The last of the Freud material is on the site and I see the supermarkets are full of The Force Awakens DVDs. That means, it's time. If you haven't seen the new Star Wars film yet, then you're clearly not going to and I'm not going to be your enabler any longer by skirting around SPOILERS. You're just being weird. For the rest of us, we can finally address what's being going on in Star Wars from the beginning. Yes. The OEDIPUS COMPLEX!
An ordinary tale of farmboys and scoundrels who want to kill their family...
I must say, when I first learned about the Oedipus Complex is struck me as deeply weird. But Star Wars makes it all seem straightforward enough.
So we start with Episode IV (as they call it now), back in 1977. Luke Skywalker is the innocent farmboy orphan, working for his gruff Uncle Owen. Luke's your typical '70s narcissist, all funky hairstyles and long evenings spent watching the sunsets and thinking wistful thoughts.
No. You can't sneer. Not with THAT amazing John Williams score going on in the background.
Before long, Luke meets the first of his father-figures - former Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi who tells him about his true father, Anakin Skywalker.
Mercifully, the scene cuts out before the old man can start going on about the Force
So, Luke learns the truth about his father's death (or so we think) at the same time as he is given a giant phallic symbol in the form of a light saber. Resolve your father's death and gain a giant glowing penis? Freud would be so proud. But more than that: hot on the tail of the revelation about Dead Dad comes a bunch of stuff about a "civilised age" and "the guardians of peace and justice". Yes, that's the Super-Ego knocking. Remember what Freud believed? The Super-Ego is the voice of conscience that emerges when the young boy comes to terms with the idea of his father dying and his dread of having his penis cut off.
OK, right, the Oedipus Complex is supposed to happen to boys when they're 4 or 5, and Luke is clearly (what?) 18 or so. But this is symbolism, get it?
Now that he's got a glowing laser penis, Luke wrestles with his conscience about following crazy old Obi-Wan on a space crusade or going back to work on the farm. The Id says "Adventure!" but the Super-Ego wins and back to the farm we go.
I'm tempted to point out that Luke has a string of father-figures and (with one notable exception), they all get roasted, sliced, evaporated or electrocuted. Being Luke Skywalker's father-figure is not a job with a pension plan. Uncle Owen is the first of these doomed father-figures. It's almost as if, on some unconscious level, Luke wants people to die who represent his father to him...
You're not convinced? Well, Obi-Wan Kenobi is Luke's father figure now. I wonder what happens to him?
Then there's Yoda, the little green muppet who becomes Luke's next father-figure...
In fact, if the original trilogy of films traces Luke's development from callow youth into grown adult, marked by his growing mastery of the Force and his phallic light saber, then this growing up process is also marked by the death of a string of father-figures.
Finally, we have the awesome showdown with Luke's actual father - Darth Vader himself.
Well, THAT didn't work out very well, did it?
Yes. All Luke's fears come true. His father's light saber IS bigger than Luke's and Darth uses it to chop off Luke's penis.
Wait - what?
OK, OK, it's symbolic. Luke's father cuts off Luke's hand, but the hand is HOLDING the phallic light saber. Plus, Freud himself made the same link - not with Star Wars of course, but with his case study of Little Hans. Little Hans was a boy who was frightened of horses because he thought one of them would bite his hand. Freud explains this as castration anxiety. Little Hans is really frightened that his father will chop off his penis, but defence mechanisms twist this into a fear that a horse will bite off his hand.
Horse = Father.
Hand = Penis.
You don't give up with psychoanalysis though. Luke gets a robot hand, rather like Little Hans fantasised about having his penis replaced by a larger, a metal penis.
You still need convincing that Star Wars is a psychodynamic sci-fi movie? Well, in Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back), father-figure Yoda subjects Luke to psychoanalysis, sort of. Luke has to go into a cave under a tree (hello, it's the unconscious mind, right?) and confront his repressed fears.
I'm not making this up. It's there in the script!
YODA: That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
So what does Luke take in there with him?
Darth Vader has Luke's face - on an unconscious level, Luke knows the truth about his father
Of course, the unconscious mind isn't really a "domain of evil" - it's the Id, but it often feels like evil, especially if you're the Voice of the Super-Ego, which is what Yoda is. But Luke represents the Ego and he has to find a way of balancing the demands of the Id and the Super-Ego. He has to break his father's power over him, without ceasing to love his father, and he believes that there's still good in Darth Vader.
And this is what Luke does at the end of the trilogy, in Episode VI (Return of the Jedi)
Ah yes - the 1993 "eyebrows" version
I could have even more fun arguing for Freudian motifs in Star Wars. Let's not even get STARTED on Luke's incestuous feelings for Leia who turns out to be, not his mother (thank goodness!), but his sister (i.e. the closest woman there is to his dead mother).
One day everyone will look back on this and laugh. Perhaps.
The real point of all this is that Freud makes for great storytelling. When you strip away all the complicated terminology and weird stuff, Freud's Oedipus Complex is pretty simple.
We have mixed feelings about our parents.
We love them, but we need to become free from them. This is painful to admit. It feels like "killing" them, if our parents are kind and loving; if our parents are cruel or controlling, we might literally fantasise about them being dead. But whether it's just breaking the family ties by growing up or darker, more agonising feelings of resentment and powerlessness, we have a strange mixture of love, guilt, anger and shame directed towards our parents. This is, perhaps, all the Oedipus Complex really boils down to. Growing up involves a sort of death.
I think this is why George Lucas' prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) from the early 2000s don't have the same pa-zazz as the original trilogy. Yes, there's an orphan (Anakin Skywalker) whose mother dies. Yes, there are prickly relationships with two father-figures, a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi and the evil Chancellor Palpatine. There's some youthful angst about growing up and a light saber fight between the grown-up Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan. But none of it sizzles. There's no Freudian subtext, no love triangle, no psychodynamic dream sequences or penises being cut off.
No, wait, I'm wrong about that. Anakin's penis is quite literally cut off. He gets chopped up and replaced by machine bits when he turns into Darth Vader.
"He's more machine now than man"
But I think that's the whole problem. The Oedipus Complex isn't about people LITERALLY getting their penises chopped off. It's about a young boy's anxiety that he'll never become a man, that his father will take something away from him or stop him getting something, something important, something without which he will be doomed to stay a child forever. It's the fear you will never be able to outgrow your parents. The fear that you'll always be weak, ashamed and dependent on their approval. Having your penis chopped off is symbolic of that deeper fear. As soon as somebody actually gets their penis chopped off, it all looks a bit silly.
