The unconscious curriculum at Loftus and Friends Conference. Emmanuel Centre. Tuesday 28th March 2017

Today a colleague and I accompanied our Year 13 students to an A-level Psychology conference today and I wanted to snapshot and share the experience.  We have been bringing students to these interest days organised by Cara Flanagan for a number of years.  We were gutted to have missed Zimbardo last year as it clashed with a school review day but I think we have more than made up for it with today’s Loftus and Friends.  These notes are my own and I apologise for any errors or omissions.

Firstly, the venue – the Emmanuel Centre, WC1.  Surprisingly easy to get to and rather magnificent inside with glass roofs, high ceilings and a large circular auditorium.

Session 1: Dr Phil Banyard – Nottingham Trent University.  

Blooming, Buzzing, Confusion.

First up was Phil, exploring the psychology of perception.  I must admit I have always avoided teaching the perception options at A-level, this is my own fear or bias I guess.  I enjoy the experiments but found the theory a bit dry at university but Phil usefully reminded me how fun and essential these ideas are.

We constantly invent our visual world as our brain makes sense of the visual information, where possible creating patterns and shapes where they may or may not exist.  We are hard-wired to join up the gaps and use our imagination to create narratives that make sense of what we see.  Our experiences and existing schemas may help shape what we think we see.

How did medieval society come up with the hideousness of gargoyles.  One possible explanation is that they are versions of what we have seen in our peripheral vision.  We created these visions of awfulness as products of our imagination which draws on what we have already seen.  See the Flashed Face Distortion Effect.



In science lessons, we are taught that our senses are separate and distinct.  However, the findings of psychology may suggest that they overlap to create the blooming, buzzing confusion that is human experience.

Session 2: Cara Flanagan – The Psychology of Revision.

A run-down of useful psychological research and concepts that help us understand the process of revision with a practical experiment to illustrate the concepts.

Step 1. Neuroplasticity.  Our brains have the capacity to make new connections and learn new stuff.

Step 2. Lump of clay problem – use retrieval cues to reduce overload.

Step 3. Levels of processing aid memory.  Processing means you have to do something, highlighting is not enough.  The more you have to think about the material the better the recall.

Step 4. Revision – recall is not the same as recognition.  The testing effect as demonstrated by Roediger (2006) – recall is improved by testing.

Step 5. Anxiety – too much stress can interfere with thinking.  One way to deal with the stress of exams is to practice the questions under timed-conditions.

Step 6.  Self-control.  The marshmallow test teaches us that those who can defer gratification are more likely to be academically successful.

Step 7.  Stereotype threat.

Research suggests that if we think we will be labelled or stereotyped before a test we tend to perform worse.  Action: Think Positive.

Step 8.  Less is more.  There is a difference between knowing it and effective use of the knowledge in exams.  Rather than regurgitate lots of knowledge, try to use it more to gain more marks.  In last years AS exam there was 5 marks between each grade.  Every mark counts and you are sometimes wise to do more with less.

Step 9. Mindset.

Key factor in success is learning from our failures and adopting a growth mindset.

Session 3. Professor David Wilson.  Why do we punish?

David Wilson is a professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, A former prison governor who is known for his work as a criminologist specialising in serial killers.  David introduced us to these issues via a range of clips from his recent media work.

To be classified as a serial killer, you need to have killed at least three people within a period of  30 days. In 1873, Mary Ann Colter killed at least 16 people (probably three of her four husbands to claim the insurance) and was hung.  Peter Moore killed 4 people in 1995 and is serving a whole life tariff and will never be released.  There are currently 52 people in England  and Wales serving this type of sentence. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 71 people and is serving 21 years in a Norwegian prison.  These three cases represent the polarised views that surround punishment.

The philosophical justifications for punishment are:

  • Deterrence
  • Retribution
  • Rehabilitation

As criminologists, we need to ask questions about whether our punishments meet these aims.

