On memory research + insider/outsider viewpoints

Understanding how memory works is a complex yet crucial endeavor in psychology, as it plays an crucial role in everyday life. Memory serves to preserve information by a series of processes (Miell, 2007):

  • encoding (putting information into memory)
  • storing (retaining information)
  • retrieval (getting information back out of memory)

By examining these processes (namely encoding and retrieval), cognitive studies shed light on different levels of analyses, including information-processing and memory construction. Several research methods exist; some psychologists ardently favor scientific and objective research based on experiments, whilst others prefer insider perspectives in the form of narratives and case studies. Each can operate independently, however benefits are apparent when a combination of both is used to obtain results. Experimental results can be enriched by insider viewpoints, and insider perspectives can be standardized for use in statistical analysis. Since there are myriad of ways to study memory, research in this area remains active and robust.

It is important to clarify the definitions of the outsider approach and the insider approach. In simple terms, outsider approaches measure people, whilst insider approaches understand them. Aside from functionality, memory unwittingly grants people a sense of self, which is why memory research plays such an important role in holistic psychological approaches and identity formation (Miell, 2007). This is ultimately a question of objectivity versus subjectivity, and both are equally important in psychology: the study (objective) of the soul (subjective) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2012). This essay will assess the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches in an attempt to gauge their contributions to memory research.

Introspection and reflection are very common in psychology. This subjective approach offers nuanced insight and acknowledges individual differences. At the same time, the data obtained from this approach lacks transferability due to variations that naturally occur between people. A great example of this is Marigold Linton. Linton(1982) conducted a pioneering diary study (a purely insider approach) (Miell, 2007). She recorded her activities and used this record to observe her own autobiographical memory over a six year period. Through this she yielded interesting results, such as discovering that her memory for events decreased annually by 5 per cent. Whilst her results that later coincided with similar results from fellow researchers (eg, Conway, 1996, as cited in Miell, 2007), there are several limitations with this kind of study.

The first limitation is precisely the fact that each individual marks the information that they personally have attended to. As attentional resources are limited (Kahneman, 1973) objectivity about the actual situation is ambiguous. Secondly, the very act of writing down the event may also aide future memory retrieval (Miell, 2007), thus skewing the results. Finally, according to Conway (1996), autobiographical memories are personal interpretations of events and inaccurate as a representation of past experience (Miell, 2007). This is further supported by Frederick Bartlett’s findings on the influence social factors have on memory; he stated current knowledge and past experiences shape how individuals make sense of material, a process known as ‘effort after meaning’ (Miell, 2007). As Bartlett suggested, insider perspectives may operate in a top-down manner which could influence the process of perception and memory, and thus our own expectations and knowledge of events and information (Miell, 2007).

This raises questions about the reliability of memory, which is the strongest rebuttal to a purely insider viewpoint. In a study by Loftus and Palmer (1974), Loftus observed the misinformation effect by asking participants leading questions. The results indicate that certain words triggered ‘memories’ that didn’t actually exist. Crombag et al (1996) yielded similar results regarding the Boeing 747 crash in The Netherlands (Miell, 2007). Even entire histories can be re-written (Gergen, 1999). Whilst this may be adverse in the long-term study of memory research, there are clear benefits to humanity in being able to do so. Rewriting collective memories in order to re-negotiate the past (Nuttall and Coetzee, 1998) can aide reconciliation efforts, and allow groups to start from a clean slate. As an idea, it subscribes to the concept of social constructionism (Miell, 2007). In other words, memory (and its pliability) is contingent upon a person’s sense of identity and how it changes over time.

Brown and Kulik (1977) challenge this idea of inconsistency with ‘flashbulb’ memory, where certain events evoke such deep emotions that the encoding that occurs during this time is extremely elaborative, and is therefore remembered with crystal clear accuracy. This is especially true if the autobiographical memory is highly significant to the viewer (Conway et al, 1994). As a result, whilst memory is indeed pliable, the theory of ‘flashbulb’ memory reminds psychologists that memory can be completely accurate (Miell, 2007), a theory that would remain unknown without both insider and outsider perspectives.

This combination of both perspectives is the crux of this essay. Whilst outsider viewpoints abound in memory research as they are easily measurable and objective, there are instances where a reflection of inner experiences could enrich the results. This next part is dedicated to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of outsider experiments, and how insider viewpoints could have been beneficial.

In an effort to understand the encoding process in memory, Martin Conway conducted a longitudinal study of twelve years on students who had just completed their cognitive psychology course in order to observe how long they would be able to retain information from said course (Conway et al, 1991, as cited in Miell, 2007). He found that certain types of information, such as concepts and ideas about the course, were retained for a longer period of time than others, such as names. In fact, during the first 3-4 years, when memories regarding the course started to decline, names declined more than any other kind of knowledge (Miell, 2007). According to the levels of processing theory (Craik and Longhart, 1972), how deeply information is engrained in memory relates to how long it is retained (Miell, 2007). Conway’s study implies that elaborative rehearsal is the reason why students were able to retain data in their long-term memory. It does not explain why names were easier to forget.

The encoding specificity principle was coined by Tulving (1975, 1983, as cited in Miell, 2007). It is based on the idea that retrieval of information from memory relies on cues that are available both upon encoding and at retrieval (Miell, 2007). If the retrieval cues share features with the memory that is being retrieved, Tulving found that it was possible to remember more (Miell, 2007). A good example of this might be recognizing a face (cue) and remembering the name (memory). Cues are any stimulus that can help people recall information from long-term memory; as a result, they vary from person to person. Seeking a deeper understanding of what makes some cues more salient than others requires an insider’s perspective, and may offer insight regarding their efficiency.

Furthermore, in order to understand memory endurance, Bahrick et al (1975, as cited in Miell, 2007) conducted a cross-sectional quasi-experimental study regarding classmate recognition with the use of old yearbooks. He designed several recognition and matching tests, and found that hardly any forgetting took place during the first 35 years after graduation. Bahrick argued that this was because the material being retrieved involved repeated learning, and had been acquired over a long period of time and with distributed practice (Miell, 2007). This study indicated that visual cues aide memory. Constant contact with classmates may also play a role; evidence suggests that conceptual principles of scientific texts become more embedded in memory if individuals are repeatedly exposed to them (Mayer, 1983, as cited in Miell, 2007). Differences between ‘remembering’ and ‘knowing’ (Tulving, 1985) are also acknowledged, however they are beyond the scope of this essay.

Repeated exposure to individuals could yield similar results, thereby the more frequent and meaningful interaction is between individuals, the more likely it is that they will remember each others names years later. In other words, each participant’s personal relationships could reflect the impact these relationships have on memory, and what makes some names easier to forget than others. Also, with regards to Mayer’s findings, whilst the results indicate that repeated exposure does improve understanding and therefore memory of the contents of the text, perhaps there still is a gap in determining the speed at which this happens and why. Individual interest in the subject matter may play a role in how quickly and effectively the text is encoded in memory.

Stevens (1988) discovered waitresses use visual imagery of the restaurants they work in to link orders to customers. Visual imagery is the basis for all mnemonic devices which is a technique used to enhance memory. However, this does not take into account the particular mnemonic devices each waitress uses, something which an insider viewpoint might clarify. Research on mnemonists by Wilding and Valentine (1994) indicates some participants had variations in memory strategies, whereas others had a ‘natural’ knack for remembering specific subject matters, and others a combination of the two. Advances in technology have given scientists a material link between the biology of the brain and visual imagery in the use of memory.

