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Musical tastes offer a window into how you think

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 22, 2015.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of psychologists show that your thinking style – whether you are an ‘empathizer’ who likes to focus on and respond to the emotions of others, or a ‘systemizer’ who likes to analyse rules and patterns in the world—is a predictor of the type of music you like.

Music is a prominent feature of everyday life and nearly everywhere we go. It’s easy for us to know what types of music we like and don’t like. When shuffling songs on an iPod, it takes us only a few seconds to decide whether to listen or skip to the next track. However, little is known about what determines our taste in music.

Researchers over the past decade have argued that musical preferences reflect explicit characteristics such as age and personality. For example, people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres, and people who are extraverted and ‘agreeable’ tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.

Now a team of scientists, led by PhD student David Greenberg, has looked at how our ‘cognitive style’ influences our musical choices. This is measured by looking at whether an individual scores highly on ‘empathy’ (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or on ‘systemizing’ (our interest in understanding the rules underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines) – or whether we have a balance of both.

“Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like,” said David Greenberg from the Department of Psychology. “In fact, their cognitive style – whether they’re strong on empathy or strong on systems – can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality.”

The researchers conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants, who were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app. The app asked Facebook users to take a selection of psychology-based questionnaires, the results of which they could place on their profiles for other users to see. At a later date, they were asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces. The researchers used library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres, to minimise the chances that participants would have any personal or cultural association with the piece of music.

People who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (from R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (from country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres) and contemporary music (from electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). They disliked intense music, such as punk and heavy metal. In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favoured intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles.

The results proved consistent even within specified genres: empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz.

The researchers then looked more in-depth and found those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy (gentle, reflective, sensual, and warm elements), or negative emotions (sad and depressing characteristics), or emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features). Those who scored high on systemizing preferred music that had high energy (strong, tense, and thrilling elements), or positive emotions (animated and fun features), and which also featured a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.

David Greenberg, a trained jazz saxophonist, says the research could have implications for the music industry. “A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music. By knowing an individual’s thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual.”

Dr Jason Rentfrow, the senior author on the study says: “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, added; “This new study is a fascinating extension to the ‘empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences. It took a talented PhD student and musician to even think to pose this question. The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers.”

Based on their findings, the following are songs that the researchers believe are likely to fit particular styles:

High on empathy

  • Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
  • Come away with me – Norah Jones
  • All of me – Billie Holliday
  • Crazy little thing called love – Queen

High on systemizing

  • Concerto in C – Antonio Vivaldi
  • Etude Opus 65 No 3 — Alexander Scriabin
  • God save the Queen – The Sex Pistols
  • Enter Sandman – Metallica

 

David Greenberg was funded by the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and the Autism Research Trust during the period of this work.

Reference
Greenberg, DM, Baron-Cohen, S, Stillwell, DJ, Kosinski, M, & Rentfrow, PJ. Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PLOS ONE; 22 July 2015

Do you like your jazz to be Norah Jones or Ornette Coleman, your classical music to be Bach or Stravinsky, or your rock to be Coldplay or Slayer? The answer could give an insight into the way you think, say researchers from the University of Cambridge.

Although people’s music choices fluctuates over time, we’ve discovered a person’s empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like
David Greenberg
Death Angel (cropped)

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New cohort of Junior Researchers inducted in Spain

By from News. Published on Jul 21, 2015.

ERC Advanced Investigator Grant

By admin from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 08, 2015.

Professor Lorraine K Tyler, Department of Psychology, has been awarded her second Advanced Investigator Award by the European Research Council.

The prestigious ERC Advanced Grant funds exceptional established research leaders to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new direction in their research fields.

Professor Tyler is the only individual from the University of Cambridge to be awarded a second Advanced Grant under the 2014 call, and has the honour of being the second ever holder of two Advanced Grants within the University.

The over €2 million fund will support Professor Tyler’s LANGDYN (Language dynamics: a neurocognitive approach to incremental interpretation) research programme until October 2020. Her research aims to understand the complex processes and representations that support the transition of spoken language from auditory input to a meaningful interpretation, and the neurobiological systems in which they are instantiated.

The novel research programme will combine advanced techniques from neuroimaging with new developments in multivariate statistics and computational linguistics to determine the nature of the processes involved in the transition from early perceptual analyses through different representational states to the development of a meaningful representation of an utterance, the dynamic spatio-temporal relationship between these processes, and their evolution over time.

Announcement of Cambridge University Press book prizes

By from News. Published on Jul 07, 2015.

Professor Tyler scoops second Advanced Investigator Award

By from News. Published on Jul 07, 2015.

Novel Thoughts #8: Amy Milton on Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 03, 2015.

Amy Milton

Dr Amy Milton from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology relates how Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby’s bleak portrayal of drug addiction, motivated her to dedicate her academic career to finding treatments for addiction.

Here she talks about this favourite book as part of ‘Novel Thoughts’, a series exploring the literary reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists. From illustrated children’s books to Thomas Hardy, from Star Wars to Middlemarch, we find out what fiction has meant to each of the scientists and peak inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives.

‘Novel Thoughts’ was inspired by research at the University of St Andrews by Dr Sarah Dillon (now a lecturer in the Faculty of English at Cambridge) who interviewed 20 scientists for the ‘What Scientists Read’ project. She found that reading fiction can help scientists to see the bigger picture and be reminded of the complex richness of human experience. Novels can show the real stories behind the science, or trigger a desire in a young reader to change lives through scientific discovery. They can open up new worlds, or encourage a different approach to familiar tasks.

View the whole series: Novel Thoughts: What Cambridge scientists read.

Read about Novel Thoughts.

Is there a novel that has inspired you? Let us know! #novelthoughts

New film series Novel Thoughts reveals the reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists and peeks inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives. In the final film, Dr Amy Milton talks about how Hubert Selby's Requiem for a Dream has inspired her pursuit of treatments for addiction.

Amy Milton

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E is for Elephant

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2015.

The Parker Library (Corpus Christi College) is proud of its elephants. At least five illustrations of them are to be found in the Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Among them is an exceptionally beautiful copy of Kalila wa Dimna, the 8th-century Arabic text by Abdu llah ibn al-Mugaffa. The manuscript dates from the 14th century, and is in a fine hand with superb illustrations.

The text contains a series of instructive animal fables which can be compared to Aesop’s Fables. One of the fables has an illustration of a white elephant being shown by a fakir to the king. The regal dress of the elephant is mirrored exactly in the king’s garments, and the fables reflect the close relationship between the ruler and the animal. In a list of the king’s greatest treasures, the white elephant is given next after his kingdom, his wives and his sons.

One of the Library’s most popular illustrations is a drawing of the African elephant which was given by Louis IX of France to Henry III of England in 1255 as a diplomatic present. The drawing appears in the Chronica Maiora, a history of the world compiled by Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and the official chronicler of St Albans.

The elephant Paris drew is the earliest western depiction of an elephant drawn from life. “Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails,” says Steven Archer, sub librarian.  Elephants are traditionally pictured in medieval manuscripts without knees; it was believed that they were unable to right themselves should they fall over.

The elephant is shown with its keeper (magister bestie) who is named as Henri de Flor (Henry of Florence). Archer says: “Paris helpfully includes the figure of Henri squeezed between the animal’s trunk and its front legs in order to give the reader an idea of the size of the elephant.”

Presented to Henry III in France, the elephant was transported across the Channel at a cost of £6 17s 5d. Accommodation measuring 20 feet by 4O feet (pitifully small by today’s standards) was especially created at the Tower of London, where the elephant joined a royal menagerie which included lions and leopards.

In London, the elephant was an object of great curiosity. Matthew Paris recorded  that “people flocked together to see the novel sight”. However, knowledge about its dietary needs was sadly lacking. It was fed meat and beer – and survived for just two years.  The animal was buried in the grounds of the Tower of London in 1257 but, a year later, the bones were dug up and sent to the Sacrist of Westminster.

Matthew Paris also drew an elephant carrying a party of musicians on his back. The elephant he depicts was sent by the Emperor Frederick II to meet the crusader, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1241. It's thought that he made this drawing before seeing the real animal in London.

Another of the Parker Library’s treasures, the Peterborough bestiary, shows an elephant carrying on its back a castle, complete with turret and knights in chain mail. The image reflects an Indian tradition of elephants being used in battles as mobile forts.  Traditionally, a wooden tower is shown on the elephant’s back, protecting an army of men inside. The ‘elephant and castle’ is now remembered in the London place-name.

The accompanying text claims that female elephants woo males with a sprig of the mandoraga tree. More accurately, it states that elephants are animals of remarkable intelligence and memory, “Intellectu et memoria multa vigent”.

The remarkable intelligence and memory of elephants is at the core of a research programme run by Dr Josh Plotnik, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge and a senior lecturer at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Plotnik is founder of Think Elephants International, a US organisation conducting research in the lush and colourful jungles of the Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where for centuries mankind has used elephants for traction and transport. Think Elephants integrates research, education and conservation in an ambitious bid to understand elephant cognition and thus make an important contribution to safeguarding the future of a species facing serious threats.

“In Asia, there are few wildernesses left. People and elephants are in conflict over land with elephants encroaching on farms and eating crops. In Africa, elephants are vulnerable to poachers who kill them in order to sell their tusks into the ivory trade,” says Plotnik. “In both parts of the world, it’s vital that we engage people of all ages in the importance of conservation and in particular that we make sure children grow up with an appreciation of elephants.”

Elephants are known to be smart – but remarkably little empirical scientific evidence exists to support this assertion. Plotnik and colleagues has shown that elephants are capable of thoughtful cooperation and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Both abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates.

“In a rope-pulling task that led to a food reward, the elephants learned not only that a partner was necessary, but also that it was the partner’s behaviour and not just their presence that was needed for success,” says Plotnik. “Recognising oneself in the mirror demonstrates that an animal is able to see itself as separate from others. This ability is one of the main traits underlying empathy and complex sociality.”

Elephants ‘see’ and ‘think’ using a combination of their eyes, ears and trunk. “Our observations suggest that elephants are ‘hearing and smelling’ animals rather than ‘seeing’ animals,” says Plotnik. “We are now just beginning to explore the ways in which they use their sense of smell to navigate within their environment – for example, how do they make decisions about the quality of and where to find food and water, and does their sense of smell play an important role in their decision-making process?"

A better understanding of elephants’ sense of smell might well be a useful tool in conservation efforts. If the team at Think Elephants discover, for example, that elephants locate food such as farm crops by smelling them, scientists and local communities might be able to use this information to prevent an elephant's approach before their interaction with crops becomes a significant human-elephant conflict.

In Kenya, Dr Lauren Evans, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Geography, is also researching the conflicts that arise when elephants and humans share the same rural landscape.  She is an associate director of Space for Giants, a Kenyan-based elephant conservation charity that seeks to ensure a future for elephants through human-elephant conflict mitigation, anti-poaching, securing space and education. Her work focuses on relationships between elephants and farmers in an area of northern Kenya called Laikipia

“Electrified fences are increasingly being used as the ‘silver bullet’ solution to human-elephant conflict across much of African elephant range by creating a space for elephants, within wildlife areas, and a space for people,” says Evans. “Yet many fences fail in their objectives. Elephants adapt to break even the most sophisticated of fences and engage in an arms race with people trying to maintain them.”

Little is known about how, why and where elephants break fences.  Evans’ PhD research has filled this gap.  “Fence-breaking elephants occupy a unique niche at the frontline of human-occupied landscapes. These are animals that take risks, and face threats posed by humans, to raid crops for nutritional gain.  We’ve found that fence-breakers are invariably older males,” she says.

Evans’ research has shed light on the often-elusive social dynamics of bull elephants, which are considered to be more solitary than females.  Through use of GPS collars, camera traps positioned along fence lines, and days and nights of patient observation in the field, Evans found that bull elephants broke fences in loyal groupings.

“Younger adolescent males associate with larger fence-breaking elephants, and watch and follow these experienced bulls as they break fences.  Together they would cross the fence, split up and raid crops, and reconvene in the morning to break back into a wildlife conservancy,” she says.

“Furthermore, fence-breaking bulls devised unique ways to avoid getting an electric shock. Some curled their trunks over their heads and pulled back wires with their tusks, while others kicked posts down with their feet. One bull carefully wrapped his trunk around posts, in between the wires, to uproot them and flatten the fence. I even once saw him push a smaller bull through the fence before him.”