Should our punishments be private or public, physical punishments or punishments of the soul.  Should we punish everyone alike or should it vary depending on circumstances?

Deterrence.  Will the punishment deter the individual from committing a crime or is it about general deterrence for the whole of society.  This makes the assumption that crime is a rational act, where the criminal is carefully weighing up the cost.

In 2016, there were 550 murders in England and Wales, the police clear-up rate was around 90%.  Why?  Because most murder victims are known to the offender (e.g. husband / wife, boyfriend / girlfriend, parent / child).  Two women die each week at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, one child dies every day at the hands of a parent.  Often the person who reports the murder is the one who committed it e.g. Mick Philpott murders.  The act of murder often involves a state of heightened emotions which will impact on ones ability to think rationally – so the idea that murders are calculating the cost-benefit analysis seems unlikely and therefore the punishment is not a strong deterrent for individuals.

Is it a general deterrent?  The use of execution in the USA tends to have a polarising effect.  Rather than act as a deterrence, the general public may have sympathy towards the offender and/or harden their views against the state who carrying out the sentence.

Retribution.  Is this not the lowest common denominator – similar to vengeance.  Should we curb these emotions?  Does the desire for retribution tell us something about our own culture? What do concentration camps, gulags, and super maximum prisons tell us about the societies that created them?  How do we re-integrate people back into society who have been punitively punished?

Rehabilitation?  We live in an era of mass incarceration.  The UK locks up more people than any other European country even though our crime rates are similar.  In 2016, we locked up about 85,000 people.  We have more people serving life imprisonment that the whole of western Europe put together.  Does this deliver rehabilitation?

Bromley Briefings suggest that 58% of adult men reoffend and 36% return to prison.  72% of young offenders reoffend and 47% end up returning to prison.  The cost of incarceration is estimated at around £11 billion per year.  Is this money well spent?  Is prison the most effective form of punishment?


Some people need to be punished and society needs to be protected but we should use prison sparingly and not for the numbers of currently locked up.  Punishment/ Imprisonment does not necessarily have a significant impact on individuals or society in general.

How we punish and in what form tells us something about our society and the values we have.

It is sometimes said that you can judge a society on how it treats its prisoners.  On this criteria we are clearly failing.

Session 4: Richard Wiseman Mind Magic.

A whistle-stop tour of a range of biases and how the influence our minds.  We often do not see what is in front of our eyes.  Richard is a former magician who skilfully worked the audience through a range of practical experiments to prove how important psychology is.  We all enjoyed his engaging presentation and I am still trying to learnt the French Drop Trick as we speak.

There was some nice overlap with Phil’s session as Richard talked us through a range of biases and the mystery of perception.  His quirkology channel is well worth a visit for a wide range of excellent demonstrations of this type of analysis.

Richard’s point is that we do not always see what is in front of our eyes.  We think we understand the mind but we don’t.  Our expectations influence our perception.

Human beings are creatures of habit and the challenge for psychology is to use its concepts to help us all improve.  Small changes can make a big difference, however these changes need to be based on evidence.  The self-help industry offers people quick fixes that have no evidence.  Psychologists should use the wealth of evidence to help people make meaningful positive changes in their lives.  For example …

Where you sit in a meeting may influence what people think about your contributions.  We are conditioned to think people in the middle are more charismatic than others.

We habituate to our emotional surroundings as well.  We get used to the things that make us happy, which makes us not very good and knowing whether we are happy or not. By keeping a happiness diary we can clearly see and reflect on the good things.

66% of people are sleep deprived, the blue light from smart phones disrupts the melatonin production and our sleep patterns.  Put the phone and tablet away well before bedtime.


Session 5: Professor Elizabeth Loftus  – The Fiction of Memory.