In a study of London taxi drivers, Maguire et al (1997) used positron emission tomography (PET) to brain-scan the drivers as they imagined the routes they were planning on taking. The scans revealed intense activity in the right hippocampus, something that did not occur occur otherwise (Miell, 2007). In a follow-up study, Maguire et al. (2000) was able to see physical differences in the hippocampal areas of taxi-drivers and control participants – the posterior hippocampal area of taxi-drivers was bigger as a result of an increase in the number of connections between nerve cells – a direct result from years of intense training (Miell, 2007). Without the PET scans, Mayer would have been unable to observe the plasticity of the brain and make inferences about cognitive function. This outsider perspective complimented the taxi drivers’ inner experience, indicating that as new skills are acquired, the brain adapts (Miell, 2007). In some cases, where memory has atypical function, this may be a hindrance to the human experience rather than a blessing (Luria,1969).

Neuropsychological case studies investigate memory deficits that arise from brain damage. Not only might functionality be reduced (outsider), but personality may also be affected (insider). This was discussed by Vargha-Khadem and her patient J. Forbes, who was unable to form ‘truly vivid memories with personal meaning for him‘ (Hippocampus Damage, 2012). She was able to show images of his brain via scans and his impaired hippocampus, which is responsible for storing and retrieving ‘all emotional and sensory aspects of an experience‘ (Hippocampus Damage, 2012). Without outsider observation from a biological perspective, and an insider account of what is happening to the patient, psychologists would be unable to determine the cause of John’s memory loss.

To conclude, studies regarding memory employ introspection, experimentation, and biological psychology to understand the cognitive processes involved. Examples have been given of how these approaches can be integrated, despite the differences between methods. There is an undeniable interplay between the insider and outsider perspectives, and new approaches endow current models with a greater variety of methodologies, thus empowering memory research.

- first submitted as an Open University coursework



“psychology  n.”  Online Etymology Dictionary, Edited by Douglas Harper, Douglas Harper 2012, 25 March 2012

“memory n.”  A Dictionary of Psychology, Edited by Andrew M. Colman, Oxford University Press 2009, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press, The Open University,  25 March 2012

Bahrick, H.P., Bahrick, P.O. and Wittlinger, R.P. (1975) ‘Fifty years of memory for names and faces: a cross-sectional approach’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol.104, 54–75.

Brown, R. and Kulik, J. (1977) ‘Flashbulb memories’, Cognition, vol.5, 73–99.

Conway, M.A., Cohen, G.M. and Stanhope, N. (1991) ‘On the very longterm retention of knowledge acquired through formal education: twelve years of cognitive psychology’, Journal of Experimental Psychology:General, vol.120, pp.395–409.

Conway, M.A., Anderson, S.J., Larsen, S.F., Donnelly, C.M., McDaniel, M.A., McClelland, A.G.R., Rawles, R.E. and Logie, R.H. (1994) ‘The formation of flashbulb memories’, Memory & Cognition, vol.22, 326–43.

Conway, M.A. (1996) ‘Autobiographical memory’, in Bjork E.L. And Bjork R.A. (eds) ‘Handbook of Perception and Cognition: Memory’, pp.165–94, Orlando, Fl, Academic Press.

Craik, F.I.M. and Lockhart, R.S. (1972) ‘Levels of processing: a framework for memory research’, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, vol.11, 671–84.

DSE212 Course team, (2007), Exploring Psychological Research Methods (2nd ed.), Milton Keynes, The Open University

Ebbinghaus, H. (1913) Memory (H.A.Ruger & C.E.Bussenius, Trans.), New York, Teachers College, (Paperback edn., New York, Dover, 1964).

Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction, London, Sage.

Godden, D. and Baddeley, A.D. (1980) ‘When does context influence recognition memory?’ British Journal of Psychology, vol.71, 99–104.

GU Press, 2012, Advances in Education, Cognition, and Deafness, [online], http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/AICEADforeword.html (accessed 26 March 2012)

Hippocampus Damage (2012), DSE212 Course video, added by Open University [online], http://learn.open.ac.uk/file.php/8107/focusclips/playlist.htm (accessed 25 March 2012)

Kahneman, D. (1973) Attention and Effort, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

Linton, M. (1982) ‘Transformations of memory in everyday life’, in Neisser, U. (ed.) Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, San Francisco, Freeman.

Linton, M. (1986) ‘Ways of searching and the contents of memory’, in Rubin, D.C. (ed.) Autobiographical Memory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal behaviour. 13: 585-9

Luria, A. (1969) Mind of the Mnemonist, London, Jonathon Cape.

Maguire, E.A., Frackowiak, R.S.J., and Frith, C.D. (1997) ‘Recalling routes around London: activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers’, Journal of Neuroscience, vol.17, 7103–10.

Maguire, E.A., Gadian, D.G., Johnsrude, I.S., Good, C.D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiack, R.S.J. and Frith, C.D. (2000) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) vol.97, pp.4398–403.

Mayer, R.E. (1983) ‘Can you repeat this? Qualitative effects of repetition and advanced organizers on learning from science prose’, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol.75, pp.40–9.

Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K. (2007) DSE212 Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Nuttall, S. and Coetzee, C. (eds) (1998) Negotiating the Past: The Making of memory in South Africa, Oxford University Press.

Stevens, J. (1988) ‘An activity approach to practical memory’, in Gruneberg, M.M., Morris, P.E., and Sykes, R.N. (eds) Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, Vol.1: Memory in Everyday Life, Chichester,Wiley, pp.335–41.

Tulving, E. (1975) ‘Ecphoric processing in recall and recognition’, in Brown, J. (ed.) Recall and Recognition, London, Wiley.

Tulving, E. (1983) Elements of Episodic Memory, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Tulving, E. (1985) ‘How many memory systems are there?’, American Psychologist, vol.40, pp.385–98

Wilding, J. and Valentine, E. (1994) ‘Memory champions’, British Journal of Psychology, vol.85, pp.231–44

Vargha-Khadem, E., Gadian, D.G., Watkins, K.E., Connelly A., Vann Paesschon, W. and Mishkin, M. (1997) ‘Differential effects of early hippocampal pathology on episodic and semantic memory’, Science, vol.277, pp.376–9.

On observing the brain + Phineas Gage

The bridge between biology and psychology has often been the subject of frequent debate, with staunch positions taken all along the nurture-versus-nature spectrum, and subsequently explored. Whilst evidence in support of either extreme is inconclusive, the majority of psychologists deny the determinism of biology or environment alone, and as a result opt to explore the interactions between the two. We will explore the many ways we can learn about the relationship between the brain and behavior from a biological psychologist perspective by looking at a variety of processes, ranging from modern methods which apply the latest discoveries in technology and biology to Phineas Gage and perhaps one of the most famous accidents in history. This essay will be split into roughly three parts- accidental, invasive, and non-invasive techniques used to observe the relationship between biology and psychology, as well as their limitations.

Accidental Approaches

In 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage became a victim of an explosion whilst constructing a new railway line in Vermont (Miell, 2007). A miraculous survivor of this accident, he nevertheless suffered serious injury-an iron bar with a diameter of 3cm passed straight through his brain, thus damaging his prefrontal lobe (Macmillan, 1986; Damasio, 1996, as cited in Miell, 2007). There was virtually no impact to his motor skills, his language capabilities, or his intelligence. However, Gage’s personality changed drastically and he became rude, aggressive, and impulsive (but apparently, only temporarily). By observing this change in behavior, psychologists could speculate that this region was responsible for inhibiting emotional responses, a speculation that has been verified with the use of modern techniques. Today we can observe how the prefrontal cortex responds through the use of brain imaging, a method which will be discussed later in the Non-Invasive Technique section below.

