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The Beast is Back

Yellow badge Star of David called "Judens...

Nazi or Saudi?

“Once again, across Europe, respectable liberals are turning a blind eye to hatred and – when they do that – we know the Beast is back…” (Jon Ronson, The Return, Channel 4, 1996)

Extremist literature is always dispiriting. Propaganda, whether from the extreme left or the ultra-religious right demeans the higher human ideals. It does so by asking the reader to attack and devalue another group in order to feel better about themselves. It is a false promise because, after the hate and the pain and the lies, the emptiness will remain.

From the Balkans to Bermondsey, there are those who who want to string-up anyone who is gay, black, Muslim, refugee or Jew… simply because they are  different. It is up to the honest and honourable majority to prevent them.

The research carried-out for the BBC programme Panorama, which aired last night, showed Saudi-sponsored textbooks in Islamic schools which described Jews as being ‘like pigs and monkeys’.

Whilst government agencies made the appropriate noises to assure us of greater vigilance and inspection, is it not time that we saw such propaganda as on a par with the publications of the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League?

These parties frequently use (or used) demeaning images of animals to describe their chosen victims. Latterly, white fascists in Britain have started to pillory Muslims, some even defaming the Star of David by using it on their websites. But it wasn’t so long ago that these same people were likening black and Afro-caribbean people to apes and monkeys. The tactics are the same, it is just the focus that has shifted.

As a society, we have worked hard to ensure greater tolerance of all parts of our communities. It was difficult at times, but worth the struggle to create a world of greater tolerance, inclusion and acceptance.

It still is.

So, if it wasn’t acceptable or legal to promote racial hatred against our black neighbours back then, it most certainly isn’t on to demonise Muslims nor, indeed, for some misguided Muslims to pillory Jews in this manner.

It is time for the wider, more moderate, Muslim community in Britain to stand-up and be counted: shoulder-to-shoulder with their Jewish cousins, against the common enemy of fascism.

Happiness, Humanity and the Only Child

Economic and Social Research Council

Life is tough, isn’t it? Just when you read that 2.6 children per family are needed to support us in old age, the pesky Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC 2010) comes out with a massive study showing that ‘only’ children live happier and more successful lives than their multi-sibling peers.

This is unfortunate. Even though we love our children dearly and want them to be as happy as humanly possible, most families have more than one child.

What to do? Well, don’t panic. Single children are one of the most researched groups around – second only to twins (beloved of psychologists and geneticists) – and there is much to question and discuss in this work, albeit from such an august source.

Scientists, particularly from the social sciences, deal in patterns and, particularly, unexplained breaks in them. Not surprisingly, one of the first things that we notice about only children is that they tend to marry other only children and often have only one child. Who then grows-up and marries another only child. This, as Gunter Grass (1990) pointed-out, is a modern tendency which, if replicated worldwide, might lead to an initial increase in human happiness but then, assuredly, to none at all, as we would, as a species, be extinct!

Leaving aside whether they are happy souls, we also know that only children tend not to feature among the ‘mad, sad and bad’ attending behaviour support centres or pupil referral units. They are, as a rule, well-behaved and hardworking souls.

There are reasons for this. Single children benefit from the maximum parental attention and affection. They will tend to get most of their parents’ investment of money, time and other resources. Most telling, in some ways, though: they are not troubled by any feelings of sibling rivalry, when numbers two, three or four come along, because they don’t. These children are set fair to be happy and confident kids, growing-up with substantially less stressful lives than their contemporaries.

This is important. For children, parental affection is as sunshine is to plants. Just as a temperate climate is good for growth, and extremes aren’t (not much grows in permafrost or the desert). So, children grow in the consistent sunlight of parental affection and affirmation – capable of coping with some variation but, ideally, not too much or too often.

For all the folk wisdom about smug only children who are spoilt and insufferable, more often than not they benefit from better bonds with their parents and grow into confident adults as a result.

But, choices about family size go to the very heart of what it is to be human. We had big families in the past in order to cope with peri-natal mortality, war, pestilence and famine. Happily, those horsemen are not so common around here these days, but we still need to have more than two children per couple. It may rob our first-born of their idyll, but – whether for evolutionary necessity or self-indulgence – the need to reproduce remains.

