‘Time to rethink psychology’ keynote lecture, 7 April 2017

Keynote Lecture at the Annual Congress of Psychology Students in Ireland

‘Is it Time to Rethink Psychology? (Spoiler alert: Yes)’

Abstract: Given recent political upheavals, it is suddenly fashionable for intellectuals to bemoan fake news, the post-truth society, and the wanton rejection of expertise. In reality, psychologists have been grappling with (if not performing) these activities for years. Psychology has long co-existed with pseudoscientific practices and is often happy to be mistaken for them. But more worryingly, mainstream psychology regularly promotes its own forms of fake news, post-truth conspiracies, and expert-baiting. In other words, academic psychology regularly offers “alternative facts” (by overselling findings produced by poor research) while practitioner psychologists regularly behave as though they “have had enough of experts” (by rejecting or ignoring empirical evidence concerning their work). In short, the demise of logic in public politics simply mirrors that seen within academia. The future of psychology – and by extension that of public rationality – lies in the hands of the next generation.

 

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Appearance at FameLab Galway, 21 February 2017

(Main photo by Aengus McMahon)

Contribution as interval entertainment at FameLab Galway, February 21st 2016.


Launch of LGBT Helpline Connaught Guide, 2 December 2016

On Friday I had the privilege of launching the national LGBT Helpline’s guide for services in the Connacht region. I was invited to speak on the subject and to launch the guide at what was a very gratifying event. What follows is the text of my speech, which you can also download in pdf format here.

Remarks on the launch of the LGBT Helpline Connaught Guide,
2 December 2016
 

Professor Brian Hughes

Recent years have seen enormous positive changes in the way LGBT diversity has become welcomed and accepted as a core part of Irish society. As well as changing attitudes, we have seen society itself, through its laws and policies, increasingly recognize and protect important progressive norms.

We have seen legislation on same sex-parenting rights and on gender recognition. We have seen the removal of discriminatory clauses from the Employment Equality Acts. And of course we have seen the recognition of Marriage Equality within our constitution, as the result of a direct vote by the Irish people just last year.

To say that the Marriage Equality referendum was an important milestone is guaranteed to be something of an understatement. Words can barely describe its significance, in both legal and human terms. Not only did it result in the legal recognition of all marriages, but the entire referendum experience changed the way Irish people think and talk about LGBT diversity forever. It was an overwhelming period, and one which was moving and emotionally draining for many.

Living through such moments in cultural history, while historic and profound, can also be intensely anxiety-provoking and stressful. We can note for example that last year, the year of the referendum, traffic to the LGBT Helpline website grew by over 65%. We can hardly be surprised that such a period, when people’s experiences and even their very existence is a matter of daily public argument, much of it vitriolic and deliberately demeaning, will place upon them a significant emotional load.

I am a professor of psychology and my expertise ostensibly is in the experience of stress and anxiety. Most of this expertise has been built up professionally through my research and study, but like others my understanding of stress and anxiety is clearly intertwined within my own experience of life itself. From my point of view, all lives are to some degree stressful. But that is not to deny that some are more stressful than others.

In the few moments I have here, I would like to say a few words about why I believe the LGBT Helpline Connaught Guide that we launch here today is so important and welcome, and why such supports are not just laudable as humanitarian initiatives, but why they should be seen as part and parcel of a society in which life is lived well.

* * *

First of all, positive social change often serves to reorganize the experiences of its beneficiaries. For example, as social acceptance for LGBT diversity increases, more people are willing to come out. But coming out can be a very challenging thing to do, all the more so as life goes by and people find themselves embedded in situations that may not reflect their true personalities, and so it can appear to carry significant costs as well as benefits.

Also, positive social attitudes lead people to come out at younger and younger ages. One consequence of this is that, nowadays, more and more LGBT youth come out at precisely those life stages in which young people struggle most with social identity, friendships, peer influence and opinion, and peer victimization.

