Forensic Psychology; The Cognitive Interviewing of witnesses

IMG_3167The Cognitive interview is derived from a range of sources of cognitive evidence relating mainly in the psychology of memory.  It was formulated by combining a number of techniques to assist in allowing an interviewer, such as a police officer, to provide conditions that would allow for the greatest level of accuracy possible, in essence a systematic set of tools to allow access to someone’s memory without inadvertently altering it or not gaining the full insight due to poor phrasing. The Cognitive Interview (CI) is primarily used for witnesses and victims as it needs to assume a willing party. Suspects cannot be relied upon to tell the truth for obvious reasons, hence alternative approaches have been created for their interviewing, such as the controversial  Reid Technique.  The Cognitive Interview can also be used with children as witnesses, which is a significant advancement in police methods as to the historical ‘credibility deflation’ of child interview that were considered to be unreliable as to a lack of confidence or a change in responses due to demand characteristics (Samuel and Bryant).  Fisher and Geiselman conducted research investigating the effectiveness of the Cognitive Interview.


How does it work?

A great video reviewing the Cognitive Interview as a technique with reference to a range of research;


Mindfulness; Other forms of relaxation are available……….


The stress of exams can be overwhelming and are often viewed as a ‘rite of passage’ however is there any way to soften the blow (other than lots of revision and preparation?)

 ‘Mindfulness is about helping young minds flourish in the broadest sense.’ Cullen agrees: ‘For some kids mindfulness may be about managing stress or anxiety, but for others it’s about how they play on the sports field, practise music, dance or drama, or maintain concentration during homework.’ 

                                                                                     Chris Cullen -The Psychologist Magazine Vol 24

Students using mindfulness

Mindfulness is being used by students all over the world in an attempt to help them stay focused and calm in stressful situations, such as exams.  The versatility of the technique is thought to assist in simple day to day tasks as well as to alleviate and even protect against more significant long-term psychological states.

A range of real-world applications

The military, big business and the education sector are turning to ‘mindfulness’  to help alleviate work-related- stress, even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as more a clinical approach to deal with anxiety and depressimindfulness-cultivates-our-ability-to-do-things-knowing-that-were-doing-them-mark-williamson.  The evidence suggests it can be effective, certainly when compared with cognitive therapy which has the disadvantage of requiring specialist one to one intervention. Mindfulness is often promoted on the notion the simple techniques can be learnt by anyone and it is very quick to learn, 10-15 minutes.  Mobile app’s such as Headspace and Smiling Mind (here is a page with some others) attempt to engage directly with individuals of all ages to develop an appreciation of being ‘anchored in the moment’. The BBC are currently promoting a series of programmes dedicated to mapping the growth of mindfulness in British society, from the historical Buddhist roots to the apparent application in a range of secular contexts.  Click here to access the programmes.

The work of Professor Mark Williams

Mark Williams is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, Welcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and has been a strong influence in the rise of mindfulness in the UK,  below is the first of his audiocasts on mindfulness via youtube – you can access the rest directly from track one.

Click here to access his page with all the content available free via iTunes.

Origins of Criminology; Cesare Lombroso and the face of crime.

Are criminals actually a sub-species of humanity?  Do they have physical, observable differences in their facial features that would allow us to identify them?  If so, is crime an act not of free will but is determined by influences that we seemingly have no control over?  Should we then punish someone for something that they have no control over?

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) often hailed as one of the founding fathers of Criminology was interested in the atavistic view of criminality, he was heavily influenced by Darwinism.  In 1871 he became director of the mental asylum at Pesaro, and in 1876 he became professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at the University of Turin, where he subsequently held appointments as professor of psychiatry (1896) and then of criminal anthropology (1906).  Lombroso’s ideas were outlined in his text of 1876, The Criminal Man‘.

The Criminal Man

Lombroso believed that there was a biological (and therefore deterministic) explanation to criminals that they were an evolutionary throwback, a more primitive creature.  Through his extensive research over the years investigating the physical features, mainly from postmortems on criminals and the ‘insane’, Lombroso theorised various anthropometric differences.  The criminal therefore had a distinct anthroposcopy or physiognomy – facial features correlated with their lack of evolutionary development, a sub species of humanity ‘homo delinquens’.

