview Mistakes

  1. Doesn’t ask questions
  2. Condemns past employer
  3. Is unable to take criticism
  4. Exhibits poor personal appearance
  5. Appears indecisive, cynical, lazy
  6. Comes off as overbearing, overly aggressive, a
  7. Shows up late to interview
  8. Fails to look at interviewer while interviewing
  9. Is unable to express self clearly
  10. Places an overemphasis on money

Kador (2010)

Ensure you are well dressed and well groomed. Wear smart clothes that fit (try them on the day before the interview to check for damage, missing buttons, droopy collars etc.), and don’t forget to trim fingernails etc. Ladies use a sensible minimum of makeup, guys remove or trim facial hair, and everyone should remove any facial piercings. Go easy on perfume and cologne, stand up straight, and greet your interviewer with a confident smile and don’t forget the importance of a firm handshake (Stewart et al. 2008). With all of this you should come across as a confident professional who takes their work seriously.

During the interview maintain comfortable eye contact (but don’t stare!), and sit in a confident “open posture”. That is, keep your hands in front of you unclasped and open, and avoid crossing your arms or legs. Lean forward slightly to show interest, keep that smile, and nod appreciatively at appropriate moments. Some research indicates that visualization can improve your success and perceived confidence (Knudstrup et al. 2003).

Never Lie

Lying on your CV or in your interview is a seriously bad idea. Beyond just being dishonest, you never know when an interviewer might catch you out, and if that happens you can kiss that job goodbye! A colleague I once worked with wrote on her CV that she had “advanced Excel skills”, a trait critical for the position she applied for. However when she was given her first piece of work it became obvious that she had no idea how to use Excel at all, and she was swiftly sacked. Even lying about your interests and hobbies is risky, you never know if your interviewer shares that hobby and may start asking you questions about it!

Ask Questions

Questions You Can Ask

What would you like to be able to say about your new hire six months from now?

What is the largest challenge facing your staff at the present time?

Who would I be reporting to, and can you tell me a little about them?

What do you like best about this company? Why?

By what criteria will you select the person for this job?

What are the department’s specific objectives for the next three months?

Can you tell me a little about the people I will be working with?

Could you describe a typical day in this position?

Do you have any reservations about my application to this role?

Are there any specific areas in which you believe my qualifications are lacking?

Is there anything else you feel it is vital that I know about

the company (department, job, your expectations, etc.)?

Taken from Fry (2009)

Having a couple of relevant questions to ask the interviewer shows enthusiasm, interest, and is yet another chance for you to sell yourself. However avoid asking pointless questions for the sake of it, or turning your interview into their interrogation by throwing lots of questions out. In the second sidebar I have listed a number of potential questions you could ask; I would suggest asking a maximum of three or four questions at most.

Remember though that not all questions need to be left until you are invited to ask them, and some questions are hugely beneficial if you ask them at the start of the interview but useless if you ask them at the end. For example:
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about yourself?
CANDIDATE: I’ll be glad to. But first, may I ask a question?
CANDIDATE: My question is this: By what criteria will you select the
person for this job?
(Kador 2010)

Follow Up

The interview is over, time to go home and wait, right? Wrong. Preferably the same day of the interview it can be beneficial to send your interviewer a letter or email thanking them for the time they took to interview you and for telling you more about their organisation and the role. Conclude by briefly re-iterating your key skills that make you suited to the job (use bullet points if you wish). This also gives you a chance to drop in anything you may have missed in your interview, and makes you stand out in the interviewer’s mind which can greatly help your chances when it comes to their decision time! If you are unsure of how this should look, see if you can find a copy of Beshara (2008), and on page 83 there is an example letter.

Handling Rejection

We all experience failed applications at some time or other, and it can be hard not to take it personally or get disheartened. Remember that you are not being rejected as a person, your unsuccessful application is not a sign of your individual worth. Remember also that this is only one application and there are lots of other jobs out there, and your experiences applying for this position will have taught you more about interview technique and applications.

The most important thing to do now, both for your immediate peace of mind and longer term benefit, is to request feedback from the interviewer. Write a letter or email graciously expressing your disappointment at not being selected for the role at this time, and asking if they could give you some feedback to help you improve your future applications. This opportunity to improve your skills is invaluable and Tony Beshara (2008) puts this wonderfully: “‘No’ is the second best answer you can get.” If you are really keen on the position it is worth adding that you hope they will bear you in mind if this position reopens for any reason or if a similar position becomes available. This way you are down but not out, and you are building your network of contacts, which can be crucial later in your career.


