Wednesday 8 June 2016

Why did they do it?


In the 1970s the British Psychological Society, after much soul searching, decided that it would engage with the Fourth Estate, a term attributed to Edmund Burke in a 1787 debate on the first Press reporting of Parliament. The distaste shown by Parliamentarians for reporters had not diminished in genteel circles two centuries later, and many psychologists looked on the Press Committee as the embodiment of a lamentable lapse in standards, a headlong rush into simplistic pandering to the mob.

Undaunted, a group of reformist psychologists began to learn the arts of the Press Release, and a few carefully selected quality press journalists began appearing at annual conferences, reporting on chosen papers. My first encounter was in 1975 when I gave a paper on training medical students to interview patients, and got some press coverage and a BBC Radio 4 interview. Not only was this my first ever interview, but also the first time the British Psychological Society officer had ever seen a radio interview conducted, so she came to the studio with me, just for the experience.

In that session I learned the basics: the apparent instant camaraderie between interviewer and talking head, as if they were old friends chatting together about a topic of mutual interest; the skilful introduction of the basic issues by the interviewer, which set the scene and teed up the audience interest; the need for absolute simplicity in giving answers; and then the final playful sucker punch of the well-briefed interviewer, picking a minor finding to spring a question which showed the audience he knew the details of the research and could challenge the expert. At the end of the interview the radio show host came back on a direct line to say cheerily “That went very well” so I felt I had done my public duty, and launched my media career. The next interview turned up 5 years later.

After that TV interview in 1980 things picked up a bit, and the British Psychological Society’s investment in understanding the needs of journalists gave psychology far greater visibility. Even the diehards were convinced it would boost public understanding, and probably help raise if not awareness, at least research funding.

Even now I still get the odd request for a radio or television interview, which allows me to set you a task: suppose you get a request to explain why two women have murdered one of the women’s young sons. I got such a request, and immediately replied that I could not give a full answer to the big question: why did they do it? However, I could suggest some contributory factors. I outlined a few, and although I was already looking up the case, I asked to be sent a link to the story.

Here is that article on the Liam Fee case;

Use this link as a stimulus and your own knowledge and research to work out what to say, and send me very brief key points. At most you will be able to mention a few pieces of research, and will have to take your chances with replies to some very general but pointed questions. Usually you will get about 4 minutes, and 5 if things are going well.

Then, and this is only one possible approach, and certainly not a model answer, but just a quick reply based on some old data and one new reference, here is what I said:

The interview starts at 01:13:12 and ends at 01:24:10 which at 11 minutes is probably one of the longest radio interviews I have ever done. However, it was local radio, and they have more time.


  1. I learned three things in my brief TV career: 1. You can say an awful lot in 1 minute. 2. If you don't grin widely and gesticulate you will look very dull on TV 3. Also c. 1980, if you try and help someone move a table the unions will come out on strike.

  2. circa 1985 I tried to operate a video recorder while being interviewed about what one could deduce from confession videos, and a young reporter, whom I recognised years later to be George Alagiah quickly told me to desist for fear of causing trouble.

  3. On your interview: well batted, Dr T. I liked the way you slipped in "intelligence" and "ability": it was a useful contrast to the inevitable whine about resourcing social services. I liked your powerful point at the end, to the effect that attempts to save such children might involve Stalinist levels of intrusion into many families, and that if you're not prepared to thole that, questions of funding are redundant.

    Two reservations: presumably limitations of time and immediate relevance preclude pointing out how dismal the performance of Social Services can be; I'm not kidding when I refer to them as The Council Buggery Service.

    My second reservation concerns your early point that children with a future propensity to this sort of evil behaviour can be identified as early as three. I take it that the identification is rough and ready, by which I mean that I'm guessing that only a minority of the identified potentially evil children actually go on to violence and murder? But even more important, is there any evidence that treatment of these children does reduce their tendency to cruel and wicked acts in adult life? After all, if there's no effective treatment, there's not much advantage to identifying them, is there? Unless you take the Not The Nine O'Clock News line, of course.

  4. Having now looked at the link, a couple of points occur.

    1. "Social Service had been alerted to the boys but had failed to take any action". Yet SS (if I may use the abbreviation) are the same sort of people, with the same sort of incentives, who would in a notional world be in charge of somehow frustrating the tendency to wickedness of suitably identified three year olds. That would give me little optimism about the chances of success of any such attempt.

    As for predisposing factors: you mentioned bisexuality, but didn't refer to having face piercings, being ugly, or being English.

    The latter point is not entirely a tease: the Orkney satanic abuse scandal turned out to involve not a single Orcadian; every participant was an incomer, mostly from England. Is there any chance that having cleared off elsewhere is a predisposing factor? Presumably so many people do clear off elsewhere that it's not much help, but I do wonder.

    I have read the suggestion that immigrants - to anywhere, purportedly, from anywhere - are predisposed to psychopathy. Could something of the sort apply to internal migrants too? There's obviously the possibility that they are fleeing people who know them well, including perhaps the local police, but might there also be deeper correlation?

    1. I mentioned the findings of the Dunedin study without naming it, but that is as you surmise about general nuisance, with a subset of general criminality, not necessarily anywhere near this level. You are right that frequent changes of address are a psychosis indicator.

  5. The ability point was good to bring up. Here are some other points that might be relevant, though I haven't experienced dealing with such people much except during a stint working in a family-law office long ago: Intermittent Explosive Disorder, similarity to tantrums and even seizures, frontal lobe dormant, limbic system lighting up in a paroxysm of rage, links to personality disorders, particularly borderline and passive-aggressive (IED used to be passive-aggressive PD / aggressive type, linked to sadistic PD), displacement of conflict with partner to acting out against the child - where others would punch a pillow, they hit the child, which gives them a feeling of power they don't have in the rest of their life, a reaction to and outward-turning of their usual feelings of seething resentment and inferiority.

  6. Watch, doc. The Old English Journal of Medicine is touching on this issue.

  7. Watch, doc. The Old English Journal of Medicine is touching on this issue.

  8. Yes, that sort of thing. Need to trace whether these schoolroom events predict the feared later adult events.

  9. Sorry for (i) the duplication, and (ii) some wise-guy software turning my cheerful "Wotcha, doc" into a curt command.