Perhaps the problem is that while having more children may make us happier as parents and ensure the survival of the species, it may not be best for our children as individuals, who are happier the fewer siblings they have and happiest when they have none!

One other factor worth mentioning is that the ESRC study found that as sibship size grows, so does sibling bullying. And we know that, when a child is bullied at home, they are likely to be part of bullying – as victim or aggressor – at school, too. When that happens, it is not surprising that children from smaller families do better.

So, are there benefits to being in a larger flock? Well, socialisation and companionship figure highly here, as does the support that having siblings offers when times are tough. Suna Yongmin & Lib Yuanzhang (2009)’s study of 19,839 adolescents showed the protective effect of siblings in the event of divorce. They found that the negative effect of divorce on adolescent performance diminished as sibship size increases. (It would be fair, I think, to add that there are other studies, not listed here, that explore a range of other benefits to being in multi-sibling families. It is not a one-way street, by any means.)

Yongmin and Yuanzhang also note that the sibship protective effect is weaker in single parent than in two parent families. This two parent benefit features in the ESRC study, too. Do not whisper it too loud, but children are happiest living at home with their natural parents – both of them. It is not new. It is not rocket science, but it is an observable feature of this substantial study and it is interesting.

Well, how does this benefit us? Perhaps, if there is one thing to take from this, it is that we shouldn’t always attempt to subjugate our interests to those of our children. People, generally, don’t want to live in one child families, even if it does please the first born. Perhaps, as professionals, it means also that we need to be more conscious of the possibilities of sibling bullying in larger families, especially when faced with a child who is misbehaving or underperforming in school.

A forthcoming publication by Aaker, Rudd & Mogilner (2011, In Press) explores and highlights the role of time in developing a happy life – how we spend it and how we relate to it. Perhaps we might add to these aspects of time that old chestnut about choosing ones parents wisely, with especial care taken to check whether they intend to stay together and that they don’t plan on having too large a family.


Aaker, J. L., Rudd, L., & Mogilner, C. (2011); If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time; Journal of Consumer Psychology (forthcoming)

ESRC (2010); ‘The Best Days of Our Lives’, Britain in 2011, the State of the Nation; London; Education and Social Research Council.

Grass G (1990); Headbirths: Or the Germans Are Dying Out; Harvest, London; (tr. Ralph Mannheim) Originally published in 1980.

Yongmin S & Yuanzhang L; Parental divorce, sibship size, family resources, and children’s academic performance; Social Science Research; Volume 38, Issue 3, September 2009, Pages 622-634; doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2009.03.007

Learning Lessons for School

Enquiring minds meet inspiring brain.

When I was about 8 years old, I was taken round the museum at the local medical school here in Birmingham. I was captivated by the various mammalian and human brains that were displayed there. It fascinated me that everything that made me special – my whole personality –  could be contained and operated from a brain like those inside my own head.

Some years later, while I was a researcher at that self-same school, there was big inquiry into the storage of human body parts and, now, that museum of medical curiosities is gone. It has been replaced by a large, very modern lecture theatre. That is progress, I suppose, but I wonder how many young students will be as inspired by their lectures as I was by those brains?

Recent blogs on this site have highlighted the importance of language skills to the development of self-control, as well as changes in how we understand cognition in infants as opposed to older children. These findings have profound pedagogical implications, for example in how we design teaching materials and resource childcare.

Increasingly we are seeing how neuroscience research impacts on our understanding not only of the developing brain but also of early years education in the home and nursery.

Recent examples include:

  • Vallaton & Ayoub (2010)’s work on the differential impact of language learning for the development of self-control in boys;
  • Pessoa’s 2005 study of how emotional visual stimuli are fast-tracked through the brain without attention or awareness; &
  • Johnson et al (2010)’s work looking at the positive impact of education on genetic susceptibility to poor health.

These are just three examples of the tidal wave of research being produced by neuroscientists around the world which, whilst improving our understanding of the chemistry and physiology of the human brain, also improves our capacity to educate across the age-ranges.

“But,” I hear you cry, “we all know how education works, don’t we?” The answer to which is, to quote a renowned academic source, “What do you mean ‘we’, Kimosabe?”

