Documentary: “The Fear Factory” now online

This thought-provoking documentary, produced in 2010, considers the problem of crime and calls for long-term thinking, rather than ‘quick-fix’, short-term approaches. Watch the documentary here:

For more information, see the archive on he Fear Factory Blog:


Paralympics, Obama v Romney and the power of stories

Paralympics, Obama v Romney and the power of stories

Graham Pike, Professor of Forensic Cognition, writes: Like me, you are probably finding that you can’t switch on the TV or radio at the moment without being bombarded by news from the Paralympics and the US presidential race. Both elicit some strong, if very different, emotions and the this  strikes me as interesting. I’m not usually a fan of athletics, but have been captivated by London 2012 and am sure I’m not alone in this. Is that just because it is in my own country? Perhaps that’s part of it, and it is also a mistake to underestimate the power of ‘in-group/out-group’ psychology, but looking back on the days I’ve sat transfixed to the TV, I think something else is at work. And I don’t mean being caught up in a new form of national identity and patriotism, as my guess is that the social and political impact of the Olympics (beyond the sporting legacy) will be as long-lived as the multi-cultural impact on West London of having a multi-ethnic crowd at a Chelsea game. No, what has really struck me about the Olympics, but particularly the Paralympics, is the narrative approach that has been adopted by the media. Sure, that is nothing new, but it feels to me that for each competitor (well, British competitor at least) I’ve seen, I’ve also been provided with a compelling back story: Jade Jones, the plucky Welsh teenager;  Mo Farah, the Dad who misses his kids; and of course the classic old-champ vs new-hopeful battle of Bolt and Blake. The coverage of the Paralympics seems to have gone even further with providing narratives of the competitors and I certainly feel like I know a lot about Peacock, Weir et al., which has had the effect of making me care far more about the result. Narratives are powerful things and our brains make considerable use of them in everyday life. Basing our memories around a story of what happened to us means we can fill in many of the less salient details without actually needing to remember them, and using ‘schemas’ (a way of cognitive processing that stores information in a story-like construct) is also very useful for predicting what will happen next. It is clear that the campaign managers of both Obama and Romney are very aware of the power of narratives and back stories, and have used these to construct pictures of their candidates that make potential voters like them, invest emotion in them and want to help them achieve the right ending for their story. And there, of course, is the danger with stories. Although using story-like structures in our memories can be very helpful, the shortcuts involved also lead us to misremember and possibly even to have memories for things that never happened. In London 2012 the back stories have undoubtedly helped the audience to emotionally invest in each event, but in US politics the over-simplification and over-identification inherent in stories can make us see a candidate in terms of a stereotypical character, which means we invest them with all the characteristics we’d usually expect  that character to have.  So, (and excuse the obvious bias), is Obama’s opponent “Mitt Romney” or “Willard Romney”? Even the names alone are enough to conjure two very different potential stories and it is hard to imagine NASCAR Dads and soccer Moms buying into the story of Willard Romney, privileged son of a CEO, like they have good ole Mitt, family man and ‘straight shooter’.

When witnesses get it wrong

Prof Graham Pike, part of the OU psychology Forensic Psychology Research Group, writes about the recent Hallam case. Eyewitness testimony is a major area of applied psychology and one that is covered in the modules you’ll take over your psychology degree.

The Innocence Project is a US based organisation that uses DNA testing to exonerate people that were wrongfully convicted of a crime. Of the 289 cases that they have successfully overturned, more than three-quarters involved misidentification by an eyewitness. For more than 30 years, research in psychology and the social sciences has documented just how unreliable eyewitness evidence can be, and demonstrated that even a witness who is completely confident can be completely wrong.

But it is not only in the US that unreliable evidence from eyewitnesses has led to wrongful convictions. In May 2012, and after having spent 7 years in prison, Sam Hallam successfully appealed his murder conviction. The original conviction was based largely on the evidence provided by two witnesses who said they had seen Hallam at the murder scene attacking the victim. Hallam’s QC (Henry Blaxland) claimed this evidence was “so manifestly unreliable that the appellant’s submission of no case to answer should have been allowed”. When interviewed by the police, Hallam provided an alibi, but this was not investigated.

As the US Innocence Project has overturned conviction after conviction, it has been tempting to see misidentification as somewhat of a distant problem. After all, it is only recently that individual states in the US have begun to provide guidelines concerning the construction and conduct of identification procedures, whilst here in the UK we’ve had the Police and Criminal Evidence Act since 1984! The Hallam case really brings home just how dangerous eyewitness evidence can be and just how careful our criminal justice system needs to be when dealing with it. Even though we have carefully constructed guidelines that were informed by social sciences research (download this PDF for more info), it is still possible for terrible miscarriages of justice to take place.