CaptureCesare Lombroso 1876


These facial and cranial characteristics that Lombroso had studied throughout his medical career culminated in a list of specific features; sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face, prognathism, excessive length of arms, asymmetry of the cranium, receding forehead, strongly developed jaw, strongly developed cheeks, left handedness, low brain weight, curly hair, as well as other physiological defects such as a third nipple or six fingers.  Lombroso identified at least five or similar abnormalities needed to be present.


The man with the golden gun (1974)….super Bond villain and ultra criminal Scaramanga famously had a third nipple, what would Lombroso think?

Criticisms of Lombroso 

The theory supports the nature side of the nature/nurture argument and there are many other theories that may not agree with Lombroso but take a biological stance, such as that of Raine’s investigation brain dysfunction or that of Brunner’s view in the notion of the ‘Warrior gene‘ as a genetic predisposition to criminality. Lombroso’s extreme biological view can also be described as reductionist as well as biologically deterministic. However, Lombroso did acknowledge the role of the environment and the casual and occasional criminal who slips into criminality due to opportunity or poverty, the ‘Criminaloids‘ as he referred to them. Lombroso’s theory has been rejected for many years, even if there was significant evidence that there were deviations in facial features these could as easily be through environmental explanations such as the self-fulfilling prophecy where as people are treated on how they are expected to behave due to superficial indicators like looks and therefore those individuals eventually conform to the stereotype created for them.  If you look like a criminal people will treat you like one –does that mean you are more likely to become one?


Thorndike’s Halo effect provides some assistance as those deemed as attractive tend to be attributed with more positive characteristics, trustworthiness and honesty for example.  Unfortunately the same works in reverse – The Horns effect.  Lombroso did identify an asymmetrical face as part of his theory and recent evidence suggest those who are perceived as attractive do tend to have greater symmetry in the face.  Forensic psychological evidence suggest that such an effect can influence a jury to be more lenient in coming to a guilty verdict – as much as 20% in one study by Castellow.  Other more recent research  such as that by Brunner that suggests a biological factor may also suffer with the same self full-filling prophecy.

In the news

More recently on social media there has been controversy over a number of offenders who seem to provide a counter view – too beautiful for prison;


Other resources

  • Can you tell a serial killer just by looking at them?  Take the test.
  • Other examples of biological determinism – the 2D4D ratio
  • Lombroso’s female offender research 
  • BBC documentary programme only available in the UK covers some of Lombroso’s work.  Click the link for a clip that leads on to the documentary – over 16’s only.
  • A useful study of Lombroso is H. G. Kurella, Cesare Lombroso: A Modern Man of Science (trans. 1911). See also Hermann Mannheim, ed., Pioneers in Criminology (1960).

The truth about lies and deception…….honest.

I have read the terms and conditions. Surely the single greatest lie ever told, certainly in terms of the volume of us who have ticked that box knowing that really we haven’t.  However, deception breeds deception and with now defunct computer game shop Gamestation taking advantage of the aforementioned ‘fib’ by fiendishly incorporating into the smallprint of their online terms and conditions- that they owned the very soul of anyone whom blindly ticked the box -‘the immortal soul clause’ as it was called.  Over 7.500 people were caught out on April 1st 2010- they were refunded their soul in an email.


However lying, deception, untruthful, false, dishonest, mendacious, perfidious, duplicitous, dissimulating, dissembling and double Janus-facedness is a normal human behaviour, not just human, animals deceive too. Koko the Gorilla had been taught sign language and ruthlessly blamed the ripping out of a sink from a wall on her pet kitten (Koko signed on the return of her keepers…..”The cat did it!”).  If we are to take an evolutionary view it is a survival mechanism, a simple smile to someone you despise or you feel threatened by is a useful tactic to hide any weaknesses that may be exploited by them and hide, deceive them of your true feelings. However false smiles can be detected if you know where to look – the muscles that generate a warm and honest smile are different to those that are created  when creating a false smile. It’s all in the eyes…you see.

