Girl Power in Psychology

•April 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

No human judgment is value free. All of our ideas are “filtered through our cultural and social categories, on an ongoing social context and our own social rank.” (Weisstein, 1993). Is psychology gender blind or are we beginning to focus too much on differences between males and females instead of focusing on human nature as a whole like earlier research has done. Early research into psychology and human nature did not focus on differences between genders and moreover some psychologists did not believe that the gender of their samples impacted the results of their research. Were their reasons, perhaps, influenced by the patriarchal society in which they lived? Femaleness in the past was, after all, seen as deviant. The norm in andocentric Western society was male and anything different was sub-altern.

Feminism and feminist issues are most often associated with society, politics and literature. It is however, pertinent to the study of psychology. As with many disciplines, psychology has largely been a study of and by white, middle class males in western society. This is an imbalance which needs to be addressed. Feminist psychology does just this.

It was not until the mid seventies that the first inclusion on the psychology of women was published by Mary Parlee in The Annual Review of Psychology (Stewart & Dottoio, 2006). Parlee, like many of her contemporaries, focused on the impact that feminism was having on psychology. Henley, (1985), reviewed patterns of development within feminist psychology in relation to mainstream psychology. She concluded that while there were empirical developments in feminist psychology there was still a need for a broader feminist theory to be introduced to psychological research.

In any discussion of Gender bias in Psychology it is important to examine the approaches to both sexes. There has always been some degree of androcentrism in psychology. Many of the seminal studies in psychology were carried out b men on men, with the findings being generalised to the population as a whole. Gender differences were translated into female differences with masculine traits and charactistics taken as the norm. Gergen, (2001), posited that many of these popular findings could have an alternative conclusion; an example of this would be the finding that women have lower self esteem than men. This could however be argued that men are simply more consisted than women, so too would the finding that women do not value their efforts as much as men do which could translate as men over valuing their work. Another issue with research is the desk drawer problem where studies that do not find differences or confirm similarities are simply not published. This raises the question of the relevance within the discipline of psychology of these gender differences and whether an acrogenous approach may serve us better.

Sandra Bern, an influential figure in feminist psychology sense the 1970s argued against the categories of masculinity and femininity as normative and descriptive and suggested in its place psychological androgyny. She challenged the conventional gendering of people and critiqued the traditional view within mental health which equated a healthy identity with femininity in women and masculinity in men. Her enculturated lens theory, attempts to explain how gender identity is based on culture. She suggested that “we must reframe the debate on sexual inequality so that it focuses not on the differences between women and men but on how male cantered discourses and institutions transform male/female difference into    female disadvantage” (Bern, p. 201,1993). Interestingly, this female disadvantage could according to West & Zimmerman, (1987), explain many of the popular female personality traits such as low self esteem as being the result of powerlessness and not the cause.

There is no doubt that early research in the field of psychology was indeed gender biased. Today, however, this gender bias is being combated in many ways. There are more women working in the field of psychology than ever before and it is my belief that they are more sensitive to gender bias that their male counterparts and therefore implement measures in their research that allow for gender bias. The roles of women in society, especially in Western cultures have broadened significantly over the past fifty years. This is clear when one recalls the media portrayal of women in the immediate post war era. The good little woman was engaged solely in roles of housewife and mother. Today the first lady in America is recognised for more than her role as the President’s wife, and mother to his (one should say their) children. We now have countless examples of strong, educated, powerful and dynamic women in all sectors of society. These women and their achievements are testament to the radical change in both the variety of availability and the public perceptions of female roles in 21st Century society. The paucity of studies to date which examine and confirm gender differences is impressive in both its depth and breadth. Now that the question of gender difference is no longer an issue it remains only to continue to redress the balance which once, so heavily, favoured men and all things male.



  • Bern, S. (1999). The Lessons of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. Yale University Press: CT.
  • Gergen, M, (2001). Feminist Reconstruction in Psychology: Narrative, Gender and Performance. Sage: CA. 
  • Parlee, M.B., (1975). Psychology, Signs, 9, 119 – 138.
  • Stewart, A.J., & Dottoio, A.L., (2006). Feminist Psychology, Signs, 31, 493 – 513.
  • ·         Weisstein, N., (1993). Psychology Constructs the Female; or the Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist (with Some Attention to the Fantasies of his Friends, the Male Biologist and the Male Anthropologist). Feminism and Psychology, 3, 2, 194 – 210.
  • West, C., & Zimmerman, D.H., (1987). Doing Gender, Gender and Society, 1, 2, 125 – 151.

Positive Psychology: Where The Big Bucks Are…

•April 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

As any psychologist knows you have to publish or perish and the best way to do this is with unrestricted funding and an ‘in’ topic; enter positive psychology! The New Age has arrived in the field of psychology and it’s making quite an impression.  Though its basic tenets are laudable from an empirical perspective the hype that surrounds it is not. The field of psychology seeks to understand humanity in all its complexities, be they good, bad or ugly and though one could argue that its focus has been primarily pathological such an approach may be justified  given the costs socially, financially and culturally of such psychopathologies.

