Five minutes with Carolyn Mair

CMairI’ve often seen people on the web who advertise themselves as ‘fashion psychologists’ who say they can ‘match clothes to your personality’. I’ve always rolled my eyes and moved on.

So I was fascinated to meet Carolyn Mair, a cognitive scientist who did her PhD in perceptual cognition, who now leads a psychology programme at the world-renowned London College of Fashion.

They are doing rigorous psychology as it applies to fashion, clothes and the beauty industry and I asked her to speak to Mind Hacks about herself and her work.

Can you say a little about your background?
My first job was as a ‘commercial artist’ (now graphic designer). Alongside this I made a reasonable income from painting portraits and murals. I then moved to Australia for two years where I worked in a cake shop/bakery where I was able to decorate cakes for special occasions. On returning to the UK, I became a mother and continued painting portraits and murals and also began to design and sell children’s clothes as well as cakes.

During this time, I studied on the BSc Applied Psychology and Computing at Bournemouth University in 1992 and then the MSc Research Methods Psychology at Portsmouth University in 1995. I was asked to do a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, a very young discipline in 1999, investigating the ‘binding problem’; specifically short-term visual memory. During this period I spent three months at the centre of Cognitive Neuroscience at SISSA in Trieste which dramatically changed the direction of my thesis from computational to cognitive neuroscience. I completed my postdoc in the Department for Information Science, Computing and Maths at Brunel University and then took up a Senior Lectureship at Southampton Solent University. I left there in 2012 to join London College of Fashion as Subject Director Psychology.

How did you get into the psychology of fashion?
I love fashion! I started making clothes for myself when I was 13 years old and for others during my teens and again when I had children. Following a chance meeting at a conference in 2011, I was asked to give a paper on psychology and fashion at London College of Fashion. I was then invited back to discuss how psychology could be introduced at Masters level. A role was created, I applied and was successful. I have since developed the world’s first Masters programmes, an MA and MSc, to apply psychology to or, in the context of, fashion.

Why does fashion need psychology?
Fashion is about perception, attention, memory, creativity and communication; it involves reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving and social interaction. Fashion is psychology! Although it has been interpreted anecdotally in psychological terms for centuries, applying psychology to fashion as a scientific endeavour is very new.

Psychology matters beyond what our clothes say about us. People are involved in every aspect of fashion from design, though production, manufacture, advertising and marketing, visual merchandising, retail, consumption and disposal. Taking a scientific approach enables us to derive a more meaningful understanding of behaviour related to fashion and therefore to predict and ultimately change behaviour for the better. We know that within one second of seeing another person, we decide how attractive they are, whether we like them and what sort of characteristics they possess. In addition, what we wear can affect our mood and confidence, and interestingly, what we believe about what we are wearing influences our cognitive performance.

However, the ultimate impact and value of applying psychology to fashion goes beyond what we wear. The fashion industry is an important global industry which employs millions of people worldwide and ultimately involves us all. Since the 60s, the fashion industry has promoted a very narrow stereotype of ‘beauty’ which has now become the ‘norm’ through the ubiquity of web and mobile technology. With the increase in exposure to such images, comes an increase in body dissatisfaction across the lifespan. This brings multiple behavioural issues which can be addressed by psychologists.

In addition, psychologists can challenge the status quo and promote a more inclusive and diverse representation of what is ‘beautiful’ by demonstrating the benefits such an approach would bring. The narrow stereotype of beauty is reinforced through the multibillion pound cosmetic industry. The repercussions of this can be seen in the increase in demand for cosmetic surgery and other interventions many of which are conducted by unqualified practitioners on vulnerable individuals. The impact of such practice is yet to be fully realised, but psychologists are concerned at the lack of regulations that currently exist.

The fashion industry has a poor reputation in terms of the environment and sustainability. In fact, sustainable fashion can be considered an oxymoron. However, it is possible to have a sustainable fashion industry which considers the environment and consumers who care more about what they buy and in doing so buy less. Working alongside fashion professionals, the role of psychology in addressing these issues is education.