An eventual solution used by wildlife departments to manage persistent fence-breaking elephants is to remove them from the population by translocation or, as a last resort, to shoot them. In Laikipia, 12 of the most persistent fence-breaking bulls were moved some 300km to Meru National Park.

“The results were two-fold. The translocated elephants began to teach the Meru bulls how to break fences, while the younger ‘follower’ bulls of Laikipia began to lead fence-breaks themselves,” says Evans. “Measures to mitigate human-elephant conflict need to accommodate the adaptability and agency of elephants.  We need to move away from fortress-like protection of elephants and towards a reciprocal relationship between conservation and local people.”

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: F is for a creature that looks nothing like humans. But studying them is helping us learn more about devastating conditions, from neurodegenerative diseases to parasite interactions.

Inset images: Illustration of an elephant from Matthew Paris' Chronica Maiora (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); The elephant at Cremona carrying a band of musicians on its back (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); Josh Plotnik with an elephant (Elise Gilchrist, Think Elephants International); fence-breaking elephants photographed by infra-red camera traps by Lauren Evans (Space for Giants).

The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, E is for Elephant: an animal that takes pride of place in the Parker Library's manuscripts, is frequently in conflict with people in Thailand and parts of Africa, and is the focus of some important conservation projects.

Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails
Steven Archer
A fakir presents a white elephant to the King, from Kalila wa Dimna by Abdu llah ibn al-Mugaffa

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Winners of the 2015 Passingham Prize announced

By from News. Published on Jun 24, 2015.

How to read a digital footprint

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 23, 2015.

Footprints

In 2007, Dr David Stillwell built an application for an online networking site that was starting to explode: Facebook. His app, myPersonality, allowed users to complete a range of psychometric tests, get feedback on their scores and share it with friends. It went viral.

By 2012, more than six million people had completed the test, with many users allowing researchers access to their profile data. This huge database of psychological scores and social media information, including status updates, friendship networks and ‘Likes’, is the largest of its kind in existence. It contains the moods, musings and characteristics of millions – a holy grail of psychological data unthinkable until a few years ago.

Stillwell and colleagues at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre provided open access to the database for other academics. Academic researchers from over 100 institutions globally now use it, producing 39 journal articles since 2011.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Psychometrics team devised their own complex algorithms to read patterns in the data. Resulting publications caused media scrums, with a paper published in early 2015 generating nervous headlines around the world about computers knowing your personality better than your parents.

But how surprising is this really, given the amount we casually share about ourselves online every day? And not just through social media, but also through web browsing, internet purchases, and so on. Every interaction creates a trace, which all add up to a ‘digital footprint’ of who we are, what we do and how we feel.

We know that, behind closed doors, corporations and governments use this data to ‘target’ us – our online actions mark us out as future customers, or even possible terrorists – and, for many, this reduction in privacy is a disturbing fact of 21st-century life.

The Cambridge researchers believe that the new era of psychological ‘big data’ can be used to improve commercial and government services as well as furthering scientific research, but openness is essential.

“If you ask a company to make their data available for research, usually it will go to some corporate responsibility office which deems it too risky – there’s nothing in it for them. Whereas if you tell them you can improve their business, but as part of that they make some data available to the research community, you find a lot more open doors,” says Stillwell, who co-directs the Centre.

Around half of the Centre’s current work involves commercial companies, who come to them for “statistical expertise combined with psychological understanding” – often in an attempt to improve online marketing, an area still in its infancy.

The team has recently launched an interface called Apply Magic Sauce, based on the myPersonality results, which can be used as a marketing and research tool that turns digital ‘footprints’ into psycho-demographic profiles.

“If you use the internet you will be targeted by advertisers, but at the moment that targeting happens in the shadows and isn’t particularly accurate,” says Vesselin Popov, the Centre’s development strategist.

“We all have to suffer advertising, so perhaps it’s better to be recommended products that we might actually want? Using opt-in anonymous personality profiling based on digital records such as Facebook Likes or Last.fm scores could vastly improve targeted advertising and allow users to set the level of data-sharing they are comfortable with,” says Popov. “This data could then, with the permission of users, be used to enrich scientific research databases.”

Measuring psychological traits has long been difficult for researchers and boring for participants, usually involving laborious questionnaires. This will sound familiar to anyone who has used an employment agency or job centre. The team are now building on their previous work with algorithms to take psychometric testing even further into uncharted territory – video games. Job centres might be the first to benefit.   

“A job centre gets about seven minutes with each job seeker every two weeks, so providing personalised support in that time is challenging,” explains Stillwell. “We are working with a company to build a game that measures a person’s strengths in a ‘gamified’ way that’s engaging but still accurate.”

In ‘JobCity’, currently an iPad proof of concept, users explore job opportunities in a simulated city. The game measures psychological strengths and weaknesses along the way, offering career suggestions at the end, and providing the job centre with feedback to help them guide the applicant. The team has tested the game with a group of under-25s and the results are promising.    

For the Centre’s Director Professor John Rust, the team’s background in psychology means they don’t lose sight of the people within the oceans of data: “We’re dealing with organisations that are using ‘big data’ to make actuarial decisions about who gets lent money, who gets a job – you don’t want this left solely to computer engineers who just see statistics.”  

“We want machines that can recognise you as a person. Much of the information for doing that already exists in the servers of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on. Your searches and statuses are all reflections of questions, experiences and emotions you have: all psychometric data. It’s the basis for a future where computers can truly interact with human beings.”  

Cyberspace has, for Rust, opened a ‘Pandora’s box’ that’s taken psychological testing to a new level. But, he says, the current explosion in big data bears comparison to a previous shift that happened a century ago – the advent of IQ tests shortly before the First World War. Millions of servicemen were tested to determine role allocation within the military. Suddenly, says Rust, overexcited scientists had massive psychological datasets. IQ tests influenced societies long after the war, leading he says to some of the most shameful episodes of the 20th century including scientific racism and sterilisation of the ‘feebleminded’.

“Today you have another psychological big data situation being used to challenge a perceived global threat: terrorism. Government data scientists hunting would-be terrorists are enthusiastically adopting big data, but there will be social consequences again. In many ways, we already have Big Brother – whatever that now means,” Rust says.

“The new psychological data revolution needs serious research, and ethical debates about it need to be happening in the public arena – and they’re not. We have a responsibility to say to people working on this in secret in companies and institutions: ‘You’ve got to come and discuss this in an open place’. It’s what universities are for.”

Inset images: Facebook's Infection (Ksayer1); Dr David Stillwell, Professor John Rust and Vesselin Popov (University of Cambridge).

Researchers are using social media data to build a picture of the personalities of millions, changing core ideas of how psychological profiling works. They say it could revolutionise employment and commerce, but the work must be done transparently.

Your searches and statuses are all reflections of questions, experiences and emotions you have: all psychometric data. It’s the basis for a future where computers can truly interact with human beings
John Rust
Footprints

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Novel Thoughts #5: Juliet Foster on Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's The Madness of a Seduced Woman

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 22, 2015.

Juliet Foster

Dr Juliet Foster’s ongoing fascination with the portrayal of mental illness in literature was triggered by reading The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Today she carries out research in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

Here she talks about this favourite book as part of ‘Novel Thoughts’, a series exploring the literary reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists. From illustrated children’s books to Thomas Hardy, from Star Wars to Middlemarch, we find out what fiction has meant to each of the scientists and peek inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives.

‘Novel Thoughts’ was inspired by research at the University of St Andrews by Dr Sarah Dillon (now a lecturer in the Faculty of English at Cambridge) who interviewed 20 scientists for the ‘What Scientists Read’ project. She found that reading fiction can help scientists to see the bigger picture and be reminded of the complex richness of human experience. Novels can show the real stories behind the science, or trigger a desire in a young reader to change lives through scientific discovery. They can open up new worlds, or encourage a different approach to familiar tasks.

View the whole series: Novel Thoughts: What Cambridge scientists read.

Read about Novel Thoughts.

Is there a novel that has inspired you? Let us know! #novelthoughts

New film series Novel Thoughts reveals the reading habits of eight Cambridge scientists and peeks inside the covers of the books that have played a major role in their lives. In the fifth film, Dr Juliet Foster talks about how reading The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer started an ongoing fascination with the portrayal of mental illness.

Juliet Foster

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Green Impact Silver Award for the Department

By from News. Published on Jun 11, 2015.

BAP Lifetime Achievement Award for Professor Trevor Robbins

By from News. Published on Jun 08, 2015.

New index of children’s ‘school readiness’ highlights importance of family support

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on May 28, 2015.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Psychometrics Centre have completed a study in which they developed the simple questionnaire for teachers, dubbed the Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI).

The government has indicated that it wishes to introduce testing for all children at Reception (when they first enter school at age four) in September this year. These tests seek to provide baseline assessments of a child’s ‘school readiness.’ However, the proposals have been criticised by several teaching organisations as being too narrowly focused and likely to add to the difficulties of an already challenging period for both children and their teachers.

“If schools are to deliver the extra support needed to help children make a successful transition to school, some form of assessment is required, but the tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds,” says Professor Claire Hughes from the Centre for Family Research, who led the research.

“Teachers need something that is brief but reliable and that harnesses their own skills and experience to identify children in need of extra support. A short teacher questionnaire such as the BESSI could provide all the necessary information and be easier to implement.”

The Cambridge study was a study commissioned by Frank Field MP who, following his 2010 report, The Foundation Years: how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults set up and now chairs the Foundation Years Trust.  Part of the Trust’s work is to develop, implement and promote life chance indicators, which are seen as playing a key role in driving policy and incentivising a focus on improving children’s long-term life chances.

The BESSI questionnaire is unique in being both brief (one page) and broad (including, for example, items about the kinds of support children receive at home).  A previous, much longer questionnaire, the Early Development Instrument (EDI), was designed by a Canadian research team and has enabled teachers in Australia to profile the development and wellbeing of more than 260,000 five-year-olds. This national census revealed worrying regional disparities in the proportion of children with ‘developmental vulnerabilities’, with clear policy implications for mobilizing extra support. However, the EDI is not appropriate for use in the UK because British children start formal schooling one year earlier than children almost everywhere else in the world – a significant time difference in terms of a child’s development and a source of concern for many.

Professor Hughes and colleagues carried out focus groups with teachers in Field’s Birkenhead constituency with a view to getting a first-hand view of variation in children’s school readiness. This highlighted an additional problem: a lack of consensus on how ‘school readiness’ should be defined.

Researchers in the USA have noted that for politicians, whose primary interest is in the extent to which schools produce employable young adults, school readiness hinges on achieving foundation skills in literacy and numeracy.  As Professor Hughes explained, “For teachers, who face the more immediate challenge of 30 small children in a confined space, the obvious starting point is children’s behaviour and emotional and social development.”

Defining school readiness is also complicated by the fact that learning takes many forms – from ‘surface learning’ (e.g. letter recognition) to ‘deep learning’ (e.g. finding patterns or principles).  Some theorists argue that the very term ‘school readiness’ is intrinsically unfair, in that it appears to place the burden of responsibility on the child.  The Cambridge researchers noted that a lack of educational support at home was a frequent issue raised by teachers.

To address these various problems, the researchers developed and piloted the BESSI. So far, this has been tested in three waves involving schools and nurseries in the Wirral, in London and in Manchester.  The first wave was with teachers of over 800 children in Reception, the second was with nursery staff working with a similar number of much younger children, and the third was with teachers of a further 270 children to check the reliability of BESSI ratings.

Amongst other factors, the BESSI provides information about children’s social and behavioural adjustment (e.g. are they able to play with other children or to wait their turn?) as well as measures of their daily living skills (e.g. can they use cutlery and can they go the toilet by themselves?) and language / cognitive skills. Importantly, it also captures variation in family support and includes items about reading, praise and fun at home.  The findings around fun are particularly interesting as they indicate that parental support is not simply a matter of regular reading at home – although there may be a virtuous circle by which parents and children who have fun together are also more likely to read together.

As the researchers expected, some problems, such as distractibility and trouble sitting still, were very common, even among the older children in the sample. However, the BESSI also provided some surprising insights.  First, not only were problems typically almost twice as common in boys as in girls, but these gender differences were also evident in family support. For example, compared with girls, boys received much lower ratings of ‘fun at home’.

Second, children from low-income families lagged behind their more affluent peers – but these differences were removed when scores for family support were taken into account.  In other words, when families facing financial difficulties are still able to have fun together, the children appear better prepared for school – but teachers’ ratings indicated that fun at home was often lacking.