Mental illness is a major concern in modern society. It impacts families, communities and government policies. Psychology, both research and applied, has contributed greatly to our understanding and treatment of mental illness. To accuse Psychology of being a science of victimology is tantamount to negating the immeasurable value of these contributions. Fifty years ago people with serious mental disorders were institutionalised. Today, thanks to mainstream psychology, there are a range of alternatives available. Advances in psychopathology and various therapies now enable many people who would have previously been institutionalised to lead more fulfilling lives within the community. Not everyone has the luxury of engaging in learned optimism

As stated earlier positive psychology’s basic tenets are sound. However the emphasis on optimism and learned optimism immerse the discipline in tautology. Proponents of the science have engaged in practices which render it nothing more than a New Age movement. Lyubomirsky, as a serious psychological researcher, has written a book that would make Oprah proud. “The How of Happiness’ can change your life, from a purely scientific perspective of course and for those not big on literature there is always her I phone application “Live Happy”. This is science for the masses. On a more serious note many of the arguments raised by positive psychologists are fallacious. They are guilty of a

“, failure to clearly define or properly apply terms, the identification of causal relations where none exist, and unjustified generalisation. Instead of demonstrating that positive attitudes explain achievement, success, well-being and happiness, positive psychology merely associates mental health with a particular personality type: a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.”       (Miller, p.592, 2008)

Another problem with this emphasis on optimism, learned or innate, is its failure to recognise the validity of pessimism. Though Seligman acknowledges that there are some psychological benefits to pessimism he also dismisses pessimists as a small minority (Ruark, 2009). More than a quarter of the population (Norem, 2002) is not, I would suggest, a small minority. Lillenfield (In Ruark,2009) voiced similar concerns. He intimated that the popular notion that positive psychology is for everyone could have a detrimental effect on people with low self esteem as research showed the use of positive affirmations (such as I am a loveable person) made them feel worse, not better. Another interesting point in relation to the issue of self-esteem raised by Murk, (2006) is positive psychologies role in someone with negative self esteem. He believes that this area has been neglected by positive psychology and argues for a more humanistic which encapsulates self esteem at every point on the continuum and does not simply focus on positive personality traits and those who have them.

The new and burgeoning field of positive psychology furthers our understanding of the human condition; but at what cost? Happiness, happy people and happy places are not the be all and end all of our society. Trauma, crisis, illness and negative emotions all have a place and a function in life. Since the inception of humanistic psychology researchers have endeavoured to investigate and comprehend human nature and in so doing have studied positive as well as negative traits and behaviours. As far back as 1954 Maslow used the term positive psychology so it is not necessarily a new and recent concept or field of study. What is new is the hype and controversy which surrounds this discipline. It connotates, for many, self-help and New Age movements and given the speed with which many of its psychologists have jumped on the self-help book bandwagon this is hardly surprising. Publish or perish should not mean anywhere at any cost. These pop culture enthusiasts bring the whole discipline of psychology into disrepute. As Sundararajan (p.35, 2005) says “An empirically based version of the good life as proposed by positive psychology is a donut with something missing at the core–the moral map.”


Lyubomirsky, S. (2008).  The How of Happiness; A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin; London

Maslow, A. (1954).  Motivation and Personality. Harper: NY

Miller, A. (2008). A Critique of Positive Psychology – or ‘the new science of happiness’. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42, 3-4, 591-608.

Mruk, C.J. (2006). Self-esteem, research, theory and practice: toward a positive psychology of self esteem, (3rd Ed.). Springer: NY.

Norem, J. (2002).  The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak. Perseus: NY

Ruark, J., (2009). An intellectual movement for the masses. Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle/ariticle/An-Intellectual-Movement-for/47500  accessed: 18/04/10.

Sundararajanl, L, (2005). Happiness Doughnut: A Confucian Critique of Positive Psychology. The Journal of Philosophical Psychology, 25, 1, 35 -60.

Analysis of the MRI Controversy

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The basis of Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is that a more active area of the brain will require a greater blood flow, therefore a scan of relative blood flow will indicate regions of greatest activity.  BOLD fMRI (blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging) measures the local concentration of deoxygenated haemoglobin, as a result of the increase in blood flow and influx of oxygenated haemoglobin (Mayhew, 2003 p.1023).  Deoxygenated haemoglobin acts as a paramagnetic contrast agent (Kim & Ugurbil, 1997 p.59) but the quantitative relationship between observed BOLD and physiological changes is not precise (Kim, Tsekos, & Ashe, 1997 p.191).  Assuming that the activities of an individual are being carefully monitored a comparison can be made between the scans afforded from different times in which different behaviours are manifest or activities are performed.  The local increase in deoxygenated haemoglobin, together with measurable blood flow changes are assumed to be due to greater neuronal activity.  A neuroimage is a computer generated representation of numerical data, so not in fact like a photograph, but more a fancy chart or graph (Kulynych, 1997 p.1254).