Those lying eyes

real-eyesThe eyes truly are the window to the soul. However don’t be fooled by so called Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques  (a good example of pseudoscience) that if someone is looking up when telling you something then they are lying there is little evidence to support this but is something that your hear still being pedled around every now and then.

And there lies the crux of the matter…are there any reliable physical cues to deceptiouniversal-facial-expressionsn?  Maybe a more fundamental question is are there any universal responses of facial expression or body language? (The eyebrow flash for recognition of someone  is thought to be pretty universal as an involuntary response.)   Certainly classic research by Ekman into facial expression has suggested that there are a handful of truly universal expressions. However deceivingly there is a long tradition of supposed cues to deception or ‘tells’ as gamblers would say little unconscious signs of anxiety, uncertainty due to knowingly attempting to convince someone of something you know not to be true. Going red, not being able to look someone in the eye, looking at someone for too long in the eye, rubbing the back of the neck, rubbing the ear lobes, scratching the nose, excessive blinking (note that psychopaths reportedly blink less and maybe that is why they are better at deceiving people) are all ways many think they can spot a liar – but where does the truth lie?

Bad Lie detectors

Many of these are signs of anxiety not necessarily deception, blinkinghowever Polygraphs (aka lie detectors)  have been used for many years in criminal investigations in the United States (and on the Jeremy Kyle show) and provided as evidence, however it measures variations in physiological arousal (not lying) and therefore fundamentally flawed, the American Psychological Association concluded:

The development of currently used “lie detection” technologies has been based on ideas about physiological functioning but has, for the most part, been independent of systematic psychological research. Early theorists believed that deception required effort and, thus, could be assessed by monitoring physiological changes. But such propositions have not been proven and basic research remains limited on the nature of deceptiveness. Efforts to develop actual tests have always outpaced theory-based basic research. Without a better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which deception functions, however, development of a lie detection technology seems highly problematic.

For now, although the idea of a lie detector may be comforting, the most practical advice is to remain skeptical about any conclusion wrung from a polygraph.                                          Cited;

F.B.I training focusses upon a range of techniques for detection .

Good lie detectors

Where humans on average can detect lies at marginally above chance level – 54% but surely professionals such as Police officers are better?  When Samantha Mann conducted research into a new area of lie detection and found some interesting results, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on story cues rather than the historic notion  body language cues of the more experienced and stronger lie detectors used in the research.  Detecting true lies; Police officers abilities to detect true lies.  Mann and Vrij’s research supports the view that often the focus on lie detection is in behavioural cues rather than the more accurate experienced police officers who also rely on story cues as a method of detection.

There have been a number of publications integrating a range of approaches to lie  detection.

Here is an overview of  an alternative piece of research conducted by Mann and Vrij investigating high stake liars.

Professor David Canter and colleague  may be  about to turn the whole area on its head with current research taking place at the Centre for Investigative Psychology on revisiting the use of polygraph techniques in the UK. 

The BBC recently compiled a practical overview of lie detection – View it here. 

The fun of deception

However, the detection of lies can be fun…………… a light entertainment kind of way.  The story cues on the clip below may seem so far fetched that it must be a lie…it must be………..mustn’t it?

Maximise your potential……it just take an hour a day.

“The data suggest that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time.”

Read a recent article from The Independent Newspaper highlighting a recent study investigating the study habits of successful students.

Here though is a key finding….

…………did significantly better in standardised exams if they had done homework on their own in regular hour-long blocks, researchers from the University of Oviedo found. Students who were assigned homework regularly received nearly 50 more test points than their previous exams…………

Good to know.

Profiling the Profiler…..Professor David Canter

David Canter without doubt is one of the most influential psychologists of the era.  His work 15555891_Birthday_371167cfocusing on ‘Offender Profiling‘ and the development of geographical profiling is well documented and is  a stalwart  of Forensic Psychological text and reference for 30 years.  Canter is known for his applied methods of profiling which are a stark contrast between the FBI approach utilising a systematic to approach to data analysis of evidence to narrow the scope of an investigation rather than a more subjective ‘intuitive’ approach. Canter says, ‘Investigative psychology, includes many areas where psychology can contribute to investigations–including profiling. The goal of investigative psychology’s form of profiling, like all profiling, is to infer characteristics of a criminal based on his or her behaviour during the crime. But, Canter says, the key is that all of those inferences should come from empirical, peer-reviewed research–not necessarily from investigative experience. Canter is one of the most prolific academics in the area and is cited all over the world pertaining to his research and experiences in the area.