“We should not blame parents who provide low levels of support, or recast problems of inequality as a matter of parental responsibility, or let these findings detract from efforts to reduce inequality in order to give all children a fair start in life,” adds Professor Hughes. “Instead, our hope is that the BESSI will help educational professionals support all children, regardless of family background, who display difficulties during the transition to school or nursery.”

The research was funded by the Westminster Foundation and the Foundation Years Trust.

Reference
Hughes, C et al. Measuring the foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology; 8 May 2015

The importance of family support on a child’s ‘school readiness’ is highlighted in a study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Researchers developed and piloted a new index that might provide a simple and stress-free alternative to the government’s proposed baseline assessments for four-year-olds starting school.

The tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds
Claire Hughes
Back to school (crop)

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New index of children’s ‘school readiness’ highlights importance of family support

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 28, 2015.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Psychometrics Centre have completed a study in which they developed the simple questionnaire for teachers, dubbed the Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI).

The government has indicated that it wishes to introduce testing for all children at Reception (when they first enter school at age four) in September this year. These tests seek to provide baseline assessments of a child’s ‘school readiness.’ However, the proposals have been criticised by several teaching organisations as being too narrowly focused and likely to add to the difficulties of an already challenging period for both children and their teachers.

“If schools are to deliver the extra support needed to help children make a successful transition to school, some form of assessment is required, but the tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds,” says Professor Claire Hughes from the Centre for Family Research, who led the research.

“Teachers need something that is brief but reliable and that harnesses their own skills and experience to identify children in need of extra support. A short teacher questionnaire such as the BESSI could provide all the necessary information and be easier to implement.”

The Cambridge study was a study commissioned by Frank Field MP who, following his 2010 report, The Foundation Years: how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults set up and now chairs the Foundation Years Trust.  Part of the Trust’s work is to develop, implement and promote life chance indicators, which are seen as playing a key role in driving policy and incentivising a focus on improving children’s long-term life chances.

The BESSI questionnaire is unique in being both brief (one page) and broad (including, for example, items about the kinds of support children receive at home).  A previous, much longer questionnaire, the Early Development Instrument (EDI), was designed by a Canadian research team and has enabled teachers in Australia to profile the development and wellbeing of more than 260,000 five-year-olds. This national census revealed worrying regional disparities in the proportion of children with ‘developmental vulnerabilities’, with clear policy implications for mobilizing extra support. However, the EDI is not appropriate for use in the UK because British children start formal schooling one year earlier than children almost everywhere else in the world – a significant time difference in terms of a child’s development and a source of concern for many.

Professor Hughes and colleagues carried out focus groups with teachers in Field’s Birkenhead constituency with a view to getting a first-hand view of variation in children’s school readiness. This highlighted an additional problem: a lack of consensus on how ‘school readiness’ should be defined.

Researchers in the USA have noted that for politicians, whose primary interest is in the extent to which schools produce employable young adults, school readiness hinges on achieving foundation skills in literacy and numeracy.  As Professor Hughes explained, “For teachers, who face the more immediate challenge of 30 small children in a confined space, the obvious starting point is children’s behaviour and emotional and social development.”

Defining school readiness is also complicated by the fact that learning takes many forms – from ‘surface learning’ (e.g. letter recognition) to ‘deep learning’ (e.g. finding patterns or principles).  Some theorists argue that the very term ‘school readiness’ is intrinsically unfair, in that it appears to place the burden of responsibility on the child.  The Cambridge researchers noted that a lack of educational support at home was a frequent issue raised by teachers.

To address these various problems, the researchers developed and piloted the BESSI. So far, this has been tested in three waves involving schools and nurseries in the Wirral, in London and in Manchester.  The first wave was with teachers of over 800 children in Reception, the second was with nursery staff working with a similar number of much younger children, and the third was with teachers of a further 270 children to check the reliability of BESSI ratings.

Amongst other factors, the BESSI provides information about children’s social and behavioural adjustment (e.g. are they able to play with other children or to wait their turn?) as well as measures of their daily living skills (e.g. can they use cutlery and can they go the toilet by themselves?) and language / cognitive skills. Importantly, it also captures variation in family support and includes items about reading, praise and fun at home.  The findings around fun are particularly interesting as they indicate that parental support is not simply a matter of regular reading at home – although there may be a virtuous circle by which parents and children who have fun together are also more likely to read together.

As the researchers expected, some problems, such as distractibility and trouble sitting still, were very common, even among the older children in the sample. However, the BESSI also provided some surprising insights.  First, not only were problems typically almost twice as common in boys as in girls, but these gender differences were also evident in family support. For example, compared with girls, boys received much lower ratings of ‘fun at home’.

Second, children from low-income families lagged behind their more affluent peers – but these differences were removed when scores for family support were taken into account.  In other words, when families facing financial difficulties are still able to have fun together, the children appear better prepared for school – but teachers’ ratings indicated that fun at home was often lacking.

“We should not blame parents who provide low levels of support, or recast problems of inequality as a matter of parental responsibility, or let these findings detract from efforts to reduce inequality in order to give all children a fair start in life,” adds Professor Hughes. “Instead, our hope is that the BESSI will help educational professionals support all children, regardless of family background, who display difficulties during the transition to school or nursery.”

The research was funded by the Westminster Foundation and the Foundation Years Trust.

Reference
Hughes, C et al. Measuring the foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology; 8 May 2015

The importance of family support on a child’s ‘school readiness’ is highlighted in a study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Researchers developed and piloted a new index that might provide a simple and stress-free alternative to the government’s proposed baseline assessments for four-year-olds starting school.

The tests due to be introduced in September are not what teachers need: they are labour-intensive and potentially stressful for four-year-olds
Claire Hughes
Back to school (crop)

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Student–led teachers’ awards recognise staff

By admin from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 13, 2015.

Student union thanks staff for supporting students and enhancing the educational experience

Staff from across the University have been recognised for their work by the students they support and teach.

The CUSU Student-Led Teaching Awards 2015 saw 265 nominations from students who submitted testimonies about why their chosen member of staff deserved to win.

Among the nominees were lecturers, supervisors, tutors, chaplains, librarians, custodians, and a whole range of people who have provided student support and enhanced the educational experience at Cambridge.

The winners - judged by a panel of students working alongside CUSU - were presented with their awards at a ceremony on Tuesday, May 12.

Rob Richardson, CUSU Education Officer 2014-15, said: "It has been a pleasure to read the quality and passion of the testimonies from students. The CUSU Teaching Awards provide a great opportunity to highlight the world class teaching that students at Cambridge have access to, and the ceremony itself was an extremely enjoyable occasion. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, and it has been a pleasure to be involved in the awards."

The list of winners and the categories they were recognised in, is below:

 

Lecturer Category

Winners

Dr Laura Moretti, AMES

Dr Rory Finnin, MML

Dr Katharine Hubbard, Plant Sciences

Christine Counsell, Education

Dr Richard Turner, Engineering

Dr Fiona Maine, Education

 

Supervisor Category

Winners

Dr Richard Barnes, PDN

Dr David Whitebread, Education

Dr Jason Rentfrow, Psychology

Dr Helen Thaventhiran, English

Dr Jenny Koenig, Pharmacology

Special Mentions

Dr Ruth Abbott, English

Dr Julian Sale, Pathology

Dr Yannis Galanakis, Classics

Prof Graham Virgo, Law

Matthew Simpson, Philosophy

 

Pastoral Category

Winners

Dr Louise Joy, Homerton

Dr Paola Filippucci, Murray Edwards

Dr Kevin Greenbank, Wolfson

 

Non-Teaching Category

Winners

Don Stebbings, Divinity

Katheryn Ayres, Veterinary Medicine

Karen Kempton, Robinson College

Libby Tilley, English

 

Image: Thank You by Nate Grigg

Listen to your heart: why your brain may give away how well you know yourself

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 21, 2015.

Listen to your heart

In research published today in the journal Cerebral Cortex, a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, studied not only whether volunteers could be trained to follow their heartbeat, but whether it was possible to identify from brain activity how good they were at estimating their performance.

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, a Wellcome Trust Fellow and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, says: “‘Follow your heart’ has become something of a cliché, but we know that, consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between our heart rate and our decisions and emotions. There may well be benefits to becoming more attuned to our heartbeat, but there’s very little in scientific literature about whether this is even technically possible.”

A recent study from Dr Bekinschtein and colleagues showed that people with ‘depersonalisation-derealisation disorder’ – in which patients repeatedly feel that they are observing themselves from outside their body or have a sense that things around them are not real – perform particularly badly at listening to their heart. Another study from the team, looking at a man with two hearts – his natural, diseased heart and a replacement artificial heart – found that he was better able to tune into the artificial heart than the diseased one.

Other studies have highlighted a possible connection between heart rate and task performance. For example, in one study, volunteers given the drug propranolol to increase their heart rate performed worse at emotional tasks than the control group. Changing heart rate is part of our automatic and unconscious ‘fight or flight’ response – being aware of the heart’s rhythm could give people more control over their behaviour, believe the researchers.

Thirty-three volunteers took part in an experiment during which scientists measured their brain activity using an electroencephalograph (EEG). First off, the volunteers were asked to tap in synchrony as they listened to a regular and then irregular heartbeat. Next, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat in synchrony. Then, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat whilst listening to it through a stethoscope. Finally, the stethoscopes were removed and they were once again asked to tap out their heartbeat.

During the task, when the volunteers were tapping out their heartbeat unaided, they were asked to rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘inaccurate’ and 10 ‘extremely accurate’. Once the task was completed, they were asked how much they thought they had improved from 1 (‘did not improve’) to 10 (‘improved a lot’).

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that brain activity differed between people who improved at tapping out their heartbeat and those who did not,” says Andrés Canales-Johnson from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. “But interestingly, brain activity also differed between people who knew whether or not they had improved and those people who under- or over-estimated their own performance.”

Just over four in ten (42%) of the participants showed significant improvement in their ability to accurately tap along unaided with their heartbeat. This is most likely due to the fact that listening to their heartbeat through a stethoscope had allowed them to fine tune their attention to the otherwise faint signal of their heartbeat. In those whose performance had improved, the researchers saw a stronger brain signal known as the ‘heartbeat evoked potential’ (HEP) across the brain.

The researchers found no significant differences in the HEP when grouping the participants by how well they thought they had performed – their subjective performance. This suggests that the HEP provides a marker of objective performance.

In the final part of the test – after the participants had listened to their heartbeat through the stethoscope and were once again tapping unaided – the researchers found differences in brain activity between participants. Crucially, they found an increase in ‘gamma phase synchrony’ – coordinated ‘chatter’ between different regions in the brain – in only those learners whose subjective judgement of their own performance matched their actual, objective performance. In other words, this activity was seen only in learners who knew they had performed badly or knew they had improved.

“We’ve shown that for just under half of us, training can help us listen to our hearts, but we may not be aware of our progress,” adds Dr Bekinschtein. “Some people find this task easier to do than others do. Also, some people clearly don’t know how good or bad they actually are – but their brain activity gives them away.

“There are techniques such as mindfulness that teach us to be more aware of our bodies, but it will be interesting to see whether people are able to control their emotions better or to make better decisions if they are aware of how their heart is beating.”

The research was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC in the UK, and the Chilean National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development, the Argentinean National Research Council for Science and Technology, and the Argentinean Agency for National Scientific Promotion.

“Listen to your heart,” sang Swedish pop group Roxette in the late Eighties. But not everyone is able to tune into their heartbeat, according to an international team of researchers – and half of us under- or over-estimate our ability.

'Follow your heart’ has become something of a cliché, but we know that, consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between our heartrate and our decisions and emotions
Tristan Bekinschtein
listen to your heart <3

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Study finds GB’s most extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable regions

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 25, 2015.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge used the data to analyse a sample of just under 400,000 people from England, Wales or Scotland (Northern Ireland was excluded as sample sizes were too small), around two-thirds of whom were female. The results of their study are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study is based on data that was gathered as part of the Big Personality Test, an online survey published by the BBC in 2009 as part of a collaboration between the BBC and the scientific community, BBC Lab UK.

“Understanding how personality traits differ by region is more than just ‘a bit of fun’,” explains Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College. “Geographical differences are associated with a range of economic, social and health outcomes – and hence how important resources are allocated. Although participants in an online test are self-selecting, the demographic characteristics are representative of the British population, so we can develop an accurate snapshot of the psychology of the nation.”

The test looked at five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness.