The case of Phineas Gage gave psychologists a unique opportunity to observe the effects of damage of the brain both before and after the accident. However, this presents several limitations. First, their uniqueness is in itself a problem-such “neat” examples of lesions are few and far between, and in most cases, they affect several parts of the brain at once. Second, it is impossible to create a control group to compare and contrast the effects of said damage between peers. Third, the plasticity of the brain allows for new communication between neurons to be formed. This means that whilst one part of the brain suffers damage, it is possible for another part to “take over”, thus creating obstacles regarding what the damage is whilst also offering hope for restoration in specific cases of accidental injury, whether it is external, e.g., a gunshot, or internal, e.g,. a blood clot. Perhaps this is why Phineas Ga

Invasive Approaches

Experimental lesions on non-human animals have been the source of controversy. Scientists have purposely damaged specific parts of the brain, known as a sham lesion, to investigate what effect this has had on the animal’s behavior, by comparing them to a control group (Miell, 2007). Animals have also been used in single unit recording. SUR is the monitoring of a single neuron in terms of its frequency in generating action potentials (Miell, 2007). This method allows us to understand our nervous system, however its implementation is quite controversial. Greene (1990, as cited in Miell. 2007) uses a diagram to indicate how a very fine microelectrode wire which connects an oscilloscope to a cat’s retinal ganglion cell to detect and measure activity. The process in itself is invasive – this means that the nervous system is disturbed by a piece of technology. The cat has been anesthetized to prevent movement. Whilst in theory the results of these methods would be interesting to explore, in reality, they bear severe ethical breaches. In extenuating circumstances, it might be possible to turn a blind eye to harming an animal, but it would never be acceptable for humans.

Brain surgery offers another interesting invasive approach. In 1969, Roger Sperry discovered that by severing the corpus callosum, a bundle of neurons which connect the two hemispheres of the brain together, epilepsy could be restrained. However, there was a major side affect: the integrity of the corpus callosum was imperative to learning, so whilst the patient appeared unchanged, he was unable to learn new things. These days, such extreme methods are discouraged at best. Brain surgery can be performed on conscious humans since the tips of the neurons in the brain are not sensitive to pain. (Miell, 2007) From this, we can find out many things about the brain, as discovered by Penfield and Rasmussen (1968, as cited in Miell, 2007). Whilst being operated on for the removal of diseased cerebral tissue, different people received electrical stimulation to different regions of the brain and asked to report what they felt in their conscious state. Several discoveries were made. For example, it was found that early memories arose when the temporal lobe was stimulated. Miell (2007) states that such evidence enables theories on the biological bases of memory to be produced. As these discoveries continued, psychologists were able to identify more links between the brain and behavior. For example, increases in the electrical activity in the neural systems of the brain that are associated with joy decrease stress in the systems associated with pain (Miell, 2007).

Non-Invasive Approaches

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) was mentioned earlier as brain scanning. Activity in the brain is indicated by an increased blood flow to one or more regions, and by the utilization of oxygen and glucose, which work as fuel. To observe this, a radioactive substance known as a tracer is injected into the blood stream (Myers, Spinks, Luthra, and Brooks, 1992) and then monitored. PET scans are incredibly helpful devices. They can show us how each brain region can be measured according to its respective activity level in normal everyday behavior, and then contrast it to the behavior of someone ill or injured or even mentally unstable-evidence suggests that criminals tend to have under-active frontal lobes (Raine, Buchsbaum, and LaCasse, 1997). They can spot irregularities, and also indicate methods of treatment depending on the results. Not least of all, they give psychologists the opportunity to observe whether they see an improvement in a patients therapy over time.


In summary, it is important to understand the relationship between the brain and behavior.. These techniques, while varied in both style and notoriety, illuminate the ways we can better understand ourselves and others. Biological psychology suggests that our emotional worlds are based on our nervous system, and are affected by disease, medication, and drugs. Whilst it is clear that our bodies provide the foundation, there are still many questions unanswered. People are nuanced – medications have different effects on different people. Some merely need the illusion of drugs to feel better – aka the placebo effect (Wall, 1993). Why these differences occur is still unknown, and biological psychologists are insatiably curious to explore them.

- first submitted as an Open University coursework

**Wanna see how Phineas Gage’s post-mortem neuroportraits have evolved over time?



Damasio, A.R. (1996) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, London, Papermac

Greene, J. (1990), ‘Perception’, in Roth, I. (ed.) Introduction to Psychology, Volume 2, East Sussex, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates/The Open University

Macmillan, M.B. (1986), ‘A wonderful journey through skull and brains: The travels of Mr. Gage’s tamping iron’, Brain and Cognition, vol. 5, pp67-107

Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K. (2007) DSE212 Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Myers, R., Spinks, T.J., Luthra, S.K., and Brooks, D.J., (1992) ‘Positron-emission tomography’, in Stewart, M. (ed.) Quantitative Methods in Neuroanatomy, Chichester, Wiley

Penfield, W. and Rasmussen, T. (1968) The Cerebral Cortex of Man, New York, Hafner Publishing

Raine, A., Buchsbaum, M., and LaCasse, L. (1997) ‘Brain abnormalities in murderers indicated by positron emission tomography’, Biological Psychiatry, vol. 42, pp. 495-508

Sperry, R.W. (1969) ‘Hemisphere deconnection and unity in conscious awareness’, American Psychologist, vol. 23, pp 723-33

Wall, P.D. (1993) ‘Pain and the Placebo Response’, in Bock, G.R., and Marsh, J. (eds) Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Consciousness, Chichester, New York, Wiley

On trait theory vs personal construct theory

When it comes to theories of personality, perception is reality. Whilst some argue that research into personality says something about the way in which people are perceived, others argue the existence of a trait structure that is responsible for behavior. The usefulness of both approaches will be compared and contrasted in this essay. This essay will explore this idea first by defining Trait Theory and Personal Construct Theory in terms of how an individual person is conceptualized, and then identify exactly what each aims to achieve, primarily through the research and work of Eysenck and Rachman (1965) and Salmon (2003), respectively. Next, the methodologies used in each approach (Eysenck Personality Inventory – EPI, repertory grid technique, ‘Salmon’ line) will be described, whereby the advantages and disadvantages of each theory’s aims and methods will be discussed. In doing so, this essay will conclude by recognizing the complementary nature of both approaches, despite inherent differences.

Trait theory labels individuals according to traits, which are defined as key characteristics that distinguish one individual from another. An example of a significant trait is extroversion, which is measured along an introversion-extroversion spectrum. According to Eysenck and Rachman a ‘typical’ introvert would be a quiet, calm, reserved person, as opposed to a ‘typical’ extrovert, who would be loud, outgoing, and sociable (Eysenck and Rachman, as cited in Butt, 2012). They argue that where an individual would fall on the introversion-extroversion continuum, or on the neuroticism-stability continuum, occurs as a result of differences in individual physiology, specifically in cortical and autonomic arousal (Butt, 2012). It is interesting to note here that Eysenck and Rachman introduce and recognize the presence of an organism (the human) within the traditional behaviorist stimulus-response paradigm, thereby creating a causal link between an organism and its environment that will be discussed further below. Their results also indicate that most people rarely fall into either extreme and tend to mediate towards the center of each respective spectrum. Trait theory is a very popular approach to personality as it appeals to people’s need for clarity and consistency when it comes to individual behavior. In other words, it attempts to explain how two different individuals could have a distinctly opposite impression of the same event (Butt, 2012). According to Eysenck and Rachman, the primary aim of this approach is that personality is fixed and that individuals behave within given norms (Butt, 2012).