Social acceptance has made coming out more possible, but for many the age of coming out now frequently coincides with periods of intense interpersonal stress and anxiety.

* * *

I would like to give some facts and figures to explain why I believe supports and services like LGBT Helpline are so important. Much of them come from research conducted by psychologists. But before I do I want to acknowledge that, believe it or not, psychologists do not know everything.

In fact, psychology has not always been sensitive or rational about LGBT issues. Up until the 1980s, psychology listed ‘homosexuality’ as a mental pathology in its lists of clinical disorders. In my own undergraduate education, ‘homosexuality’ was covered in a textbook on human abnormality, and in a section of that textbook placed just after the topic of rape.

Psychology likes to congratulate itself on having moved forward on LGBT issues since the 1980s and 1990s. But a legacy remains. Even in the most recent clinical guidelines, controversy surrounds the way psychology depicts transvestic disorder and gender dysphoria. Transvestic disorder is defined in terms of the distress a person feels when harassed by others. But to suggest that a person who is victimized by others has a mental disorder, rather than to challenge and blame those around them who do the victimizing, seems to me very unfortunate indeed. Gender dysphoria is defined as when biological gender as classified (by others) at birth is contrary to one’s own self-identity. But why is this considered a psychiatric problem as opposed to a physical one? To me this reflects a heteronormative legacy bias within the psychological professions.

In short I believe that psychology still has some way to go on these matters.

* * *

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to consider what the psychological research has revealed about LGBT experiences, both negative and positive.

By way of a preview, I can tell you that the research consistently shows us that LGBT persons benefit clearly from supports unique to their circumstances and experiences, not because they are somehow ‘mentally disordered’ or at particular biological or intrinsic risk of mental health problems — but rather, because LGBT persons face largely extrinsic challenges associated with environmental, social, and community factors, such as isolation, victimization, discrimination, and a range of adverse social attitudes many of which are held and communicated unintentionally by those around them.

The biggest challenges flow from something we now call “minority stress” – the distinct stress associated with minority identities. Usually we find three risks: the risk of facing actual hostility and rejection; the expectation that one will be treated this way (which is often as powerful as the reality); and, on occasion, the internalizing of other people’s expressed negative attitudes about you.

Much data now suggest that LGBT persons are at elevated risk of stress, anxiety and depression. Recent US studies report past-year prevalence among LGBT adolescents as 25% for anxiety disorders, and 10% for mood disorders, much higher than in the rest of the population. Studies also show elevated rates of PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicide ideation and attempts among LGBT communities.

Studies have also implied distinct measurable health disparities, such as elevated risk of physical health problems, most likely resulting as secondary consequences of stress (due to low mood, poor diet, alcohol use, and so on).

* * *

The research also tells us much about what makes stress worse, but in so doing it tells us what protects us against this kind of stress.

The interesting point is that the research points primarily to risk factors relating to institutional and community issues, rather than issues concerning the specific person themselves.

For example, where there is a lack of support from life-relevant institutions – schools, faith communities, even families – we find elevated risk of problems with anxiety, depression, and stress. A logical conclusion is that we can enhance lives by intervening to change these institutions to make them more supportive. A specific example relates to antibullying laws. In the US, LGBT youth living in counties with weaker LGBT-specific antibullying policies are twice as likely to report past-year suicide attempts that other youth. It stands to reason therefore that such laws enhance the public good and should be the norm and not the exception.

Family repudiation, where a person’s family reacts negatively toward an LGBT family member, is another risk factor, and one which highlights the benefit of supporting families and LGBT persons through the coming out process.

* * *

But the research also shows us clearly that, just like people in general, the vast majority of LGBT persons live full lives as healthy and productive adults. In fact there is nothing in the research to suggest that LGBT persons are any less likely to do so than anyone else alive.