MRI, in essence, assumes that a neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) can be definitively identified for the behaviour or activity being investigated.  In order for activity to be known and an NCC identified then it has to be accepted that a behaviour is wholly attributable to activity within a specific brain region (Datta, 2006).  Hence the use of a functional imaging scan within legal situations is reliant on the assumption that it is an accurate representation of the brain and has a definitive medical basis (Kulynych, 1997 p.1252).  However the majority of psychologists, with the exception of staunch reductionists, would agree that activity is distributed (Dobbs, 2005).  Indeed MRI overlooked this networked activity, and ignores the fact that localized activity could be solely to do with communication between regions that are in themselves critical.  Thus the lighting up of the central executive area on fMRI may not be due to that specific area being solely involved in an activity but because it is jointly involved in so many (Dobbs, 2005).  Conversely the activity of a brain region in response to a query might be due to a brand effect, such as when individuals are asked about a bran preference (Narasimhan, 2004).

The use of MRI has been investigated within lie detection, on the basis that the anterior cingulate cortex and superior frontal gyrus will become more active when the subject lies, when compared to truthful situations (Tancredi, 2005).   Activity has also been shown in the left and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Bell & Grubin, 2010).   A controversy over this is that the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in straightforward decision making.  Much lie detection requires answering of questions, which can involve decision making, even if that is the decision about whether to answer or not.  The univariate processing algorithms that are used to calculate fMRI scans are gross and vague methods of measuring detail, not least because the reason for the activity in each voxel is not given. Each voxel encompasses thousands of neurons, any combination of which could be firing, for a whole spectrum of reasons (Dobbs, 2005).  The ventrolateral prefrontal cortices are areas associated with response inhibition (Bell & Grubin, 2010) suggesting that there needs to be a disinhibition in order to tell a lie.  Therefore the dominant response of telling the truth is [apparently] inhibited when lying.  This of course also assumes that the dominant response is telling the truth.

The amount of oxygen supplied to activated neural tissue by the increase in blood flow is far more than the metabolic needs of that tissue (Mayhew, 2003 p.1023).  Likewise the fact that it is the inference of the of the oxygen level to activity (Thompson, Peterson, & Freeman, 2003 p.1070) that needs to be borne in mind as an inference is not a definitive association.  Furthermore abnormality is only a deviation from an averaged normality, and in terms of brain scans such as fMRI, the average is not made up of identical results anyway, it is very much an average of sometimes wildly disparate results. 

The fact that fMRI presented a problem was highlighted as early as the mid 1990s, when an article within the Stanford Law Review emphasized the illusions that could be generated with fMRI, particularly in terms of an assumption that it provides a window; a direct, unmediated view into internal biological processes (Kulynych, 1997 p.1257).  Likewise in a detailed account about how BOLD signals reflect activity it was stated that ‘positive signal changes may reflect an increased in [neural] spike activity’ commensurate for the functional activity of the given area (Harel, Lee, Nagaoka, Kim, & Kim, 2002 p.908).  Further Harel’s findings indicated that a reduction in BOLD could be due to redistribution of blood to other [more active] areas, rather than in fact due to a new blood flow in the area of focus.

The redistribution of blood flow is one of the cited reasons for caution in interpretation of fMRI results, according to Dobbs.  Neuronal action takes a matter of milliseconds but changes in blood flow are measured in seconds, a factor out for comparisons (Dobbs, 2005).  Therefore the claim that one particular aspect of neuronal activity is the cause of a much larger blood surge, is illogical and could be incorrect.  The blood changes could be the result of the neuronal activity but also other associated activities that would have been the result of that activity.  Hence the chain of inferences are all closely linked and if one was to be disproven then the whole chain could fall down as a result. It is not to say that all of the inferences are necessary inaccurate and untrue, just that the evidence for each of them is not as robust as might be hoped, and in many cases may be sparse in nature (Brammer, 2004). 



Bell, B. G., & Grubin, D. (2010). Functional magnetic resonance imaging may promote theoretical understanding of the polygraph test. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(1), 52.

Brammer, M. (2004). Brain scam? Nature Neuroscience, 7(10), 1015-1015.

Datta, S. (2006). Understanding the mind. In S. Datta, et al. (Eds.), From cells to consciousness (2nd ed., pp. 139-180). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Dobbs, D. (2005). Fact or phrenology? Scientific American Mind, 16(1), 24-31.

Harel, N., Lee, S. P., Nagaoka, T., Kim, D. S., & Kim, S. G. (2002). Origin of negative blood oxygenation level–dependent fMRI signals. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 22(8), 908-917.

Kim, S. G., Tsekos, N. V., & Ashe, J. (1997). Multi-slice perfusion-based functional MRI using the FAIR technique: Comparison of CBF and BOLD effects. NMR in Biomedicine, 10(45), 191-196.

Kim, S. G., & Ugurbil, K. (1997). Comparison of blood oxygenation and cerebral blood flow effects in fMRI: Estimation of relative oxygen consumption change. Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, 38(1), 59-65.

Kulynych, J. (1997). Psychiatric neuroimaging evidence: A high-tech crystal ball? Stanford Law Review, 49(5), 1249-1270.

Mayhew, J. E. W. (2003). A measured look at neuronal oxygen consumption. Science, 299, 1023-1024.

Narasimhan, K. (2004). Brain scam? Nature Neuroscience, 7(7), 683-683.

Tancredi, L. R. (2005). The new lie detectors. Scientific American Mind, 16(1), 46-47.