However, trait theory is not without its flaws. For one, it is argued that traits merely act as labels rather than as explanations for behavior. For example, describing an individual as ‘aggressive’ does not explain his aggression (Butt, 2012). Furthermore, issues arise around the assumption that personality is stable and consistent, a criticism observed by Walter Mischel (1968, as cited in Butt, 2012). He claims that ‘the attribution of dispositions reflects the perceptual prejudices of raters, who draw on culturally shared trait theory to frame their observations’ (Butt, 2012, p. 53). It is important to recognize here the apparent situated knowledge in this context, as the western concept of an individual being separate from society varies greatly from culture to culture. Mischel claimed that that personality differences occur as a result of the observers own cultural and social experiences that shape their psychological reality and subsequently become reflected projections of their on experiences. This idea is strongly rooted in the phenomenological approach favored by Butt (2012) and is the foundation of Personal Construct Theory.

Personal Construct Theory, developed by George Kelly, challenges the assumption that personality is fixed by positing instead that an individual develops an internal understand of the world based in individual perceptions, as per the phenomenological approach, and which attempts to capture the richness of an individual’s experience (Butt, 2012). Phillida Salmon explored this idea in the context of teaching and learning. By quashing the notion that knowledge comes in a pre-packaged format, she argued that knowledge is temporary and susceptible to change, where ‘learning is the shifting of meanings’ (Open University, 2014). She further discusses the inherent risks of taking on new forms in knowledge as threats to a valued identity. For example, some children may avoid taking up the language of the curriculum for that very reason (Salmon, as cited in Butt, 2012). If trait theory is interested in defining norms, personal constructivism focuses on capturing the richness of each individual’s experience by recognizing the way each person interprets the world subject to their environment. As mentioned above, both trait theory and personal construct theory recognize a disruption within the stimulus-response paradigm in the form of an organism; however their key difference lies in understanding (personal construct theory) versus scientific explanation (trait theory) (Butt, 2012). The heart of each theory lies in its methodology, which will be described below.

Eysenck and Rachman’s approach is scientific and attempts to predict behavior within certain situations by the use of questionnaires designed to measure extraversion, introversion, neuroticism, and others, such as the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) which, as the name suggests, they devised. These scales enable the scientists to compare the scores across different individuals and groups, and are used consistently in the field of occupational psychology to identify and predict behavior in an occupational setting.

Contrarily, the approach used by Kelly (1955, as cited in Butt, 2012), and later enhanced by Salmon (2003, as cited in Butt, 2012) features understanding rather than defining an individual’s behavior and perhaps attempting to change it. George Kelly applied the repertory grid technique, which attempts to ‘make personal meanings more available to reflection and to help the individual articulate their bases for action’ (OU Website, 2014). In other words, it enables researches to understand how an individual perceives the social world. Salmon refined this technique with the use of the Salmon Line, which creates a line of best fit as represented by the individual to reflect their own personal meaning. These methods would be especially useful in a clinical context, where change is the desired outcome.

It is interesting to remark at this point that even though Salmon takes a firm stance in personal construct theory, she also recognizes people’s need to hold on to their valued identities – ‘after all, a lot is at stake here. Each of us has a great deal invested in our constructions; they do not represent some detached and idle intellectual exercise’ (Butt, 2012, p.55). In other words, she recognizes the importance of black-and-white identity to an individual over the gray of the organism and its environment, the same way that Eysenck and Rachman recognized that most individuals fall in the gray zone of their trait spectrums, being neither perfectly extrovert or introvert, for example.

Trait theory is a scientific approach that objectively measures personality, and assumes it is fixed. Personal Construct theory applies a subjective approach and assumes personality is ‘rich’ and subject to knowledge and context. However, taking the previous paragraph into consideration, one could argue that both theories are opposite sides of the same coin.

- first submitted as an Open University coursework



Butt, T. (2012), ‘Chapter 3: Individual Differences’ in Landridge, D., Mahendran, K., and Taylor, S. (eds), Critical Readings in Social Psychology Book 2, Milton Keynes, UK, The Open University, pp 45-64

Open University Module Website, 2014

On the place of anonymity in theories of crowd behavior + associations with ‘loss of self’

Anonymity shapes crowd behavior’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 3). The definition of anonymity is subject to the theory applied to it. This purpose of this essay is twofold. First, it aims to illustrate the role of anonymity in deindividuation theories. This will be done by discussing deindividuation theory in relation to outcome measures such as aggression and contagion, starting by the introducing the ‘father’ of crowd psychology, Gustav Le Bon, and work of his “successors” by considering concepts such as ‘group mind’ and diffusion of responsibility, concepts which both lend themselves seamlessly to a ‘loss of self’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg. 13). Second, it aims to contrast deindividuation theory with Social Identity Theory (SIT) which counters the idea of ‘loss of self’ with a shift of individuals towards social identity. This will create a framework for exploring alternative views of contagion by introducing inductive categorization as well as recognizing the positive effects of social cohesion. By comparing and contrasting the perspectives on the St Paul’s riots (Reicher, 1984), and that of Liverpool FC fans (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012), it will become evident that perhaps there is some misunderstanding about what motivates a crowd, whereby power relations will briefly be discussed. It will conclude by recognizing the usefulness and benefits in engaging and harnessing both SIT and deindividuation theory for both social psychology and society in general.

Le Bon (1896) stipulated that the basic feature of the crowd was anonymity, defining it as being ‘one among many’. According to his observations, this feature made people ‘less accountable for their actions’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 5) and facilitated specific key processes within crowds, including ‘group mind’, primitive instincts, and contagion. However, his views were biased according to his perspective that crowds were a threat to social order, and lacking in evidence as he himself was never part of a crowd. Furthermore, social psychologists struggled to accept the claim of ‘group mind’ as a result of vagueness and lack of supporting evidence.

Despite these criticisms, his work laid the foundation for further research. In particular, most social psychologists agree that the ‘experience of being in a large group can alter individual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 6). This idea allowed Festinger, Pepitone, and Newcomb (1962, as cited in Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg. 6) to propose a new concept: deindividuation.

According to Festinger et al. (1962), deindividuation is defined as ‘a process of immersion within a group such that members cease to view themselves as separate and distinct individuals’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). Drawing parallels to Le Bon’s work, Festinger et al. (1962) postulate anonymity arises as a result of group immersion, shifting group member perceptions that ‘they are being personally noticed and evaluated-which leads to disinhibited, impulsive behavior’ depending on the situation.

According to Diener’s research (1980), anonymity is a key input, along with arousal, external focus, and group cohesion, which leads to deindividuation. Deindividuation can be defined as consisting of a loss of self, as well as a decreased concern for social evaluation and a diffusion of responsibility. This, in turn, results in aggression, responsiveness to immediate surroundings, distorted perception, and impulsive, irrational behavior (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). The most important thing to note here is that anonymity alone does not lead to deindividuation. For example, if a bank robber wears a mask, he is anonymous to the world around him; however he will also be aware of his individual actions (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). Therefore, deindividuation only occurs when anonymity ‘deflects individuals’ attention away from the self’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 7).

It is interesting to compare this to Zimbardo’s findings (1969). In researching the relationship between anonymity and aggression, he found that the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 7) meant that individuals feel ‘lost’ in groups, and that they also feel less personal responsibility for any action taken within that group. By deflecting their attention away from themselves, they behave as though their moral responsibility is distributed evenly throughout the group and the likeliness of ‘individual acts of violence’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg. 7) increases. This does not mean Zimbardo’s argument of ‘diffusion of responsibility’ mediates the relationship between anonymity and aggression.