Extraversion

Extroverts tend to be more assertive, energetic, enthusiastic and sociable, and previous research has linked extraversion with physical health and wellbeing, leadership and occupational performance. Our research found high levels of extraversion concentrated in London as well as Manchester and pockets of the South and South East of England, Yorkshire and Scotland. In contrast, the East Midlands, Wales, Humberside, the North of England and East Scotland showed significantly low levels, suggesting that their residents tend to be quiet, reserved and introverted.

Agreeableness

Agreeableness reflects traits such as cooperation, friendliness and trust. The study found that ‘agreeable’ regions tended to have higher proportions of females, married couples and low-income residents as well as lower rates of violent crime.

The most agreeable regions were to be found throughout Scotland, as well as in the North, South West and East of England, suggesting that disproportionate numbers of residents of these areas were friendly, trusting, and kind. This contrasted with London and various districts throughout the East of England, which had lower levels of agreeableness, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were uncooperative, quarrelsome, and irritable.

Images: Maps of personality characteristics across the UK. The redder the area, the level of the characteristic in the region. Click on images to enlarge.


Conscientiousness

People who are conscientiousness tend to have a stronger sense of duty, responsibility and self-discipline, and research has shown that this trait is linked with career and educational success, longevity and conservatism. According to the study, conscientiousness reflects the degree to which residents of an area are socially conservative, nonviolent, and physically healthy.

The survey found the most conscientious regions were in Southern England, pockets of the Midlands, and the Scottish Highlands, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were self-disciplined, cautious, and compliant. London, Wales, and parts of the North of England showed significantly lower levels, suggesting that comparatively large proportions of residents of these areas were disorderly, rebellious, and indifferent.

Conscientiousness individuals were more likely to be married, older and on a higher income, with lower rates of deaths from cancer and heart disease.

Emotional Stability

People who are emotionally stable tend be calm, relaxed, and happy, and several studies have shown that such traits can have a positive impact on relationship satisfaction, psychological wellbeing, career success and longevity. In regions where there are large proportions of emotionally stable individuals, there appear to be large proportions of physically healthy and middle-class residents.

The research found significantly low levels of emotional stability throughout most of Wales and in a number of districts throughout the Midlands. People were more likely to be emotionally stable in the South West and much of Southern England, as well as across most of Scotland, suggesting that residents of these areas tend to be calm, relaxed, and happy. Overall, the survey found that regions with large proportions of people scoring low in emotional stability had more residents who were working class and physically unhealthy.

Openness

At an individual level, openness represents creativity, curiosity, imagination, and intellect, and is associated with pursuing a career that involves creativity, living an unconventional lifestyle, earning a college degree and supporting liberal attitudes.

Metropolitan areas tended to show greater Openness appeared mainly in metropolitan areas, with London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow, but also in parts of Wales, indicating that a disproportion number of residents of these areas were creative, unconventional, and curious. Significantly low levels of Openness emerged throughout most of the East Midlands and East of England, suggesting that large proportions of residents of these areas were conventional, down-to-earth, and traditional.

According to the study, openness was positively related to residents with university education, income, prevalence of high-status professionals, foreign-born residents, same-sex couples, and rates of violent crime. Overall, the results suggested that regions with large numbers of highly open people were cosmopolitan, economically prosperous, and liberal.

To help the general public find out how they fit within these results, the BBC has produced an iWonder guide called Take the test: Where in Britain would you be happiest?

The BBC’s interactive guide asks people to answer 10 questions about how they see themselves and then matches the answers to the region in Britain that most suits that person – i.e. the district where they would be happiest – according to the published research. The guide also estimates how well-matched participants are to the area they currently live in, the nearest place to where they live that they would be happier, and their worst place to live.

Reference
Rentfrow, PJ et al. Regional Personality Differences in Great Britain. PLOS ONE.

A survey of almost 400,000 British residents has highlighted significant differences in personalities between regions. Amongst its findings, it shows Scots to be amongst the friendliest and most co-operative residents, Londoners the most open and Welsh people the least emotionally stable.

Understanding how personality traits differ by region is more than just ‘a bit of fun’. Geographical differences are associated with a range of economic, social and health outcomes – and hence how important resources are allocated
Jason Rentfrow
Scotland ~ Day 2
The highest and lowest personality scores by GB area
Personality trait Highest scoring Lowest scoring
Extraversion Hammersmith & Fulham (86.7) Boston, Lincs (11.3)
Agreeableness Isles of Scilly (87.6) City of London (8.3)
Conscientiousness Isles of Scilly (77.5) Merthyr Tydfil (13.6)
Neuroticism Barrow-in-Furness (83.3) Orkney Islands (4.5)
Openness Hackney (100) Maldon, Essex (28.1)

 

The #GBpersonality quiz just told me I should live in the Shetland Islands...lovely, but no. Should have asked how much I like being cold!

— Felicity Sedgewick (@SedgewickF) March 25, 2015

#GBpersonality quiz says I'm pretty much happiest where I am. But did I adapt to my environment in order to feel happiest there? #ponders

— Diana Caulfield (@dsw26) March 25, 2015

Spooky. BBC #GBpersonality thing says I should live near Coalville Leics. That would be Whitwick where my Dads family lived for centuries

— Janet Kearns (@Jan2555) March 25, 2015

 

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Families with a difference: the reality behind the hype

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Mar 12, 2015.

Over the past 40 years the family has altered in ways that few people imagined back in the days of the Janet and John reading books in which mummy baked and daddy mowed the lawn. In the 1970s, the ‘nuclear’ family (heterosexual married couple with genetically related children) was in a clear majority. Advances in assistive reproductive technologies, a rise in numbers of single parent and step families resulting from divorce, and the creation of families by same-sex couples and single people have changed all that.  Today ‘non-traditional’ families outnumber nuclear families in the UK and many other countries.

When it comes to family, everyone has opinions – but they are just opinions. In her new book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms (published 12 March 2015), Professor Susan Golombok charts the remarkable changes that have taken place in the context of the empirical research that has sought to answer a series of contested questions. Are children less likely to thrive in families headed by same-sex parents, single mothers by choice or parents who conceived them using assisted reproductive technologies? Will children born to gay fathers through egg donation and surrogacy be less likely to flourish than children conceived by IVF to genetically related heterosexual parents?

Golombok’s contribution to family research goes back to 1976 when she responded to an article in the feminist magazine Spare Rib by conducting an objective study of the development of children of lesbian mothers. Spare Rib had revealed that, both in the UK and USA, lesbian mothers in child custody disputes invariably lost their cases to their ex-husbands. Courts argued that it was not in children’s best interests to be raised by lesbian women, not least because their gender development would be skewed. Golombok, and other researchers, have shown in successive studies that boys are no less masculine and girls no less feminine than boys and girls with heterosexual parents.

In 2006 Golombok was appointed director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – a research centre known for its focus on family influences on child development. Modern Families brings together for the first time the growing body of research into the wide range of family forms, undertaken not just in the UK but also in the USA and around the world. Most strikingly, these studies show, again and again, that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.

These findings fly in the face of the media hysteria that greeted the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978. Societal attitudes have since moved on. However, deep-seated assumptions of what is ‘right and proper’ continue to colour notions of what a family ‘should’ be in order to raise a well-balanced child. Real families are complex. Golombok is careful to be even-handed in her unpacking (family type by family type) of the issues, the arguments and the relevant research in a field that, by virtue of its human intimacy, demands a high level of sensitivity and diplomacy.

She also addresses the fact that research into so emotionally charged a field is bound to be imperfect. Parents willing to take part in research are more likely to be those who are functioning well than those who struggle. “It is important to study new family forms to find out what they are really like. Otherwise, all we have is speculation and assumption, usually negative, which simply fuel prejudice and discrimination and are harmful to the children involved,” she says.

Some findings are counterintuitive, others less so. One of the arguments most famously used against same-sex parenting has been that children may lack models on which to base their own gender identity and behaviour. In a study of play preferences, lesbian mothers chose a mix of masculine and feminine toys but their children chose toys and activities that were highly sex-typed. It seems that parents have little influence over the sex-typed toy and activity preferences of their daughters and sons.

In studies of children born through assisted reproduction, their mothers have consistently been found to show more warmth and emotional involvement, and less parenting stress, than natural conception mothers.

“Contrary to the expectation that parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies would experience difficulties in parenting, research has found them to be highly committed and involved parents, even in donor-conceived families where one or both parents lack a genetic relationship with their children,” says Golombok.

“A key factor in the positive functioning of children in new family forms appears to be that they are very wanted children. Parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of infertility before becoming parents; others become parents in the face of significant social disapproval; and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child.”

When surrogacy hit the headlines in 1985 with the case of Kim Cotton, the furore about the payment made to her by the intended parents of the child she was carrying led the UK to outlaw commercial surrogacy. Although attitudes to surrogacy have softened, it remains the most controversial form of assisted reproduction. Studies report that relationships between intended parents and surrogate mothers are generally both enduring and positive. Children born through surrogacy sometimes form relationships with the surrogate’s own children.

Modern Families offers a measured appraisal of the broader issues that are likely to prove increasingly salient (and debated) as reproductive technologies offer novel routes to the conception of a healthy child and society’s understanding of what constitutes ‘family’ is increasingly extended. Last month’s approval in the UK for the use of a technique called mitochondrial replacement has rekindled accusations of scientists ‘playing God’. Perhaps, in time, society will be more accepting of techniques like mitochondrial replacement, developed primarily to avoid a child being born with a devastating medical condition.

Two generations ago, same-sex parenting was widely vilified as ‘against nature’. Today, same-sex couples and single people are considered alongside heterosexual couples as prospective adoptive and foster parents. “Attitudes towards same-sex parent families in the UK have changed enormously over a relatively short period of time. In less than half a century we have moved from a situation in which lesbian mothers were ostracised, and gay men were at risk of imprisonment, to a time where same-sex couples can marry, adopt children jointly, and become the joint legal parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies,” says Golombok.

“But it’s important to remember that these laws are far from universal. Lesbian and gay relationships remain a criminal offence in some countries of the world with lesbian and gay people still living in fear of their lives.”

Families aren’t self-contained units. How do parents handle the prejudice they and their children are almost bound to encounter and how do children cope with what are perceived as ‘differences’? Sometimes the attitudes of the wider world make things hard. While children of same-sex parents are just as likely to flourish as those with heterosexual parents, children with lesbian or gay parents have to ‘explain’ their families in a way that their peers don’t. The need to explain can be burdensome.

“It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms,” says Golombok.

Children born through egg or sperm donation grow up with a realisation that they have a biological mother or father who may not live with them. The research covered in Modern Families shows that the question of disclosure – informing children conceived through donated gametes about their genetic parentage – is a foggy one. 

Legislation that took effect in 2005 gives anyone conceived with donated gametes after that date the right to have, at the age of 18, access to information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).  Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek information about their donors from the HFEA.  If adoption law is any guide, the numbers will not be insignificant.

As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason to seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure. Interestingly, although many parents profess the intention of bringing their children up with the knowledge that they were donor conceived, significant numbers of parents never find the right moment to broach the subject.

Golombok says: “Parents fear that telling children about their donor conception will jeopardise the loving relationship that has developed between the child and the non-genetic parent. However, our research has shown this fear to be unfounded. Parents who are open with their children when they are young – before they reach school age – say that their children accept this information and are not distressed by it. Finding out in adolescence or adulthood appears to be more difficult to accept.”

Modern Families is a timely reminder that every family is different – and that families are both fluid and flexible. There is more variation within family types than between them. Many of the newer routes helping people to fulfil their desires to have a family are still in their infancy. Progress is never smooth – and, quite rightly, innovations in conception are bound to be, and need to be, a matter for public debate. Research by Golombok and her colleagues, at Cambridge and beyond, provides a firm and informed basis for discourse to take place. 

Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms by Susan Golombok is published on 12 March 2015 (Cambridge University Press).

Top two inset images from Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

Families come in many guises. Some parents are same-sex; others are single by choice. Growing numbers of children are conceived through assistive reproductive technology. What do these developments mean for the parents and children involved? Professor Susan Golombok’s book, Modern Families, examines ‘new family forms’ within a context of four decades of empirical research. 

It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.
Susan Golombok
Cover image from Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

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“You need to ignore it, babe”: how mothers prepare young children for the reality of racism

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jan 19, 2015.

An in-depth study of mothers and young children living in multicultural areas of London found that many of the women interviewed had prepared children for coping with a social environment that might be likely to include elements of racism. Many parents advised their children to ignore racist barbs which were made by people who were “rude and ignorant”.