This is why the new film, Episode VII (The Force Awakens) gets it right, by putting Freud right back into the heart of the story.
This time round, the Oedipal hero is an Oedipal Anti-hero: Kylo Ren, the child of space scoundrel Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia - Luke Skywalker's nephew and Darth Vader's grandson. Kylo Ren quite explicitly wants power and autonomy, but feels held back by the influence of his father. If only his father was dead, then Kylo would be free to explore the Dark Side of the Force (i.e. his Id) and completely master his phallic light saber.
A triple light saber? Do you think he's over-compensating?
So Ren has "issues". He's like the Ego, caught between the tug of the Light Side (Super-Ego) and Dark Side (Id). Unlike Luke Skywalker, he doesn't want to find a balance between the two. He wants to indulge the Id and abolish the Super-Ego - so Dad must die.
Father and son tussle for mastery of the phallic light saber...
I mentioned earlier that all-but-one of Luke Skywalker's father-figures met a grisly end. The exception was Han Solo. The younger Han Solo was a father-figure in many ways, teaching Luke to fire weapons and be manly. What's more, he was part of a love-triangle with Leia, the sister/mother-figure. But he doesn't meet an Oedipal Doom in the original trilogy. Why not?
The answer seems to be that Han Solo is amoral. He's a selfish scoundrel without strong ethical values. He shoots Greedo under the table. He laughs at Jedi Knights. He's in it for the money.
To be a proper father-figure, you need to impart ethical values to your son - good values like Obi-Wan (all that "peace" and "order" stuff) or bad values like Darth Vader (all that "join me and we will rule the galaxy!" business). You have to be the voice of the Super-Ego.
Han Solo doesn't do this. He stays a scoundrel until he is reunited with Leia and resolves to redeem his son. When he goes up against Kylo Ren and begs him to come home, he's not a scoundrel any more. He's a father-figure. Then the iron law of Star Wars kicks in and - BZZZZZTT!!! - he has to die, so that his son get resolve his Oedipus Complex.
Of course, there's another father-figure waiting in the wings: Kylo Ren's new daddy, the mysterious Lord Snoke.
Based on the Star Wars formula, now that Snoke is a father-figure, he's basically doomed
Of course, there's a lot of stuff still to be revealed in Episode VIII - like who is Snoke and who is Rey and what Luke Skywalker has been up to. But now that Freud is reinstalled in the plot, I feel pretty confident that the franchise in on the right tracks.
May the Force be with you
Last week N Burnett emailed me asking what an exam question on Mann-Whitney might look like. The simple answer is I don't know. I'm not involved with Edexcel directly and I don't have special insight into their exam questions. However, my students need some help on this too, so I'll offer some thoughts. This is just me "thinking out loud", not offering any sort of authoritative advice. If there are any Edexcel lurkers visiting this blog, perhaps they'll de-cloak and offer some hints on whether I'm on the right track.
The obvious place to start is by looking at the old Specification. This featured inferential statistics in Unit 2. It also featured multiple-choice questions and some of them looked like this:
This question from 2009 wouldn't be repeated as a multiple-choice question, but something similar could be asked about the type of data or the experimental design that enables you to carry out a particular inferential test.
Here's another one from 2012:
Once again, new students won't be getting multiple-choice, but you could be asked what method, level of data or experimental design goes with a particular stats test. (The type of hypothesis is a red herring - it doesn't change the stats test you use).
The old Specification also had longer questions that were closer to the style of question new students will be facing. Here's another from 2009:
The new exam wouldn't give you nearly as much information as this, The Examiner now expects you to use the statistical tables at the front of the answer book and work out the critical value yourself.
So in the new Spec., the question might be more like this:
With this question, it's up to you to realise that "a correlational study" means using the Spearman's Rho critical value table. You have the observed value of +0.519 and N=20 and you can work out from the description that this is a 2-tailed hypothesis (because it doesn't say whether we're expecting a positive or a negative correlation). With this in mind, it's easy to use the table at the front of the booklet to work out the answer to question (b):
You can see that an observed value of +0.519 is bigger than the critical value in every column except that last one on the right, making the results significant at up to p≥0.01 (but not p≥0.005). In case you worry that you'll forget whether the observed value needs to be bigger or smaller to be significant, don't worry: it tells you at the bottom of the table.
I'm assuming here that the Examiner will give you an observed value and enough information to use the right critical value table. But what if the Examiner wants you to work out the observed value for yourself? After all, the front of the answer book also contains those eye-splitting mathematical formulae.
Are you expected to do this in the exam?
It's worth looking at the Exemplar Exam Paper among the SAMs (Sample Assessment Materials) available on the Edexcel website. The exemplar for Paper 1 (Foundations) contains this encouraging rubric:
However, further down the page, there's another rubric:
So, let's get this straight: you may use a calculator (if you want to) but you don't need any other materials. This sets a pretty clear cap on how much maths the exam can expect from you in the time available. Without a calculator, I imagine you may be expected to do some basic addition and subtraction, maybe simple multiplication, but not complicated square roots, long division or the multiplication of large numbers.
Chi-Squared, in particular, is difficult to do without a calculator.
So we can fairly confidently say that students won't be given a complete Mann-Whitney to work out from scratch. And indeed, when we look at the exemplar questions in the SAMs, this is what we find:
This is a bit like the old multiple-choice questions: you have to use the information to figure out whether it's an experiment or a correlation, nominal or interval level data, independent groups or repeated measures; then you can identify which statistical test should be used.
Or this one:
This question expects you to do 7 simple subtractions, then work out the squares of 7 small numbers and add up the total. You need to be able to use the formula from the start of the booklet:
Riii..iiight. So that total I worked out, I multiply it by 6. Now divide the whole thing by, wait a minute, what's 6-squared? What's 7 times 35? What, I have to take the whole thing away from 1 now? I may have to do this without a calculator, right, if I forgot to bring one? For 4 marks?
I'm not very happy about this. It's not that the sums are difficult. They're just fiddly and time consuming and, especially if you don't have a calculator, it's easy to make a careless mistake and have to start all over again. And all of this for a 4 mark question that you need to answer in no more than 5 minutes. And what, really, does it reveal about anyone's understanding of psychology?