In a study on the effects of crowds on ‘contagious laughter’, Freedman and Perlick (1979) found that participants laughed most in the high density condition, i.e., in the presence of many other people. They found that Le Bon’s ‘contagion’ is more likely in such conditions. In other words, the mood and behavior of one person is more likely to spread. This indicates that ‘cues embedded within a particular social context’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 10) determine whether anonymity will produce negative behavior. Johnson and Downing (1979) replicated one of Zimbardo’s experiments to illustrate this. Participants were dressed in either Ku-Klux Klan robes or nurses uniforms. Reflecting on Zimbardo’s results (1969), it’s not surprising that participants dressed anonymously in Ku-Klux Klan robes administered shocks more aggressively. However, the fact that participants in the nurse uniform were significantly less aggressive is compelling, and underlines the notion that anonymity does not ‘lead automatically to negative behavior’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 10). Drawing further conclusions, Johnson and Downing (1979) noted that the participants dressed as nurses adopted a more compassionate role ‘in line with the specific nature of that social identity’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 10), thereby indicating a ‘uniformity of behavior, feelings and thoughts’ as identified by Postmes and Spears (1998, as cited in Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 11) rather than a ‘disregard for social rules’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 10) as per deindividuation.

Postmes and Spears (1998) also found it difficult to isolate and measure deindividuation. In general though, there have been quite a few grievances with deindividuation theory, such as outsider perspective which fails to attempt to discern rational ‘meanings of mass behavior as formulated by members within the crowd itself (Reicher, 2001), over emphasis on the negative consequences of crowds, and the inability to fully tie existing evidence to ‘anti-normative’ crowd behavior (Postmes and Spears, 1998).

A welcome antithesis to this approach is SIT, by Tafjel and Turner (1979), a ‘general framework for understanding intergroup relations’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 13). It has been extended by several social psychologists to explain crowd behavior and to dissolve the negative connotations often associated with crowds by drawing attention to the role crowds play in catalyzing positive social change, e.g., challenging social injustices, empowering communities, expressing collective values. Social Identity theorists argue that ‘rather than experiencing deindividuation (or loss of self) individuals in crowds often act in terms of their social identity’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 13). Social identity infers shared social norms, and whilst crowd action is to a certain extent spontaneous, it is not necessarily a manic, overpowering force.

Fans united by their love of the Liverpool FC and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” does not seem like a loss of self as characterized by deindividuation. Individual personality, rationale, and separation from others cannot exist in a social vacuum, whereas, in reality, how we define ourselves ‘derives from our sense of belonging to particular groups’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 13).

Dixon and Mahendran (2012) point out that from moment to moment, the crowd goes from complete silence to singing in unison. The authors argue that the conformity demonstrated by the crowd reflects the social norms associated with identifying oneself as a Liverpool FC fan by the group and thereby being motivated to behave accordingly (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). In this instance, once one fan starts singing, the group views him as prototypical and takes it as a ‘normative cue’ of how they should be behaving and follow suit, thereby responding in a way that is ‘emergent, spontaneous, and yet socially coordinated’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012 , pg 14). This behavior of following suit is known as inductive categorization, and it differs from contagion as it does not reflect an instinctive response. If a rival team player (outgroup) started singing, it would be very unlikely that any Liverpool FC fans (ingroup) would join in.

Conformity, then, depends on how fans categorize themselves and others, how strongly they identify within the ingroup, and how they understand wider patterns of intergroup relations.” (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012 pg 14)

Reicher (1984) captured the key elements of the SIT perspective on crowd behavior. By studying the St Paul’s riots, he found that the rioters had specific targets (the police, aka symbols of authority), action only occurred within a specific locale, and the rioters themselves viewed the event as ‘a positive and legitimate response to police aggression’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, pg 15). This contradicted entirely the outsider perspective of the popular press (discursive) at the time, which portrayed the crowd using ‘pejorative’ words (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). Reicher’s (1984) results demonstrate how collective behavior helps to express a group’s shared sense of ‘we’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

At this point, it is important to note that both theories are useful to social psychologists, as they allow them to wield both SIT and deindividuation theory according to prevailing needs, either by understanding the perspective of a member of the crowd as per Reicher (1984, as cited in Dixon and Mahendran, 2012), or by implementing crowd control policies as an outsider, as per Le Bon (1986, as cited in Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). It is precisely at this crux that psychologists must question the power relations between firstly, the individual and the group, and secondly, the group and the world at large. If these power relations are so powerful, it is important to discern where personal agency lies on the dualism continuum in social psychology (Hollway, 2012). Perhaps this continuum should be observed as a paradigm for communication reflecting group norms, rather than as that of an oppressor and the oppressed.

Having reviewed the role of anonymity in crowd behavior theories, SIT and deindividuation theory look at anonymity as two sides of the same coin. By understanding the power of the individual within the group, as well as the power of the group itself, it becomes useful to engage with both theories according to prevalent needs. “Psychological research on crowd behavior illustrates the intimate connections between scientific knowledge, political values, and wider relations of power and resistance.” (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012)

- first submitted as an Open University coursework



Diener, E. (1980) ‘Deindividuation : the absence of self-awareness and self-regulation in group members’ in Paulus P.B. (ed.), The Psychology of Group Influence, pp 209-242, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum

Dixon, J., and Mahendran, K. (2012) ‘Crowds’ in Social Psychology Matters: Book 1, 2nd Edition, pp 1-27, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Festinger, L., Pepitone, A., and Newcomb, T. (1952), ‘Some consequences of de-individuation in a group’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 47, pp 382-9

Freedman, J.L. and Perlick, D. (1979) ‘Crowding, contagion, and laughter’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 1, pp 295-303

Hollway, W. (2012) ‘Social psychology: past and present’ in Social Psychology Matters: Book 1, 2nd Edition, pp 28-58, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Le Bon, G. (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, New York, Macmillan

Postmes, T. and Spears, R. (1998) ‘Deindividuation and anti-normative behavior: a meta-analysis’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 123, pp 238-59

Prentice-Dunn, S. and Rogers, R.W. (1982) ‘Effects of public and private self-awareness on deindividuation and aggression’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 43, pp 503-13

Reicher, S.D. (1984) ‘The St Paul’s Riot: an explanation of the limits of crowd action in terms of a social identity model’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 14, pp 1-21

Reicher, S. (2011) ‘You can’t explain something when you don’t know what it is’, Interview with Steve Reicher in The Psychologist, October, pp 723-5

Zimbardo, P.G. (1969) ‘The human choice: individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse and chaos’ in Arnold, W.J. and Levine, D. (eds) (1969) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, vol. 17, pp 237-307

On how adult personal development is affected by significant others – a thematic analysis


This study examines how adults perceive the impact that significant others, in other words those most important to them, have on their personal development. More specifically, it explores the argument that despite attachment issues derived from childhood, an individual can achieve ‘earned security’ later in life. A qualitative, textual analysis was carried out on a filmed, edited, and dramatized version of a pre-existing interview regarding the participant’s earlier relationships and how she feels they affected her adult relationships. Thematic analysis indicated that despite difficult childhoods and the development of specific internal working models, ‘earned security’ is possible later in life.


Developmental psychology attempts to understand what factors influence how humans change over their lifespan and whether this is pre-determined. Attachment theory attempts to explore the nature of how people form and maintain strong enduring emotional bonds to a significant other; someone who means something to us, and to whom we mean something (Cooper, 2007). At its inception, it postulated the idea that children seek security by forming an emotional, affectional bond with a primary caregiver. (Bowlby, as cited in Cooper, 2007)

Bowlby’s views on attachment were found on Klein’s (as cited in Cooper, 2007) concept of an internal working model. This model is based on three components: a model of self, a model of the mother figure, and a model of the relationship, whereby the mother figure acts both as a ‘secure base’ and a source of comfort. (Cooper, 2007) Mary Ainsworth’s research offered further insight in attachment, and in 1954 she identified three attachment styles perceived in infants:   secure, insecure, and absent. These classifications were later verified in other adult attachment studies, such as Main(1984), Hazen and Shaver (1987). As will be explained later, often people do not neatly fall into any of these categories, nor do they stay in the same category throughout their life. Hence some studies apply trait approach where attachment style can lie along a range of combinations between two spectrums, such as approach-avoidance and autonomy-dependence (Bartholomew, 1990).