 Canter applied the concept of Circle Theory based upon the notion that all peoplerobhouse_4b and thus offenders operate in a limited spatial mind set creating imagined boundaries based upon pre existing knowledge.  Canter provided evidence that offenders can be divided into two sub categories when interacting with their environment, Commuters and Marauders.  The John Duffy case saw the formation of Circle Theory based upon the locations of the first 3 crimes.

Watch the documentary of the case which interviews Canter and details the case in which Canter made his name and is now synonymous with offender profiling. * Warning graphic descriptions are included in the video. Click the pic to watch.


Canter has been the face of profiling,  with best selling books such as Criminal Shadows and Mapping Murder  as well as successful series again called Mapping Murder.

Here is an extract from David Canter’s own blog discussing Offender Profiling

OK, the time has come to write about the bugbear of my life, ‘Offender Profiling’.  Recent publications  have encouraged me not to keep quiet about this any longer. Now is the time to explain why I find the term ‘profiling’ so problematic yet get stuck with using it.  For many people ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘personality’ profiling implies everything that psychologists and other behavioural and social scientists contribute to law enforcement.  One consequence of this popular myth is the growth industry of Criminology and Forensic Psychology courses in universities. Crime fiction fills the television schedules and crime fact the news programmes. So if you are interested in people and society but want to get out there and do something or just ‘get into the mind’ of miscreants, there is a natural drift towards the fictional, heroic figure of the ‘profiler’. This character knows what makes offenders tick and follows directly in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes that ordinary mortals cannot.

In case you haven’t read anything recently on Psychology and Crime I had better explain very briefly how I come to be caught up in all this.  A quarter of a century ago, by a roundabout route, I provided some elementary (Holmesian reference intended) guidance to a major police investigation into a series of linked rapes and murders around Greater London. Without checking with me that they had understood what I had suggested or why, the police drew on my comments to prioritise one of the handful of suspects they had identified through a systematic trawl of the criminal records. This individual was convicted and the police lauded my contribution as very helpful. The myth emerged that I had solved the crime with an uncannily accurate account of the person the police were looking for.  The advantage of this myth was that I was called in to give advice in many other investigations and get access to information the police hold on crimes and criminals so that I could start doing proper research in this area.

It is easy to forget that before I was given access in the early 1990s to information held by the police, to carry out studies from a psychological perspective and to build up empirically based models of differences between crimes and criminals, that this was a very unusual activity. Now, as for example illustrated by papers in The Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, (hey ho – impact factor 0.533…) which is in its tenth year, that has become a common form of social science research around the world. It is instructive to note that it was the recognition by the police that this form of research may be useful to them which made the research possible.  This research did not come about because of recognition by academics and professionals that the information collected at the tax payers’ expense could be harnessed to elucidate the nature of criminality.

I still bristle at how difficult it is to get access to these police files even after all the research that has shown their value over the last twenty-five years, despite ethical and professional controls on their use. Politicians complain at the amount of paperwork the police have to deal with and generate sound bites about the need for more ‘coppers on the beat’. They don’t seem to realise that all the records being collected (I repeat at tax payers’ expense – they are not the private property of the police) are a potential gold mine for researchers who could greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of police work if only given access.

Although access to real information on criminals is still challenging there are an increasing number of researchers around the world who are overcoming these challenges. (Interestingly it seems to be most problematic to get access to criminals themselves in the US, but much easier in developing countries such as India or Turkey.) These studies of crimes and criminals are going far beyond the idea of the lone, brilliantly insightful individual who solves crimes for the police – The Profiler. They also inevitably overlap with related areas, such as police interviewing processes, the detection of deception and the complex decision making tasks that Senior Investigating Officers face. In the way of these things the work has also generated decision support tools, notably ‘geographic profiling systems’ that draw on where crimes occur to indicate where detectives should look for a criminal. Taken as a bundle it seems to me that this wide range of research activity, nearly all of which is offline, in the sense that it is not a direct part of any investigations, does not really fit with the notion of an ‘offender profiler’ or ‘criminal profiling’, so cherished by crime writers. That is why I called this area Investigative Psychology.