While at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Dr Humera Iqbal carried out a small-scale but intensive study of 36 British-born mothers – 12 British Indian, 12 British Pakistani and 12 White British – living in multicultural areas of the capital.This qualitative research into families from the UK’s three largest ethnic groups was part of a larger project on ethnicity and family life.

The study, ‘Multicultural parenting: Preparation for bias socialisation in British South Asian and White families in the UK’, is published in the January 2015 issue of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

The 36 families studied in depth were all non-immigrant British citizens. The mothers interviewed were at least the second generation to live in the UK. All had one child or more aged between five and seven years old. The children, who came from a range of socioeconomic settings, attended state primary schools in areas of London with high proportions of each of the groups being studied.

Iqbal found that, overall, parents described positive experiences of diversity. However, mothers and children from all three groups also reported experiencing discrimination – sometimes on a daily basis. Mothers of children as young as five found themselves addressing topics related to racism, either as a result of prejudice or in anticipation of it, to help their youngsters cope with the discrimination they were likely to face.

A marked difference emerged in the use of these ‘preparation for bias’ strategies across the three groups studied with 75% of British Pakistani families reporting their use, compared with 50% of White British families and just 16% of British Indian families.

“It’s important to stress that my research looks at a small number of families. However, it is clear that increased diversity in the UK has encouraged families to adapt their parenting strategies.This is particularly the case for groups who are experiencing wider societal pressures. British Pakistani Muslims, for example, increasingly face Islamophobia,” said Iqbal.

“International political events, such as the rise of the Islamic state and local negative attitudes towards immigration and the corresponding rise of UKIP in Britain, have all heightened the current mistrust towards Muslims - a highly diverse and complex set of groups often described as a single entity which is seen to include British Pakistanis.”

The research is notable for its inclusion of White British families who, as the dominant group, might not be expected to experience discrimination. “It was important to include White mothers and children because few studies have looked at the experiences of majority ethnic groups,” said Iqbal.

“A shift in the demographics of an area can mean that White British families find that, in their particular neighbourhood, they are no longer in the majority. One mother described this as ‘informal segregation’. She felt that many of the White families previously living in the community had chosen to move outwards leaving fewer White families behind and a predominance of families from one or two other ethnicities,” said Iqbal.

“Several of the White families interviewed reported feeling different and more vulnerable to experiencing both subtle and less subtle forms of discrimination as they now represented a group that was in smaller numbers.”

Previous research into similar issues has concentrated on older children, particularly teenagers. In concentrating on young children, who were just starting school, Iqbal shows that issues related to race and ethnicity begin to impact on children very early in their lives. Her study makes an important contribution to awareness of the potential implications of racism for child health and development.

“Previous research has found that stressful environments and ethnic inequalities are associated with unfavourable development profiles in children,” she said. “For example, a recent big study found that mothers who had experienced racism first-hand were more likely to have children at risk of obesity. Other research showed that mothers’ perception of racism was associated with socio-emotional difficulties in children such as being withdrawn or isolated.”

Iqbal looked at two types of ‘preparation for bias’ strategies: reactive and proactive. Her research showed that, while some parents downplayed race-related incidents and encouraged children to ignore such behaviour, other parents addressed incidents directly and urged their children to make a stand.

A White British mother told her son to ignore news reports and comments related to racism. “I’ll try to explain what’s going on, and, I just kind of say to him that you need to ignore it, babe… Don’t bite back if it happens, because…that’s what they want.”

How parents responded to discrimination depended on a range of factors – including their own experiences of racism. A study by researchers at New York University found that parents who had been victims of discrimination were more likely to prepare their children to cope with similar problems. This concurred with findings from the present study. British Pakistani parents, in particular, anticipated that their child would encounter racial barriers and did their utmost to equip their child with tools for future success by stressing the importance of a good education.

Some mothers used a discussion about racism as an opportunity to promote the importance of equality and to bolster their children’s psychological resources. Also, talking about discrimination following an incident emerged as an important way of protecting the emotional state of the child.

A British Pakistani mother had experienced frequent racism about her niqab (head covering with veil) from a group of teenagers, and these incidents had made her young son increasingly distressed and angry. She worried that as a result he would have negative views of white people and explained that he shouldn’t “discriminate against a whole bunch of people because there’s a few idiots…”

A British White mother said that her child and his friends had been called “white rats” by some children visiting the same block of flats. “My attitude is… you’re no different, you’re a different colour but you are no different to us… I won’t have racism at all…”

However, a number of White parents did look for “people like us” when choosing a school. Some felt that a multicultural school intake was a good thing but should be a “healthy” mix – in other words not too diverse. Two White British mothers reported moving their children to schools with more White pupils as they were worried about their children being marginalised.

Mothers did not always agree with schools about the best way to handle questions relating to race and faith and gave examples of schools either being heavy-handed or lacking in awareness of children’s sensitivities about differences.

A White mother said that her son had asked for the halal dish being served to his Muslim friend in the school canteen.Told he couldn’t have it, because he was “clearly not a Muslim child”, he was upset and asked his mother if he was “only allowed to eat Christian food”.  She said that the incident was “making him aware of differences between everyone when really there was no need for it or it could have been dealt with in a more positive way”.

Iqbal’s study gives a vivid, and valuable, snapshot of the topics navigated by many parents living in multicultural areas in talking to young children about issues of profound importance to their development. She emphasises that, while parents spoke of many positive encounters with diversity, discrimination remained an underlying problem in modern Britain. Experiences varied in intensity and severity between groups.

She concludes that parents are often instilling protective and positive messages about race and ethnicity. Researchers and policy-makers, she argues, need to acknowledge the way in which parents adapt to changing environments and, in particular, how interactions within these settings lead to discussions of race and ethnicity with children at an early age.

Humera Iqbal was a member of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge until 2014. She is currently a researcher at the Institute of Education in London.

 

Research among mothers with young children living in multicultural London shows that racism is a reality for children as young as five – and that many mothers adopt parenting strategies to help their children deal with it. 

It is clear that increased diversity in the UK has encouraged families to adapt their parenting strategies. This is particularly the case for groups who are experiencing wider societal pressures – British Pakistani Muslims, for example.
Humera Iqbal
A child's portrait of multiculturalism in the playground

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Assisted Reproduction and Family Development: The New Parents Study

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Nov 01, 2013.

Family structure has changed markedly in the past few decades. Starting a family is now possible for a greater variety of intended parents due to the advances in assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs), allowing lesbian and  gay parents to start families for example. 

Despite the increasing numbers of couples and individuals helped by ARTs, these families have not been sufficiently represented in studies looking into how families develop. In order for policy and support to reflect the reality of life for these families, research needs to include all family forms. The science behind ARTs is developing rapidly and as such the science focusing on the psychological, social and emotional wellbeing of these families needs to keep up.

Of the extensive literature on family development conducted over the last century, comparatively little empirical focus has documented the wellbeing of same-sex parents and their children, in particular in families headed by gay dads. Studies including families with lesbian mothers have found children do not show signs of psychological maladjustment, do not have poorer peer relationships and do not show differences in gender identity.  Indeed, children of lesbian mothers appear to be functioning well into adult life.

Even fewer studies have focused on gay fathers and their children.  The few studies that have followed children of gay fathers have found these children did not show adverse effects, and were well adjusted. 

Understanding the development and experiences of these families is important, as increasing numbers of gay men are becoming fathers. Not enough is known about the well-being of these fathers, and the development of their children. Therefore, more empirical evidence and less assumption is needed to understand the effect of gay parents on their families wellbeing and experiences to ensure the correct support is in place, if needed.

This need for empirical evidence to understand the wellbeing of parents and children following ARTs is what drives The New Parents Study, an ambitious study following families with babies 4 months old are visited at their homes, with a follow-up invitation to Cambridge University when the babies are 12 months old. Families included are those who have gay parents, where the child was born through surrogacy; families with lesbian mothers, where the child was born through Donor Insemination; and heterosexual couples where the child was born through IVF. One father involved with The New Parents Study recently spoke about why he was driven to participate and what it was like being part of the study:

“As a family helped by surrogacy we are a minority, we need studies like this which represent us and our families, at the same time knowing the research is anonymous is also really reassuring….

“Taking part was enjoyable and speaking about our experiences of becoming parents really gave us food for thought. Normally when you talk to people about your children there’s a ticking clock, most people don’t want to hear all about what you’ve been up to and how we felt about everything! The New Parents Study team were really interested in what we had to say and were empathetic to talk to.

“All in all the visit was really enjoyable and I’d really recommend any first time parents who have been helped by ARTs to get involved.”

The New Parents Study is an exciting project to work on as we are following couples who have recently become first time parents (with babies up to 4 months old), inclusive of gay, lesbian and straight couples.  The study brings two groups based in Cambridge, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, and the Centre for Family Research, together with groups based at the University of Paris in France and the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. All of the groups involved in the New Parents Study have yielded findings over the years that demonstrate that it is the dynamics of a family that is far more important than the family structure when we are trying to understand child wellbeing.

Another reason being involved with The New Parents Study is so exciting is that we will be able to learn more about fathers who are primary caregivers.  In addition, we have the honour of seeing these families grow and develop while hearing about their family stories.

With such an ambitious project we are indebted to the on-going support and assistance we receive in reaching potential participating families, from charities, clinics, agencies and support groups.

Dr. Alice Winstanley and Dr. Kate Ellis-Davies recently attended several national and international events for ARTs, fathering and alternative families, including: the Alternative Parenting Show (London); Paternal Involvement in Pregnancy Outcomes from Preconception to First Year of Life (National Institutes of Health, Maryland, MD); New York Fertility Services (New York, NY); Surrogacy UK AGM (Warwick).

In March 2014, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, alongside the Centre For Family Research, will be organising an event for National Science and Engineering Week on “What Makes A Family”, where researchers, clinicians, charities, parent groups and the general public will be able to engage in discussions on recent research into family development, and how researchers can take account of the publics interests in family development.

For further information, please contact Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies at infancy@hermes.cam.ac.uk

Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies, are researchers in the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group working on The New Parents Study, a ground-breaking international project lead by Professor Michael Lamb and Professor Susan Golombok into the experiences of parents who have used assisted reproduction technologies, and the development of their children.

The New Parents Study team were really interested in what we had to say and were empathetic to talk to
A father involved with the New Parents Study

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We ask the experts: does society really care about the old and the vulnerable?

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Oct 28, 2013.

Care of vulnerable groups is an emotive topic, often seen through the prism of crisis, scandal and rising costs. Funding is indeed a critical issue. According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, there are more than 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia: on average each one costs the economy more than £27,600 per annum. But discussions about how the ‘burden’ of care should be met, and by whom, also reveal much about our value systems and how we feel about each other. We asked three people some fundamental questions about care.

Charlie Cornish-Dale is a freelance journalist and editor. As part of his postgraduate research in social anthropology (St Catharine’s and King’s Colleges, Cambridge) he volunteered as a carer in a care home for the elderly where many of the residents had dementia. Dr Gail Ewing is a senior researcher at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. After training as a nurse, she later moved into research where she has focused on palliative and end-of-life care, particularly from the perspective of unpaid carers.  Dr Claire Nicholl is Consultant Physician in Medicine for the Elderly at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. She is a practising clinician and advises on the interface between primary and secondary care as a champion for older people's services.

How do we think about care – and could we think differently?

Charlie Cornish-Dale: As someone trained to think as an anthropologist, I would say that care is a fundamental aspect of human relationships and of societies more generally. Care is something we all must do for each other at some time, through pregnancy, childhood, illness, disability and old age. It’s not something which happens only in institutions; care did not suddenly become a concern with the arrival of the care home. Kinship is care: whether we are brought up in an archetypal nuclear family or as part of an extended lineage or clan, we have obligations and duties towards defined groups of relations (sometimes even including the dead), which we must learn to fulfil. In talking about obligations and duties, we are, of course, entering the realm of ethics.

As different societies think about and do ethics in different ways, so it is with care. But what we think about care, and how we care, has changed, as our own society has changed, over a span of many centuries.  The progress of individualism has profoundly changed the way society is organised and with it the structures — kin-based, religious and economic —for organising care. The celebrated anthropologist, Alan MacFarlane, in The Origins of English Individualism, traces individualism back to the 13th century, by which time England, unlike other medieval nations, already had a social structure based around the unit of the nuclear family; this, he claims, was a prerequisite for England’s emergence as the first capitalist industrial power, allowing for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

Gail Ewing: Care is part of everyday life for most people; whereby we care about others, not just care for them. From day to day, care is the practical stuff we do for each other as the result of our emotional bonds. We’re cared for within our families and we go on to care for our families.  When our children are young we care for them in a hands-on way but as they grow up we move out of that physical sphere of caring. There are, of course, exceptions: some people need life-long care. When care is mentioned, our first thought is care of the elderly – but there are other groups who need care too. When someone develops a long-term condition, he or she may need increasing care over many years.  Cancer can progress rapidly, in which case family members find themselves thrown into a caring situation with no preparation.  Care is something many people find themselves doing to varying degrees.