Ainsworth’s original three classifications were a result of a standardized set of episodes between a child, their mother, and a stranger in a laboratory known as the Strange Situation (Cooper, 2007). In this experiment, separations and reunions between mother and child were orchestrated by the researcher in order to assess each infant’s attachment style. Despite criticisms, the results regarding these three attachment types have been widely accepted as valid, and indicate how a child’s internal working model can operate. (Cooper, 2007) Evidence also suggests that intergenerational attachment also plays a role in determining SST. (van IJzendoorn, 1995)

A key issue in developmental psychology is whether childhood attachment styles shape our future relationships, and thus our adult attachment styles (Cooper, 2007). Two important assumptions here are that individuals tend to have a specific attachment style, and that these styles have been reaped from previous relationships (Cooper, 2007). Bowlby believed that the working model a child had formed was deterministic in his future relationships with other people – in which the model of ‘the mother figure’ (or primary caregiver) is replaced with ‘the other’ (Cooper, 2007). Specifically, his argument was that internal working models set certain behavioral expectations in the person, who will thus behave accordingly to his expectations. He also believed that adult mental health is contingent upon a ‘healthy’ internal working model (Cooper, 2007). Note that the term ‘healthy’ varies by culture. (Cooper, 2007)


The Bielefeld longitudinal study sought to research attachment style of individuals over an extended period of time. It employed the Strange Situation to examine whether the infant Strange Situation Type (SST) reflects the Adult Attachment Type (AAT) (Zimmerman et al, 2000). It also tracks major life events such as divorce, illness, and death. The results indicated that life events, particularly in childhood, played a much larger role in determining future behaviour and attachment style. However, Hamilton (1994) found that there was a strong correspondence between SST and AAT for children who had had a stable childhood, whether their attachment styles were secure or insecure. These results offer some support to the link between infant and adult attachment status, but life events can strongly influence attachment style, both positively and negatively.

Research into ‘earned security’ (Main and Goldwyn, 1984) indicates that certain factors, such as a good affectional relationships, a positive marital relationship (Rutter, Quinton, & Hill, 1990), and psychotherapy can instigate positive change. Likewise, negative events and relationships can have adverse effects. (Cooper, 2007) Additionally, contingent intimate relationships, either parental or romantic, where affection is conditional upon an ‘if-then’ clause, could be detrimental to subsequent relationships (Baldwin and Sinclair, 1996, as cited in Mendoza-Denton, 2012).

This study will look at the extent to which change in adult behaviour is possible, and whether an ‘earned secure’ status is possible in the context of the research question: How do adults perceive that significant others in their lives have affected their development? Studying attachment in adults has been made easy with the use of a standardized form of interview, as developed by Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985). By allowing people to describe their previous and current relationships with their parents, psychologists have discovered that this relationship is an important, core feature of their attachment style. (Cooper, 2007) This method will be prevalent in this study as a means of examining the research questions.


I analyzed pre-existing material: an edited dramatized semi-structured interview on DVD (The Open University, 2011) and a transcript with each line numbered in sequential order.

The participant is a 50 year old woman, Chloe, played by an actress. The video indicates that the interviewer (Helen Lucey) acted in accordance with the BPS Code of Ethics by gaining consent from the participant to use the interview material for the purpose of the research, in a dramatization to protect the participant’s identity. She was also offered the right to withdraw from the research at any time and properly briefed/debriefed. Helen asked open-ended questions about Chloe’s early relationships and how she believed they affected her future relationships.

To complete the analysis, I: (1) watched the video several to familiarize myself with the data whilst taking notes on the transcript print-out. Basic coding was used initially to identify key themes in terms of how Chloe has achieved ‘earned security’. I focused on the consistency of the data provided and its coherence. (2) I read the notes on the transcript of themes and ideas, and compiled them into smaller manageable categories. (3) I organized the themes to reflect ‘earned secure’ status achievement. The following major themes emerged: Sense of Self, Acceptance, and Freedom.


1. Sense of Self

By sense of self, I mean acknowledgement of a person’s personal wants and needs -this is how I intend to use the term here. Note that the word “need” occurs frequently throughout the text [lines 27, 30, 34, 35, 36, 89, 94, 96, 141, 143, 145, 151].

In her younger years, Chloe appears to have struggled with defining herself as a result of her mother’s needs after her father left:

And then when he left she just became really, really down and very, very needy. And I think I sort of tried to fill that gap somehow, and, umm, fill in for my dad and sort of be, be a grown-up.” [Lines 26-29]

The idea of Chloe as a separate being with needs was dismissed by her mother, whose own needs appeared too burdensome for Chloe, an idea made evident when Chloe uses the term “drama queen” (line 54) to describe her:

“… like if I was sad, she would be, pfff, you know, very dismissive about it…” [Lines 37-38]

Her role as a child was also eliminated as she took on the role of adult and caregiver:

I would sort of fix the plug, and so I sort of took on that ‘I’m a strong and helpful person role, and so I wasn’t sort of being little anymore” [lines 31-32]

Ostensibly, in her mind she had merged with her mother, even when she got married:

I felt like I was deserting her” [lines 111-112]

It was only after she chose to pursue a PhD [line 140] in her late twenties that she was able to start seeing her mother as “a separate person” [Line 145].


2. Acceptance

Despite longstanding difficulties, Chloe appears to have come to terms with her difficult childhood.

It was a long time to get to the point of feeling okay about it…” [line 127]

She is able to accept both her parents and see them as both beautiful and flawed human beings. Regarding her mother, Chloe recognizes that her mother loved her [line 44] as best as she could.

“…she was sort of like really well developed in some areas and other things… didn’t have a clue.” [lines 51-52]

Regarding her father, Chloe recognizes both his shortcomings and his positive actions, i.e., welcoming her into his new family [line 73].

“… he’s just a bloke and he’s okay and umm he does the best he can and he’s not very sure of himself…” [Lines 83-84]

She is also able to humorously identify past disappointments:

“…and from this wonderful person that I decided he must be… it was a bit of a disappointment to find out who he actually was.” [Lines 64-66]

And particularly with her father, she acknowledges and reconciles the fact that her own needs were not met:

“So it’s not like he’s become necessarily what I need or what I would like, but he just is like he is, and that’s… sort of normal and okay.” [Lines 87-90]

Most importantly, however, she seems to have relinquished expectations of what her relationships should be like. Initially she expected things from her relationships that she would have wanted from her father:

Expecting someone to be perfect and marvelous and to understand you and if you need something … they’re gonna know before even you know you need it… and it isn’t really like that.” [lines 92-97]


3. Freedom

Another leitmotif that is pronounced throughout the entire interview regards the concept of space and limitation. Variations of each term are frequently dispersed throughout the text. Examples include “space” [lines 152x2, 156], “fill the gap” [lines 28], “close” [lines 128,130,131,133], “interwoven” [line129], “tied” [lines 129], “link” [lines 22,130,133], “away” [lines 110, 141, 143], “separate” [lines 145,146].

Ultimately, she felt as though she did not have the freedom to express her needs:

“…and there wasn’t really much room for me…” [Line 34]

This idea features especially regarding her relationships with her mother who didn’t really like it if Chloe “was happy and she didn’t really want me to be miserable either” [line 108], mentioned again on line 132.