That label ‘Investigative Psychology’ is increasingly used in textbooks and for university centres and for some police units, notably in Israel, Japan and South Africa. But terms that carry a mythical heritage are hard to kill off. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Anne and Curt Bartol, one of the most well established and highly regarded forensic psychology couples in the US, produced a book this year on Criminal & Behavioral Profiling.  Drawing on the skill that so dominates US texts, of taking an amorphous topic and turning it into something that can be taught to undergraduates, they have laid out an academic framework for something that really was a mass media invention.

They identify a number of areas of ‘profiling’ activity. What is really exciting, though, is that in their scholarly way they evaluate each of these areas and show them wanting. The area closest to crime fiction ‘crime scene profiling’ is characterised as “presenting new thoughts in difficult-to-solve cases”. Many social scientists with recognised this as the general contribution of social science to most areas of human decision making.  It is perhaps slightly disingenuous to grace this with the exotic term ‘profiling’.

Another area the Bartols identify is ‘suspect based profiling’. This is the sort of activity that leads police to stop and search a higher proportion of people from some ethnic groups than from others. It is therefore highly contentious and, as Bernard Harcourt points out in his excellent 2007 book Against Prediction, has a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in it. The more people of a certain sub-set you look at the more likely you are to find something dodgy about them supporting your views about what a dodgy lot they are.

The activity of carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’, in other words creating a psychological  profile of a dead person, especially when the causes of death are equivocal, is also an aspect of ‘profiling’ that the Bartols make clear is fraught with difficulty. It is not really clear what it involves or how reliable it is. They support the view that it “requires far more empirical support before its scientific basis is established”.

However, these are not just the concerns of academics. Nor are they only of interest to crime writers, like those who approach me every now and then, trying to get an authentic view of what ‘profilers’ are like and what they do. There are increasing attempts to get ‘profiles’ into court. This is either by the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant has all the psychological features of the person who committed the crime, or by the defence to claim their client was just not the sort of person who would do something so heinous.  Fortunately, given all the scientific doubts about criminal profiles, courts in the US, and even more so in the UK, are very reluctant to allow this type of evidence.  The slightly more focussed attempt to show from behaviour alone that a number of crimes were committed by the same person, known as ‘linkage analysis’, has fared slightly better in US courts but in the great majority of cases has not been allowed. This has not stopped lawyers trying to use linkage analysis in complete ignorance of the psychological and social issues. One even approached me to see if I would agree that offences had a common perpetrator because they were all committed on the same day of the month!

All in all, ‘Profiling’ is going to stay with us, fanned by popular interest and the fascinating challenges it poses to empirical research. I see it as rather like the James Galway effect that Capturegot so many youngsters interested in orchestral flute playing and consequently improved the quality of flute playing in general.  The continued fascination with the criminal mind and how to profile it is drawing in many very capable students and scholars. So although, as the subtext in the Bartols’ book makes clear, psychology and related social sciences have a long way to go before they can make a major impact on the processes of law enforcement, the path is now being cleared of the myths and half-truths that so inspired fiction writers. The way forward is now obvious.

Follow David Canter on Twitter

Ethics in Psychology…….a necessary evil?

The answer is absolutely yes. When you think of controversy in Psychology ethics is often the starting point.  But are we in danger of limiting our ability to validly measure behaviour by imposing too strict ethical principles?  All psychology students are well versed in studies of historical importance but also ethically controversial, Milgram, Zimbardo, Bandura, Freud, Rosenhan, Watson and Rayner  to name a few of the more infamous cases.