Barrick, M.R., Swider, B.W. & Stewart, G.L., 2010. Initial evaluations in the interview: relationships with subsequent interviewer evaluations and employment offers. The Journal of applied psychology, 95(6), pp.1163-72.
Beshara, T., 2008. Acing the Interview: How to Ask and Answer the Questions That Will Get You The Job, New York: AMACOM.
Fry, R., 2009. 101 Smart Questions to Ask On Your Interview 3rd ed., Course Technology.
Innes, J., 2009. The Interview Book, Pearson Education Ltd.
Kador, J., 2010. 301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill Professional.
Knudstrup, M., Segrest, S.L. & Hurley, A.E., 2003. The use of mental imagery in the simulated employment interview situation. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(6), pp.573-591.
Stewart, G.L. et al., 2008. Exploring the handshake in employment interviews. The Journal of applied psychology, 93(5), pp.1139-46.

Could Anyone Commit Evil Given ‘The Right Circumstances’?

I thought I’d throw another of my old essays up for your reading pleasure. I can’t remember what I got for this one, however I think it was a B. It would have been higher if I had actually done the essay I was asked to, however in my excitement I got confused and picked up the lecture title and did my essay on that instead! On the plus side I’m impressed I still got a good grade!

Could Anyone Commit Evil Given ‘The Right Circumstances’?
In order to address this question it is necessary to establish a definition of ‘committing evil’. Dr. Philip Zimbardo provides a good definition: “Evil is intentionally behaving – or causing others to act – in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people.” (Zimbardo 2004), although there are limitations to this definition. The definition does not encompass what is oft called ‘evil of inaction’. This essay will focus instead on a more active participation in committing evil. Secondly the definition does not give scope for morally justified ‘evil acts’, such as the sacrifice of few to save many. However this is less of an issue since one of the potential causes of evil comes through manipulating the moral justification.

Whether there is the potential for evil in all of us or if it is a capability of a select few individuals who may then be found and isolated is an understandably important issue in our post-911 society. We are still grappling with the question of how so many could have participated in Hitler’s extermination plans (Haslam & Reicher 2007). Much thought has been given to how officials such as Eichmann could become so creatively and destructively evil (Ceserani 2004; Haslam & Reicher 2007), or how the ordinary civilians recruited into the Reserve Police Batalion 101 could kill 3,800 Jews (Browning 1992). More recently the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as well as increased public awareness of terrorist activity have re-ignited interest in this topic and has spurred debate and arguments among psychologists (Haslam 2003; Haslam & Reicher 2006; McFarland & Carnahan 2009; Zimbardo 2006).

This essay will not look at the debate between whether the potential for evil comes from situational factors (Haney et al. 1973) or an interactionist effect (Haslam & Reicher 2007) since both are paths to the same result.

In order to understand if anyone can commit evil it is most useful to look at why people commit evil. Albert Bandura (Bandura 1990) put forward what he calls the mechanisms of moral disengagement, the factors which allow good people to commit immoral acts. According to Bandura’s theory we learn to inhibit destructive behaviour but through a process of disinhibition those behaviours can once again be exhibited. Zimbardo (Zimbardo 2004) proposed a list of “Ten Ingredients in the Situationist’s Recipe for Behavioural Transformations” (hereafter Ten Ingredients), a list of situational factors by which a good person can be incited to cause harm. That list will be considered here also.

One of the most powerful factors (Bandura 1975) is displacement or diffusion of responsibility, whereby the subject can claim that they were not fully responsible for their actions. According to Milgram (Milgram 2010) the subject enters what he calls the ‘agentic state’, mechanically carrying out orders passed to them from an authority. Diffusion of responsibility has also been used to help explain how people could work collectively on harmful acts, dividing the workload and thus dividing the responsibility (Bandura 1975; Reicher et al. 2008), as with the Nazi bureaucrats who administered the execution camps. Zimbardo’s Ten Ingredients feeds off this with “Creating opportunities for diffusion of responsibility for negative outcomes; others will be responsible, or it won’t be evident that the actor will be held liable.” (Zimbardo 2004)

A special version of this would be de-individualisation, the subject’s ability to act with a sense of anonymity. In a series of experiments Zimbardo (Zimbardo 1969) showed that in a deindividuated condition subjects administered twice the shock levels in comparison to the individuated control group.