Thompson, J. K., Peterson, M. R., & Freeman, R. D. (2003). Single-neuron activity and tissue oxygenation in the cerebral cortex. Science, 299(5609), 1070-1072.

Labelling Children as Abnormal and Issues with Treatment in the Case of ‘America’s Medicated Kids’

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) details mental illnesses and provides codes and criteria on which diagnoses can be made (American Psychiatric Association, Task Force on DSM-IV, 1994).  Abnormality is never defined with DSM-IV but it crops up many times in the assessment of individuals. There is a need to define normality in order to be able to know when abnormality exists and this is what Gross refers to as the implicit assumption that is it possible and meaningful to draw the line between normal and abnormal (Gross, 1996 p.786)   Normal is average; it is the accepted behaviour and actions of a given society. Giftedness is also considered abnormal as any deviation from ideal mental health can be considered abnormality (Gross, 1996 p.562-3)

The theory of mind is a label for the conceptual system and represents the mental states that we each have, and impute upon others (Perner & Lang, 2000 p. 150).

Within this executive function are the processes that control behaviour, and it is these that are believed to underlay the abnormalities that children can be labeled with.  However there is a developmental progression for executive function and it could be argued that children do not, by definition, have this progression to a sufficient degree to be able to define normal and abnormal. 

Definitions of mental illness focus on the pathological aspects – e.g. a diagnosis of a ‘psychopathology’ (Gross, 1996 p.789).  Therefore if a child is labelled as mentally ill or abnormal then they have received a clinical diagnosis with an associated stigma. The DSM-IV includes a specific section for disorders diagnosed within childhood, with behavioural and emotional disorders forming the bulk of these, yet states that there is no clear distinction between childhood and adult disorders in some of the cases (DSM-IV, 1994 p.37)

In Louis Theroux’s recent documentary ‘America’s Medicated Kids’, there were a number of children who had multiple medications. Obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and attention deficit disorder were all being treated in some children.  It is true that there are documented associations between such disorders (Peterson, Pine, Cohen, & Brook, 2001 p.686), but when viewing the program it did appear as if the medication was an excuse; the cosmetic psychopharmacology that critics suggest is swamping America.  Medication is cited as being beneficial in restoring faith in the medical profession (Prentice, 1996 p.257), perhaps as the issuing of a prescription indicates [falsely?] that the physician understands what is wrong in order to be able to issue that prescription. 

Attention deficit disorder was a prominent issue raised in the documentary. It is a clinically diagnosable disorder characterised by a triad of symptoms involving persistent age-inappropriate problems of hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity (Sahakian & Mehta, 2001 p.77).  It is the most common psychiatric disorder of childhood affecting up to 1 in 20 children. Stigmas are known to become self-fulfilling prophecies (Jussim, Palumbo, Chatman, Madon, & Smith, 2000), so if adults and other consistently treat someone in a particular way, then they will act that way as any deviation from the expected behaviour is not noted.  This is particularly the case when considering that value judgments for the basis of mental health, and these are defined by the individuals who construct them (Gross, 1996).  I would say children who are labelled abnormal will come to believe that all of their actions are abnormal; labelling excuses actions as the individual has been told they cannot act normally, so doesn’t.

In Louis Theroux’s documentary, the wisdom of a 6 year old boy on anti-depressants was queried but the parent was adamant that there was a substantial improvement in behaviour as a result. A US Task force report on the use of medication in childhood highlighted that many psychoactive drugs are used for considerably broader age ranges than those deemed effective (Barkley et al., 1990 p.1).  Psychopathological disorders of childhood are not identical with those of adulthood so cannot be approached in the same way (Barkley et al., 1990 p.5), however, childhood mental illness often predisposes the individual to develop adult mental illnesses such as substance abuse, poor social engagement and antisocial personality disorder (Sahakian & Mehta, 2001 p.78).


In the program it was highlighted the medications are tested for safety and efficacy on adults, and a 6 year old has a massively different physiology than an adult, so the medication could have long term effects about which they may be unaware. The labeling as abnormal could mean that any side effect arising from the medication could be viewed as a facet of the initial disorder. This is a known issue with antipsychotic drugs such as chlorpromazine, which can cause motor disturbances and uncontrollable movements (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 1995 p.482).   Some children would be blamed as fidgety and unable to keep still when the medication could be the cause. Likewise there are critical periods within the brains development that require critical sensory experiences for the development to progress appropriately (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, p.483).  If the child is medicated away from being able to experience sensory inputs then their development could be impaired, through no fault of their own.

A viable alternative to medication is the use of psychological therapies, but the only way in which these can be effective is for the patient to have insight into the problem (Prentice, 1996 p.259). One child within the program was provided with an emotion thermometer to use; to indicate the degree to which their emotions were running high, in an effort to be able to control them after recognizing that a problem existed. Whilst the child was also medicated, it is this kind of intervention that can provide a long-term solution to causes of the behavioural issues, rather than merely treating the symptoms.


American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV. (1994). DSM-IV: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.

Barkley, R. A., Conners, K., Barclay, A., Gadow, K., Gittelman, R., Sprague, R., et al. (1990). Task force report: The appropriate role of clinical child psychologists in the prescribing of psychoactive medication for children. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 19(Suppl.), 1-38.