She felt that permission was required to have feelings, and it seems as though she sought out her father to get approval:

 “My image of him… he loved me in… a very accepting way… I could be sad or happy … and he would love me.” [Line 66-69]

Throughout her life, she starts taking responsibility in her choices and from that she gains freedom, again made clear when she pursues her PhD [line 142]. She relinquishes the responsibility for her mother’s happiness by gaining space [lines 155-159]. Yet, she arguably still struggles to accept her own emotional needs, something she might still continue to seek from a significant other. The description of her current relationship seems to leave room for interpretation:

“I feel like I’m allowed more, more feelings.” [Lines 121-122]

Is she still seeking permission to have feelings, or has she given herself freedom to have these emotions and subsequently finds a new relationship that reflects this?



At the end of the analysis above, I question whether Chloe has completely overcome past behaviour. Clearly, Chloe has overcome a great deal, however the source of this change is unclear. According to current ‘earned secure’ research, good relationships and psychotherapy tend to be the cause of this change (Main et al., 1984; Rutter et al., 1990). Chloe’s first marriage ended in divorce [line 100], and she feels that in her current relationship, she is “allowed” to have more feelings [line 121-122]. This is clearly a miscommunication that affected Chloe’s inadequate internal working model (Bretherton, 1997), as indicated by her depression after her first marriage [line 105]. Despite pursuing a career as a therapist, there is no mention of her having undergone therapy herself. Hence, it is unclear whether this relationship is by-product of real change in her security status. However, this does not diminish her greater feelings of freedom to pursue better relationships.

In accordance with Main’s narrative styles (1984), Chloe demonstrates an ability to acknowledge her past relationships and richly describe past and present attachments, implying that her attachment style is now secure. However, this is contrary to hesitation (“umm”), pauses, and repetition apparent in her speech- this could mean that she is transition from an enmeshed (insecure) status to a secure one.

The expectations she had of her father and the interplay she expected are in line with current attachment theory (Cooper, 2007). It’s interesting that she didn’t seem to have these expectations of her mother, and how readily she took on the role of caregiver. As Ainsworth (1989) argues, this role reversal creates difficulties in the child. As per cross-generational attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1989) AAT can be passed on from mother to child, perhaps Chloe’s mother too had insecure attachment style which was made even more obvious upon her father’s departure. I would have like to ask more questions regarding why this happened, especially since her father was so welcoming upon his daughter’s arrival.

In her childhood she seemed to either try to fill the gap her father had left for her mother or merge with her mother entirely, indicating an enmeshed attachment style (Main, 1984). The first indication of her trying to separate from her mother was when she pursued her PhD. I wonder whether her career progress is also related to her father. She was an academic since her late twenties, and only recently decided to pursue a more nurturing career as a therapist, a job which takes on the role of caregiver (Bowlby, 1988). Perhaps this is a result of skills acquired in her youth when she was taking care of her mother.

In fact, upon compilation of her timeline, there is no mention of her life before age 8, when her father left. Her father is absent during her teens, and arguably she is enmeshed with her mother. It would be interesting to see if she had a rebellious phase. Her father reappears “sixteen years later” at age 24, for a brief period, after which she decided to pursue a PhD. This is the first connection I can see between herself and her father. She also marries and divorces during her twenties. There is no mention of any significant relationships in her 30s. Her father is frequently present in her 40s, where she’s found an arguably healthy relationship and is also changing careers. I am sure there is a connection, but I’m not sure what it is. Given the opportunity to interview Chloe again, I would like to explore her motivations behind her career choices, as well as find out about significant relationships she had in the years she has not mentioned.

Finally, it’s interesting how Chloe makes no mention of friends at all, and how she skims over her new family, given their importance in attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1989). I question whether she’s avoiding discussing her relationship to siblings and father’s new wife, or whether she’s skimming over them as she believes they are unimportant. I would like to ask questions about those relationships as well.

- first submitted as an Open University coursework



Ainsworth, M.S. (1989), ‘Attachments Beyond Infancy’, American Psychologist, vol. 44 (4), pp 709-716

Ainsworth, M.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment,: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum.

Bartholomew, K. (1990) ‘Avoidance of intimacy: an attachment perspective’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol.7, no.2, pp.147–78.

Bretherton, I. (1997), ‘Bowlby’s Legacy to Developmental Psychology’, Child Psychiatry and Human Development, vol. 28 (1), pp 22-43

Cooper, T., and Roth, I. (2007) DSE212 Challenging Psychological Issues, Milton Keynes, The Open University

DSE212 Course team, (2007), Exploring Psychological Research Methods (2nd ed.), Milton Keynes, The Open University

Hazan, C. and Shaver, P. (1987) ‘Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.52, no.3, pp.511–24.

Kretchmar, M., Worsham, N., and Swenson, N. (2005), ‘Anna’s story: A qualitative analysis of an at-risk mother’s experience in an attachment-based foster care program’, vol 7(1), pp 31-49

Mendoza-Denton, R. (2012). Writers, and Parents: Show, Don’t Tell. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 18, 2012, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/are-we-born-racist/201204/writers-and-parents-show-dont-tell

Main, M. and Goldwyn, R. (1984) ‘Predicting rejection of her infant from mother’s representation of her own experience: implications for the abusedabusing intergenerational cycle’, Child Abuse and Neglect, vol.8, no.2, pp.203–17.

Main, M., Kaplan, N. and Cassidy, J. (1985) ‘Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: a move to the level of representation’, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, vol.50, pp.66–104.

Rutter, M., Quinton, D. and Hill, J. (1990) ‘Adult outcome of institution-reared children: males and females compared’, in Robins, L.N. and Rutter, M. (eds) Straight and Devious Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

The Open University. (2011) ‘Interview with Chloe’, DVD Program 4: Interviewing and Thematic Analysis [DVD-ROM]. Milton Keynes: The Open University

van Ijzendoorn, M. (1995) ‘Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: a meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview’, Psychological Bulletin, vol.117, no.3, pp.387–403.

Zimmerman, P., Becker-Stoll, F., Grossman, K., Grossman, K.E., Scheuerer- Englisch, H. and Wartner, U. (2000) ‘Longitudinal attachment development from infancy through adolescence’, Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht, vol.47, no.2, pp.99–117.

On building identity through communication

Understanding identity centers on the question: Who am I? Social constructionist theorists believe that all identities are social identities (Miell, 2007). We ‘build’ our identities around how we communicate; communication here implies both language and social interaction. This essay aims to explore the validity of this theory in context to social identity theory (SIT). SIT emphasizes the importance of social identity but simultaneously acknowledges personal identity as well (Tajfel, 1971). Language and social relations will be examined separately followed by a short conclusion.


In terms of communication, the way we speak and the words we use contribute to social construction. Language is crucial to this. According to Miell (2007), “when we talk or write, we actively construct ways of understanding things.” The same exact person can be seen either as a freedom fighter or as terrorist, based on perceptions of reality. The inverse might also be true. For example, why not replace the word ‘love’ with ‘cheese’? As words, they only take on value based on the meaning we assign to them. So what we say, and its meaning, contributes to our identities.

Furthermore, this varies greatly between cultures in terms of language, tone, vocabulary, and non-verbal cues. This is especially evident when considering Smith and Bond’s 1998 study on social psychology across cultures (pg. 73, Miell, 2007). They found that responses to the Twenty Statements Test could indicate the social inclinations of a country’s people, i.e., whether they were more individualist or socialist. For example, whilst a young man in China (a collectivist country) might identify himself as ‘a student at Beijing University’, a young man in the US (an individualist country) might identify himself merely as ‘a student’, without mentioning the context. These differences in responses show how the individual places himself in his society, and is only a small example of how choice of words plays a huge role in shaping and defining both cultural and social identity.

If we agree that individual words and expressions shape our identities, the way we put them together to formulate a story also plays a valuable role in defining our identities. Gergen’s (1999, as cited in Miell, 2007) autobiographical narrative regarding how he identified with his writing prior to the invention of computers is a great example of this.