Another method of displacing responsibility is to attribute blame to the victim, and this attribution of blame forms another part of Bandura’s (Bandura 1990) model. Through this mechanism the perpetrator is able to view their behaviour as forced by the actions of the victim, for example terrorists can justify their actions as a form of active self-defence (Bandura 1990). This mechanism has also been seen both in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo 2009) and Milgram’s (Milgram 2010) shock studies.

What Bandura (1990) called ‘euphemistic labelling’ forms another factor of the mechanisms of disinhibition. Through the use of euphemistic language evil actions are disguised as neutral, or even positive. Zimbardo (2004) described this on his Ten Ingredients as “Altering the semantics of the act and action, from hurting victims to helping learners by punishing them.”. A historical example of this would be Hitler’s ‘Final solution to the Jewish question’ which masked the atrocities which were committed with abstract and hygienic language.

Related to euphemistic labelling is the practice of dehumanization, stripping the victim of their human status and perceiving them as less than human, and less worthy of compassion. This has been seen in history in the Nazi propaganda film ‘Der ewige Jude’ (The Eternal Jew) where images of Jews were shown in sequence with images of vermin, and in Hutu propaganda that described Tutsi’s as cockroaches (Reicher et al. 2008). Making these comparisons draws on the general fear and disgust of such pests, and transfers that to the target population. In the Stanford Prison Experiment dehumanization was achieved by stripping the prisoners of their names, and assigning them numbers instead (Zimbardo 2009). Bandura (1975) also showed that this process takes place on a smaller scale and with ordinary subjects with his study on diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization.

One of the ways that euphemistic labelling can be used is to change the act from a reprehensible one to something that is morally justified. Moral justification is another of Bandura’s mechanisms of disinhibition, and it has been discussed in more depth in Making a Virtue of Evil (Reicher et al. 2008). Milgram (1963) also suggested that this may be a factor in the high levels of obedience in his shock experiments. Again, Zimbardo’s Ten Ingredients includes moral, or “acceptable” justification as a factor (Zimbardo 2004).

Bandura includes ‘palliative comparison’ in his list of elements affecting disinhibition. This is making one act seem less extreme by comparing it to another extreme act, or by having the subject slowly build up to the act in small steps, as in the increasing shock levels of Milgram’s experiments (1963). Zimbardo (2004) phrases this on his Ten Ingredients in terms of minimising the noticeable difference between steps. Thus the subject is able to cognitively minimise the consequences of their actions, which is listed separately in Bandura’s mechanisms of disinhibition.

By ignoring, minimising, distorting, or disbelieving the impact of the act, subjects are freer to act without restraint (Bandura 1990). This was reflected in Milgram’s experiments with more participants proceeding to the highest levels of shock when they were completely separated from the ‘learner’ than when they were able to see them, or in the same room (Milgram 2010). Through history we can see how our weapons and tools of destruction have become progressively more depersonalised, putting space, time, and processes between the killer and the killing.

There are two more elements that can pave the way for evil acts that Bandura hasn’t included in his model: The power of the role, and conformity. Zimbardo (2009) has written the most important work on the effect of role expectations in aggression behaviour, and it is in his Stanford Prison Experiment that we see this in its clearest form (Haney et al. 1973).

Conformity to a group, and the affect that has on the views of the individual, is the final element discussed here. Haslam and Reicher (2007) discuss briefly how this can be applied to Eichmann to show how his behaviour grew more extreme as a result of group membership. Zimbardo also comments on this effect in relation to Reserve Police Batallion 101, observing that originally half of the battalion refused to kill but by the end “90 percent of the men in Battalion 101 were involved in the shootings, even proudly taking photographs of their up-close and personal killing of Jews.” (Zimbardo 2004)

There are not many arguments against the idea that the capacity for evil is within us all, but one argument is that in each of the experiments there have been individuals who have resisted the pressures to commit evil acts. In Milgram’s (Milgram 2010) experiment the highest obedience rate was 65%, in the Stanford Prison Experiment and likewise in RPB 101, there were individuals who refused to act aggressively and even acted to subvert the aggression of the others (Zimbardo 2009; Browning 1992).