Hopefully, this is just a draft question and the real exam won't contain anything like it. Or perhaps the real exam might contain simplified versions, with some of the arithmetic done for you. If it doesn't, I might be advising some of my students "just skip the maths question: you don't need a measly 4 marks that badly in an exam that's out of 90 and you can always have a go at it if you have time spare at the end; focus on the essays instead!"
Nonetheless, the mark scheme for the SAM paper is interesting:
The first two marks are pretty easy to get even with a paper and pencil and no calculator. You get the third mark for showing how the numbers fit into the equation, even if you don't actually work the equation out. It's only the fourth mark that's awkward to work out if you're not a whizz at long multiplication.
If the arithmetic questions in the exam are marked like this, in stages, then even candidates who just suck at maths and who forgot to bring their calculators could still pick up a couple of marks - and it looks like there will only be one question like this in the paper. I'd still recommend skipping it because, once you hit your stride writing essays, you don't want to break that stride by switching to fiddly arithmetic. But if you have a couple of minutes at the end of the exam, it would be worth coming back to a question like this: you get 1 or 2 marks just for filling in the table!
Of course, there may be some new information about the exam coming along soon - or some may already be out there but I've been too excited about Game Of Thrones to notice. If anyone's got better insights into this part of the exam, please comment on this Blog!
I've been away from the blog and the site for a month now, but at last I'm back and I'm looking through the Survey, which I'll bring to a close next week then publish the results. One submission came from Imogen Morton, who asked if the site could carry some stuff on another Key Question for the Learning Approach: should airlines offer treatment for passengers with a fear of flying?
I don't have time to put up a proper page on this (but I may do so next year), but I can fit in a Blog article on it.
What we're talking about, is this:
As a student, you need to know a couple of facts about the fear of flying (aerophobia or aviophobia) and what can be done about it. You have to be able to explain the psychology behind these fears and behind the treatments for them. Finally, you must be able to offer a view on whether the airlines should help treat this.
Recent terror attacks on airlines (such as the 2015 downing of the Russian Metrojet leaving Egypt by Isis-linked terrorists) and air disasters (such as the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight for Beijing) have increased the fear of flying in the public.
Most airlines offer “fear of flying” courses. Several of them are introduced here:
And the idea is discussed in a bit more detail here:
For airlines, there’s a commercial reason for this. The courses aren’t free: you pay for them. Also, every person who overcomes a fear of flying is a potential new customer of the airline.
However, there’s also an ethical reason. In today’s global society, air travel is an important part of business, education and leisure. People who can’t use it due to irrational fears are held back from participating in 21st century life.
Fear of flying includes people with a phobia (aviophobia or aeophobia) who go into panic attacks at the prospect of boarding a plane, but also people who suffer anxiety at the thought of flying because they exaggerate the risks.
Treating the fear of flying therefore involves a mixture of psychotherapy and education. Education can be like this:
But maybe you prefer to be educated like this:
The two main therapies to treat fear of flying are SYSTEMATIC DESENSITISATION and COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY.
Both of these are based on the idea of an Initial Sensitising Event (ISE), some sort of distressing or traumatic moment that triggered the fear in the first place.
For example, flying on aeroplanes is a neutral stimulus for most people but some people might come to associate it with an unconditioned stimulus that produces fear (perhaps they watched news footage of a crash at a young age and got frightened). This is Classical Conditioning.
Alternatively, they might have been influenced by news stories and movies about aeroplane crashes and ended up with false beliefs about the danger of flying. They then cause themselves to have a stress response by imagining frightening outcomes. This is Cognitive Psychology.
Systematic Desensitisation is a therapy for phobias created by Joseph Wolpe, based on Classical Conditioning. It involves replicating the sights, sounds and sensations of flight in increasing stages. At the same time, relaxation techniques are used to counteract the anxiety. Virtual Reality technology has been used to help with this.
This Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is being used to treat a fear of the subway but it discusses fear of flying and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy at the end
Some clients remain aware (on a cognitive level) that they are not really flying, so this technique has disappointing results. Maltby et al. (2002) found VRET to be no more effective than exposing clients to sitting in a parked aeroplane.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was created by Aaron Beck, as an alternative to Freud's psychoanalysis. It tackles the client’s beliefs and how they act on them. A lot of phobias are examples of faulty beliefs (treating something as much more dangerous than it really is). During therapy, the client discusses their beliefs and reactions, identifies faulty beliefs and inappropriate reactions, and practises ways of reacting differently, which are then reinforced with praise or rewards.
This approach has been rather more successful because, as the name suggests, it tackles both faulty cognitions AND inappropriate behaviour. However, the two approaches can be combined together to get "the best of both worlds".
Prof. Paul Salkovskis is using a mixture of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and elements of Systematic Desensitisation (bringing the feather closer in stages)
There's evidence that some people are helped by this sort of therapy - especially when you combine elements of Systematic Desensitisation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. However, not everyone does, which is why therapists offering hypnosis are also popular.
You might argue that the airlines are exploiting people with fears by charging them for therapies that might not even work. Alternatively, maybe the airlines are helping people be free of a psychological problem that holds them back from advancing in their career or staying in touch with loved ones or just experiencing other countries and cultures.
Last week I created pages for PW on Twin Studies and Adoption Studies and made a few easy Harry Potter references, but I've been thinking more about nature and nurture since then. For people like me, Adoption Study finds no finer expression than the case of Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman, a Kryptonian alien raised by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Superman Arrives, 1978-style
Superman is a great example of an Adoption Study because he shares his biology with his Kryptonian parents (and so he can fly, is really strong, indestructible, etc) but had his values shaped by his human parents. That's why he fights for "Truth, Justice and the American Way".
In the 1950s, Superman was straightforwardly linked to American values. But in the 1978 film, Superman's farmboy idealism is laughable to city girl Lois Lane.
One of the interesting things the TV series Smallville did with Superman was increase the difference between his Kryptonian father Jor-El and human father Jonathan Kent. In the TV show, Jor-El is unemotional and merciless but Superman/Clark learns compassion (rather than "the American way") from his human father.
The idea of adopted children inheriting great power from their biological parent but learning moral values from their adoptive parent is a popular one in legend and literature. King Arthur is the biological son of the violent and lustful King Uther Pendragon, but he is raised by the humble knight Sir Ector and his honest foster-brother Sir Kay, where he learns the humility that Uther Pendragon lacked.
Look closely. That's Sir Patrick Stewart on a horse, looking tough-as-nails. The music is Wagner - awesome!