The research picture suggests that the a number of factors are particularly effective in promoting good mental health:

  • Affirmative and protective environments
  • Explicit inclusion of LGBT experiences in mainstream contexts (such as inclusive school curricula)
  • Parental and peer support — many studies show that having sexual minority friends is associated with good mental health, for both LGBT and non-LGBT persons
  • And romantic relationships — but note the challenge here that people will face when there are social and cultural restrictions on same-sex romantic behaviour.

* * *

Finally I want to make a few brief points about the other dimension of the LGBT Helpline Connaught Guide, one that may not otherwise be referred to. This is the fact that it is a guide for Connacht in particular.

So why is this important? Well, let’s face it. As cool as Connacht is, it is distinct in some ways in which we may wish it were different. For example, even though the Marriage Equality referendum was overwhelmingly carried and euphorically welcomed, you might recall that the only county in which a majority voted against marriage equality was, in fact, located in Connacht.

By and large, there can often be differences between urban centres like Dublin and the largely non-urban and small town environments we have here in the west. These differences are well known to psychologists and mental health professionals.

Non-urban places afford less anonymity, and can present relatively fewer peers and role models to whom you can look to for tangible consolation and validation.

Non-urban places also tend to show greater levels of religious and cultural conservatism, no matter how these influences diminish over time at the national level. In the days before the Marriage Referendum, I read in one local newspaper in the west (not in Galway city) that it was not interested in the outcome, because none of its readers cared about LGBT issues. According to this paper, the Marriage Referendum was a politically correct concern solely of well-to-do arty-farty celebrity snobs in Dun Laoghaire and Dublin 4.

Although this might seem benign, such formal denial of what was an issue of mass public interest – to be assumed given the turnout in the west as everywhere else – has the effect of subtly excluding the LGBT experience from mainstream consideration. The newspaper might consider respect for LGBT diversity to be an urban affectation. In psychology we consider this type of attitude a ‘micro-aggression’.

So it matters that we give attention to the fact that the LGBT experience in Connacht has its own features and realities.

* * *

I want to congratulate the National LGBT Helpline in producing this Connaught Guide, and indeed on all its work. As you now, the LGBT Helpline was established in 2010 and provides a network of local helplines, and latterly online instant messaging services, where trained volunteers offer support and advice to thousands of callers of all ages across Ireland.

The Connaught Guide is very comprehensive, providing information on services offering social support, groups and events, family support, support to people young and old, help with coming out, advice on sexual health, trans support, and practical guidance on dealing with negative experiences with other people.

The Connaught Guide is not just a useful resource. It is good for the soul! It is just so gratifying to see listed on its pages the activists and supportive services who work in this area right here in Connacht. It is not just a bibliography of services, it is a beacon of hope, part of the fabric of the new Ireland that we are simply privileged to see unfolding before us.

Thank you very much for asking me here today. It is my honour to be here, to congratulate all involved, and to formally declare the LGBT Helpline Connaught Guide launched!

Professor Brian Hughes, School of Psychology, NUI Galway
brian.hughes@nuigalway.ie

* * *

‘Bad science in psychology’ invited workshop, Psychological Society of Ireland Annual Conference, 12 November 2016

From the Psychological Society of Ireland

46th Annual PSI Conference

“Who are we: where have we come from and where are we going?” – Exploring the psychology of identity, 9 – 12 November 2016, Sheraton Athlone Hotel, Athlone, Ireland

Conference Highlights

Prof Brian Hughes (NUIG) will run a one day workshop on Saturday 12th as part of the Conference programme. The workshop, entitled Bad science, pseudoscience, and anti-science in psychology: Professional obligations and courses of action, will form Stream C of the programme and is open to Conference delegates to attend from 10.00 – 16.00.

Bad science, pseudoscience, and anti-science in psychology: Professional obligations and courses of action

Name of presenter: Brian Hughes

Workshop topic: Communication and outreach skills

Title of workshop: Bad science, pseudoscience, and anti-science in psychology: Professional obligations and courses of action

Date of workshop: Saturday, 12 November 2016

Duration of workshop: 10 am – 4 pm

Maximum number of attendees: 30

CPD credits: 4

Abstract:
This workshop will support participants in addressing and responding to controversies regarding scientific and evidence-based psychology. As such, it will support participants in promoting psychology, in securing the cooperation of stakeholders in their work, and in advocating for public policy to be informed by psychological expertise. This workshop is aimed at psychologists from all areas of specialism.