Gross, R. (1996). Psychology, the science of mind and behaviour (3rd ed.). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Jussim, L., Palumbo, P., Chatman, C., Madon, S., & Smith, A. (2000). Stigma and self-fulfilling prophecies. In T. F. Heatherton, R. E. Kleck, M. R. Hebl & J. G. Hull (Eds.), The social psychology of stigma (pp. 374-418) The Guilford Press.

Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., & Jessell, T. M. (1995). Essentials of neural science and behavior. Norwlk: McGraw-Hill/Appleton & Lange.

Perner, J., & Lang, R. (2000). Theory of mind and executive function: Is there a developmental relationship. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive  neuroscience (2nd ed., pp. 150-181). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, B. S., Pine, D. S., Cohen, P., & Brook, J. S. (2001). Prospective, longitudinal study of tic, obsessive-compulsive, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders in an epidemiological sample. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(6), 685-695.

Prentice, P. (1996). Therapeutic approaches. In M. Cardwell, L. Clark & C. Meldrum (Eds.), Psychology for A level (1st ed., pp. 256-279). London: Collins Educational.

Sahakian, B. J., & Mehta, M. (2001). Attention deficit disorder. In P. Winn (Ed.), Dictionary of biological psychology (pp. 77-79). London: Routledge.

Positive Psychology and Its Benefits In Children

•April 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Positive Psychology is a multi-faceted complex topic, which has generated great arguments both for and against it, by many great psychologists. Many edited textbooks have been published (e.g. Lopez & Snyder, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004), countless conferences have been held and numerous grants have facilitated the research of individuals attempting to honour, or discredit positive psychology. There are scores of definitions, but the one I would like to use is Gable and Haidt’s (2005), which refers to positive psychology as ‘the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions’ (Pg 104).

It is often thought to be the ‘wishy-washy’ side to psychology; as soon as the words are mentioned images of bookshelves crammed full of self-help books comes to mind. But, this is not positive psychology’s fault: Anyone can call themselves a “psychologist” and seek to work under that label. Therefore, anyone can offer ‘psychological counselling’ or any other ‘psychological’ services (Rosenzweig, 1992), without having any form of degree or training, and this paves the way for any individual who wishes to write books claiming to provide psychological help, in a do-it-yourself format.

Although there are major flaws in the concepts of positive psychology, it is not attempting to replace traditional psychology, or insinuate that there are negative and positive versions of the discipline. Positive Psychologists want the main principles of the speciality field to be integrated with those already present in contemporary psychology. 

One important area that is often overlooked is the effects of positive psychology on certain aspects of a child’s development. In a positive psychology orientation, a comprehensive and inclusive conceptualization of coping views adaptations to stressors and illnesses as normal developmental events, with much common origin and function (Roberts, Brown, Johnson, & Reinke, 2005). All too often, a ‘pathology model’ has been applied to study how children develop. The positive psychology alternative is to focus on the child when s/he is in development and attempt to enhance functioning, competence and overall mental health. Research has illustrated the possible benefits of positive psychology in relation to the conceptualisation of optimism, hope, and quality of life.

Seligman (1991) studied the concept of learned optimism with children (and of course with adults, but the research discussed here focuses on studies of children). They found that optimists tend to do better in school, perform well in sports and appear to have better physical and mental health than pessimists (Seligman, 1991). Four main sources for the origins of optimism have been discussed (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gilham, 1995); the first being genetics. A second source is the child’s environment, with particular emphasis on parental interaction and a parent’s own level of optimism. Thirdly, criticism; again from an authoritative source, e.g. parents, teachers and other adults, can shape a child’s explanatory style. The fourth way in which optimism (or pessimism) develops is through life experiences that promote either helplessness or mastery. But, it is important to note that positive psychologists are not encouraging parents to ensure their children are constantly optimistic. Children must see themselves in a realistic light, and understand the real world, in order to successfully challenge automatic negative thoughts (Roberts et al, 2005). Compelling arguments have been made affirming the need for, and advantages of occasional pessimism. Norem (2001) discussed how individuals who adopt a defensive pessimistic strategy in life set their goals unrealistically low, analysing possible problems in advance and therefore enhancing task performance. As Held (2004) states: “It is not a case of one size fits all” (Pg 23). Pessimists should not be forced to be optimistic, and vice versa, individual differences must be taken into account. But, optimism may be a very valuable tool that children can use to negotiate challenges and adversity at an early stage.

Hope has been defined as a cognitive set involving an individual’s beliefs in their capability to produce workable pathways to goals, and belief in an individual’s ability to initiate and sustain movement towards those goals (Lopez & Snyder, 2005). Therefore, hope is an important construct in a child’s life, helping them to deal with stressors, avoid problem behaviours and use past experience to develop strategies towards goals in an effective manner. It has been found that children are slightly biased, in a positive way, in their perceptions of the future, and that this bias may help children develop positive outcome thoughts and strive for success in childhood, and usually onto adulthood (Snyder et al, 1997).