The author T.H. White took this idea further. In The Sword In The Stone, Merlin is Arthur's tutor and lets the boy experience life as different types of animals so that the future king can learn imagination, intelligence and empathy.
Not one of my favourite Disney adaptations, but the book and its sequels are excellent
The Merlin/Arthur story was re-played in Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker as the farmboy raised by his none-more-ordinary aunt and uncle, but tutored by the wizard/Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars very much takes the view that biology is destiny. No matter how narrow his upbringing, nothing can stop Luke from fulfilling his biological fate to learn the ways of the Force, like his biological father before him. Except (SPOILERS)... Darth Vader is his biological father!
Still gets me, every time
Interestingly, Star Wars is a Twin Study as well as an Adoption Study. Not only is Luke concordant with his biological father in terms of being a Force-user, he is concordant with his (DZ) twin sister too.
It's not Wagner, but John Williams' emotional score lifts this scene
All of these stories propose the idea that biology is fairly amoral: it gives children powers and potential, but not values. Values have to be learned and come from upbringing and education, hence the importance of loving parents or wise teachers like Merlin or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Without these influences, Kal-El would have grown up like Zod, Arthur like Uther Pendragon, Luke like Darth Vader.
However, that's not the only way of looking at it.
The most heated debate in nature/nurture is not about princes or princesses, however. It's about sexual orientation. Is sexual preference a matter of upbringing, or are people "born that way"?
There are huge implication for deciding this one way or the other. For example, if people learn their sexual orientation from childhood experiences and how they were treated by their parents, it follows they may be able to "un-learn" it later in life. After all, if you can have therapy to help you overcome your smoking habit, why not therapy to make you straight?
On the other hand, if sexual orientation is fixed at birth, no amount of therapy will change it and will only mess you up. Moreover, since people cannot help the things they have been born with (like their sex or the colour of their skin), then it's wrong for other people to discriminate against them. This makes homophobia the same sort of thing as racism.
Examining the whole nature/nurture debate about sexuality will take another blog, but it's worth noting that Twin Studies have been used extensively here in the past. For example, Bailey & Pillard (1991) found a concordance rate of 52% for homosexuality in MZ twins, but only 22% in DZ twins. This suggests a big genetic component in sexuality, since both types of twins had been brought up the same way.
Bailey & Pillard were criticised for their small sample (59) which was recruited through the readership of gay lifestyle magazines. Twin studies involving larger samples recruited from Twin Registers in Australia and Sweden have found much lower concordance rates, closer to 11% for male MZ twins and 14% for female MZ twins.
These studies still suggest there is a genetic influence in sexuality - but it's not the only factor and upbringing and personal experiences play a large part too. Because of this, research into the biology of sexual orientation has moved on from classic Twin Studies and now focuses instead on brain imaging and epigenetics (how genetic changes happen in the womb or after birth).
The nature/nurture debate is a hot topic. It's tied in with religious beliefs and with civil rights. It's fun to explore its implications through fairy tales and superheroes, but the psychological research into it needs to be evaluated much more carefully.
Valentines Day is upon us, so it's time to think about the psychology of love. This means we must address the Elephant In The Room, the big issue that everybody has an opinion on but nobody wants to talk about...
Should Harry have married Ginny - or Hermione?
The answer is NEITHER - and here's why...
Well, we notice that, despite the recessive gene, Ron's children are redheads too. Hermione's got a very fashionable coat. But where's Ginny? Off to one side, never making eye contact with husband Harry, all the time with a bit of a pained expression on her face.
OK, so she's seeing her son off to boarding school which is a tough time for any mother. It would be odd if she were laughing and joking. But why doesn't Harry comfort her? Or at least acknowledge her? And why does she trail a dozen feet behind him, distracted and remote?
This idea isn't new. Sigmund Freud proposed that just about everything we do or feel as adults is based on our relationships with our parents in childhood, but most psychologists are a bit dubious of Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind. I'm going to go all-out on Freud on a future blog and tie in Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ariel from The Little Mermaid - all those characters who clearly have HUGE parent-issues.
More relevant to Potter is the English psychologist John Bowlby who liked Freud's ideas but wanted to put them on a more scientific footing. Bowlby thought that human babies had a biological need to be close to their mothers and called this need "attachment", which he defined as:
lasting psychological connectedness between human beings
Bowlby suggested that a child's first attachment forms an "internal working model" - a sort of template for all future attachments. He suggests that babies form one of three types of early attachment:
This is the Weasley family, isn't it? Mr & Mrs Weasley show affection for their children and each other and the children are openly affectionate in return. So despite what JK and Emma Watson think, Ron should be good husband-material.
It's tempting to put Draco Malfoy in this category, with his cold, demanding parents and his own sulkiness and conflicted feelings. We catch a glimpse of Draco in the "19 Years Later" scene. Things don't look happy.
This has to be Harry. His parents were killed when he was an infant. That ought to be enough by itself to wreck a child's attachment for life, according to Bowlby. Other psychologists since Bowlby have argued that a "primary caregiver" can step in to replace the mother and the child can form attachment there instead - but look who Harry gets as caregivers: the Dursleys!
Sums up the psychological damage Harry Potter suffered perfectly
Living in a cupboard under the stairs. Bullied and neglected. Openly devalued by his caregivers in favour of his step-brother.
Ladies, do not marry this guy!
Hazan & Shaver tested this out by getting participants to fill out a "Love Quiz" in a local newspaper and send in the results. A checklist helped them work out which attachment type the respondents had with their parents and the quiz itself scored romantic relationships for how closely they resembled one attachment type of another.
You can try out a version of the quiz yourself:
Hazan & Shaver found a pretty clear correlation between childhood attachment and adult relationship styles.
So ladies, if your Valentine grew up with hateful adoptive parents who made him live in a cupboard under the stairs, DO NOT MARRY THIS GUY!
And I think we can see why Ginevra Potter-née-Weasley looks so tense in "19 Years Later". Marriage to Harry Potter must be pretty bleak. If only she'd stayed with that nice Dean Thomas!
Before you go away complaining I've ruined Harry Potter forever for you, it's only fair to critique this idea.
Firstly, it seems incredible that all our adult choices - important choices that we think and agonise about and consult our friends over and everything - are really smokescreens, because everything was really decided for us when we were 6 months old. Surely, the most Bowlby's "internal working model" can do is give us a predisposition, a sort of psychological "nudge" to act a certain way in relationships.
