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“Talk PhD to me!”

By from News. Published on May 20, 2015.

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

Memory and mental time travel at the Hay Festival

By from News. Published on May 12, 2015.

On this day: 7th May, 1945

By from News. Published on May 07, 2015.

What The Captured Thought got up to at the Famelab

By from News. Published on May 05, 2015.

The Captured Thought in Florida

By from News. Published on May 04, 2015.

CUSU Student-Led Teaching Award for Dr Jason Rentfrow

By from News. Published on May 01, 2015.

Two grants awarded to Professor Brian Moore

By from News. Published on Apr 23, 2015.

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

 

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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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.

Yes

Families with a difference: the reality behind the hype

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. 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

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Yes

Your brain might not be as ‘old’ as you think

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 09, 2015.

How ‘old’ is your brain? Put another way, how ‘aged’ is your brain? The standard, scientific answer, suggests that the older you get, the greater the changes in the activity of your neurons. In fact, my colleagues and I have found out that this isn’t necessarily the case: older brains may be more similar to younger brains than we’d previously thought.

In our study, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, we’ve shown that changes in the ageing brain previously observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – one of the standard ways of measuring brain activity – may be due to changes in our blood vessels, rather than changes in the activity of our nerve cells, our neurons. Given the large number of fMRI studies used to assess the ageing brain, this has important consequences for understanding how the brain changes with age and it challenges current theories of ageing.

The fundamental problem of fMRI is that it measures the activity of our neurons indirectly through changes in regional blood flow. Without careful correction for age differences in how the blood vessels respond, differences in fMRI signals may be erroneously regarded as differences in our neurons.

An important line of research focuses on controlling for noise in fMRI signals using additional baseline measures of vascular (blood vessel) function, for example involving experimental manipulations of carbon dioxide levels in blood. However, such methods have not been widely used, possibly because they are impractical to implement in studies of ageing.

An alternative way of correcting makes use of the resting state, ’task-free’, fMRI measurement, which is easy to acquire and available in most fMRI experiments. While this method has been difficult to validate in the past, the unique combination of an impressively detailed data set across 335 healthy volunteers over the lifespan, as part of the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (CamCAN) project, has allowed us to probe the true nature of the effects of ageing on resting state fMRI signal amplitude. This showed that age differences in signal amplitude at rest – in other words, while volunteers perform no task during the scan – originate from our blood vessels, not our nerve cells. We believe we can use this as a robust correction factor to control for vascular differences in fMRI studies of ageing.

A number of research studies have previously found reduced brain activity in the areas of the brain related to our senses and movement during tasks that study these aspects. Using conventional methods, we replicated these findings, but, after correction, we found that it is more likely to be vascular health, not brain function, that accounts for most age-related differences in fMRI signals in sensory areas. In other words, neuroscientists may have been overestimating age differences in brain activity in previous fMRI studies.

Why is this important? We’re an ageing society, with more and more people living into old age, so it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions.  We clearly need to refine our fMRI experiments, otherwise we risk creating a misleading picture of activity in the brain as we age. Without refinement, such fMRI studies may misinterpret the effect of age as a cognitive phenomenon, when really it has more to do with our blood vessels.

Dr Tsvetanov is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Tsvetanov, KA et al. The effect of ageing on fMRI: correction for the confounding effects of vascular reactivity evaluated by joint fMRI and MEG in 335 adults. Human Brain Mapping;  27 February 2015

Our standard way of measuring brain activity could be giving us a misleading picture of how our brains age, argues Dr Kamen Tsvetanov from the Department of Psychology.

We’re an ageing society, with more and more people living into old age, so it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions
Kamen Tsvetanov
Brain areas with rich blood supply lower their vascular reactivity with ageing

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Yes

Acting ‘out of character’ in the workplace

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 20, 2015.

We are often typecast as introverts and extroverts. People do have biological propensities to behave in certain ways; some of us are naturally more talkative and sociable while others prefer more time alone. But, according to Canadian-born research psychologist Professor Brian Little, our traits are by no means fixed. Little is now collaborating with Cambridge University PhD candidate Sanna Balsari-Palsule on an in-depth study of 'free-traits'.

In his new book Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, Little suggests that we are often able to override our biological make-up through the adoption of free-traits which allow us to act in different ways to our natural selves. We call on these free-traits to meet the demands of different situations and achieve projects and goals that are important to us.

Little recommends that we might usefully think of ourselves as amateur scientists. We are continually exploring and testing the world around us to discover what works and what doesn’t. We do things, say things, and then we observe the reactions and unconsciously store the results. We apply what we learn from our ‘experiments’ to the advancement of what Little describes as our ‘personal projects’ – a description he devised back in 1983 to describe the goals and pursuits that underlie people’s behaviour.