Claire Nicholl: I chose to specialise in medicine for the elderly because of the huge variety it offers you as a physician in terms of a career.  Most of the time, I absolutely love my job: I now work mainly on the wards and in outpatients clinics, I teach student doctors and train and examine postgraduate doctors. I ‘m also Trust co-lead for dementia services. I see lots of elderly frail people; each has different needs and often there is a chance to make a real difference to their lives. The negative media about the NHS, which I hear when I switch on the car radio, is depressing. Some terrible things have happened and urgently need addressing. But we mustn’t lose sight of the excellent work that goes on or launch an attack on the thousands of people who work in caring roles.

Nevertheless, I do feel that as a society we have moved backwards in terms of how we look out for each other. We tend to stand back in situations where in the past we might have got involved in reaching out to someone in need: if a child falls over we feel nervous about helping them up in case we are accused of touching them inappropriately.  In many communities there’s been a loss of reciprocity – the idea of people coming together to help each other. On a more positive note, many of the elderly people I meet do have wonderful families and neighbours.

In terms of what the state does to look after people, there’s been a rise in public expectations of what the NHS can provide.  For example, people who experience infertility, now expect to have IVF treatment into their 40s; people diagnosed with cancer want access to the best drugs and treatment which can be very expensive for very small benefits.  The NHS doesn’t talk about rationing healthcare, it talks about prioritising – but in effect there’s a finite pot of money and it has to make decisions about who gets what and how much. 

Who should be responsible for care?

CCD: What’s interesting is how we, in the west, categorise people and treat them accordingly, and, in particular, how we order lives into distinct stages, each having its own distinct expectations, responsibilities and mode of experience. This affects not only how we experience and understand our own lives but also how we treat others and, in turn, are treated by them. But our categories aren’t the only way of ordering a life. One of my favourite books in anthropology is No Aging in India, by Lawrence Cohen. Cohen considers the idea that, until very recently, there wasn’t such a thing as ageing in India. This might sound like post-modern nonsense; but what he means is that there wasn’t “ageing” as a distinct stage of life, as an irredeemable descent towards death in the way that we understand it. The elderly weren’t sent to liminal environments away from everybody else, but remained a central part of their communities.

It would be a typically anthropological gesture to say there is no ‘natural’ way to care; that there are many possible dispensations for caring for children, the vulnerable, the ill and the elderly, and that these are demonstrated by different cultures. This is all well and good, but it tells us little about what we should do in this, our, situation, other than that we shouldn’t believe our way is or was in any way inevitable. Cohen’s book is provocative, but it isn’t a guide in any meaningful sense. We have very specific problems. For instance, I worry that the terms of the care debate are solely economic. The ‘burden of care’ is always monetary, never moral. But the question of responsibility is a moral question. We have the resources to have a moral debate, but lack faith in them. All too often, moral debate is silenced by somebody who says, “Well, that’s just your opinion”, the implication being that moral opinions are just subjective; we feel confident when we talk about facts, because they have ‘substance’ we can get our teeth into, but we don’t feel the same about values. 

GE: Historically, care has been something that families undertake and, when it’s good and families are well supported, nothing can substitute this kind of care. It’s always been the case that most carers - both unpaid and paid – are women. When larger numbers of women spent their lives at home rather than the workplace, care was something they built into their other activities. But families have changed: most women have jobs as well as family responsibilities and they find themselves juggling their roles. Despite these changes, women undertake the overwhelming responsibility of care. And it’s women who more often than men find themselves alone and needing care at the end of life.

CN: As Gail says, care falls largely to women, whether they are paid or unpaid.  And in both these cases, women are generally juggling a number of roles. Families are often geographically dispersed and women are likely to be working. So women face all these pressures.  Paid carers get minimal training, their work is low status and poorly paid: yet they work they do is demanding, both mentally and physically, and they are in roles that carry a lot of personal responsibility. This isn’t something easy to fix because for people paying for care at home, or for a place in a home, the costs are already high.  Those people paying for places in care homes are effectively subsidising the care of those in the same homes who are paid for by their local authorities. So society does face some really big challenges in this respect – and there are certainly no easy answers. And the pressures on families, and on the NHS and other services, are inevitably going to get greater.

Can caring be taught?

CCD: My research focused precisely on the question of learning to care. One doesn’t just walk off the street into a care home and start caring: I had to shadow experienced carers as they worked and learn from them. They told me that in order to care I had to “turn off” my emotions, to dissociate doer from deed and ignore provocations from the residents. Because residents were seen as lacking the necessary stable mental state to be responsible agents, you couldn’t blame them for bad behaviour, and reproaching them would only upset them and aggravate their condition. All this might sound rather different from the official line on caring, but this is exactly what new carers were doing: learning to see the residents as being irresponsible and undeserving of blame. This account of care’s necessary work on the self comes very close to a famous philosophical account of attributing blame. In his essay Freedom and Resentment, PF Strawson argues that attributing responsibility has nothing to do with an objective measure ‘out there’ in the world, but is about the emotional stances we take towards each other.

When we see someone as irresponsible, we suspend our habitual emotional responses, adopting what he calls an “objective attitude” and making that person no longer a full player in our moral games. This was something I had difficulty doing at first, being completely unused to interacting with elderly people with dementia. I had never been in a care home before and my family has been blessed with remarkable longevity: at 94 my great-grandmother Winifred was still taking a restorative Guinness daily and leaning over the banister to pop money in the electricity meter. Though some of the residents seemed to me as close to dead as it is possible to be when alive, others were less obviously incapable, and yet their behaviour could vary quite dramatically from day to day, or even within a single day, making it unclear what to expect of them and how to respond.

GE: I trained as a nurse at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and I can clearly remember being shown by the ward sister how to bathe a patient.  She demonstrated to me, by the way she went about her this task, just as much as by what she said, that washing someone was not a lowly task but something quite vital. It was an opportunity to assess the patient, observing how they were, talking to them, while the care was provided.  When it came to serving meals, there was the same attention to detail: food was selected from the trolley for its suitability to individual patients. We were taught to make a note of how much patients ate and drank, and help them if they needed help. Basic nursing care was something seen as valuable and skilled. I found the example of this sister inspirational; she taught me a tremendous amount about taking a pride in your work and upholding standards of care. 

As for learning to “turn off” your emotions, I think that you do need a level of professionalism but I think this can be overdone. It’s not appropriate to be cold – but on the other hand it’s not appropriate to be too matey either. Niceties such as how you address a patient – by their first name or as Mr, Mrs or Miss if that is preferred – are so important to the dignity, and self-esteem, of the patient. All these apparently small things add up to create an environment that is either caring or not.

CN: I think the ability to care generally goes back to how you were brought up – and whether you were encouraged to be kind to people and animals, to think about others, and to respect other people’s space. Communication skills can be taught and improved on through tips and strategies to raise professionalism. But it’s very hard to teach caring from scratch. The extent to which someone feels empathy, or a sense of compassion, varies from person to person. If you don’t feel empathy for the people you’re working with, and paid to look after, you really shouldn’t be working in a hands-on caring role. The reality is, however, that if you’re unskilled and looking for a job, then the jobs readily available to you are likely to be in the care sector. As for how you go about caring, your personal style, it’s also true that everyone has a different way of doing things: an approach works with one patient won’t necessarily suit another. That’s a fact of life we can’t avoid. 

Is there a crisis of care?

CCD: I think how the idea of how a care crisis is framed in the media and the public imagination, is as interesting as the question of whether it actually exists or not. Clearly, the economics of care are frightening, and made even more so by the current political and economic dispensation. But we need to make sure we are asking the right questions and looking in the right places. The general idea of a “crisis” might itself be a problem, smuggling in certain assumptions which cloud our thinking or make us favour certain lines of questioning over others.

We should be alert to the fact that we seem only to have economic crises today. The care crisis is no different, being presented as an economic, not a moral, problem. Even a major study like Dementia 2010 sticks to the facts (the figures) and avoids the language of values. It’s the same in the newspapers, more or less. In a recent piece on Labour’s care policy, for instance, Polly Toynbee used the word ‘fair’ essentially to mean ‘distributed along more economically equitable lines’; she did not question whether there might be a way to care for the elderly which not only takes into account the distribution of the cost, but equally asks what they deserve and are due from their loved ones and from society.

When we do discuss morality, usually in cases of abuse by carers, what’s often emphasised is its singularity— there are only individual scandals involving individual care homes and individual carers (Winterbourne View, Mid-Staffs, Hilton Gardens, etc).The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously said that Watergate wasn’t a scandal, because for something to be a scandal it had to be individual or unusual; how many Watergates had there already been, and how many were there to come? American politics itself was the real scandal. He could just as easily have been talking about care today.

GE:  The scale of need created by the growing elderly population has been well documented.  Many paid carers working in residential homes and in the community do an exceptional job – but they receive minimal training and are rewarded by minimum wages for caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society. This doesn’t give carers – or the public at large - a good message about the importance of their role. It’s shocking that carers paid to support people in their own homes are generally not paid for the time they spend travelling between visits – and sometimes not even reimbursed for their travel costs.  Some paid carers are on zero hour contracts which give them no job security. This situation urgently needs addressing.

There is another less immediately visible problem too: a crisis of individual people not recognising the situation they are in. Carers looking after family members or friends start out by providing one level of care but it often escalates so they continue to provide care with no service input – and often no knowledge of what support they could access. This can lead to cases of crisis – especially when one elderly or frail person is looking after another.

CN: I fear that this winter, and if not this winter then next winter, could be a really difficult time for the NHS. In my opinion, we have had far too much political interference and reorganisations which have led to a loss of staff morale and affected the ways in which people feel a sense of ownership of their jobs. In the case of recent scandals, which are inexcusable, most of those involved were not ‘bad people’: they were let down by the system and slipped into struggling to meet targets and  jumping through hoops rather than looking at the care provided to patients for whom they were responsible. A system in which one Trust has to compete with another, and is judged on the bottom line, is not a system that is putting compassion first: it’s a system that prioritises targets over people.

Is there a solution to this crisis?

CCD: I think we need to be certain what the nature of the crisis is. There clearly are economic problems.  But even if we solved the immediate economic problems— if more funding were made available for dementia research, diagnosis and treatment, for instance — then the structure of care institutions, if it remained intact, might still make abuse and mistreatment inevitable.

As long as the elderly and the vulnerable are treated as objects to be administered to, in a better or worse way, then I think the moral problem will remain. The question is whether we can find ways to allow the elderly and the vulnerable to exist actively, rather than passively, within, rather than outside, society. This is the provocative message at the heart of No Aging in India, that we don’t have to do things this way — that the elderly don’t have to be passive and that their existence and experience can be profoundly meaningful, both to themselves and to those around them. But moral questions barely register at the moment. Making them register won’t be easy.

GE: We certainly need a much better career structure for carers to encourage them to develop and move forward – the introduction of NVQs is a valuable first step and must be encouraged. Care is unpredictable by nature: this is at the crux of the challenge. As the journalist Jackie Ashley, wife of Andrew Marr, has pointed out in interviews about their experience of Andrew’s stroke and recovery, paid-for care is organised to pre-planned time slots. Andrew’s carer would arrive at 7am – but he wanted to get up at 6am which meant that when the carer arrived assistance was no longer needed. This is just a small detail but it reveals so much about a crisis facing not just one family but many others too. Jackie Ashley has also raised the question of whether family leave could be broadened beyond maternity and paternity leave to include a range of situations and scenarios.  There is no substitute for quality family care – and we can strive to help families to make that care possible.

CN: Caring for the frail older people whom I see, many of whom have cognitive problems, takes a lot of time and this puts real pressure on staffing budgets. People with dementia don’t necessarily feel hungry at meal times and feeding them takes time, skill and patience. We’re now seeing an increase in the use of volunteers to undertake these tasks in hospitals.  At Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Giles Wright, Voluntary Services Manager, is working on a programme to ensure that all volunteers in the hospital have basic training about dementia and those who express a particular interest in working with older people have additional training and on-going support.