I grew up with fountain pens. As a child, they were as ‘natural’ to me as my family. My father’s pen seemed to produce an endless stream of mathematical scribbles that somehow transformed themselves into papers in journals. Meanwhile, my mother’s musings gave way to bursts of inspiration writing – short stories, travelogues, and the best letters a boy away from home could ever receive. The pen was destined to become my life. And so it did, as I slowly worked my way toward a professorship in psychology. I loved to ponder and to write; the sound of the pen on paper, the flowing of the ink, the mounting columns of ‘my thoughts’ – all produced a special thrill. And wonder of wonders, I could be paid for it! But now the pen is gone. Some years ago I was informed there would be no more secretaries to transform my handiwork into solid print. I was to write by computer. I loathed the idea. Writing was a craft, not a technology; I needed to touch the paper physically; feel the words flowing from fingers to shaft and shaft to ‘my being made visible’. The act of writing was very close to physical contact with the reader. In contrast, the computer was a wedge between us – a peice of brutish machinery seperating our humanity. I refused to purchase a computer. Finally, in frustration, the college administration delivered one as a gift. A goose quill now sits nearby on the desk to remind me of my roots. I use my pen only for signing letters.

This machine has virtually transformed my life. It’s not simply the ease of writing; there are possibilities for endless experimenting, storing of random ideas, and the like. It also delivers electronic mail and opens the vast horizons of the World Wide Web … Dozens of times daily I receive messages … from around the world.

(Gergen, 1999, as cited in Miell, 2007)

There are a myriad of ways he could have related himself to the pen. Yet his way, as Bruner (1990, as cited in Miell, 2007) suggests, creates his identity through his story; what stories he and ostensibly, we, tell ourselves and others. These stories can change, thus changing our identities as well. Inversely, as our identities change, so do our stories.

At this point, it is interesting to note that whilst socialist constructionist theory implies fluidity of identity, it can be argued that if one wanted a single core identity, we could create a life story that makes it so. As Hall (1996, as cited in Miell, 2007) said, and more recently, Steve Jobs implied in his 2005 Stanford address about “connecting the dots”, “we reconstruct the past in ways that help us to understand the past, present, and where we expect to be in the future.

Social Relations

As stated earlier, social constructionist theorists believe that all identities are social. Widdicombe (1998, as cited on pg. 76, Miell (2007)) states “identities are resources that we all use and negotiate in every day interactions.” For example, one might alternate between being ‘a good listener’ versus ‘an amusing conversationalist’ (Miell, 2007); this implies that how we identify ourselves shapes how we behave in life. A more complex example was demonstrated by Edwards (1998, as cited in Miell, 2007). He suggested that depending on how we label ourselves, e.g., married with children, we differentiate ourselves from parents who do not label themselves in the same way.

Labels serve to categorize individuals into groups; this grouping is a prevalent feature of SIT. In fact, Turner (1987, as cited in Miell, 2007) identified a strong feeling of belonging within a group once an individual felt he was part of it. According to SIT, the group in itself is one single entity. Furthermore, simply belonging to a group is enough to foster hostility against those who do not. And here is where power comes into play.

According to Miell (2007), power is produced as people relate to each other and nobody has absolute power over anyone else. This is because he found that people have a fundamental need to satisfy their social identities (Tajfel, 1978, 1981). To accomplish this, we need to feel as though we belong to a “better” group, which has a more positive image than other groups. Individuals, in turn, may be inclined to exaggerate the difference between themselves and those outside the group. SIT postulates that this is the root of all prejudice and discrimination. Additionally, minority groups that bear the grunt of the prejudice will always try to improve their position. These constructions only have value if enough people accept them.

As mentioned earlier, the group is seen as one single entity by social identity theorists. However, this is a mistake, as illustrated beautifully by Hall’s depiction of President Bush’s nomination of a black conservative judge, Clarence Thomas affair, and the subsequent polarization of American citizens who were unsure on what grounds to vote following his alleged sexual assault.

In 1991, President Bush, anxious to restore a conservative majority to the US Supreme Court, nominated Clarence Thomas, a black judge of conservative political views. In Bush’s judgement, white voters (who may have been prejudiced about a black judge) were likely to support Thomas because he was conservative on equal-rights legislation, and black voters (who supported liberal policies on race) would support Thomas because he was black. In short, the President was ‘playing the identities game’.

During the Senate ‘hearings’ on the appointement, Judge Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by a black woman, Anita Hill, a former junior colleague of Thomas’s. The hearings caused a public scandal and polarized American society. Some blacks supported Thomas on racial grounds; others opposed him on sexual grounds. Black women were divided, depending on whether their ‘identities’ as blacks or as women prevailed. Black men were also divided, depending on whether their sexism overrode their liberalism. White men were divided, depending, not only on their politics, but on how they identified themselves with respect to racism and sexism. White conservative women supported Thomas, not only on political grounds, but because of their opposition to feminism. White feminists, often liberal on race, opposed Thomas on sexual grounds. And because Judge Thomas is a member of the judicial elite and Anita Hill, at the time of the alleged incident, a junior employee, there were issues of social class position at work in these arguments too.

(Hall, 1992, as cited in Miell, 2007)

Social constructionist theorists argue that there are differences within the group as well. This is particularly apparent in feminist debates which generalize the definition of women as opposed to differentiating them according to various personal characteristics such as ethnicity, sexuality, or social class. (Brah, 1996, as cited in Miell, 2007) So no generalizations can be true about women or any other social group because all people are different; Social constructionist identity theory states that identities are multiple and de-centered. (Miell, 2007)


It is difficult to dispute the claim that language and social relations are integral in constructing identities. How language is expressed and interpreted is equally as important as the audience. How we relate to each other also brings up the importance of power; more importantly, how shifts in power from group to group seem to be everlasting, and where that leaves us. Yet, to end on a slight philosophical tangent, what I am curious about is the idea of construction in itself. We construct in order to create identities, but I wonder if this makes identity artificial. If so, I wonder whether the pursuit of any identity, solid or fluid, is worthwhile. I wonder who we are without it.

- first submitted as an Open University coursework



Brah, A. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, London, Routledge

British Psychological Society (2006) Code of Ethics and Conduct, Leicester, British Psychological Society

British Psychological Society (2010) Code of Human Research Ethics, Leicester, Cambridge University Press

Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities, Cambridge, Polly

DSE212 Course team, (2007), Exploring Psychological Research Methods (2nd ed.), Milton Keynes, The Open University

Edwards, D. (1998) ‘The relevant thing about her: social identity categories in use’, in Antaki, C. and Widdicombe, S. (eds).

Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction, London, Sage

Hall, S. (1992) ‘The question of cultural identity’, in Hall, S., Held, D., and McGrew, T. (eds) Modernity and Its Futures, Cambridge, Polity/The Open University

Holloway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free Association, Narrative and the Interview Method, London, Sage

Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K. (2007) DSE212 Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Smith, P.B., and Bond, M.H. (1998) Social Psychology Across Cultures (2nd edition), London, Prentice Hall Europe

Tajfel, H., Billig, M., Bundy, R.P. and Flament, C. (1971) ‘Social categorization and intergroup behavior’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 1, pp.149-77

Tajfel, H. (ed.) (1978) Differentiation Between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, London, Academic Press

Tajfel, H. (1981) Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Turner, J. (1987) ‘Introducing the problem: individual and group’, in Turner, J., Hogg, M., Oakes, P., Reicher, S., and Wetherell, M., Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory, Oxforad, Basil Blackwell

Widdicombe, S. (1998) ‘Identitiy as an analysts’ and a participants’ resource’, in Antaki C. and Widdicombe, S. (eds).