Research on pretend play fits under the umbrella term of positive psychology (Pearson, Russ & Spannagel, 2008). Pretend play can be defined as “a symbolic behaviour in which one thing is playfully treated as if it were something else” (Fein, 1987, p. 282), and has been linked with optimism, hope and creativity. I am sure that at some stage in our childhood we all partook in pretend play; making forts out of boxes, or playing house with random items stolen from the kitchen. Pretend play involves a multitude of cognitive, affective and interpersonal processes that are linked to adaptive functioning (Pearson et al, 2007), and is very important in aiding a child to learn valuable skills. When a child is totally involved in pretend play, or ‘lost in play,’ that child is most likely experiencing what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) conceptualised as ‘flow.’ Studies have found that pretend play and coping, or optimism, are positively related (Goldstein & Russ, 2001). In a study involving seven to nine year olds undergoing an invasive dental procedure, a positive relationship between play and coping was found, compared to a negative relationship between play and distress (Christiano & Russ, 1996). Consistent with these findings, the study conducted by Goldstein & Russ (2001) illustrated that fantasy and imagination in play were closely linked to the number and variety of cognitive coping techniques present in a child when aggression had to be controlled. As Pearson et al (2008) state: “Part of what makes play so pleasurable for children is that within play, unlike the rest of their day, children can be powerful” (Pg 115). This gives them hope; during pretend play problem solving and conflict resolution systems are required (Russ, 2004). Although a child can use fantasy to resolve any issues, they still learn to attempt a task a different way if something is wrong. Positive psychology has been publicized as being quite beneficial for children, and perhaps this is the area that future research should focus on.

The message of the positive psychology approach is that psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, illness or health; it is also about understanding strength, work, education, love and play (Seligman, 2002). Although there are many flaws to the movement if it is followed religiously, it is possible that taking some of the main principles and applying them to the developmental psychology of children, that there is a lot to gain. The main benefits of a positive psychology approach with children have been hinted at in recent research, but we need to delve further into the area, as a better understanding of a child’s development will lead to more effective preventions, interventions and treatment of problems.


Christiano, B., & Russ, S. (1996). Play as a predictor of coping and distress in children during an invasive dental procedure. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 25, 130–138.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The psychology of optimal experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Harper & Row.

Fein, G. (1987). Pretend play: Creativity and consciousness. In P. Gorlitz & J. Wohlwill (Eds.), Curiosity, imagination, and play (pp. 281–304). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gable, S.L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9, 103–110.

Goldstein, A.B., & Russ, S.W. (2000–2001). Understanding children’s literature and its relationship to fantasy ability and coping. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 20, 105-126.

Held, B. S. (2004). The Negative Side of Positive Psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 44, 1, 9-46.

Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Norem, J. K. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking. New York: Basic Books.

Pearson, B. L., Russ, S. A., & Spannagel, S. A. (2008). Pretend Play and Positive Psychology: Natural Companions. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 2, 110-119.

Roberts, M. C., Brown, R. J., & Reike, J. (2005). Positive Psychology for Children; Development, Prevention, and Promotion. In Lopez & Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (Pg 663 – 675). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Enactive psychology: Is there a crack in the pillar of autonomy?

•April 23, 2010 • 4 Comments

Enactive psychology is a new approach to the study of cognition which explicitly rejects the computational paradigm. Rather than considering internal representations of an external reality and how these are processed to achieve an output, enactive psychology asserts that our understanding of the external world is entirely due to internal processes and structure; that it is the structural re-organisation of our nervous system (and body) in reaction to environmental conditions. Structural re-organisation occurs in order to maintain the cohesion of a given system. It is the focus on exclusively internal processes of a system and the maintenance of a cohesive entity which leads to it being considered autonomous; separate and self reliant. This is not to say that it is unresponsive; it does indeed alter in response to an altered environment, but that response results from internal efforts of self-maintenance rather than an inclusion of any new external relations. In order to sustain the complexity of living systems which ‘exist far from equlibrium’ (Di Paolo, 2005) there are material and energy requirements. In this respect the system is open and processes may occur to replenish and sustain the organisation of the system. With respect to this sustained organisation, however, it is described as organisationally closed; that it maintains its particular relational structure as distinct from its surroundings.

The five pillars of enactive psychology can be understood as respectively incorporating skilful activity, experience, embodiment, a dynamical systems approach and autonomy. Quite apart from the fact that four pillars are more aesthetically pleasing and historically sufficient for a solid foundation, this posting, drawing largely from Di Paolo (2005), questions the status accorded to the concept of autonomy; that apart from its indubitable importance within the interpretation of the other elements of enactive psychology, as a conceptual foundation it is insufficiently complete to remain a distinct ‘pillar’ (no pun intended).