J K Rowling seems to get this. When Harry Potter gets "sorted" in his First Year, the Sorting Hat wants to assign him (quite rightly, IMO) to Slytherin, but Harry is determined to live a different life.
Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.
Nature versus Nurture is a theme throughout the Harry Potter series and this is a good example of nature (Harry's innate goodness, perhaps inherited from his parents) overcoming nurture (his rubbish childhood).
Harry repeats this message to his son Albus at the end of the series:
“But if it matters to you, you'll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account."
It's a cheering thought to finish on: that we can choose who we want to be, the sort of relationships we want to have, no matter our childhoods. Of course, that also means that a good and happy childhood won't necessarily protect people from making bad choices. As for Harry Potter's marriage, I guess we'll find out on July 30.
My next project on PW is to post up the Biological Approach material on aggression - which means it's time to talk about the Incredible Hulk.
There's something about Ol' Greenskin that 9-year-old boys just adore and I was that kid!
Then, back in the '70s, the Hulk was on TV! That show, with it's weepy cello theme and sensitive Bill Bixby/raging Lou Ferrigno performance, put the Hulk in the public imagination for a generation.
No apologies need be made for the cheesy '70s production values, but that TV show brought a thoughtfulness to the comic strip monster - as well as Bill Bixby's wonderful line:
... don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry
But the show brought another set of ideas to its portrayal of the Hulk:
The comic had always had the cute idea that the Hulk got stronger as he got angrier. The TV show made this into the theme that the Hulk was some sort of expression of Dr Banner's inner rage - a rage that is inside all of us, but doesn't come out as a slo-mo green-skinned giant the way it does with him.
Is that true? Are we really bundles of pent-up rage waiting to explode?
This is a psychological idea that we can trace back to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud proposed that all of us have violent conflicts going on inside us, in our "unconscious minds". Freud originally declared that these conflicts are based on our feelings for our parents; we experience violent love and violent hatred towards our mother and father, but we repress these feelings and deny them. When we reach adulthood, all this repressed anger comes out in strange ways. It could come out as bursts of temper but also in more disguised forms: as irrational urges, fears and phobias, nightmares, illnesses and obsessions.
After the First World War, Freud's view got even gloomier. He started speculating that there is an inbuilt destruct force in human minds. He called this force "thanatos".
No, that's THANOS. He's the bad guy from "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Avengers". But there's a link, because "thanatos" is the Ancient Greek spirit of death and super-villain "Thanos" worships death (hence the name). See what you can learn from superhero films?
So Freud thinks we all have this "thanatos" urge to destroy ourselves and, even if it didn't originally come from our messed-up feelings about our parents, our messed-up feelings about our parents have only made it worse.
But we don't just go and kill ourselves or trash civilisation, do we? No. We have ego defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. We lash out at substitutes instead. We don't even attack our parents: we have substitutes for them too.
What sort of substitutes? Well, maybe stuff like this:
Quite a range there. You've got stuff that channels aggression constructively (like working out) or destructively (like vandalism); in fun ways (like violent videos or films) and not-so-fun ways (like bitchiness). Even taking up smoking, which you know will upset your parents, is based on aggression.
Some people find Freud's ideas pretty persuasive, and if you've got a bit of a temper or you've ever found yourself in the grip of irrational urges, you may too. Is the Hulk just an allegory for the aggression in the unconscious mind?
Freud's theory is sometimes called the "hydraulic" model of personality. This is because it represents the mind as a bit like a steam cooker or a boiler. The pressure builds up and builds up. You've got to vent it, otherwise... KA-BOOM! You "Hulk out"!
Freud calls this release of pent-up aggression "catharsis" (another Greek word) and he thinks we can get it in all sorts of ways. Obviously, straightforward violent behaviour is cathartic, but most of us have defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. Physical sport is a good substitute... but just watching physical sport works too. You can get catharsis from anything that lets your aggression out, like a Boss-fight in a video game, a bitchy put-down on social media or dropping a crisp packet right next to the "NO LITTERING" sign.
That's the appeal of the Hulk solved, is it? He's a Freudian superhero. He's catharsis in-action?
The recent (2003, 2008) films and the Avengers movies have much better production values than the '70s TV show, but they haven't portrayed the Hulk quite so thoughtfully.
OK, he gets a funny scene.
What am I saying? He gets a couple of funny scenes...
You realise that, if you smile at the Hulk's violence, then that's catharsis in action inside you? Your laughter is your own aggression venting - it feels good, right?
But there is a quirky, serious moment, when Banner reveals his secret for keeping the Hulk under control:
He's always angry?
Freud would be so proud. Freud came to the conclusion that most of his patients suffered from all sorts of problems because they couldn't admit to their unconscious feelings of rage and sex and fear. He developed a technique called psychoanalysis to help patients understand their unconscious conflicts and come to terms with them. Once you acknowledge your anger, it loses its destructive power. You control it: it no longer controls you.
So maybe the recent movie-Hulks do follow on from the '70s TV-Hulk after all. As the TV intro used to say each week, Banner must
find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him
And that way turns out to be Freudian psychology.
Hold on a moment. Not everyone buys into Freud's ideas. Other psychologists were quick to attack Freud's theory, particularly behaviourists like John B. Watson who distrusted the whole idea of an invisible, unobservable "unconscious mind". In his 1920 study of Little Albert, Watson goes out of his way to reject the idea that phobias are caused by pent-up fear of sex or death.
Albert Bandura went a step further and put the whole idea of catharsis to the test. In his Bobo Doll studies, Bandura wants to see if letting children "vent" aggression by watching an adult behave aggressively will have the effect of making them all calm and contented.
No, the opposite happens. The children get more aggressive if they watch an aggressive role model.
To be fair to the Hulk, the comic books used to take a behaviourist view too. The Hulk was always leaping off to the desert of New Mexico or the Pacific Coast forests to sit and mope. But then the US Army would come after him with some newfangled "Hulkbuster" superweapon (which never worked) and Hulk would have to start smashing.
So you see, it's also true that Hulk LEARNED to be aggressive from us puny humans rather than having aggression inside him from the start. Watson and Bandura would be so proud!
So we're back where we started. Maybe aggression comes from some "raging spirit" inside us - or maybe it's something we learn from our environment. It's probably a bit of both.