Magic and the Hidden Powers of the Mind

Graham Pike, Professor of Forensic Cognition, writes: Last month (June 2012) Alex Stone published his book “Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind“. I’ve not read it yet, but the description of stories from the underground magic scene in New York, the Magic Olympics and centuries old magical societies certainly sounds enticing (if you like that sort of thing!). However, the reason the book came to my attention is Stone’s attempt to use magic to give insights into psychology, particularly how the mind perceives the world. You can see Stone talking about the book on the BBC website here.

Using illusion and trickery to explore perceptual abilities is nothing new. In the early twentieth century, perceptual illusions were used by the Gestalt school of psychology to produce a series of laws that explained how we make sense of our visual environment. In addition, figures such as the Muller-Lyer illusion were used to support Constructivist theories of perception that demonstrated the role of prior knowledge in interpreting even the most basic of visual figures. To find out more about the history of psychology, click here.

Visual illusions are a powerful method of showing that we do not see the world exactly how it is and also an invaluable teaching and learning tool because they neatly demonstrate psychological phenomena (literally) right in front of your eyes. The power of such psychological ‘trickery’ was really brought home to me last year, when my research group organised a conference (led by Dr Hayley Ness) about ‘Constructions of Evidence’, at which our keynote speaker was Lord Justice Leveson. One of our speakers, Dr Itiel Dror, used a psychological trick to prove to the audience that although we see expertise as a positive attribute, it can actually lead to errors in judgement. The trick he used was this – count the number of ‘f’s in the following sentence:

“finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years”.

Most of the audience, including judges and lawyers, counted a total of 3 ‘f’s – how many did you count (?) – but actually the sentence contains 6 ‘f’s! The problem is that we have developed such an expertise in reading that we tend to disregard less important words such as ‘of’. Itiel’s research has shown that similar mistakes are made by forensic experts, who are as prone to cognitive bias as the rest of us. Trying to convince forensic practitioners that their mind may be playing tricks on them is a very hard task, but it was clear that the demonstration Itiel used had a real impact on them.

The London Olympics and the science fiction of security

Graham Pike, Professor of Forensic Cognition, writes: July 2005, Sebastian Coe and David Beckham are hugging ecstatically in Singapore, crowds are cheering in Trafalgar Square, Tony Blair is looking smug and President Chirac downcast; the 2012 Olympic Games are coming to London! Across the land athletes are planning, shares in British construction companies are soaring and I absolutely guarantee that the heads of any public agency charged with ‘security’ are reaching for the aspirin. Over 10,000 athletes, over one million visitors, 70,000 volunteer workers and one hundred and fifty heads of state, including from countries quite likely to be at war during the games… all in the capital city of a country still waging a ‘war against terror’. A security headache to say the least.

Being British, the glee of winning the Olympic bid is soon replaced by fears concerning the two great banes of UK life, the traffic and the weather. Comedic careers are made predicting what our opening ceremony will be and radio chat shows worry by how many billions the budget will be exceeded. But above, more accurately beneath, the moaning and predicted embarrassment, seeing the words ‘London Olympics’ in the same sentence as the word ‘security’ strikes a real note of dread into preparations.

Nearly one year later, May 2006, I am invited to (and attend) a conference being held by the London Technology Network on ‘Future technology initiatives for the Olympics’. Some of the presentations are about innovative ways of televising sport, but a great deal concern security. During the day the message that emerges is that by 2012 we will have developed technologies that will allow a computer to automatically recognise faces, track an individual across the city, to spot criminal activity and to determine whether someone is a terrorist by their movements. The opinion of the audience is divided between the gung-ho technophiles and those of us who have heard all this before and don’t believe a word of it. The Social Scientists, particularly psychologists, in the audience point out the unlikelihood of a machine being able to outperform human cognition by 2012, but the general feeling is that by the start of the Olympics, London security will be managed by computers. I leave the conference with visions of Skynet and the post-apocalyptic world from The Terminator competing with an odd sense of guilt for not buying in to the grand claims of future technology.

Seven years later and two weeks before the start of the games and Olympic security is indeed the lead story, but not because the super smart automatic security software has started World War 3… because there is no super smart automatic security system! Instead, the two stories competing for the headlines are the failure of G4S to recruit sufficient security guards and the turmoil at Heathrow border control caused by not having enough staff, and the extra staff brought in who then miss ‘terror suspects’. Sure, technology has improved considerably since 2006, but human beings watching other human beings is still very much the principal element. One thing that has changed significantly since 2006 seems to be our appetite for security. Alongside the headlines about ineffective security companies, are stories questioning the amount and prominence of security and the fear that security is taking over from the sport itself. Hopefully this will be an ever emerging theme and one that will makes us all realise that terrorism and crime are not problems that can be solved by technology.