Alcohol labelling and the social norm

By Dr John McAlaney, Lecturer in Psychology and Chartered Psychologist.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse recently proposed that the packaging and bottles of alcoholic beverages should include health warnings, in order to reduce the health-related and economic harms caused by alcohol misuse in the UK. Such an approach has of course been used for many years across the world for the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products. The rationale behind this is that educating individuals on the risks of certain behaviours will enable them to make more informed decisions. Whilst this may be beneficial in some situations the long-term efficacy of alcohol education has been questioned, with an increasing movement away from using ‘health terrorism’ techniques which use negative and extreme imagery to dissuade people from misusing alcohol.

When considering how to address the issues associated with alcohol use it is important to take into account social psychological factors. Drinking alcohol is for many people done in a social situation. It is actively encouraged in many situations such as on nights out or at parties. Indeed it could be argued that drinking alcohol in some settings is seen to be the default option, and that anyone who chooses not to do so must often give a solid justification as to why they are not drinking, such as being a designated driver or for religious reasons. In addition there are a myriad of cultural factors associated with alcohol use. For example heavy drinking in young adults in the UK, and particularly amongst students, can be seen as a natural part of the transition into adulthood.

At the same time excessive alcohol use is condemned. The media often focuses on binge drinking and the harm that this can cause to individuals and societies. TV programmes feature footage of drunken behaviour in city centres on the weekend and highlight the burden that this can place on the police and A&E departments. However, characterising what ‘excessive’ alcohol use is can be problematic. Definitions vary internationally, and even within the UK. Many definitions do not take into account factors such as the period of time over which the alcohol is consumed, or the metabolism and body weight of the individual. Overall, alcohol holds a unique and contradictory status in the UK in being socially approved yet in many ways publically condemned.

Just how accurate are we in our perceptions of the alcohol use of others? Research would suggest that we tend to overestimate how much other people drink and how acceptable they think excessive alcohol use is. This effect appears to be especially pronounced in young adults. There are a number of possible reasons why we might tend to hold these misperceptions. Psychological processes such as memory and attention biases mean that we are more likely to notice and remember the one person in a bar who is drunk and loud than the many that are sober and quieter. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also allow for the rapid dissemination of stories and pictures relating to alcohol consumption, which might further add to our perception that people around us drink alcohol more frequently and heavily than is actually the case. Even campaigns which aim to reduce alcohol consumption might inadvertently contribute to misperceptions. These campaigns often involve imagery of the target population drinking alcohol, which could suggest that this behaviour is a norm.

This work has led to the development of a new form of intervention and prevention, known as the social norms approach. This technique operates on a simple premise – if people tend to overestimate how heavily their peers drink alcohol then challenging these misperceptions should reduce the social pressure on the individual to drink heavily themselves. This, in turn, means their own consumption should decrease. This can be done in a variety of ways such as mass media campaigns or personalised online feedback. This approach is increasingly popular in Europe (see for further information) and in contrast to more traditional approaches does not utilise negative imagery or moralistic messages on how people ‘should’ behave. In the words of former Minister for Scottish Parliament, Dr Bill Wilson,

“I am convinced that it is a relatively simple and cost-effective means of achieving behavioural change. Most importantly, it is positive rather than negative. It does not condemn, preach or use scare tactics, and it works!”

Alcohol labelling could be used to support this approach. Environmental cues can help determine norms, so as in the case of tobacco including health warnings on packaging may help create a norm that excessive alcohol use is not something that is desirable. However, caution must be taken to ensure that the health warnings used do not promote the message that the majority of people are using alcohol irresponsibly on a frequent basis. It is worth noting that based on national surveys and government definitions the majority of even the heaviest drinking group in the UK, namely young men, do not regularly binge drink.

Alcohol labelling and health warnings may be useful in enabling people to make more informed decisions about alcohol, but this must be done in a way that reflects the context of alcohol use in the UK. In short, we must cut through the hype and misconceptions around alcohol use if long-term culture change is to be achieved.

Dr Andrew Mayers talks about maternal mental health on BBC Radio Solent

With one in ten women developing a mental health issue during or after pregnancy, BU’s Dr Andrew Mayers spoke to BBC Radio Solent about the lack of awareness surrounding pre and postnatal depression in some areas of Dorset.

Dr Mayers, a Senior Psychology lecturer, told the Breakfast in Dorset programme: “If a woman has got a history of previous mental health problems, you would hope that the local services would be alerted once she becomes pregnant.

“But I think it’s about more than that. Mums-to-be need to be given more information so they are aware of what could happen to them.”

When asked if there is a need for community and health service provisions, Dr Mayers argued there was, saying:

“I think it is important that anyone who is involved with mothers or mums-to-be should recognise the signs if there is a problem and know what to do within the community.

“In the worst case scenario women are taking their own lives. It’s one of the most common forms of death in that particular group of population.”

Dr Mayers is a member of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, which highlights the differences in support service between various areas of the country for mothers with mental health issues.