I must admit this was the session I was most looking forward to.  It is not everyday that you get to meet an icon, hero and arguably one of the most important psychologists of all time.  She has made significant contributions to science, law and academic freedom.  For four decades, Professor Loftus has been studying human memory and it’s the malleable nature.  Indeed her name is synonymous for many psychology students with the concepts of leading questions, schema theory and the implications for the legal system and the rest of society.   Just because people tell us something, in great detail and with confidence it does not necessarily mean it is true nor are they deliberately lying.

Could I make you remember:

  1. As a child that a cat got stuck up a tree.
  2. You were attacked by an animal.
  3. As a teenager you were arrested.
  4. Last week, you cheated in a game.

Memory and legal cases.

The Innocence Project helps exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes often based on eyewitness testimony but who are later proven innocent due to later DNA testimony.

Members of the jury feel that our memories are like photocopies but decades of research suggests our memories are more reconstructive.

Case Study: Picking Cotton.

In July 1984, an assailant broke into Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s apartment and sexually assaulted her; later that night, the assailant broke into another apartment and sexually assaulted a second woman. Thompson-Cannino, then a 22-year-old college student, made every effort to study the perpetrator’s face while he was assaulting her. As she says on 60 Minutes, “I was just trying to pay attention to a detail, so that if I survived…I’d be able to help the police catch him.”

Ronald Cotton was imprisoned for the rape of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.  Ronald was jailed and only later released when DNA testing was able to prove his innocence and found the real perpetrator Bobby Pool.  Ronald had spent 10 years in prison.  Ronald and Jennifer have met and now campaign about wrongful convictions and eyewitness procedures.

Memory paradigms.

Loftus is most famous for creating a method of studying the impact of false memories by providing leading questions or misinformation.  The paradigm involves an event, post-event activity and then a recall test.   The early Loftus studies were criticised for lacking ecological validity due to their artificial environment but similar findings are present in field studies of soldiers on stressful survival training.


The misinformation effect.

Perhaps the most controversial example in the lecture was the one about implanted memories of cult ritual child abuse.  There was a surge of reported cases of satanic ritual abuse in the 1990s but very little collaborative evidence.  Loftus suggests that one explanation for these memories might be that they have been planted or created by the leading questions and techniques of psychotherapy.  Some psychotherapists involved may have used some suggestive techniques such as guided imagery, sexualised dream analysis, hypnosis and exposure to false information, all of which had the same effect as Loftus’ post-event activity and helped to embed a false memory about an experience of childhood satanic abuse.  Loftus is not questioning the existence of the dark side of family life or indeed the significant experiences of victims of childhood abuse but she is merely interested in explaining this specific case study and phenomenon.  When the police and social services investigated these cases, they could find no evidence of the cult or abuse.  So where did the idea come from?

Loftus set about designing a range of experiments on children to prove how a traumatic life event could be falsely implanted into their memories.  She used the same techniques that might be used in psychotherapy.  Once she had overcome the ethics committee, she managed to prove this type of memory could be successfully implanted in a range of scenarios.

A)  25% children convinced they were lost in a supermarket and had to be rescued.

B) 33% convinced they nearly drowned.

C) 50% they were attacked by an animal.

D) 30% they had witnessed a demonic possession.

E) 30% they had committed a crime.

Consequences of false memory.

Loftus leaves us to ponder the moral and ethical implications of this new mind technology.  If planting false memories is so easy – could, should it be used for good.  Could we plant memories that certain foods make you sick or that other foods make you feel warm and fuzzy.

This section made me think of the film eternal sunshine of the spotless mind that imagines a future where one can have painful memories replaced.

As psychologists, we cannot distinguish between true and false memories, participants display the same emotions and have similar brain scans.  Memory distortion seems just as likely in people with superior memories than those with normal memory ability.  Sleep deprivation makes us more susceptible to false memories.  We also suffer from memory blindness, whereby once we have a false memory implanted we do not remember the previous memory.

Memory like liberty is a fragile thing.




Loftus autobiography AnnualReview2017