The personal projects in question might be big ones (such as career ambitions) or small ones (like cleaning the car) but they form the bedrock of our day-to-day behaviour and our relationships with our friends, family and workmates. Sometimes our personal project pursuit requires us to engage in free-traits; other times, we can just be ourselves. Little proposes that the successful pursuit of ‘core projects’ that are meaningful, manageable, supported by others and generate positive feelings can greatly impact our happiness and the quality of our lives.

Since 2010, Little has lectured in the Department of Psychology and Cambridge Judge Business School.  The course he teaches is based on his lifetime’s research covered in Me, Myself and Us – and it offers undergraduate, graduate and executive MBA students the chance to reflect on their own personality. In 2011, Little taught a group of graduate students that included Sanna Balsari-Palsule.

“I loved the idea that acting is not something restricted to the stage, but that we are so often faced with the need to perform in daily life. With the amount of time spent in our jobs, our occupations hold such a prominent place in our lives. In an ideal world, one’s job would fit one’s traits perfectly, but that’s very rarely the case. As so much can hinge on how we behave with others in the workplace, I became fascinated with exploring what happens when people push the limits of their ability to act out of character. Do they experience detriments in their well-being or work performance and does this increase their chances of burnout?” said Balsari-Palsule.

In collaboration with Little, Balsari-Palsule has been conducting projects that explore the experiences of employees in organisations. Initial results from the first stage of research in a large marketing company are intriguing. The findings suggest that extroverts initially experience advantages over introverts in terms of getting noticed and promoted more rapidly. However, when introvert employees higher up in the organisation act out of character and become extraverted ('pseudo-extroverts'), they have equal performance ratings as extroverts, and do not report feeling drained.

Little and Balsari-Palsule offer an explanation: introvert employees make frequent use of ‘restorative resources’. These are spaces in the workplace designed to allow employees to read quietly or simply relax in order to recover their equilibrium after a strenuous session of acting out of character that would otherwise drain their energy. However, if the same employees were expected to act out of character for more prolonged periods, without the chance to recover, the benefits could quickly turn into costs.

In the same study, however, extroverts report strikingly different, and much less rewarding, experiences of acting out of character. It appears that more outwardly confident personality types find it extremely hard – and stressful – to rein back their personalities and act as if they were introverted (‘pseudo-introverts’).

“We found this difference was most common among younger employees. It may be that introverts are generally so accustomed to acting extrovertly in situations outside of the workplace that it becomes a relatively easy force of habit, particularly in Western cultures where extroversion is often highly valued. On the other hand, extrovert employees at the beginning of their careers are much less used to being isolated in an office for long periods of time, so may feel like caged animals, needing to feed off the energy of others in order to thrive,” said Balsari-Palsule.

In the second stage of research, Balsari-Palsule is looking into the idiosyncrasies of people’s work projects and how the work environment plays a vital role in supporting or, in some cases, constraining them. For example, highly competitive work environments, that place strict demands on employees to conform to certain types of behaviour, may leave little time for employees to pursue their personally important and valuable core projects, which could eventually be detrimental to their well-being. She expects that a closer look at the influences of different factors in the work environment in conjunction with how people behave will shed more light on when the costs and benefits of acting out of character are drawn out.

The practical implications of this research are numerous. Balsari-Palsule suggests that it would serve employers well to not disregard the costs of free-trait acting as compromised psychological well-being and physical health can quickly translate into costly reductions for productivity and performance and increases in absenteeism. Instead, organisations must adopt policies and build work environments that are supportive of free-trait expression but also provide the spaces for people to be themselves.

She said: “Management should rely less on handing out personality questionnaires that pigeonhole employees into introvert and extrovert categories, but instead be aware of the powerful driving force of core projects on personality in the workplace.”

Look around your workplace – and ask yourself which colleagues you’d describe as extravert and which as introvert. Perhaps your most talkative workmate is actually an introvert? Research by Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, investigates the ways in which people act 'out of character' – and how the consequences play out in the workplace. 

In an ideal world, one’s job would fit one’s traits perfectly, but that’s very rarely the case.
Sanna Balsari-Palsule
Creative Company Conference 2011

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Yes

“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

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.

Yes

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

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. 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

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.

Yes

Computers using digital footprints are better judges of personality than friends and family

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.

A new study, published today in the journal PNAS, compares the ability of computers and people to make accurate judgments about our personalities. People's judgments were based on their familiarity with the judged individual, while computer models used a specific digital signal: Facebook Likes.