Part of the organisation’s campaign is to raise awareness for more funding and support that Dr Mayers claims is necessary for new mothers with mental health issues.

“If we spend money now on early intervention and support services, we will save money in the future for health, mental health and any other societal costs. We need the services to be brought up to scratch in mental health.”

Dr Mayers is a senior psychologist at BU and is also on the board of trustees for the organisation Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support (PANDAS).

Eating Disorder Awareness Week at Bournemouth University


Bournemouth University (BU) held a number of events as part of Eating Disorder Awareness Week to help raise awareness about eating disorders and increase people’s understanding of conditions.

The events featured guest speakers talking about their personal journeys and battles with eating disorders. Sessions also looked at eating disorders in children and young people and the myths and truths about disorders.

Guest speaker John Evans, Author of ‘Becoming John: Anorexia’s Not Just for Girls’, gave a powerful account of his battles with anorexia over the last 14 years and stated “anorexia used to define me and took over every aspect of my life”.

Another guest, Ilona Burton (pictured) blogger at The Independent, spoke about her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, particularly throughout university, and her journey back to health.

Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK alone, claiming the highest number of lives of any other mental illness. Eating Disorder Awareness Week aims to increase people’s awareness and understanding of conditions.

Dr James Palfreman-Kay, Equality and Diversity Advisor at Bournemouth University said “I hope this week has increased people’s recognition, awareness and knowledge about eating disorders. John’s presentation was powerful and he managed to show how something like this can happen to anyone.”

Dr Sarah Williams, lecturer of Psychology at BU said “hopefully events like these will get people talking, tackle stigma and give people the confidence to help friends”.

One in ten people in the UK will have to deal with symptoms of Anorexia, Bulimia or Binge Eating at some stage throughout their lives. Research has shown that students are particularly vulnerable to mental illnesses due to high levels of stress and unhealthy university lifestyles.

Dr Williams has been conducting research into eating disorders for over eight years and is currently conducting research into the provision of online motivation interventions for those with eating disorders. Williams has also helped to setup the eating disorder research group to further explore issues related to early identification and interventions for eating disorders.

The events which took place at Bournemouth University’s Talbot Campus, were attended by over 400 people over the course of the week.

To find out more about dignity, diversity and equality at Bournemouth University, visit their You Tube channel to see some of the highlights undertaken by staff and students in the last year.

Bournemouth University receives grant to raise prosopagnosia awareness


Bournemouth University’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders (CFPD) has been awarded a four-figure sum from the British Psychological Society to raise awareness for prosopagnosia, or face blindness, in the UK.

The money will be used to launch a Face Blindness Awareness Campaign by producing a series of DVDs that highlight face blindness, and to fund a launch event for the campaign.

Dr Sarah Bate, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Lead Researcher within the CFPD, said, “I am delighted to receive this award – these funds and the partnership with the British Psychological Society and Encephalitis Society will formalise our public awareness campaign and ensure maximum exposure and impact is generated.”

Prosopagnosia is a condition characterised by a selective deficit to be able to recognise a familiar person by their face.  It is estimated that one in 50 people experience prosopagnosia, to a lesser or greater degree, but public and professional awareness of the condition is very low.  The Centre aims to rectify this through their campaign.

Every year, the British Psychological Society makes grants to help its members demonstrate the relevance of psychological science to a wider audience.

Professor Catriona Morrison, Chair of the Society’s Psychology Education Board, says, “The range and quality of this year’s grant recipients emphasise how much psychological science can contribute to wider society. Sharing this knowledge with the public is an important part of our work.”

For more information about prosopagnosia, visit the Centre for Face Processing Disorders website.

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Psychology students learn how to improve employability

BU Psychology students were given valuable advice on how to improve their employability in a thought-provoking lecture by Dr Julie Hulme.

Dr Hulme is the Discipline Lead for Psychology for the Higher Education Academy which supports the psychology academic community in the UK.

The purpose of the talk was for students to recognise the skills that they had and how they could apply these to the workplace.

Students were left with an important message: “It’s up to you to build your employability”.

The talk was arranged by BU Associate Professor of Psychology Education Dr Jacqui Taylor, who has written a guide to psychological literacy with Dr Hulme which is being used by Psychology Departments across the UK.

View the guide

Dr Sarah Bate explains face blindness in The Sun

After Brad Pitt admitted he suffered from prosopagnosia – more commonly known as face blindness – the Sun featured the stories of two other people with the condition in its health pages.

They also called on BU’s Dr Sarah Bate, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology who specialises in face recognition, to explain the condition.

People with extreme forms of face blindness struggle to recognise their family, friends, and even their own reflections in the mirror.

Sarah, who has set up an e-petition to get the government to formally recognise prosopagnosia, said in the article: “While some sufferers find prosopagnosia can lead to occasional embarrassment, for others it affects their social aptitude and employment opportunities.

“They might withdraw from social events and choose to work in jobs that avoid the need for face-to-face interaction with colleagues. This can cause anxiety and depression.”

But, she said, some people cope remarkably well with the condition and develop strategies like focusing on non-facial clues – like hairstyles, gait or clothing – to recognise people.