Maybe in a future blog, I should think about whether being orphaned at an early age really does tend to make billionaires want to become Batman.
Is there anybody left on the Internet who's immune to the vicious charms of honey badgers? If so, you MUST check this out:
There's no doubt that honey badgers deserve their place in the Internet's 'Gallery of Memes', but animal Houdinis have a longstanding place in the history of Psychology, because they tell us so much about learned behaviour.
Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) was the pioneering psychologist who investigated this, with those most uncooperative of research participants: cats!
Thorndike built cages for the cats which were "puzzle boxes" - they could be opened by sliding latches but to do this the cat had to do something non-obvious, like pull on a cord hanging from the top of the box. This required much trial-and-error. Thorndike then sat back and observed how the cats set about freeing themselves.
Of course, the cats scrabble around, trying to open the box, and eventually pulled the cord and released the latch by accident. However, Thorndike noticed that, each time the cat was put back in the box, it got quicker and quicker at lifting the latch and releasing itself.
Thorndike was struck by how accidental behaviour turns into deliberate behaviour through learning. He called this the "Law of Effect":
responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation
There's a temptation to conclude from this that this is what ALL learning is like: just accidents, trial-and-error and creatures sticking with a strategy that seems to work. That's how Stoffel the honey badger escapes from his pen. That's how octopodes escape from jam jars.
Yes - octopodes. Not octopi. Not octopuses. Octopodes (oct-TOP-pod-ees). Yup. You heard me. That's the correct plural of octopus and I'm using it because that's the kind of guy I am.
The psychologists who went down this road were the Behaviourists and they believed that EVERYTHING is learned behaviour and ALL behaviour is learned like this. How did you learn to walk? Speak? Brush your teeth? Win boss-fights on Halo? Write essays in History? It was all learned from scratch, by trial-and-error, according the the Law of Effect.
One person clearly taking notes was film director George A. Romero, the man who kickstarted the "Zombie Apocalypse" movie genre. In Day of the Dead (1985), Romero's zombies learn to operate simple machines through the Law of Effect. One of them, "Bub", listens to music, answers the phone, shaves and salutes. Of course, he learns to fire a gun too.
Are we any different from Bub or Thorndike's cats? This is a problem known as "Philosophical Zombies" or "P-Zombies" that asks, is there any difference between zombies that "go through the motions" of reading and talking and interacting, and us? Are we all of us just mindlessly repeating behaviours we've learned, only very complicated ones, like blogging?
I'm not convinced. When I watch Stoffel the honey badger get up to his escapes, it doesn't strike me as an animal that stumbled upon a neat trick (like opening latches), but more like a restless intelligence that is looking for solutions to a problem. That's why he digs up rocks to make a ladder: not because he did it once by accident and it happened to work out (because who accidentally digs up rocks?) but because he has successfully figured something out.
In other words, I think Cognitive Psychology is at work here, not the Learning Approach - though there's clearly a bit of learning going on, because Pammy clearly learns what to do by imitating Stoffels. But even this sort of learning - learning by imitation - involves a big dollop of cognition as well. Albert Bandura developed Social Learning Theory in this way, because it seemed to him there had to be more at work than just trial-and-error when it came to learning. He calls it Social Cognitive Theory now and has done since 1986 but no one's told the Exam Boards that so hush!
In the meantime, it's good to see honey badgers and octopodes (there, you see that? I did it again - octOPodes!) rising up to challenge cats for the title "King of the Internet Memes". If octopodes freak you out slightly and you wonder, "What if these creatures ever learned to come onto land - would the human race be doomed?" then may I introduce your nightmares to... the Mimic Octopus...!
This isn't a blog about Batman but it is a blog about God, who has more superpowers but is less cool. It's a shame the A-Level Specification doesn't explore the psychology of belief, but a study on this topic caught my eye this week.
Nicholas Epley and colleagues authored a 2009 study into religious beliefs, bringing together good old-fashioned Cognitive Psychology (surveys! questionnaires!) and newfangled Biological Approach brain imaging techniques. It's called Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs.
OK, so, as titles go, it's not exactly Abbey Road or Appetite For Destruction, but it sums up the research question pretty well. The "egocentrism" in the title is a cognitive bias that inclines people to view the world strictly from their own perspective and struggle to see things from anyone else's. We're all egocentric to some extent, but egocentrism is especially linked with early childhood and with developmental disorders like autism which make it particularly hard to "put youself in someone else's shoes".
Epley is tackling the religious idea that, rather than trusting their own judgements, religious believers can turn to God for guidance. This is sometimes summed up in the bumper-sticker slogan "What Would Jesus Do?"
Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder - Nicholas Epley
You see, if believers really were getting input from God, you'd expect their views would be particularly consistent and objective. After all, my opinions about what other people think is probably skewed by my own biases, but surely, when it comes to God, I set my biases aside, right? Wrong, says Epley, who suspects religious beliefs are as egocentric as any other belief and he sets out to prove it.
Epley et al. carry out 7 different studies and bring all their findings together (this approach is called "triangulation"). The first four studies are surveys, questioning commuters at a train station in Boston, college students and members of a US survey database. It's nice to see a piece of research use someone other than students. I agree with Ariel Rubenstein's complaint that too much cognitive psychology boils down to the "science of the behavior of the college sophomore" so it's nice to see big city commuters get a look-in on a study too.
The surveys showed a strong correlation between a person's own beliefs on issues like politics and morality and what they thought God's views were. This looks as if people are basing their view of God on themselves, rather than basing their beliefs on God. Sigmund Freud would totally agree: he calls this tendency to invent a powerful deity and invest it with all our values "projection" and he thinks it's a form of mental illness.
Not so fast, Dr Freud! As my students will find out when we get onto correlations and the Spearman's Rho test, CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION. Just because there's a link between two things, you can't be sure one is causing the other. Maybe God is inspiring people's beliefs, rather than people basing their idea of God on their own attitudes! (And, if you're interested, the philosopher William Lane Craig has a nice comeback to the whole "projection" thing).
Epley et al. have thought of such criticisms and they set up some clever lab experiments in Studies 5 & 6. If you want to find cause-and-effect, you need a lab experiment. Epley's experiments involved getting people to read short speeches arguing for or against a hot news topic; one speech was always a good argument (logical... evidenced... etc); the other was always a weak one (Paris Hilton and Britney Spears feel this way too!). Naturally, people's views shifted in favour of the better argument. But crucially, so did their opinion on God's stance on the matter!!