When I started applying psychology to fashion, I was determined not be a ‘wardrobe therapist’ or a ‘fashion psychologist’. I am often asked to write about what a particular garment or accessory says about the wearer, for example do glasses suggest intelligence or what does a politician’s fashion style say about him or her? My typical response is that deriving deep meaning from a single ‘snapshot’ is unrealistic as it’s more complex than that! I have been surprised about the demand for this sort of information and think the time is right for developing this new sub-discipline of psychology that has the potential to do good at individual, societal and community levels.

Fashion is a multibillion global industry which employs millions of people worldwide. As a result it affects, and is affected by the intricacies, fallibilities and fragility of human behaviour. In addition to those impacted by fashion as employer; fashion influences its consumers at all levels. Even if we consider ourselves not interested in fashion per se, we all wear clothes! Until recently, the scientific study of psychology applied in the context of fashion has been neglected. This important area, which affects billions worldwide, is in obvious need of investigation.

Name three under-rated things
Looking healthy as opposed to looking young
Getting older
Chilling out

The CIA’s inner circle of white elephant specialists

CC Licensed Image from Flickr by The U.S. Army.  Click for source.The New York Times recently covered a report by long-term critics of psychologists’ involvement in the CIA torture programme.

It includes a series of leaked emails which suggests something beyond what is widely noted – that the US security agencies have been handing out key contracts to high profile psychologists on the basis of shared political sympathies rather than sound scientific evidence. The result has been a series of largely ineffective white elephant security projects that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

To back up a bit, this new report claims, on the basis of the leaked emails, that there was collusion between the American Psychological Association and the CIA to make psychologists’ participation in brutal interrogations possible through engineering the written code of ethics.

The allegations are not new but as part of the coverage The New York Times includes the full text of the report which includes the full text of key emails.

The APA have commissioned an independent investigation and have released a statement, quite reasonably actually, saying they’re not going to comment until it’s concluded.

But looking at the emails, you can see that the CIA was buddies with a select group of high profile psychologists who later get big money contracts from the US Government. You may recognise the names.

One email from Kirk Hubbard, Senior Behavioral Scientist for the CIA, notes that “I have been in contact with Ekman and he is eager to do work for us”, seemingly with regard to a forum on the science of deception. This is Paul Ekman famous for his work on facial emotions and micro-expression.

Hubbard notes that Martin Seligman, famous for his work on learned helplessness and later positive psychology, “helped out alot over the past four years”. Seligman hosted a now well-documented meeting in December 2001 for “a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers” who “gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism”.

This meeting included James Mitchell, of the now notorious Mitchell Jessen and Associates, who developed the CIA’s brutal interrogation / torture programme.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence that turned out to be next to useless.

Ekman was awarded a contract to train ‘behavior detection officers’ at US airports using a technique called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) based on detecting facial expressions – part of a $900 million programme. It was widely criticised as lacking a scientific foundation, there has been not one verified case of a successful terrorist detection, and evaluations by the Department of Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office and the Rand Corporation were scathing.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

And famously, Mitchell and Jessen won an $81 million contract to develop the interrogation programme, now officially labelled as torture, and which the Senate Intelligence Committee suggested was actually counter-productive in gathering intelligence.

Applying psychology to improve airport security screening, soldiers’ well-being and interrogation are all reasonable aims. But rather than reviewing the evidence to see what’s possible and contracting relevant specialists to develop and evaluate programmes where possible, they seem to have contracted supporters of the ‘war on terror’ for work that lacked an applied evidence base.

The outcome has been expensive and ineffectual.
 

Link to full text of critical report, full text of emails in Appendix.

Spike activity 01-05-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

IT News reports on a serious proposal to have Australian kids exams marked by artificial intelligence.

First results from psychology’s largest reproducibility project according to Nature. Maybe bad news, maybe not-so-bad news – read the full piece for the devil and the detail.

The New York Times covers on a new report by ethical psychology campaigners that says that the American Psychological Association collaborated with the CIA on the justification for torture.

Can social unrest be predicted with social media? asks Science Insider

The Lancet Psychiatry on the history of cutting the body to cure the mind.

Why we laugh. Wonderful TED talk from neuroscientist Sophie Scott.

The Lay Scientist has an interesting network analysis of porn data: visualising fetish space. SFW. Unless your boss is offended by graph theory.

Ants Swarm Like Brains Think: A neuroscientist studies ant colonies to understand feedback in the brain in Nautilus.