She added: “These strategies might work some of the time but there are always occasions where a familiar person is met out of context and the strategy breaks down.”

Find out more about prosopagnosia and the work taking place at BU

BU Psychology lecturer gives top tips for improving memory

Psychology lecturer Dr Andy Johnson contributed his top tips for a features in a number of newspapers about ‘turbo-charging’ your memory.

The articles featured 25 ways to improve memory, following comedian Billy Connelly’s confession that he suffers from bouts of memory loss while on stage – sometimes forgetting the punchlines to his jokes.

Andy’s top tips for improving memory, among those from other experts, were featured in the Daily Mirror, the Scottish Daily Record and The Times of India.

His suggestions include associating a memory with an environment, using things like a particular smell or aroma to help trigger the memory.

He added: “More simply, when in an exam, I advise my students to visualise the place in which they were revising as a cue to memory.”

Other advice from Andy included learning things before you go to bed.

“The best way to ‘consolidate a memory’ is to go through the information just before going to sleep,” he explained.

“This is because there are fewer ‘new’ interfering memories so you will remember it better the next day.”

Read the article in full.

BU virtual reality bystander research featured on BBC London TV news

Richard Southern, Research Lecturer in Computer Animation at BU, was featured on BBC London TV news talking about using virtual reality to investigate the bystander effect.

Richard and a team from BU have been working with University College London to create a virtual reality simulation of an altercation in a bar, to see how people react when they witness a violent situation.

Participants wear special glasses which create a 360 degree virtual experience, and are confronted with a conflict between two men in the bar – one of whom is wearing an Arsenal football shirt.

The research found that people were more likely to intervene if they were fellow Arsenal fans or if the simulated person made eye contact, seen as an appeal for help.

BBC London reporter Sara Orchard tried out the simulation, for a report which appeared on both the lunchtime and evening bulletins.

Richard said: “A lot of people were frustrated that they couldn’t intervene, but I think in general, most people were surprised by how emotionally involved in the event.”

The research is now being looked at for potentially uses by the prison service, the Ministry of Defence and the police.

You can watch the BBC London report here.

Dr Andy Johnson talks chewing gum and concentration on The Today Programme

Psychology lecturer Dr Andy Johnson spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme about his research into chewing gum and concentration.

Andy was part of a team of researchers who found that chewing gum can help people focus better while doing tasks.

“In this study our participants undertook a very monotonous and repetitive constant vigilance task, where participants were presented with a sequence of digits and they were looking out for a particular signal,” he told presenter James Naughtie.

He added that participants who chewed gum had less of a decrease in performance throughout the task, and reported being significantly more alert.

He said: “So what we suggest is that chewing gum can facilitate vigilance during a monotonous task but that this is only found when performance has dropped to sub-optimal level, so when it starts to fall down that’s when gum has some scope for having a benefit.

“But if we are at our normal operating levels, we are sort of at ceiling effect, so there is nowhere for cognition to go. So only once our performance begins to drop does gum introduce a benefit in performance and vigilance.”

Dr Johnson, who worked on the study with researchers from Cardiff University, explained that chewing increases blood flow to the brain and that increases delivery of glucose and oxygenated blood to the parts of the brain that are doing the task.

He was also interviewed on BBC Radio Solent’s Breakfast Show, local station Wave 105 and BBC Radio Scotland about the research, which appears in the British Journal of Psychology.

You can listen to Dr Andy Johnson on the Today Programme here for the next seven days.

Dr Andrew Mayers talks about sleep and postnatal depression on Hot Radio

Dr Andrew Mayers, senior lecturer in psychology at BU, was interviewed on Hot Radio about post-natal depression and people struggling to sleep.

In the 12 O’Clock Interview slot on the local radio station, Andrew talked to presenter Geoff Carter about post-natal depression, and the stigma still attached to it.

He said: “I think people are more aware of it than they were but there is still this stigma, fear and guilt. But it’s something that you shouldn’t feel guilty about and can be dealt with.”

“What we are hoping to do is train health visitors, GPs and mothers during the pregnancy period and afterwards about symptoms and what sort of problems might occur.”

He added that people should not be afraid to talk about the issue: “So many mothers tell me they didn’t report it as they were frightened their baby would be taken away, but that simply is not the case.”

Andrew also spoke about the research he has done into sleep patterns, and gave tips on how to get a good night’s rest.

“The impact poor sleep can have on our lives is certainly quite dramatic,” he said.

“I think one of the best things to do to ensure you get a good night’s sleep is routine and to avoid things that keep you awake at night – like mobile phones and too much activity shortly before going to bed.

“Have some sort of relaxation but also make sure the bedroom is a calm, cool, well-ventilated place to sleep.”

He also talked about the work he has been doing to tackle sleep problems in children, running workshops at Winton Primary School.

He said that if parents think their child might not be getting enough sleep, they should help them establish a routine, but also look at technology in their bedroom – such as computers or games consoles – that may be interfering with their sleep.