There’s a lot of talk about assistive technology and how it can play a role in care. It’s a term used to describe not just devices that allow people to do things like close the curtains, switch the radio on and heat up food remotely, or ways of monitoring people at home – for example whether they are walking around and have opened the fridge – but also covers the development of robots as companions in the home, something that’s been explored in Japan. I’m sceptical about a lot of this: essentially people need people, not gadgets.   Pets can provide companionship and a new development is the training of dogs. Dogs can enhance the quality of life of a person with dementia – but once again dogs need people to look after them.

With the number of very old people increasing dramatically it’s likely that attitudes to euthanasia will eventually change. At present, there’s a lot of skirting around the issue in professional circles. Many people, especially older women, tell me that they are worried about becoming a burden on their families, and are really frightened about losing their independence and dignity. These people tell me that they would like to have the choice of going to Dignitas but are concerned that when they might want to end things they will not able to make the journey.

To purchase tickets (£6) for the Festival of Ideas talk ‘Melvyn Bragg in discussion: dementia narratives – the art of care’ phone 01223 353053 email mindsarts@gmail.com or visit www.artsminds.org.uk

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

Inset images from top: Vinoth Chandar, Sceptre Publishers, Jess Golden, Magnus Franklin, Phil and Pam, Marmotte73, Melvyn Bragg

 

On November 1 Melvyn Bragg will talk about his book Grace and Mary at the Festival of Ideas.  The novel is based on Bragg’s own bitter-sweet experience of his mother’s dementia. Looking back across three generations, it raises fundamental questions about social attitudes and how they shape our lives. Three people discuss some of the big challenges that face us.

Care is a fundamental aspect of human relationships and of societies more generally
Charlie Cornish-Dale
Steel Dust: Young and Old

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Family bonds: how does surrogacy impact on relationships?

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jul 08, 2013.

When a woman becomes a surrogate to enable others to have a baby, new relationships are formed. Research carried out by the Centre of Family Research, University of Cambridge, suggests that many of these relationships flourish.  The research will be presented today at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) conference in London.

Surrogacy, the process whereby a woman carries and gives birth to a baby for an infertile couple, has become a more widely-accepted way of building a family, helped in part by media coverage of its use by high-profile celebrities. Commercially arranged surrogacy is illegal in the UK and many surrogates, most of whom have children of their own, are motivated by the desire to help others have a family.

To date there has been limited research into the long-term impact of surrogacy on the adults and children involved in the process, but now a study at the Centre for Family Research is looking at whether, and how, surrogacy affects family relationships. 

Today Dr Vasanti Jadva and PhD candidate Susan Imrie of the Centre for Family Research will present findings from a two-year ESRC-funded research project which looks at the experiences of surrogacy from a range of perspectives including that of the partners and children of surrogates as well as surrogates themselves.

The research is based on in-depth interviews with 34 surrogates, 36 children of surrogates and 11 partners of surrogates. Twenty of the surrogates had been interviewed by Dr Jadva more than ten years ago in a previous project which looked at the psychological wellbeing and experiences of surrogates one year after the birth of the surrogacy child.  The participation of these women allowed the researchers to track relationships over time, adding a valuable dimension to the study.

The findings paint a largely positive picture of the relationships between the surrogate and her own family, and between these individuals and the families created through surrogacy. 

“Our research shows that in the majority of cases, relationships formed as a result of surrogacy are valued and enjoyed by surrogates and sustained over time,” said Dr Jadva.  The study found that surrogates stayed in touch with the majority of the surrogacy children (77 per cent) and with most of the parents (85 per cent of mothers, 76 per cent of fathers). Of the surrogates who had chosen to maintain contact with the surrogacy families, most would meet in person once or twice a year.

Most of the surrogates’ own children (86 per cent) had a positive view of their mothers’ involvement in surrogacy. Almost half (47 per cent) were in contact with the surrogacy child all of whom reported a good relationship with him or her. A significant number of surrogates’ children referred to the child as a sibling or a half sibling.

There are two types of surrogacy practised in the UK: gestational surrogacy, also known as host surrogacy, in which the surrogate gestates the couple’s embryo (or an embryo created using a donor egg) and becomes pregnant through IVF; and genetic surrogacy, also known as traditional surrogacy, in which the surrogate uses her own egg and is thus the genetic mother of the child.

Interestingly, the type of surrogacy did not affect how the surrogacy child was viewed by the surrogates’ own children and did not appear to have a bearing on whether the experience was seen as positive or negative by those involved.

Susan Imrie said: “It is clear that the children of surrogate mothers do not experience any negative consequences as a result of their mother’s decision to be a surrogate and that this was irrespective of whether or not the surrogate used her own egg.  In fact, most of the children we spoke to were supportive of their mother being a surrogate and were proud of what she’d achieved.”

Surrogacy offers a means of having children to a growing number of couples experiencing fertility problems or unable to conceive.  The practice is legal in the UK on an altruistic and non-commercial basis, and surrogacy arrangements are non-enforceable in law.  The surrogate is the legal mother of the child until legal parentage is transferred to the intended parents through a Parental Order which can be applied for between six weeks and six months after the birth.  Since 2010 it has been possible for same-sex couples in the UK to use surrogacy as a means of parenthood. Although no accurate figures are available on the number of surrogacies carried out in the UK, it is estimated that numbers are increasing. 

Dr Vasanti Jadva will be presenting her paper ‘Children of surrogate mothers: psychological wellbeing, family relationships and experiences of surrogacy’ at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) on Monday, 8 July. Susan Imrie’s poster is titled ‘Surrogate mothers: contact and relationships with families created through surrogacy’.

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673.
 

Preliminary results from a pioneering study at Cambridge University paint a positive picture of the relationships formed between surrogates and the families they help to create. 

Our research shows that, in the majority of cases, relationships formed as a result of surrogacy are valued and enjoyed by surrogates and sustained over time.
Vasanti Jadva
family outing

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Yes

How to care for carers

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jun 10, 2013.

It is well established that most people would prefer to die at home rather than in hospital. The family members or friends who make this possible (carers) play a vital role in sharing care with the health care professionals involved.  Just as the patient has complex and immediate needs, so does the carer. The carer provides the support needed to help someone close to them spend the last stage of their life in the familiar surroundings of their own home, within their own community.

Caring for people who are dying is stressful on multiple levels. Many carers are elderly or infirm and find themselves in situations for which they have had little preparation. Others have to juggle conflicting roles within families – for example as care-givers to relatives and as parents to young children – as well as fitting care around paid work. Pioneering research into the day-to-day experiences of a range of people who have recently provided this kind of support to family or friends has led to the development of an accessible but comprehensive tool for assessing the support needs of carers – and thus providing a point of reference for putting that support into place. 

The Carer Support Needs Assessment Tool (CSNAT) has been developed by Dr Gail Ewing, a senior researcher at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, in partnership with Professor Gunn Grande at the University of Manchester. Both have long experience of palliative and end of life care research, particularly with carers.Their work was carried out in collaboration with the National Association for Hospice at Home.

The CSNAT is based on findings from a study of 75 recently bereaved carers who had cared for a relative or friend at the end of life. Participants shared their experiences with researchers in interviews and focus groups which explored carers’ support needs, particularly in the last two to three months of the life of the person they were caring for. Carers were asked about support needs that were met and input from services that was perceived to be helpful, but also shortfalls in provision where needs had not been met. This enabled the researchers to identify key support domains (areas) for carers at the end of life.

One of the support domains is the matter of knowing who to contact about concerns. “We found that carers often had little knowledge of healthcare systems and who they should contact for help. What appeared to make a real difference was whether the carer had a main contact for support. This was not just a telephone number, but it was a person: someone who they could contact who knew their situation – who could be reached both in the daytime and out of hours.  Carers did not necessarily make use of named contacts a great deal but reported reassurance from knowing that there was a person they could call if needed,” said Dr Ewing.

“Our study with bereaved carers showed us that the needs of carers fell into two groupings: support to enable them to care for their relative/friend, but also more direct support for themselves, arising from the impact of their caring role. We built the tool around that understanding.”

Seven of the 14 domains on the tool ask the carer about the support he or she needs in order to fulfil the role of carer to a dying relative or friend, such as ‘do you need more support with managing your relative’s symptoms, including giving medicines?’  The second set of domains asks the carer about the support they need for themselves, such as ‘do you need more support with dealing with your feelings and worries?’

The CSNAT was designed as a screening tool to identify which of the 14 areas of support needs require further detailed assessment, thus enabling it to be short but comprehensive in approach. “The intention is to use it to use it to open up a conversation between practitioners and carers to explore, from the carers’ perspective, what their support needs are and what it most important to them,” explained Dr Ewing.

In 2009-2010 the tool was validated when 225 adult carers were surveyed twice – a baseline survey was followed by a second survey four weeks later where carers completed the CSNAT along with standard measures of the impact of caregiving, preparedness to care and carer health.

Carers’ needs may change over time due to shifts in the situation and the burden of continuing, often escalating, practical and emotional demands. Study findings suggested that the assessment tool was relevant and covered all the main support domains; feedback indicated that that the CSNAT was quick and easy to use. It was also seen as giving carers a voice: one former carer remarked that she felt she “could be heard through this”.

The study found that most carers wanted more support with knowing what to expect in the future and dealing with their feelings and worries. “In end-of-life care, carers often find themselves entering a world they are unfamiliar with – and find themselves coping with medications and equipment they know little about. They may need information about the drugs, or instruction about the equipment and devices they are handling,” said Dr Ewing.

“The assessment tool allows them to voice their worries about aspects of the care they are providing. Just as importantly it offers a framework that recognises the important role they play and legitimises their own needs. The way in which professional support is offered is vital. Sometimes it can be something very simple:  carers may just want to be included in aspects of the care of a loved one or even just to have acknowledgement of role they are playing.”

If you would like further information about the CSNAT, please contact Dr Gail Ewing ge200@cam.ac.uk.

Carers’ week (10-16 June) will focus on the 6.5 million people who are carers. Many are providing palliative care for a relative or friend at home. A new tool has been developed to identify carers’ needs during end-of-life care at home and enable them to work more smoothly with healthcare professionals. 

In end-of-life care, carers often find themselves entering a world they are unfamiliar with – and find themselves coping with medications and equipment they know little about.
Dr Gail Ewing

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Yes

New conceptions: single mothers by sperm donation

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 25, 2013.

Earlier this month, we were given the sad news that Professor Sir Robert Edwards had passed away. A Nobel Prize winner, scientist, and fellow of Churchill College, Professor Edwards has received much international acclaim for his significant contribution to the field of reproductive medicine. Here in Cambridge, with colleague Patrick Steptoe, he pioneered in vitro fertilisation, a method to facilitate family-building in the face of infertility. Yet, although the scientific implications of IVF were well thought-through by the duo, the extensive social, ethical and philosophical debates which ensued as a result of their work could not have been anticipated.

Twenty five years on, it is clear that assisted reproductive techniques have raised fundamental questions about the relationship between technology and society, and the role of science in human experience. And while IVF at the outset was explicitly used to assist traditional family-building, today technology has enabled lesbian and gay couples and single men and women worldwide to become parents, causing much deliberation, discussion and debate among professionals, politicians, and the wider public.

At the Centre for Family Research, our team, headed by Professor Susan Golombok, is committed to obtaining empirical evidence on the psychological, social and emotional well-being of parents and children in families formed through assisted reproduction. Having conducted research on hundreds of families of different shapes and sizes, we have learnt that what seems to be most important is not how families are formed or structured, but the quality of family relationships and experiences. One of our most recent research projects focuses on single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child.

In 1990, when the UK government first legislated about the use of assisted reproduction, it was stated that clinicians needed to consider a ‘child’s need for a father’ in deciding whom to offer treatment. In practice, we know that some fertility clinics were already offering, and continued to offer, treatment to lesbian couples and single women, but the ‘need for a father’ was only recently replaced by the ‘need for supportive parenting’ when the legislation was last amended – in 2008.

Many of the arguments against single women using sperm donation assume that these families are likely to face similar issues to those that might affect single-parent families by divorce, such as financial or emotional difficulties. It is often assumed that women who want to use fertility treatment on their own will fit a middle-class, career-focused, 40-something stereotype, suddenly struck by the sound of their ticking biological clock.