Animal behavioural experimentation has also all but long been confined to the history books particularly as the Behaviourist principles fell out of favour in the 1960’s (Behaviourists believed that there was only a quantitative difference between humans and animals and thus pigeons, rats, cats, dogs, etc. were all easily accessible test subjects.  Human participants have been the main focus in the past 50 years however ethical concerns has always been and (always will be the necessary evil).  Psychology today understands that validity has to come second to the protection of harm either psychologically or physically of participants.

The British Psychological Society – has identified 4 core Ethical principles that need to be adhered to.

1) Respect for the autonomy, privacy and dignity of individuals and communities.

Psychologists value the dignity and worth of all persons equally, with sensitivity to the dynamics of perceived authority or influence over others and with particular regard to people’s rights including those of privacy and self-determination’

2) Scientific integrity. 

 Research should be designed, reviewed and conducted in a way that ensures its quality, integrity and contribution to the development of knowledge and understanding. Research that is judged within a research community to be poorly designed or conducted wastes resources and devalues the contribution of the The British Psychological Society participants. At worst it can lead to misleading information being promulgated and can have the potential to cause harm.

3)  Social responsibility.

The discipline of psychology, both as a science and a profession, exists within the context of human society. Accordingly, a shared collective duty for the welfare of human and non-human beings, both within the societies in which psychology researchers live and work, and beyond them, must be acknowledged by those conducting the research.

4) Maximising benefit and minimising harm.

Responsibility of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, psychologists should consider all research from the standpoint of the research participants, and any other persons, groups or communities who may be potentially affected by the research, with the aim of avoiding potential risks to psychological well-being, mental health, personal values, the invasion of privacy or dignity.

Here is an extract from The British Psychological Society website discussing how they deal with key issues pertaining to ethics.

Question: If I wanted to do a small piece of research looking at the general public’s perceptions of risk (about drug taking, offending and outdoor activities), how can I do it independently? I would like to do some research but it won’t be anything to do with the university and hypothetically, would involve asking people on the street to volunteer to take part. The aim would be to have people volunteer through the provision of informed consent. Obviously, I would not like to proceed with research unless it has been reviewed by an Ethics Committee. I have the latest code of ethics and conduct but cannot find information about what to do when there is no obvious ethics committee. It is critical to adhere to the guidelines as I am a professional.

Answer: We would strongly recommend that you submit the research proposal for consideration under your university’s institutional ethics procedure.

There are several reasons why we recommend you to do so:

First, as a protection for the participants, so that your research protocol can be properly reviewed and best advice given as to any modifications to cover eventualities/risks not previously anticipated.

Second, as a protection for yourself. The specifics of this case put you at risk of being in a situation where the fact that confidentiality can never be absolute is activated as the research sets out to canvas ideas/options about potentially illegal activities (drug taking, offending behaviour). This leaves you in a tricky dilemma if participants disclose actual engagement in illegal activity; you may have a legal duty to pass that information on, and if so how does this impact then on informed consent aspects related to confidentiality and anonymity of participants’ disclosures? The duty of care might override any confidentiality clause in consent. It is crucial that a risk management strategy is in place and has been reviewed by a competent body such as an institutional ethics committee. Personal liability insurance may or may not be in place (it perhaps should be), but if it is and there is a claim against you for negligence, if there has not been ethical review, the insurers would have a case for refusing to cover a claim.

Third, as a protection for the institution. Even if the study is done independently, the press are more than happy to link lecturers’ personal behaviour with their professional posts and name the institutions. It is not hard to envisage a situation where this proposed study might be reported in such a way as to bring the institution into disrepute.

The Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct also provides guidance on the general ethical principles that should be borne in mind.

Informed consent

Question: I am planning some research involving volunteer participants. How do I go about obtaining consent and what form should this take?

Answer: Researchers should ensure that every person from whom data is gathered for the purposes of research consents freely to the process on the basis of adequate information. They should be able, during the data gathering phase, to freely withdraw or modify their consent and to ask for the destruction of all or part of the data that they have contributed.

The way in which consent is sought from people to participate in or otherwise contribute data for research should be appropriate to the research topic and design, and to the ultimate outputs and uses of the analyses. It should recognise in particular the wide variety of data types, collection methods, and the range of people’s possible responses and sensitivities. The principle of proportionality should apply, such that the procedures for consent are proportional to the nature of participation and the risks involved.