When I first started to work in a neuroscience department, it was a controversial field of study at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour. The brain had, for a long time, been the final frontier: the region of the anatomical map still marked “Here be Dragons!” Well, not any more. Although there is much that we are only at the very beginning of our understanding, neuroscience is no longer new. The new kid on my block is neuro-education.

Neuro-what? Well, we know that genes interact with early childhood experiences and the environment to shape and structure the developing brain. Neuro-education attempts to harness our increasing knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the brain and its components to inform and improve the way that education works.

Detractors call it reductionist science; advocates say society cannot afford to do without it. But, in prestigious universities across the pond, a number of neuro-education institutes have been established. Here, too, there are centres at the universities of Cambridge and London.

There is a good case for supporting neuro-education, and not just because of its implications for early years. There is a genuine case for re-writing the pedagogic and skills content of teacher training. Although government ministers regularly mess around with the deckchairs, the Titanic of teacher education changes frighteningly slowly. Indeed, we teach very much the way that we ourselves were taught.

This is unlikely to go down well with those who run educational institutions. The fear and hostility shown by older colleagues when it was suggested that education specialists might sit-in on their teaching with a view to improving student learning had to be seen to be believed.

It is not just in early years and infant education that the benefits of neuro-education are needed.


Vallotton C & Ayoub C (2010); Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers’ self-regulation; Early Childhood Research Quarterly; DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.09.002

Pessoa L. (2005); To what extent are emotional visual stimuli processed without attention and awareness?; Current Opinion in Neurobiology; 15(2), 188-196. DOI: 10.1016/j.conb.2005.03.002

Johnson W, Kyvik KO, Mortensen EL, Skytthe A, Batty GD, & Deary IJ. (2010); Education reduces the effects of genetic susceptibilities to poor physical health; International Journal of Epidemiology; 39(2), 406-14. PMID: 19861402

Children like us?

Category:Educational research

The Developing Brain

A recent post on this blog about research with children (Keeping it Real) set me thinking about how we conceptualise children and child development in research.

What can children really tell us? How reliable are they as informants? At what stage of childhood do children really begin to understand verbal structures and concepts?

Clearly, when we conduct research with children, our notion of childhood and how children think is key to our work.

We have seen already how vocabulary development and cognitive control are crucial to later life success (Metacognition, Marshmallows and the Power of Language). This relationship is explored further in a study by Chris Chatham and his co-authors (2009).

Building on the work of Franklin et al (2008) and others, Chatham differentiates between the cognitive control processes of 8 year olds and those of 3-5 year olds.

The older children already use adult inhibitory mechanisms to allow them to focus on tasks and control thought or behaviour in accordance with goals and plans. The younger children display a qualitatively different form of reactive control, responding to events only as they unfold and retrieving information from memory as needed in the moment.

This conflicts with previous theories of cognitive development, which posited that younger children had the same proactive strategies as adults only in a weaker form.

What does this mean for us as professionals and social researchers?

Clearly, it requires that we differentiate much more between the chronological ages and developmental ages of the children we work with, but it also means a change of approach.

Frankly, it will require that we are better informed and have a deeper understanding of children. We will need to take more time to plan carefully and we will need to be more flexible and creative in how we formulate our enquiries.

Most of us already adapt our methods to take account of age and development, but we will need to be even more aware of the use of visual and auditory non-verbal forms: both as stimuli and as ways of eliciting information with younger children.

Chatham, C., Frank, M., & Munakata, Y. (2009). Pupillometric and behavioral markers of a developmental shift in the temporal dynamics of cognitive control; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810002106

Franklin A, Drivonikou GV, Bevis L, Davies IRL, Kay P & Regier T (2008); Categorical perception of color is lateralized to the right hemisphere in infants, but to the left hemisphere in adults; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; March 4, 2008 vol. 105 no. 9 3221–3225

Keep it Simple, Student.

A stain glass window representation of Polonius.

Polonius in stained glass

The perfect article must say something new; be interesting; & be relevant. (K.O. Friedrichs Jnr.)

The ideal research paper is a brief, elegantly written, well-informed report of a simple, clearly designed study. Sadly, very few are ever written.