The pillar of autonomy is built upon the theory of autopoeisis as conceived by Maturana and offered by Valera (1979);

 “An autopoietic system is organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components that:

  1. through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and
  2. constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they [the components] exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.” (p. 13)


This can be seen to be very similar to Valera’s (1981) definition of autonomous systems which are 

 “…defined as a composite unity by a network of interactions of components that

(i) through their interactions recursively regenerate the network of interactions that produced them, and

(ii) realize the network as a unity in the space in which the components exist by constituting and specifying the unity’s boundaries as a cleavage from the background…” (p. 15)

Given the similarity of concepts, we continue by focusing on the nature of autopoeisis. Autopoeisis concerns the self-replicating ability of a distinct system. It is related to the structural organization of the system rather than the material constitution of the system (as the distinction of open and closed highlighted earlier). The structural relations which support the ongoing entity may be temporarily disrupted through interaction with environmental conditions but the nature of autopoeisis is such that the system is able to re-adjust, retaining its distinctiveness and a sense of an enduring entity. These re-adjustments are understood as perturbations within the system and the extent to which the system can accommodate (integrate) them without irreparable change (disintegration) is understood as its robustness; its range of possible change before autopoeisis fails. Some systems, due to their structural organisation may be more robust than others; the extent to which they can remain viable is described as their ‘viability set’. The important omission in the concept of autopoeisis as a foundational explanation within cognitive psychology is that of discrimination. As Di Paolo (2005) perceptively argues;

“There is no room for concepts such as lacks, minor or major breakdowns in autopoiesis: either organization is conserved or it isn’t – being partially autopoietic is senseless and any notion of the system being at risk of disintegrating would be a remark made by the external observer and plays no operational role. “(p.436)

Enter the example of the bacterium; self-sustenance requires energy which this simple organism metabolises from sugar molecules. Given an environment lacking in sugar, the bacterium moves towards an environment which is more sugar rich, thus enhancing its likelihood of remaining an autopoeitic system. Just as the movement of the flagella represent the need for sugar only to an outside observer rather than constituting an internal representation, so, too, does the behaviour enhance the viability of the bacterium only from a perspective outside of the autopoeitic system itself.

Effective behaviour requires a discrimination of possible viability. Autonomous systems, though responsive to the environment, remain unable to discriminate and can neither choose to approach nor withdraw. That the bacterium moves up a sugar gradient is not due to its autopoeitic nature, rather, the observed autopoeisis is a result of its ability to discriminate useful aspects within its environment.  In discussing the structural coupling of an organism to its environment, Maturana (1975) comments;

  “If one of the plastic systems is an organism and the other its medium, the result is ontogenic adaptation of the organism to its medium: the changes of state of the organism correspond to the change of state of the medium.” (p. 326)

This ‘ontogenic adaptation’ fails to account for the difference between useful or detrimental mediums, the adaptation may equally prove fatal as life enhancing. Regarding cognition, Maturana recognizes the need for life-enhancing choices but fails to account for how the discrimination may be achieved; (added emphasis)

“A cognitive system is a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself, and the process of cognition is the actual (inductive) acting or behaving in this domain.” (Maturana, 1970: reprinted in Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 13)

And Whitaker (2001) states,

  “…cognition is what we attribute to systems exhibiting flexible and effective changes during structural coupling. A living system’s organization circumscribes a domain of interactions within which activity relevant (and appropriate) to maintaining its autopoiesis is manifested.”

Autopoeisis requires the additional concept of adaptation in order to allow the exhibition of ‘flexible and effective changes’ during structural coupling and to usefully inform cognitive science. Adaptation is not usefully distinguished as producing discriminatory abilities by Maturana or Valera but is addresses by Di Paolo (2005) and defined as;

“A system’s capacity, in some circumstances, to regulate its states and its relation to the environment with the result that, if the states are sufficiently close to the boundary of viability,

1. Tendencies are distinguished and acted upon depending on whether the states will approach or recede from the boundary and, as a consequence,

2. Tendencies of the first kind are moved closer to or transformed into tendencies of the second and so future states are prevented from reaching the boundary with an outward velocity” (p.438)

 ‘Making-sense of’ the environment thus crucially requires the recognition of beneficial or detrimental environmental stimuli in order to effectively maintain the living system. Although this recognition is in terms of effects within the system it is essentially external to that system so that it can monitor whether it is approaching the limits of viability and thus instigate action to withdraw from such stimulation. It is this crucial ability within cognition which remains external to the autopoeitic system (although perhaps internal to the organism). Reliance on the most brutal natural selection and knowledge as purely instinctual is the only way to account for purely autonomous/autopoeitic cognitive abilities. I would argue that the adaptation exhibited in ones own life history relies on a discriminatory ability which implies an additional extra-system ‘observer’ mechanism. Organisms exhibiting such cognitive abilities can not, strictly, be considered as exclusively autopoeitic and, by extension, purely autonomous either materially or organizationally. There is no contention that autopoeisis is an extremely useful and productive concept and specifies the interpretation of other important concepts within enactive psychology. However, the clear lack of determination of value or ability to discriminate between autopoeitic preserving and destroying environments within a theory so concerned with cognition highlights an inherent insufficiency. This then challenges the status of ‘autonomy’ as a distinct, foundational element of enactive psychology and demands the question, ‘is there a crack in the pillar of autonomy?’


Di Paolo, E.A. (2005) Autopoiesis, adaptivity, teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences  4: 429–452

Maturana, H. R. (1970) Biology of Cognition, Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0., Urbana IL: Univ. of Illinois

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science [ Cohen, Robert S., and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.) ], Vol. 42, Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co.

Maturana, H. (1975). The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Vol. 7, pp. 313-332.

Valera, F.J. (1979), Principles of Biological Autonomy, New York: Elsevier (North Holland)

Valera, F.J. (1981) Autonomy and autopoiesis, in Roth, Gerhard, and Helmut Schwegler (eds.) Self-organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, pp. 14-23.