This is clever mixture of independent and repeated measures, because some people got weak arguments and didn't change their views (or God's), but others got strong arguments and changed their views and felt God's view had changed too. This really does make religious beliefs look egocentric - just puffed-up versions of our own beliefs.
Epley isn't done yet, because Study 7 is a brain imaging study, just like Raine et al. (1997), but using fMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) rather than PET scanning. Epley gets the participants to think about their own views, about other people's views and about God's views on different topics, then he takes a fMRI brain image to see what parts of the brain seem to be involved with these cognitive processes.
Whoops! You can see there's a big gap between the parts of the brain at work when people think about the difference between their own beliefs and other Americans' beliefs... and a big gap between the parts of the brain used to think about God's views and other Americans' views... but when people have to think about their own views and God's views, there's no difference at all: the same part of the brain seems to do both jobs.
There's a lot of good stuff in this study. It's imaginative and it tackles a new topic. It mixes Cognitive and Biological Approaches and it mixes methods too. But is Epley right?
People may use religious agents as a moral compass... The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing. - Nicholas Epley
I'm not sure he is.
Many religions teach that God is (in some sense) "within us" and almost of all of them teach that God is a spirit who cannot be imagined as another person. When I think about my friends' beliefs or just "British people's" beliefs, I tend to imagine how they look (or I think of people look that I see on the news or in the street) - but if I think about what God wants or commands, I don't have a picture to think of. Instead, I have to rummage through my own feelings and memories. This is called "introspection" or maybe "meditation" or even "prayer".
It doesn't surprise that this shows up on a brain imaging scan as looking just like "me thinking about myself". That just goes to show the famous danger of reductionism with the scientific method. If you boil everything down to brain scans, you over-simplify: I can tell the difference between me analysing my own beliefs and me just imagining stuff, even if a fMRI scanner can't.
Similarly, the 5th and 6th studies that get people to change their beliefs are interesting, but they could be used to draw a different conclusion from the one Epley arrives at.
Most religions understand that people have a nasty tendency to imagine God as being "just like them" and then attach all their own beliefs, priorities and pet-hates to God. They call this "anthropomorphism". Religions try to correct this by confronting people with sermons and sacred texts that challenge people's own personal views. Epley's study actually suggests they're right to do this. Left to their own devices, people's views are easily swayed and their religious beliefs are easily swayed too. For example, they can drift into extremism and be convinced the whole time that they're following God's will, when really they're reimagining God to fit in with their own desires. That's why believers are encouraged to go to church, or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever.
But enough about religion: what would Batman do? Batman is completely unsway-able. His parents get murdered and he becomes a masked crime fighter and nothing, but nothing, ever persuades him that he's made the wrong decision. He seems to have rock-solid beliefs, completely immune to social pressures. Maybe we should be more like Batman?
One of the things these cognitive studies teach us is: we're not Batman. Our beliefs are really easily swayed; even beliefs that are deeply important to us, like religious beliefs. That's probably a good thing. If you can be swayed by arguments and by an awareness of other people's opinions, you're not weak; you're a reasonable person. Batman may be awesome, but nobody ever claimed he was reasonable.
Back in 1977, when I was just a little boy, I went to see Star Wars on its first release. Like a lot of young boys, I was transformed by that film. I became a Geek and I've been one ever since. Tolkien followed, and Dungeons & Dragons and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
So today I went back to the cinema and watched The Force Awakens for the second time. I'm not the sort of person who watches films twice, so this is unusual for me. Actually, I watched The Phantom Menace twice because I desperately hoped I'd see some redeeming quality in it second time around (I didn't). But I went for a second viewing of the new Star Wars Episode VII and, do you know, I was just as moved, amused, excited and thrilled at first time round. It's great to see a film done right and there've been so many sequels and re-boots done badly lately (Indiana Jones, Terminator, Die Hard, Poltergeist, even the latest Star Trek Into Darkness left me cold and don't get me STARTED on everything that was wrong with Man Of Steel).
But it all worked for me in this film: new characters you instantly liked and rooted for, old characters re-capturing their charm, new bad guys who were scary and contemptible in equal measure, heroism, romance... and A Very Important Character dies in a tragic, tear-jerking way. Yes, it's all good.
And cool new lightsabers
So what makes someone a Geek? Why do some people love star destroyers and elves and battle axes and dragons so much? Why the multi-sioded dice and the genre TV shows that keep getting axed because not enough people watch them (still not over Firefly, the wounds are still raw)?
It's tempting to say "personality" and it's a great shame that the Edexcel Psychology course doesn't look at personality theory in any depth. There's Freud of course, who would probably say all this childish obsessing over make-believe worlds is a defence mechanism for people who can't cope with sex or death. I haven't posted up anything on the site yet about Freud, so I'll save that for another blog later in the year.
Maybe "biology" has something to do with it. Perhaps there's a "Geek brain" that is wired to respond to gigantic space ships or ringwraiths or tentacle monsters. That seems unlikely to me, but the Biological Approach isn't up on the site yet, so I'll delay judgement on that too.
Social Identity seems a strong explanation. Geeks are, after all, a social ingroup. You can identify them by their tendency to wear T-shirts with slogans only other Geeks will find funny or images from superhero comics. Once you identify as a Geek, then you are under pressure to conform to your ingroup's behaviours: read graphic novels, play roleplaying games, watch Doctor Who and know the secret identity of every hero in the Avengers.
Social comparison then means you have a tendency to exaggerate the value of your ingroup's products ("Yeah, I think The Watchmen is better literature than Jane Austen!") and dismiss the products of all the other outgroups (football, cars, being attractive to the opposite sex).
So maybe I'm just conforming to my ingroup's expectations when I say I'd rather watch the Millennium Falcon in flight than a Formula 1 racing car or an episode of Eastenders.
It doesn't feel like that to me, of course. It feels to me that I like space ships and wizards because they're really cool, not because my ingroup tells me I have to like them. But that's the whole point about Social Identity Theory - and most Social Psychology, actually - which is that the real reason you do what you do isn't what you think it is. Milgram's poor participants weren't aware of being in an agentic state. In fact, Milgram asked his own students and colleagues what they thought they would do if they were put in that situation, and almost all of them insisted there was no way they would cave in to social pressure and shock an innocent man to death. But the study shows that people aren't very good judges of what they would actually do.
