Cognitive Column - June 2014

Our self perceptions, sense of self-worth and so on are very much defined by our memories. They are the sort of thing that make us reluctant to act out of character – “That’s not the kind of person I am.” One theory of posttraumatic stress disorder (that disturbing condition that can follow a severe trauma, leading to repeated ‘flashbacks’ of the event) is that the memory cannot be fitted neatly among the rest of our autobiographical memories; it simply does not map onto anything we’ve ever experienced before. In contrast, recalling happy memories increases our sense of wellbeing. A very long time ago the American psychologist Danny Kahneman carried out an experiment on university students. He asked them two questions – “How happy do you feel right now,” and “How many dates have you been on in the last week?” (Do people actually use the term ‘date’ any more?) Kahneman found that the happiness rating was higher if the date question was asked first, presumably because it got people remembering a nice occasion before being asked to consider how happy they felt.

In response to a request from the Orange telephone company, I once did something of the Kahneman sort. At that time mobile phones had started to have cameras, but they didn’t have a great deal of storage capacity, so couldn’t hold too many pictures. Long before the ‘Cloud’ idea, Orange decided to let their customers upload photos to a personal space, from which they could view them at any time. The company wanted to be able to claim that this would make people happier. To test the idea we asked a lot of people from an office block to bring personal photos to work. At the end of the afternoon, just after work, they were divided into three groups; one set sat and drank a glass or two of wine, another ate chocolates and members of the third were asked to spend a little while looking at their pictures. After about ten minutes all the people were asked to complete a wellbeing questionnaire and, better even than wine or chocolate, it was looking at pictures of their friends, family and holidays that made them feel really good. As social animals, I think it is memory of pleasant interaction with our fellows that makes us feel especially content; it confers a sense of belonging. In our early evolution it would have been valuable if a sense of wellbeing was engendered by being safe within the group and, correspondingly, if unease was experienced by an individual who became separated and alone.

Many organisations foster a feeling of belonging, the military being an obvious example; a strong sense of camaraderie helps to weld a powerful fighting force. Even when the organisation is as large and amorphous as a nation, the ‘belonging’ feeling is important, at least for many people. This must be a large factor in the UKIP phenomenon. Because it is politically correct to do so, they dress up their message as a case of protecting British jobs and services (and for some people this may genuinely be all that matters) but for many there will be a fear of outsiders joining our group – xenophobia. It seems to me that this must almost certainly be a natural response, to which we are genetically predisposed. Of course, this is no excuse for displaying such prejudices. For anyone who considers themselves educated and civilised, racism must be on the list of instincts that, although ‘natural’, will not be countenanced.

So, back to happy memories. The OU has been a source of good ones for so many students, and has certainly given a sense of community to its alumni. Within that throng there is a very special place for those who have been involved with OUPS; this edition of the Newsletter bears witness to the wealth of happy memories the organisation has given us in its forty years. For distance learners, so many memories will be of slogging away alone, but OUPS has been the vehicle for that so-important element of human interaction. In a small way I tried to foster that when I first started writing this Column. It occurred to me that, unlike students in a conventional university, our budding psychologists had no idea of what went on in their Psychology Department; I set about telling them. As longer-term readers (who display remarkable resilience) will know, I soon ran out of anything fresh to say, so began to cast my net rather more widely. The rest, as they say, is history, but I had better say a few things about my own OU/OUPS history, just to stick with the theme of the Newsletter.

Sadly, I can’t claim to have been there at the inception of OUPS – I came on the scene just a few years later. I was in Oxford, researching for my doctorate, when I first got to know both the OU and its Psychology Society. A friend had alerted me to the possibility of being a Summer School tutor, so I applied and was accepted. My very first week was teaching on the introductory level Psychology course (DS261 in those days) at Warwick. My Course Director was a Portuguese lady, Manuela D’Oliveira, who, together with her husband, had fled to England to escape the totalitarian regime at home. (The Psychology Department lost an excellent member of staff when, following the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of the Seventies, it was safe for the couple to return to Portugal.) At about the same time as I was starting my very long association with residential schools, I was contacted by the OUPS President, the redoubtable Lilli. She wanted me to come and speak at a conference in London and, if I remember correctly, it was at that first occasion that Donald Broadbent (theories of attention) was also speaking; he was at Oxford too, so we travelled down together.

Both OUPS invitations and Summer Schools continued, and both convinced me that the OU was an excellent organisation, with ideals that chimed with my own. Members of the Psychology Department soon became friends and eventually I began to write materials for the courses, build apparatus for Summer School and so on. I’d often ask whether they had any posts going, but they never did, or at least they didn’t at times when I would have been in a position to apply. Eventually, at a stage when I was feeling particularly disenchanted with my then job, the OU advertised for a Psychologist. This was another rest-is-history turning point and at long last I became a ‘real’ OU person. As an insider I was especially useful to OUPS when putting together a teaching team for the Revision Weekend, so that became as regular a feature of my year as going to Summer School. Both provided me with something very special – the chance to interact with students. It’s all too easy for Milton Keynes-based staff to forget quite what students are like, what they need, what sorts of course material work for them, and so on. Perhaps it is in recognition of my enthusiasm for student contact that, even though I am now retired, the OU continues to recruit me for Summer School and OUPS still asks me to Revision Weekends. I am grateful to both.

I must conclude by returning to the idea of social grouping. I don’t think our ancestors came together merely because there was safety in numbers; it also permitted diversity among the group members. As long as the group could be kept safe through some of its members having physically strong, aggressive characteristics, it would be possible – indeed advantageous – for others to have had different strengths. Diversity is just as important in our own group. There are, of course, the leaders and organisers, planners and decision makers – the people without whom this enterprise could never have lasted forty years. These good people, past and present, have put in enormous amounts of time and energy, to keep the Society going. When they ask you, as they often do, to consider volunteering in some way, then you really should give it serious thought. Nevertheless, groups not only make diversity possible – they make it essential. Chiefs need Indians as much as Indians need Chiefs. So, if playing a more high profile role in OUPS isn’t really the kind of person you are, then don’t feel guilty. You are none the less essential, and you are the kind of person I love to meet, who for many decades has been contributing to my portfolio of happy, happy OUPS memories.

The very best Fortieth wishes to you all, and many, many happy returns!