The PSI Code of Professional Ethics highlights that psychologists are scientist-practitioners whose professional practice is grounded in a body of scientific knowledge. Moreover, the Code requires that psychologists remain up-to-date on latest research methods and techniques, be aware of their “scientific responsibilities” to clients, and assume overall ethical responsibility for the scientific activities of psychologists whose work they supervise (e.g., students, trainees, assistants, mentees, and employees).

Nonetheless, because of its popular appeal as a discipline, psychology often attracts attention from audiences who hold ambivalent, or even deeply negative, views about science. Sometimes psychologists themselves, or their colleagues, exhibit negative attitudes towards the scientific basis of their field. This workshop will support participants in considering, discussing, and defending the scientific aspect of psychology, and will examine the extent to which imperfect science threatens the impact and credibility of our work.

Participants will be introduced to practical approaches to: (a) achieving appropriate self-evaluation as a scientist-practitioner; (b) approaching sensitive conflicts around pseudoscientific ideas or practices; (c) to counteracting pseudoscientific advocacy (including in professional domains), and (d) promoting positive views about psychology in social and mainstream media.

Presenter’s biography:
Brian Hughes is Professor of Psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is the author of Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience (2016, Palgrave), and Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology (2012, Prentice-Hall), as well as over 100 academic journal articles and chapters. He served as President of the international Stress and Anxiety Research Society from 2014 to 2016 and as President of PSI from 2004 to 2005. In 2015 he was made a Fellow of PSI.

As well as his permanent position at NUI Galway, he has held visiting academic positions at a number of universities internationally, including King’s College London, Leiden University, and the University of Birmingham.

While specialising in research on stress and psychophysiology, Brian has also written extensively on the status of science in psychology, both for professional audiences via academic journals and for wider popular audiences via blogs and general media. He has been a contributor to the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, and to several radio documentaries and talk shows dealing with science, psychology, and philosophy.

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‘Psych-illogical’, public lecture in Dublin, 1 December 2016

From the Psychological Society of Ireland

The Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) is delighted to announce a public lecture on 1 December. This will be the final lecture in a series of five public lectures running from September to December 2016. Registration for this event will be available shortly.

Psych-illogical: How Bad Science Threatens To Ruin Psychology

presented by

Professor Brian Hughes

6.30pm
Thursday 01 December
Robert Emmet Theatre (Arts Block), Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2

Abstract:
We have truly entered a golden age of psychology. Psychological subject matter receives daily mass media and popular attention. Professional psychologists are recognised as highly trained experts with wide-ranging skills. Psychology is one of the most sought-after science subjects in education systems around the world. And more psychology research is being conducted – and funded – than ever before.

But some psychologists argue that this unprecedented success now threatens to undermine the field. The problem is that despite its standing as a scientific activity – aimed at producing and using empirical evidence to resolve disputes and develop interventions – psychology frequently attracts interest from people who have ambivalent attitudes towards science. In essence, modern psychology faces a scientific crisis: it is hampered by widespread poor logic, sloppy scientific practices, unacknowledged bias, groupthink, and (worst of all, perhaps) blindness to its own faults.

Bad science has become a significant problem in modern psychology. This lecture examines the extent to which imperfect science threatens the impact and credibility of psychology, and argues that society at large stands to gain when psychologists promote and defend scientific standards.

Brian Hughes is a Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway, and a specialist in stress psychophysiology. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, and medicine. His recently published book ‘Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience’ (2016, Palgrave) examines the relationship between psychology, science and pseudoscience, and explores the biases impeding many psychologists from being truly rigorous. He is a Fellow and former President of PSI.