I have sat at the feet of masters and, over a long career, I cannot think of many such papers. Perhaps three; written by a theologian and a couple of psychiatrists. Their books were a joy to read and their research papers were famous for their mental acuity and delightful use of language. But they were rare.

Students who write for publication, are often advised to observe the KISS principle – Keep It Short and Sweet. There are many variants of this but it is as true of public speaking (Stand-up, speak-up and shut-up!’) as it is of writing a research paper (‘Your eraser is your best friend’). Nobody likes long-winded, meandering, aimless texts, do they?

Surprisingly, however, some of the greatest advocates of textual brevity are the very bureaucrats who run our universities or commission research, because they inhabit a world strewn with impenetrable jargon. The function of this language is, of course, not to communicate meaning but to bolster power. It is exclusive and divisive and most commonly used by those who are insecure about their authority.

If, on the other hand, you actually want to apply Polonius’s maxim – that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’* – I would counsel you to reject all jargon and excess wordage. You will do better if you also observe Gertrude’s advice: reporting with ‘more matter and less art’.*

But there are some dos and don’ts. Do use the correct technical terms, but keep them to a minimum. Where your paper requires you to discuss your sampling strategy, you should do so with clarity. Don’t, for instance, include a critique of the formula for calculation of sample size in your general summary. It is a question of understanding the purpose of the different parts of your paper and their intended audiences.

Your goal in writing a research paper is to say what you wanted to find-out and why, how you did this, what you found and what it means for future work in the field. That’s it.

Perhaps the key to all this is to set-out with a simple question and study design. After that, with luck, your field results will be uncomplicated and the numbers manageable, so that you can get to the truth in a trice. But, as we are fallible humans and the world complex, our designs are flawed and the phenomena we observe behave unexpectedly – especially if they involve other people!

Then our job is to make order of chaos – summarising the complicated process of redesign and revision that is the reality of most research.

So, though the truth is rarely pure and never simple, as Oscar Wilde put it (1895), perhaps the ambition of those writing for publication should be.

* Hamlet Act II:2; Shakespeare

Assistance If you want any further information about writing research reports, please contact Life Research. To tap into research training or research support, check out the Data Zero website. I am always happy to help in any way I can.

Keeping it Real: Researching Children

Children in Khorixas, Namibia

"Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings..."*

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…*

When you do research with and around children, you get some very interesting messages if you simply ask the right questions.

But, how do you know which is the right one to ask? And, how do you get to ask it?

If you are thinking of doing a research project which involves young people, you will need to do a research reality check before you start!

There are a number of personal qualities you will need to do this properly – like humility, openness and realism. Without these, you will get neither useful responses nor successful completion.

Humility From beginning to end, you will need humility. Remember: you may be a researcher, but you are not the expert. Not yet, at least.

The experts are the children, their parents and the professionals who work with them.

As you plan your project – and, hopefully, re-assess and adjust it along the way – you will need to gather opinions and responses from teachers, social workers, nursery nurses, carers and, of course, the children themselves.

And, as you plan, think about your work from a child’s point of view and tailor it accordingly. Trial your research instruments (surveys, interviews, focus groups) with them. You will need to use the findings from your pilot study to refine and improve your approach.

Seek out the real experts. Ask their advice. Use it to make your work easier and more relevant.

Openness To be a good researcher – especially with children – you will need to re-open yourself in many ways.

It is said that, to research successfully, you need to make the familiar strange. For some of us, this will require something of a mindshift.

You will need to be open to new ideas and, for example, you will need to be open to the possibility that you are wrong. You will need to be open to what the research process and interim findings are telling you whilst the project is underway.

Working with students, it is remarkable how often they have fixed ideas not only about facts and processes but also about the way that research should work.

It is so important that you as a researcher are in learning and listening mode – not least to the situation’s backtalk, as Donald Schon (1983) put it. You will need to be open to what the study and its participants are telling you because you will need this to refine and improve your work as you go along.

Realism As you start out on your research journey, you must be realistic about the ground you can cover.

Be realistic about what you can achieve with the time and the resources you have you have available.

But you must also be realistic about what the scope of your project can be, how puritan you can be in the approach you adopt or simply what your informants can reliably tell you.