Whitaker, R. (2001). Concepts and structures, Enolagaia retrieved on April 20, 2010 from

Cross- Cultural Psychologists holds the future to resolve the controversial issue of a cultural bias subsisting in Psychology today.

•April 23, 2010 • 4 Comments

Cross Cultural Psychologists examine; “variability in behavior among the various societies and cultural groups around the world” (Smith & Bond 1998). This has become extremely influential to the controversial topic of cultural bias in psychology over the past few decades as it has changed psychologists views and ways of how they study culture today. Conducting cross cultural studies enables psychologists to compare their studies to others and test for cultural biases as well as the existence of variations within cultures. In today’s world there are hundreds to thousands of cultures and traditions which can be seen throughout the world and it is important not to generalize in terms of their similarities but highlight their uniqueness’s and distinctiveness. This bias has been seen throughout psychology in the past. Psychology has been dominated in the past by psychologists from America and the UK as well as other western societies making them blind to other cultures and biased to generalize their own culture to others (Moghaddam et al., 1993). In this comprehension i will talk about the existence of a cultural bias in psychology, the benefits of more cross-cultural studies and some future suggestions for research in the future.

A cross-cultural study was carried out by two researchers when they replicated a previous study using participants of a different culture to what was used previously in the original study. It is evident when examining the replicate study of the robbers cave carried out by Tyerman and Spencer (1983). Sherif et al. (1961) carried out the robbers cave experiment where a group of boys were originally put into two groups and were introduced throughout a camp trip competed and carried out in violent activities against each other. The replication of this study carried out by Tyerman and Spencer (1983) found, using English boy scouts, failed to find competitiveness or aggressiveness towards the other group. Therefore tradition and local cultures obtained from individuals play an important role in determining ones actions. In the future research being carried out on cultural psychological studies may be carried out using a multiple investigative studies. To understand variations in culture psychologists may have to travel throughout the world in order to gain participants for studies instead of settling for participants which as easier to locate.

One of the earliest cross cultural studies is that of Porteus. In 1937 he carried out experiments and tests on different cultural populations throughout the world. He compared the Bushmen in the Kalahari Australian Aborigines and other groups. He drew on certain factors within test performances and results which contribute to diversities found in different cultures. He noted and drew conclusions on education, language, intelligence, and performance, which were unique to the culture in question and could only be obtained from the influences of traditions and cultural existence. Studies such as Porteus created and marked the beginning of an increase in studies to emerge on cultural comparative studies. Psychologist began to study the comparisons between cultures and identify the psychological effects of various socio cultural factors (Cronbach & Drenth, 1972).

Once this was recognised a door was opened into recognising the counteractive measures which could be devised to rectify the problem of cultural bias. It was recognised that the construction of appropriate and distinguishable instruments, designs and psychometric control on bias could be used to test aspects of different cultures, designs. The use of various aspects of behaviour could be used to assess cross cultures and separate instruments had to be used to do so for specific populations (De Ridder, 1961). However this has not been followed in our modern society as psychologists still tend to be biased towards their own cultures and generalise accorss a domain of societies. In particular in America tests are applied to various cultures which are minimally changed. An increased awareness of such a cultural bias needs to be highlighted in order to rectify this controversy.

Culture is a diverse subject and can change over time. Cultures in the western world are thought of to evolve rapidly as there worlds around them are increasing and changing at a drastic rate. Traditional, western cultures also according to Gross (2009) are not influenced by the western world and culture evolves much slower. Contemporary research methods and research in future studies need to be altered to suit and integrate the traditions of individual cultures in order to avoid bias occurring. In particular studies have found that western psychologists have tended to

The advantages of cross cultural studies is that the ides of generalizing one culture to others as previously carried out will be highlighted and rectified through such an unambiguous process.

We are largely what we are because of culturally based learning” (Segall et al., 1999) Future studies could be carried out through multiple investigative studies in order to test their validity. I believe this can be rectified with multiple scientific investigations. Studies should not be published or considered reliable without being investigated by numerous scientists in order to deem them valid and sound.

In Conclusion despite the vast amount of information on cultural bias and cross cultural studies psychologist in their examinations and finding continue to assume that the same attributes account cross-culturally. Future research in the area seeking post hoc explanations by testing populations and individuals on invariance’s which have been derived from an experiments, theory or by looking at designs of past studies will highlight the greater presence of a post-gender bias and gradually help rectify this controversial issue in out societies to date (Poortinga & Van de Vijver, 1987).


Cronbach L. J., & Drenth, P. J. D. (Eds.) (1972). Mental tests and cultural adaptation. The Hague: Mouton.

De Ridder, J. C. (1961). The personality of the urban African

in South Africa: A Thematic Apperception Test study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. Third Edition. (131,142)

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Porteus, S. D. (1937). Primitive intelligence and environment. New York: McMillan.

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Tyerman, A. & Spencer, C. (1983) A critical test of the Sherifs’ Robbers Cave experiment: intergroup competition and cooperation between groups of well-acquainted individuals. Small Group Behaviour, 14(4), 515-531.