‘Trust Me, I’m a Psychologist’ public lecture in Galway, 29 September 2016

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From Psi Chi NUI Galway, 16 September 2016

We are delighted to announce that our first event of the semester will be a public lecture by Professor Brian Hughes, entitled “Trust me, I’m a Psychologist” (Said No One Ever): Distinguishing Good Behavioural Science from Bad.

When? Thursday September 29th at 7pm
Where? O’Flaherty Theatre, Arts Concourse, NUI Galway

Abstract: It is often easy to forget that psychology is a scientific discipline, and that its core activity is the production of findings that help resolve debates about human behaviour and well-being. It is so easy to forget this that sometimes psychologists themselves fail to remember it. Scientifically limited research — in other words, bad science — has become a significant problem in modern psychology. This lecture examines the extent to which imperfect science threatens the impact and credibility of psychology, and argues that society at large stands to gain when psychologists promote and defend scientific standards.

Brian Hughes is Professor of Psychology and Dean of International Affairs at NUI Galway. His book ‘Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience’ examines the relationship between psychology, science and pseudoscience, and explores the biases impeding many psychologists from being truly rigorous.

‘Rethinking Stress and Anxiety Research’ keynote lecture, Zagreb, 7 July 2016

Presidential Lecture at the 37th world conference of the Stress and Anxiety Research Society (STAR)

Abstract. Attempts to explain the joys and stresses of the human condition have attracted popular fascination for centuries. This led to the emergence of scientific psychology, a modern empirical enterprise that uses scientific methods to resolve uncertainties in our understanding of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Psychology often attracts significant attention from people who hold ambivalent, or even deeply negative, views about science. This lecture considers the way science shapes the study of stress and anxiety. It considers the scientific nature of psychology, as well as ways in which scientific shortcomings creep into mainstream research, and asks: to what extent does imperfect science threaten the impact and credibility of our work?

Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience

Imprint: 2016
Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience
Author: Brian M. Hughes
Publisher: Palgrave, London

ISBN-10: 1137303948
ISBN-13: 978-1137303943

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From the cover: Psychology is one of the most popular subjects in universities across the world, offering unique insights into the human condition. However, its very popularity threatens to undermine its value as a discipline, and it often attracts those who lack scientific rigour. Taking a fresh look at common practices and pitfalls, Brian Hughes examines the relationship between psychology, science and pseudoscience, and explores the biases impeding many psychologists from being truly rigorous.

Brian Hughes has written an important and engaging book exploring the relationships between science, pseudoscience, and psychology. He argues persuasively that psychology itself can properly be considered to be a true science but one that is marred within by pockets of pseudoscience. This book should be read by anyone with a serious interest in the subject.” — Professor Christopher French, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Hughes provides a timely and comprehensive reminder of the critical role of science in both academic and professional applications of psychology. It covers an impressive breadth of topics with incisive clarity and illustrates clearly the integral role of scientific approaches to understanding psychological phenomena.”Dr David Hevey, Trinity College, Dublin


 

Contents

PART I PSYCHOLOGY AND PSEUDOSCIENCE IN THEORY
Chapter 1 What is Science and Why is it Useful?
Chapter 2 What is Pseudoscience and Why is it Popular?
Chapter 3 The Scientific Nature of Psychology
Chapter 4 The Scientific Nature of Psychology
PART II PSYCHOLOGY AND PSEUDOSCIENCE IN PRACTICE
Chapter 5 Examples from the Fringes: From Healing the Mind to Reading the Body
Chapter 6 Examples from the Mainstream: Biological Reductionism as Worldview
Chapter 7 Examples from the Mainstream: What Some People Say about What They Think They Think
PART III PSYCHOLOGY AND PSEUDOSCIENCE IN CONTEXT
Chapter 8 Biases and Subjectivism in Psychology
Chapter 9 Religion, Optimism and their Place in Psychology
Chapter 10 Psychologists at the Threshold: Why Should We Care?