Another thread of debate centres around the Stanford Prison Experiment and whether the study has ecological validity. One particular aspect that has come under criticism is the potential for participant self-selection, and whether by advertising as a study in prison life the experiment attracted participants with certain traits conducive to aggressive behaviour (Haslam & Reicher 2007).

Haney and Zimbardo (2009) counter the self-selection criticism with a number of points, including a criticism of the ambiguous labels used for the personality traits, a lack of empirical research to prove the self-selection theory, and pointing out that although self-selection may have affected the larger group of volunteers, it would not have affected the smaller group of screened participants (Haney & Zimbardo 2009). McFarland and Carnahan, who were at the forefront of the debate against Zimbardo, also conceded to the power of situational factors to “lead people who ordinarily behave decently to act inhumanely” (McFarland & Carnahan 2009).

While there has been much debate around the exact mechanisms that allow such things to happen, most psychologists seem to agree that the capacity for evil acts is within us all if placed in the right situation (Milgram 2010; Zimbardo 2009; McFarland & Carnahan 2009; Bandura 1990; Browning 1992; Haslam & Reicher 2007). There are, however, exceptions to the rule, and it would benefit us all to understand what it is that makes those heroes able to stand defiant in extreme situations without giving in to the pressures to commit evil acts.

Bandura, A., 1975. Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9(4), pp.253-269.
Bandura, A., 1990. Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement. In W. Reich, ed. Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, States of Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 161-191.
Browning, C., 1992. Ordinary Men, London: Harpercollins.
Ceserani, D., 2004. Eichmann: His life and crimes, London: Heinemann.
Haney, C. & Zimbardo, P.G., 2009. Persistent dispositionalism in interactionist clothing: fundamental attribution error in explaining prison abuse. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 35(6), pp.807-14; author reply 815-8.
Haney, C., Banks, C. & Zimbardo, P.G., 1973. A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, (9s), p.19.
Haslam, S.A., 2003. Beyond Stanford: Questioning a role-based explanation of tyranny. Dialogue, 18, pp.22-25.
Haslam, S.A. & Reicher, S., 2007. Beyond the banality of evil: three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 33(5), pp.615-22.
Haslam, S.A. & Reicher, S., 2006. Debating the psychology of tyranny: fundamental issues of theory, perspective and science. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society, 45(Pt 1), pp.55-63.
McFarland, S. & Carnahan, T., 2009. A Situation’s First Powers Are Attracting Volunteers and Selecting Participants: A Reply to Haney and Zimbardo (2009). Personality and social psychology bulletin.
Milgram, S., 1963. Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of abnormal psychology, 67(4), pp.371-8.
Milgram, S., 2010. Obedience to Authority, New York: Pinter & Martin Ltd.
Reicher, S., Haslam, S.A. & Rath, R., 2008. Making a Virtue of Evil: A Five-Step Social Identity Model of the Development of Collective Hate. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), pp.1313-1344.
Zimbardo, P.G., 2004. A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil. In A. Miller, ed. The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. New York: Guilford, pp. 21-50.
Zimbardo, P.G., 1969. Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levin, eds. Nebraska Symposium On Motivation (1969). University of Nebraska Press, pp. 237-307.
Zimbardo, P.G., 2006. On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: the BBC prison study. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society, 45(Pt 1), pp.47-53.
Zimbardo, P.G., 2009. The Lucifer Effect. How Good People Turn Evil, Rider.

Revision Tips #1 – Memory

A big part of studying is about remembering. Of course you have to then be critical, evaluate the arguments, and so on, but if you can’t remember any of the arguments or the evidence you are pretty stuck! So I’ve put together this post with lots of empirically supported information about memory to help you tackle your revision. I hope you find this useful, and if you do please rate the article using the stars at the bottom, and maybe leave a comment with some tips of your own!