Make a success of this project and other more ambitious ones may follow and glory will be thine. But none of this will happen if you bite off more than you can chew and your project is poor or never finished.

Being realistic means planning your work in manageable bite-size chunks. It also means leaving lots of time before deadlines.

Remember: if you always keep your supervisor happy and never keep them waiting you will be storing-up riches in heaven!

A Final Thought Dreadful things are done to children both accidentally and intentionally by individuals and by institutions. Your research is important because it is part of a collective effort to improve conditions for young people. Get it right and it will change professional practices, organisational systems and everyday reality for children and young people. That is why this matters.

Assistance If you want any further information about researching children and young people, please contact me at Life Research. I am always happy to help in any way I can.

* Psalms 8:2: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

Quiet Bias

Never one to overstate the case…

As the elections across the water occupy our news media, I thought I would take a sideways look at two cornerstones of Western democracy – the jury-room and the voting booth.

I want to do so by looking at some recent research findings on the effect of anonymity on prejudice and bias in legal and electoral decision-making.

In both these processes, we rely on rational decision-making based on the objective analysis of evidence. But, we know that this is difficult to acheive.

In recent posts, we have seen (The Stranger in your Camp) that we are more likely to empathise with those who are like us, and blame the inherent guilt of strangers, when it comes to attributing intentionality and guilt (I Didn’t Mean to do that, Did I?).

Well, it turns out that we are even more likely to allow these prejudices to run riot if we are asked to make judgments in secrecy. This is as true of liberal altruists (Markey & Markey 2010) as it is of virulent racism directed towards the Obamas during the lead-up to the mid-term elections.

As we saw in yesterday’s post (What a piece of worke…), whether hiding in a crowd or hiding online, bigotry blooms in darkness. Sometimes, these are overt, conscious prejudices but, more often than we realise, our actions are guided by tacit and unconscious predisposition.

Lena Groeger’s (2010) discussion of the subliminal factors influencing voting behaviour lists:

  • Punishment Bias (whereby the voter goes into the voting booth wanting to teach the incumbent a lesson);
  • Action Bias (the voter votes for something to happen – a change because they are tired of the status quo);
  • First Listing Bias (like it or not, the person with their name first on the ballot sheet gets more votes than the others);
  • Pessimistic Bias (the voter bases their choice on an overly negative estimation of economic conditions).

Understanding similar quiet biases are also key to lawyers getting a positive result for their clients in a jury trial, because juries will tend to acquit those who they feel are most like them – whether in terms of faith / ethnicity or sharing membership of another in-group.

So, we cannot expect all those politicians we suspect of being corrupt or morally bankrupt to be convicted or thrown-out. The rule is – we will vote out those who are seen to be  from a weak out-group if they falter, no matter how brilliant or morally upright, and we will re-elect those we see as ‘one of us’ – no matter (almost) what they get up to.

It is also why defendants are more likely to be advised to self-identify as Muslim or gay than as an atheist – at least in the United States.  Prejudice against atheists can be considerable, in spite of the fact that such people are likely to be highly educated independent thinkers and achievers.

“This group doesn’t agree at all with my vision of American society.” Egdell et al (2006)

In an article earlier this year, Satoshi Kanazawa (2010) analysed how higher intelligence and educational achievement linked to atheism and liberal ideals. But, in voting booth and  jury room alike, there is a tendency to see liberal intellectuals as outsiders and untrustworthy.

These are venues for decisions which are central to liberal democracy. We assume that such decisions are taken by rational people, based on clear evidence and objective logic. Clearly that is not the whole story.

We often say that politicians face a ‘verdict’ from the electorate. This legal analogy may be more accurate than we think. Maybe, indeed, the jury has been fixed and it is time to open both processes up, so that this quiet bias can fade away in the light of day.


Egdell, P., Gerteis, J. and Hartman, D. (2006). Atheists as “other”: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review, 71(211-234).

Groeger L (2010); The Brain in the Voting Booth – How hidden biases influence our vote; 27.10.10;

Kanazawa S (2010);  Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent; Social Psychology Quarterly; 16.02.10

Markey, P., & Markey, C. (2010). Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: an examination of the challenge hypothesis; Evolution and Human Behavior, 31 (6), 442-446

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