For example, for data from existing datasets where consent was properly gained in the initial collection and this consent covers the uses of data proposed, no further consent will normally be needed. For anonymised-at-source, non-sensitive data, consent may appropriately be minimal or may be considered to have been given by the act of participation. Nevertheless, the risks involved in some anonymised-at-source research, for example, web-based research on sensitive topics such as sexual behaviours, will require carefully prepared prior information and clear consent processes.

When research involves the collection of identity capturing data on sensitive material, using video or audio recording, or other methodologies where an individual may be identifiable, it is important to consider additional informed consent procedures. These procedures need to be related to both the nature of the data collected and the ultimate use of the data. Separate informed consent agreements for data collection and the dissemination of the study’s results may be required.

A prior assessment of potential risks should inform the preparation of the information to be given to potential participants and the procedures for seeking consent. The assessment should be used to determine the appropriate form of consent and the nature of any risk management required. When in exceptional circumstances harm, unusual discomfort, or other negative consequences for the individual’s future life might occur, the investigator must inform the participants clearly of these additional risks prior to consent. For all research where risks are present, secure liability insurance should be in place to adequately cover the levels of possible harm identified in the risk analysis.

Giving potential participants sufficient information about the research in an understandable form requires careful drafting of the information sheet. It is recommended that at least one pilot test of the draft documents be carried out with a naive person having a literacy level at the lower end of the range expected in the planned research sample.

In exceptional circumstances the aims of the research may be compromised by giving full information prior to data collection. In such cases, it should be made clear that this is the case in the information sheet and the means by which the withheld information will be given at the conclusion of data collection should be specified. The information withheld and the delay in disclosing the withheld information should be kept to an absolute minimum.


Question: Does confidentiality really apply in case of teenage research participants? That is, could I  withhold  information from a  parent the contents of the discussions held between his fourteen year old daughter and myself?

Answer: Our guidelines for conducting research with human participants are currently undergoing full review. However, in the meantime, the Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct provides guidance on the general ethical principles that should be borne in mind. There are also guidelines on the General Medical Council website that may find the guidance of use to you.

The sections on making decisions and principles of confidentiality are particularly straightforward and helpful.

We would also recommend that your research proposal is submitted for consideration by the University’s Research Ethics Committee.

Question: I am a trainee clinical psychologist and am completing my doctoral thesis this year. As part of the project I plan to recruit a control group of University students. This control group will be asked to complete a number of questionnaires including the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and a short evaluation of eating disorders. I had initially planned for the questionnaire responses to be confidential but I am concerned that I may receive questionnaires from control participants which score highly for anxiety, depression and eating disorder. I am aware that I need to balance the need for confidentiality with duty of care to the individual. I could indicate on the information sheet that if the person reveals scores that would indicate I have a concern about their well being that I would contact them but this would be at the expense of confidentiality. I wonder if you would be able to offer some advice?

Answer: We would suggest that you use an appropriate coding system for the questionnaires so that the participants are only identifiable by yourself; and that you are clear about this at the outset. The possibility of follow-up for any concerns over wellbeing could also then be linked to this.

adapted from


The BPS Code of Ethics and guidelines (2009)

Here is the latest BPS ethical guidelines fro research (2014)

Dysfunctional Behaviour; Classification, explanation and treatment

Mental illness, atypical behaviour, psychopathology and dysfunctional behaviour are just some of the terms used to describe one of the most difficult areas to define both in Psychology as part of the huiStock_goldfishman experience.  Issues that surround the study of ‘dysfunctional behaviour’ are probably the most important as they can be the difference to some in terms of quality of life or even a threat to life itself.  All the debates that academically are discussed within the context of Clinical Psychology are well trod however still as fiercely debated.  Read this chapter for an overview of studies and issues relating to classification, explanation and treatment.  Want to test yourself on your knowledge of Dysfunctional behaviour – click me?