Can remembering make you forget?
If we repeatedly attempt to retrieve a memory we improve our ability to do so in the long term. This is called the testing effect. However it has a side effect that you may not know about – it can actually reduce our ability to recall those things that we have not “tested” ourselves on (Anderson et al., 1994). However in contrast it has also been found to improve recall of non-tested material in certain instances (). Chan (2009) conducted some experiments to determine under which conditions each of these occured, and although I will not go into the detailed description (which would require explaining the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model, which I am not convinced I really understand myself!) the summary seems to be that the more we can integrate what we are learning with existing knowledge the better we will be at remembering it. However learning independent facts that are unrelated and difficult to integrate into our existing knowledge can lead to the forgetting effect.
So what do we do with that?
When you are revising, remember to link things together as much as possible. Do not learn things individually, but relate them to each other. For example when learning about the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model I could compare it to other models, and think about how it fits into the wider context of our ability to read.

Despite many claims in both directions, Nehlig (2010) reported that caffeine has inconcistent effects on memory and attention, with no benefits being seen from intentionally learned data. Mednick et al. (2008) also reported that caffeine had minimal impact on memory and motor performance tasks compared to napping.
It should also be noted that the impact of caffeine on sleep may have a subsequent impact on memory and recall. The general advice seems to be that you should only consume caffeine first thing in the morning, if at all.

Van Der Werf et al. (2009) found that it isn’t just the amount of sleep you get that is important for good memory and recall, but also the type. Shallow sleep (caused by disrupted sleep) leeds to weaker subsequent hippocampal activation compared to participants who experienced deep sleep.
So it is important not only to get enough sleep (and ignore what people say about a minimum of 8 hours, everyone is different and requires a different amount of sleep), it is also important to ensure you get good quality sleep. This means avoiding stimulants like caffiene and nicotine before you sleep, avoiding eating just before bed, and having a quiet place to sleep among other things. Have a look at this page on Sleep Hygiene for more information.

Cue-Dependent Memory
Everyone has heard that you remember things better in the same environment that you learned them in. This is called reinstatement effect (as in, the learning environment is reinstated at recall) or cue-dependent memory). This theory has a long history, perhaps most famously demonstrated by Godden and Baddeley (1975) who had participants memorise word lists underwater then found that they recalled those lists better underwater than on land. There is a long controversy around these findings, with many studies failing to replicate the results in a variety of environmental conditions, however an in-depth meta-analysis by Smith & Vela (2001) has shown reliable results so maybe there is something in it after all.
However it has also been claimed (Carey, 2010) that varying your learning environment improves subsequent recall, possibly by building more associations in your memory.
So what do we do with this?
You should ideally keep environmental distractors to a minimum anyway as things like music, TV, etc. draw your attention away from what you are learning and studies have shown that divided attention leads to poorer memory encoding. However there may be an added benefit here to matching the environment to your test condition (the quiet of an exam hall for example). I have also seen suggestions that wearing a specific perfume or cologne while revising then wearing that same one in the exams may help – however I have not seen any empirical evidence of this!

Spaced Learning
Screenshot of the Mnemosyne softwareA long long time ago, Ebbinghaus (1913) discovered that learning could be significantly improved by correctly spacing practice sessions, however his techniques failed to gain the popularity they deserve. More recently Piotr Wozniak performed research into finding the optimal spacing for retention, and developed an algorithm which he built into his software SuperMemo. The algorithm has also been adapted and included in the free software Mnemosyne which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Using this software you can test yourself regularly in a way that is evidence-based to give you the best recall. Mnemosyne is very simple to use, and you can even get an add on which works on Android phones so you can test yourself any time.

Related to this Taylor (2010) also found that practicing different skills in an interwoven spaced approach rather than as one block improved performance. So rather than spending a whole day learning one topic, you are better off mixing things up a bit!

Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1063–1087.

Carey, B., 2010 Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. New York Times. Accessed: 20-Apr-2012

Chan, J.C.K., 2009. When does retrieval induce forgetting and when does it induce facilitation? Implications for retrieval inhibition, testing effect, and text processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 61(2), pp.153-170.

Ebbinghaus, H., Ruger, H. Alford. (1913). Memory: a contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Godden,D. R., & Baddeley,A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: Land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 325-331.

Mednick, S.C. et al., 2008. Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural brain research, 193(1), pp.79-86.

Nehlig, A., 2010. Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer? Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 20 Suppl 1, pp.S85-94.

Smith, S.M. & Vela, E., 2001. Environmental context-dependent memory: a review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 8(2), pp.203-20.

Taylor, K. & Rohrer, D., 2010. The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, pp.837-848.

Van Der Werf, Y.D. et al., 2009. Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature neuroscience, 12(2), pp.122-3.

van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.

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