This group of women has been widely criticised for the pursuit of a non-traditional path to parenthood which ultimately, it is argued, deprives children of the right to know, and have a relationship with, their biological father. In fact, concerns are raised not only by politicians and the wider public, but by professionals working in fertility treatment services. Clinic staff have questioned whether single women have the adequate material and social resources, and psychological and emotional skills, required to parent effectively. It is often assumed that these women’s single status is indicative of their inability to maintain a successful romantic relationship. This being the case, it is supposed that single mothers by sperm donation will lack the qualities necessary for good parenthood.

Our latest findings at the Centre for Family Research indicate not only that the cohort of single women accessing sperm donation may be more diverse than often assumed, but that concerns about the functioning of their families may be based more upon misinformation than anything else. In our work, we have so far been welcomed into the homes of over 40 single mothers by sperm donation. We have met their children, their families, their friends and, sometimes, their pets, and have been entrusted with significant and often deeply personal information about their experiences. So who are these women, why have they chosen this path to parenthood, and what are their families like?

The women we have seen come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and they differ vastly in their experiences of education and employment. They have ranged in age from their early 30s to their early 50s, with some women initially accessing fertility services as 20-somethings. Only one woman we visited described her decision to use fertility treatment as a result of her career choices earlier in life. In fact, the majority of mothers discuss their decision as resulting from not having a suitable partner at the time they decided to have a child. Contrary to clinical opinion, most of the women in our study have previously been in long-term relationships, and several have cohabited with a partner. Some have had children in these relationships, and others have previously been married.

But why do these women want to become single mothers? The answer is that in many ways, they don’t. The majority of women we have visited have described how they had always assumed they would have children within a traditional two-parent family, and would have preferred this to be the case. However, they – like the majority of people in the UK today – want to have children, and they want to do so in a way they see as safe and honest, and supported by the services available to them.

When talking about having chosen their specific sperm donor, mothers have described different approaches, including choosing from a sperm donation website in the company of friends, to asking very little information of clinic staff about the donor they have been matched with on the basis of shared physical characteristics. Some mothers tell their family, friends, and their children about their use of a donor, while others do not share this information so readily, and others have opted to refrain from disclosing the information, until their children – who, in our study, are currently aged four to eight – are older.

At odds with the assumption that single women using a sperm donor intentionally deprive their children of a father, most of the mothers we have seen explicitly acknowledge the possibility that their use of a donor may have consequences for how their children feel about their families. Many reflect upon the significance of male role models for their child’s development, and several highlight how they have fostered relationships between their male family members and friends and their children for this reason.

In fact, it seems fair to say that none of the mothers parent single-handedly: they all receive practical and emotional support from family, friends, and others, in raising their children. And although they do see clear differences between their experiences of parenthood and the experiences of their married friends, these differences are not always seen in a negative light. Mothers mostly distinguish between the good and bad families they are familiar with. Their judgments are based upon whether the people in these families are happy and healthy, rather than how many people are in them.

Having now spent over a year listening to their stories, and sharing in mothers’ experiences, it seems reasonable to suggest that politicians, professionals, and the public might do well to take the lead from these mothers in assessing their families in a similar way: irrespective of family structure. Instead of relying on a single stereotype of single mothers by sperm donation, our focus should remain on research which continues to look closely at the well-being of the mothers and children within these families.

Most fundamentally, the debate ignited by Edwards and Steptoe back in 1978 must now move beyond arguments in favour of the traditional family, comprised of two married, heterosexual parents and their 2.4 children. In other words, the need for new conceptions – of family life in general, and of single motherhood specifically – is now clear.

Sophie Zadeh is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. Her research with Dr Tabitha Freeman and Professor Susan Golombok focuses on the experiences of single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child, and explores the psychological, social and emotional well-being of mothers and children in these families.

 

Sophie Zadeh, a PhD candidate in the Centre for Family Research, is contributing to a new study of the well-being of single mothers by sperm donation and their children. Her initial findings confound many of the assumptions about this group of women. 

Why do these women want to become single mothers? The answer is that in many ways, they don’t.
Sophie Zadeh
Litte hand

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Yes

I’ve got two dads – and they adopted me

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Mar 04, 2013.

In-depth research into the experiences of adoptive families headed by same-sex couples suggests that children adopted by gay or lesbian couples are just as likely to thrive as those adopted by heterosexual couples. It also reveals that new families cope just as well as traditional families with the big challenges that come with taking on children who have had a poor start in life.

A report outlining key findings from the research – which was carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – is published today by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) to coincide with LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week. The study is the first of its kind in the UK.

The research explored in considerable detail the experiences of 130 adoptive families, looking at important aspects of family relationships, parental wellbeing and child adjustment. The study compared three kinds of adoptive families: those headed by gay fathers (41 families), those headed by lesbian mothers (40 families), and those headed by heterosexual parents (49 families).

“We worked with more than 70 adoption agencies across the UK to recruit families. The participating families were similar in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and education,” says Professor Susan Golombok, director of the Centre for Family Research and co-author of the report.

“Overall we found markedly more similarities than differences in experiences between family types. The differences that did emerge relate to levels of depressive symptoms in parents, which are especially low for gay fathers, and the contrasting pathways to adoption which was second choice for many of the heterosexual and some lesbian parents – but first choice for all but one of the gay parents.”

The study took the form of home visits to the families, written questionnaires, and recorded parent-child play sessions. All but four of the children studied were aged between four and eight years old, and all had been placed in their families for at least 12 months prior to being interviewed. All families had two parents.

Each year adoptive families are needed for some 4,000 children. Same-sex couples have had the legal right to adopt since 2005 but remain a small proportion of the total number of adopters.  National statistics show that annually around 60 children are adopted by gay couples and a further 60 by lesbian couples. 

The bill that brought about the change was fiercely contested and took three years to pass through parliament. Issues raised in the debate included concerns that children adopted by same-sex couples would face bullying from peers and worries that children’s own gender identity might be skewed by being raised by parents of the same sex.

Responses from the same-sex parents, adopted children themselves and the children’s teachers indicates that these issues do not appear to be a significant problem – although the researchers, and some parents themselves, acknowledge that problems of bullying could become a problem as the children become teenagers.

The majority of the children in the study appeared to be adjusting well to family life and to school. Face-to-face interviews with parents, and with those children willing and old enough to take part, showed that parents talked openly with their children about adoption and recognised the value of children maintaining contact with their birth parents.

Some interesting differences emerged in parents’ wellbeing across the three types of family. Gay fathers were significantly less likely to report having depressive symptoms than lesbian mothers and heterosexual couples, most probably reflecting the lower levels of depression shown by men than women generally. However, it should be noted that the level of depression reported by lesbian mothers and heterosexual parents was below, or in line with, the national picture for mental health.

Gay fathers appeared to have more interaction with their children and the children of gay fathers had particularly busy social lives.

Pathways to adoption also differed across the three groups. While most heterosexual couples expected to become parents as a matter of course, fewer same-sex couples expected to have children. This was particularly true of gay fathers many of whom had viewed their sexual identity as incompatible with parenthood.

Most of the heterosexual couples, and a significant number of lesbian couples, had experienced fertility problems. Many had undergone IVF treatment with no success. In contrast, only one of the gay couples had tried (but failed) to conceive with the help of a surrogate. For the remaining gay couples, adoption was the first choice.

Most parents across the family types had had positive experiences of the adoption process with many speaking warmly of the support they received. A number of same sex couples, however, reported that agencies lacked experience in working with gay and lesbian parents and that this showed itself in awkwardness. One gay parent described having the phone put down on him when he said that his partner was a man.

Being adopted makes children different to many of their peers: being adopted by same sex couples could add another dimension to that sense of being different. Interviews with parents showed that they were well aware of the extra challenges they and their children might face – and that they hoped to raise children who were secure in their own identity and valued diversity.

For more information about this story, please contact Alex.Buxton@admin.cam.ac.uk 

Research into adoptive families headed by same-sex couples paints a positive picture of relationships and wellbeing in these new families. The study, which was carried out by Cambridge University, suggests that adoptive families with gay fathers might be faring particularly well. 

Overall we found markedly more similarities than differences in experiences between family types.
Professor Susan Golombok
Shadows

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Yes

Who do you think you are?

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Nov 23, 2012.

Fall leaves

Jiten was 13 years old when his mother told him that he had been conceived with donor sperm. The man Jiten had always thought was his father, and had lived with Jiten and his mother until he was five, was not his genetic father. He says: “I remember running downstairs to talk to my step-dad. It was a relief as I really didn’t get on with the man I’d seen as my dad – and I’d always got on brilliantly with my step-dad.”

Families are changing, not just as a result of a breakdown of conventional family structures but also because of advances in assisted reproductive technologies. No-one knows exactly how many children born in the UK each year are conceived using donated sperm, eggs or embryos - but in 2009 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) put the figure at 1,756.

Donation allows many thousands of people experiencing fertility problems to become parents. However, the conception of children through assisted reproductive technologies brings into play a raft of tricky ethical issues, the foremost of which is the question of disclosure.

“Should children be told that they were conceived using donated reproductive tissue?  It might seem like a simple question, and the obvious answer for some may be yes, but it’s one that many parents find much harder to cope with in reality than in theory,” says John Appleby, a researcher with the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, who is looking at the ethical considerations of disclosure.

“Most parents of donor conceived children face the dilemma of whether, when and how to tell their children about their genetic origins. I say most because, for example in the case of same-sex couples and single parents, the child may well seek answers to obvious questions about their conception though that doesn’t mean that disclosure is an easy task. For many parents, if and when to begin to  tell a child that he or she has been conceived with the help of donated tissue is a real dilemma. Every family is different and families are not isolated units but part of wider communities.”

In his research, Appleby, who has a background in philosophy, has focused on the ethical questions that underlie the matter of disclosure, set against the legal and policy landscape in the UK, with a view to creating a framework for discussion.

Legislation took effect on April 1 2005, which allowed anyone conceived with donated tissue after that date to have, at the age of 18, the right to access information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek out identifying information about their donors from the HFEA.  If adoption law is any guide, then the numbers will not be insignificant. Jiten, who is 22, says that not having the right to information about his genetic father doesn’t bother him – although he’d be “curious enough to find out” if he could.

As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure.

Existing research into the impact of disclosure (or non-disclosure) has looked at the psycho-social well-being of families, comparing families who have and have not told their child that he/she was donor conceived. Studies conducted at the Centre for Family Research have revealed no marked differences between families who had not disclosed to their children by early adolescence and those who had.

“Given these findings, you might ask: ‘What’s the point of telling children?’  But that ignores the risk of them finding out by accident, such as overhearing a conversation, and suffering some kind of harm,” says Appleby.

“As researchers we know of a few cases where children found out as teenagers that they were donor conceived and reported experiencing certain harms such as feeling lied to or deceived. On the other hand, we know of others who did not report any harm on discovering that they were donor conceived. All in all, we still need to gather more empirical evidence before any significant judgements can be made about the impact of disclosure, or non-disclosure, on the well-being of individuals later in life.”

To date, Appleby has concentrated on the ways in which disclosure impacts on the issues of trust and identity, among others.  “When I looked at some of the cases in which individuals reported harm from late or accidental disclosure, one of the harms they reported was from losing trust in others,” said Appleby.

“Basically, if their parents had withheld information from them – lied, in fact – they reported experiencing a loss of trust in their parents, and sometimes in other people in their lives as well. In view of this, parents might be advised to opt for an approach which minimised the chance of losing their children’s trust. Trust is very important to young people and loss of trust in an aspect of a relationship can have a knock-on effect on other aspects.”

Television programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and ITV’s Long Lost Family tend to focus on the emotional impact of having to re-think identity in the light of new information about their family backgrounds. As Jiten’s experiences illustrate so vividly, every scenario and every family is different. Identity is an aspect of the human condition that can be fundamental to well-being – but each individual is likely to shape their identity using different points of reference, not all of them related directly to genetic ties.

Jiten says: “My experience is made more complex by the fact that my mum and the man I thought was my dad, as well as my genetic dad, are all Indian.  My step-dad is white and I’ve been brought up in a household that blends two cultures. There are certain expectations that go along with being an Indian male and when I was able to separate myself mentally from my first dad, I felt free of these expectations. For me identity is as much to do with culture as genetics. Most importantly, when I was 18 or so, I realised that there was only one person responsible for who I am – and that’s me.”

 

 

Each year in the UK over a thousand children are conceived using donor tissue. Many parents find it hard to tell their children that they were donor conceived. Bioethicist John Appleby, from Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research, is looking at some of the ethical questions surrounding disclosure.

Trust is very important to young people and loss of trust in an aspect of a relationship can have a knock-on effect on other aspects.
John Appleby
Fall leaves

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Yes

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