Some examples of debates are;

Nature Vs Nurture – To what extent is dysfunctional behaviour caused by our experiences or dominated by a genetic predisposition.  Consider depression, as one of the most diagnosed disorders is it due to traumatic life experience or are some people carrying a genetic predisposition which will arise irrespective of circumstance.  This question feeds directly in peoples often poor judgements ‘She has everything anyone could want..what has she got to be depressed about…….?

Reductionism Vs Holism – Can the explanation of human experience be over simplified and reduced down to basic processes.  Consider the study of Little Albert.

02.IL.02 (1)
Should abnormality be defined by statistical infrequency, consider the implications of such an approach?

 Issues such as ethics, validity and reliability of diagnosis, effectiveness of psychological treatments Vs drug therapy, before we even get to an agreement of what dysfunctional behaviour actually is.

What is a Clinical Psychologist?

The rise of the anti-psychiatry movement; Szasz, Laing and Rosenhan- ‘The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane’.

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colours, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.”

Herman Melville – Author (Billy Budd, Moby Dick)

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a huge time for social and political change.  One such change that was at the very core of the Psychological community was the role of psychiatry.  Psychiatry  attempts to diagnose and treat mental health conditions but at the very heart there is still a raging argument today about what can be considered normal and thus define abnormality in particular the dangers that can arise from the medicalisation of normal experience.  Is psychiatry there to help or has it now or historically had a more sinister agenda, to control people through stigmatisation?

If you talk to God, you are praying;
If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.

–Thomas S. Szasz, The Second Sin, Anchor/Doubleday, Garden City, NY. 1973, p. 113.

Thomas Szasz is central to what is known as the anti-psychiatry movement which took the view that Psychiatry was a form of dangerous social control. Watch the video below to hear him briefly discussing his views on  psychiatry.

As part of the British Anti-Psychiatry movement R.D. Laing  shared the concerns of Szasz, taking the view from a more existentialist perspective providing case studies of schizophrenia rather than traditional  ‘flawed’  notions such as psychoanalysis or behaviourist perspectives in his famous text ‘The divided self’  in 1960.  Watch the video of Laing below.

David Rosenhan was present and inspired by Laing at one of his lectures.  Could there be experimental evidence to support the view that psychiatrists were unable to distinguish ‘Sane from insane’?  Thus leading to one of the most important studies of all time.  Read the original study by Rosenhan here.

Watch the video below for an overview of the study.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 published by the APA is arguably the most influential text in mental health.  It is used almost exclusively within the USA (most of the rest of the world use the ICD 10 published by the World Health Organisation and the Chinese have the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders CCMD -3).  Review this document that discusses the history and provides an overview for all classification systems used. 

Did Psychiatry heed the warnings of Rosenhan?  Read and listen to the links from Tea Break Psychology 2


read an overview of the study with a critique/evaluation of Rosenhan’s conclusions. here.

The 1975 film ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest‘ dealt with many of the themes that Rosenhan and the anti-psychiatry movement were interested, it was very much a film of its time. Provocative, insightful and very well observed it still stands as one of the best films of the 20th century.

Here is a statement from the APA regarding the DSM 5

What was the process that led to the new manual?

The APA prepared for the revision of DSM for nearly a decade, with an unprecedented process of research evaluation that included a series of white papers and 13 scientific conferences supported by the National Institutes of Health. This preparation brought together almost 400 international scientists and produced a series of monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles.

The DSM-5 Task Force and Work Groups, made up of more than 160 world-renowned clinicians and researchers, reviewed scientific literature and garnered input from a breadth of advisors as the basis for proposing draft criteria.

The APA Board of Trustees, which approved the final criteria for DSM-5 on Dec. 1, appointed a Scientific Review Committee of mental health experts to review and provide guidance on the strength of evidence of proposed changes. The Scientific Review Committee evaluated the strength of the evidence based on a specific template of validators. In addition, a Clinical and Public Health Committee reviewed proposed revisions to address difficulties experienced with the clinical utility, consistency and public health impact of DSM-IV criteria.

Read an article here on the current DSM 5 F.A.Q from the APA

And finally….a more individualised view on the difficulties and dangers of labelling people based upon subjective criteria…