The results show that by mining Facebook Likes, the computer model was able to predict a person's personality more accurately than most of their friends and family. Given enough Likes to analyse, only a person's spouse rivalled the computer for accuracy of broad psychological traits.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University describe the finding as an "emphatic demonstration" of the capacity of computers to discover an individual's psychological traits through pure data analysis, showing machines can know us better than we'd previously thought: an "important milestone" on the path towards more social human-computer interactions.

"In the future, computers could be able to infer our psychological traits and react accordingly, leading to the emergence of emotionally-intelligent and socially skilled machines," said lead author Wu Youyou, from Cambridge's Psychometrics Centre.

"In this context, the human-computer interactions depicted in science fiction films such as Her seem to be within our reach."

The researchers say these results might raise concerns over privacy as such technology develops; the research team support policies giving users full control of their digital footprint.

In the study, a computer could more accurately predict the subject's personality than a work colleague by analysing just ten Likes; more than a friend or a cohabitant (roommate) with 70, a family member (parent, sibling) with 150, and a spouse with 300 Likes.

Given that an average Facebook user has about 227 Likes (and this number is growing steadily), the researchers say that this kind of AI has the potential to know us better than our closest companions.

The latest results build on previous work from the University of Cambridge, published in March 2013, which showed that a variety of psychological and demographic characteristics could be predicted with startling accuracy through Facebook Likes.

In the new study, researchers used a sample of 86,220 volunteers on Facebook who completed a 100-item personality questionnaire through the 'myPersonality' app, as well as providing access to their Likes.

These results provided self-reported personality scores for what are known in psychological practice as the 'big five' traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism— the OCEAN model. Through this, researchers could establish which Likes equated with higher levels of particular traits e.g. liking 'Salvador Dali' or 'meditation' showed a high degree of openness.

Users of the 'myPersonality' app were then given the option of inviting friends and family to judge the psychological traits of the user through a shorter version of the personality test. These were the human judges in the study—those listed on Facebook as friends or family expressing their judgement of a subject's personality using a 10-item questionnaire

Researchers were able to get a sample of 17,622 participants judged by one friend or family member, and a sample of 14,410 judged by two.

To gauge the accuracy of these measurements, the online personality judgements were corroborated with a meta-analysis of previous psychological studies over decades which looked at how people's colleagues, family and so on judge their personality. Researchers found their online values similar to the averages from years of person-to-person research.

In this way, the researchers were able to come up with accuracy comparisons between computer algorithms and the personality judgements made by humans. Given enough Likes, the computers came closer to a person's self-reported personality than their brothers, mothers or partners.

Dr Michal Kosinski, co-author and researcher at Stanford, says machines have a couple of key advantages that make these results possible: the ability to retain and access vast quantities of information, and the ability to analyse it with algorithms the techniques of 'Big Data'.

"Big Data and machine-learning provide accuracy that the human mind has a hard time achieving, as humans tend to give too much weight to one or two examples, or lapse into non-rational ways of thinking," he said. Nevertheless, the authors concede that detection of some traits might be best left to human abilities, those without digital footprints or dependant on subtle cognition.

The authors of the study write that automated, accurate, and cheap personality assessments could improve societal and personal decision-making in many ways—from recruitment to romance.

"The ability to judge personality is an essential component of social living— from day-to-day decisions to long-term plans such as whom to marry, trust, hire, or elect as president," said Cambridge co-author Dr David Stillwell. "The results of such data analysis can be very useful in aiding people when making decisions."

Youyou explains: "Recruiters could better match candidates with jobs based on their personality; products and services could adjust their behaviour to best match their users' characters and changing moods.

"People may choose to augment their own intuitions and judgments with this kind of data analysis when making important life decisions such as choosing activities, career paths, or even romantic partners. Such data-driven decisions may well improve people's lives," she said.

The researchers say that this kind of data mining and its inferences has hallmarks of techniques currently used by some digital service providers, and that—for many people— a future in which machines read our habits as an open book on a massive scale may seem dystopian to those concerned with privacy.

It's a concern shared by the researchers. "We hope that consumers, technology developers, and policy-makers will tackle those challenges by supporting privacy-protecting laws and technologies, and giving the users full control over their digital footprints," said Kosinski.

Take the Facebook personality test yourself here: http://applymagicsauce.com/

Researchers have found that, based on enough Facebook Likes, computers can judge your personality traits better than your friends, family and even your partner. Using a new algorithm, researchers have calculated the average number of Likes artificial intelligence (AI) needs to draw personality inferences about you as accurately as your partner or parents.