We all like to think we would behave nobly or heroically in a crisis. One of the nice touches in The Force Awakens is the expression on the face of Finn (John Boyega) when Kylo Ren raises his lightsaber. Sheer terror.
Geeks do like to imagine they've got special qualities that non-Geeks lack. Lots of them will tell you they have higher IQs, a better grasp of science or computers and a more exhaustive knowledge of all of Spider-Man's girlfriends than your ordinary folk.
A very recent study backs this up in a surprising way. Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing is a paper by Rivers et al. (2016) that claims to show the people who play roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (pretty much the pinnacle of Geekiness) score higher for empathy than non-gamers.
Empathy is a very important cognitive ability. It involves sensing what other people are feeling. It's also the ability to imagine what other people must be thinking, to "see things from someone else's viewpoint".
Very flattering! Carol Pinchefsky, writing on the Geek & Sundry blog, draws this conclusion:
... if this study is correct and gamers are empathic, and empathy leads to compassionate action, it would therefore follow that gaming makes the world a better place.
I just can't leave it at that though. I want to start evaluating this study and criticising it.
For one thing, empathy doesn't necessarily lead to compassionate action. Think what B.F. Skinner would say to that! Surely, the best thing to predict someone's actions is the rewards and punishments they've had in the past, their history of reinforcement. A lot of compassionate action is just good habits, drilled in at an early age. Without those habits, empathy makes you feel sorry for people, but it doesn't make you get up and do anything about it.
But what about the study itself? The participants were scored for empathy based on filling out a questionnaire: the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).
There are problems with the external validity of tests like this. As Milgram showed, people aren't good at judging how they actually behave in stressful situations. There's a lot of social desirability bias because, even if I'm really a bit callous and dull, I know that people would find me more appealing if I said that I got really into books and films and always stick up for the underdog, etc.
There's a bigger problem. Scales like this are quite reductionist. You're taking complex human feelings and turning them into numbers. The weird thing is, two people could answer every question differently on the scale and still get the same four scores. This is an even bigger problem if you take the four scores and add them together to produce one gigantic empathy score (which, to be fair, you're not supposed to do with this questionnaire).
Finally, this is a natural experiment: whether or not you're a gamer is a naturally-occurring variable. With an IV like this, you can't be sure if the IV is causing the DV. In other words, does gaming make you more empathic or were the gamers more empathic to begin with (roleplaying games attract imaginative and empathic people)?
I'm a bit dubious about the whole idea of super-empathic gamers. I suspect there's a different explanation for their high scores in empathy. You see, one thing gamers are very good at is filling in forms and adding up scores to get characteristics. It's what you do when you create a character in Dungeons & Dragons. They'll pay much more attention than most people to the different types of questions and the scores you get from them. They'll try to get the best scores because that's what being a gamer is all about. So I dont think this research is very valid.
But maybe someone's reading this, thinking "Dungeons & Dragons? Roleplaying games? What's this guy on about?"
I think you need to watch this rather excellent parody video of the 2010 hit Like a G6.
A "D6" is a six-sided dice
I hope we all settled down on New Year's Day to watch Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, didn't we? We did, didn't we? Well, even if you've been trapped under something heavy and unable to click on iPlayer, you're totally familiar with Sherlock (Benedict Cuberbatch) and his "memory palace" technique for remembering absolutely everything... Really? Do we have to start from the beginning?
It's a memory technique. It doesn't have to be an actual place. The way it works, you put information there, and theoretically you'll never forget it, you just have to find your way back to it - Sherlock
And it is a real thing, the memory palace. Only it's not really called that. It's called the "method of loci" and it was first written about by the ancient Romans. I won't say they invented it because it was probably about for centuries before them. Anyone who's read The Odyssey must have wondered how poets like Homer got to know huge poems back in the days before writing was invented. But it was the Romans who perfected the technique and the famous philosopher Cicero describes it in his book on public speaking.
It works by getting parts of your memory that normally work separately to start cooperating: the visual memory and the semantic memory. You choose a place you know very well (such as your bedroom) or a familiar route (like your journey to work or school). The various "stops" along the way or items of furniture in your room are the "loci" in your memory palace and you visualise the things you need to remember being present there. When you need to recall them, you mentally "retrace your steps" through the room or along the route, pausing to notice each of the things you need to remember in order.
The only fiddly thing about memory palaces is building them: coming up with memorable people or things can take a bit of imagination sometimes, but the only thing that matters is that the connection makes sense to you. So if you want to remember King John coming after Richard the Lion-Heart and you once had a pet gerbil called John, then you need to imagine the lion being chased away by a gerbil. The sillier the better, because that makes it memorable.
But if a bearded American dude makes it clearer to you, have a look at this chap explaining things instead:
The Method of Locus does work and the more you use it, the easier it gets. In theory, you could build up a huge repertoire of knowledge based on the same route or room: so long as you get the starting connection right, your semantic memory will retrieve the next image in the sequence, so you won't get you kings and queens of England muddled up with your past winners of X-Factor (Steve, Shayne, Leona...).
Now you might be thinking, that's all very well, but it won't let me do the stuff that Sherlock does! Well... NO, because Sherlock is a FICTIONAL CHARACTER
But despite this, some pretty impressive feats of memory go on using the Method of Loci and similar techniques. Since the '90s, there have been Memory Competitions and the 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house to recall 1040 random digits in a half hour. Gary Shang has used the method of loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 digits. Read that back to yourself. Pi, to over 65,000 digits. Now watch that scene from Life of Pi and think, somebody did better than that! The clip below shows Thomas Morton, who has memorised a great amount of pi and a telephone directory!
The point is, these are ordinary people using a memory technique (memory tecniques are called "mnemonics") to do extraordinary things. They're not extraordinary people. There are extraordinary people out there. The page on individual differences in memory has some stuff on photographic memory, people like Stephen Wiltshire who can draw a whole city from memory. The point is, these people don't use mnemonics. They have abnormal memories.
Interestingly, TV's Sherlock is presented as being on the austistic spectrum, having difficulties in relating to people around him. Stephen Wiltshire is also autistic. While not every person (or even most people) on the autistic spectrum has this sort of phenomenal memory, it's interesting that some do. These "savants" seem to gain some abilities almost as compensation for losing others.
There's a terrific documentary series called Beautiful Minds available through Youtube and the first episode, The Memory Masters, deals with these people. Here's part of that below: have a watch and be amazed.
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.