People may choose to augment their own intuitions and judgments with this kind of data analysis when making important life decisions
Wu Youyou
Facebook's Infection
Some example personality traits and associated Likes

Liberal & artistic

Shy & reserved

Cooperative

Calm & relaxed

TED J-pop Life of Pi Ferrari
John Coltrane Minecraft the Bible Volunteering
The Daily Show Wikipedia smiling Usain Bolt
Atheism The X-Files Bourne Identity Kayaking

 

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Yes
License type: 

Tired of London? Maybe it’s time to change postal districts

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2015.

Way Out sign on London Underground

Between 2009 and 2011, the BBC collected data from almost 590,000 people as part of its Big Personality Test. An international team of researchers has analysed data from the subset of 56,000 Londoners to examine how associations between personality and life satisfaction differed across the 216 postal districts of Greater London. The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s very common for people to talk about where is the best place to live, but most research has tended to look at factors such as income and low crime rates, and only on a very broad geographical scale, failing to consider individual differences in personality,” says Dr Markus Jokela from the University of Helsinki, Finland. “As a result, studies imply that all people would be equally happy in the same places. It’s a one-size-fits-all conclusion that, as we show, is misleading because one’s level of happiness is dependent on whether their environment is suited to their personality.”

The researchers found geographical differences and clustering in levels of life satisfaction and certain personality traits. For example, people clustered around central and urban areas were the most open – and, to a lesser degree, the most extroverted – with levels decreasing when moving to outer regions. Areas of greater average openness also showed a mixture of neighbourhood characteristics, including higher population density and higher housing prices, higher ethnic and religious diversity, and higher crime rate. The findings support previous research showing that openness is associated with broad interests and tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas, and that these dispositions are often thought to characterize residents of densely populated urban areas.


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The least agreeable areas were found in western central London, an area that has the highest crime rate, busiest pedestrian traffic, and some of the highest housing prices in the capital. The researchers believe this could be interpreted to support the popular notion that residents of big cities tend to be less considerate towards other people.

The researchers found higher levels of life satisfaction in the most affluent regions of London and pockets of low life satisfaction in northwest, northeast, and south London. As with previous studies, the researchers found that people who were most emotionally stable and/or extroverted tended to have the greatest life satisfaction – and this was not affected by the area in which they lived.

Importantly, the researchers also showed that the strength of associations between personality traits and life satisfaction were dependent on neighbourhood characteristics. For example, in postal districts with higher extraversion, lower agreeableness and lower conscientiousness, people tended to show greater life satisfaction if they were more open to new experiences.

In areas that reported lower levels of life satisfaction, the most agreeable and conscientious tended to fare best – to be the most satisfied – suggesting that these personality traits are more important determinants of life satisfaction for individuals living in less favourable environmental circumstances.

Overall, the analysis of personality–neighbourhood interactions showed that openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were differently associated with life satisfaction of individuals depending on their residential location and specific characteristics of those locations. This suggests that finding the best place to live will depend on the match between individual dispositions and neighbourhood characteristics.

“Together, these findings not only add to our understanding of the ways in which features of our personalities relate to our physical environments, but they also provide potentially useful information for choosing a place to live,” says Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. “Granted, most people don’t have the luxury of complete control over where they live, but given their budgets, people can decide whether it’s more important to live in the centre of town, where daily life is vibrant and accommodation is small, or further out where daily life is slower but space is more plentiful. Making the decision that fits with your personality could have an effect on your overall life satisfaction.”

This study was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” observed the writer Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. In fact, research published today suggests such a man may be merely living in the wrong postcode. A study of 56,000 Londoners found that a person’s life satisfaction depends, at least in part, on whether their personality suits the place where they live.

Making the decision [on where to live] that fits with your personality could have an effect on your overall life satisfaction
Jason Rentfrow
Way Out (cropped)

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OCD patients’ brains light up to reveal how compulsive habits develop

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 19, 2014.

OCD Letter Blocks

The research, led by Dr Claire Gillan and Professor Trevor Robbins (Department of Psychology) is the latest in a series of studies from the Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute investigating the possibility that compulsions in OCD are products of an overactive habit-system. This line of work has shifted opinion away from thinking of OCD as a disorder caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, towards viewing it as a condition brought about when the brain’s habit system runs amok.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, researchers scanned the brains of 37 patients with OCD and 33 healthy controls (who did not have the disorder) while they repetitively performed a simple pedal-pressing behavioural response to avoid a mild electric shock to the wrist. The researchers found that patients with OCD were less capable of stopping these pedal-pressing habits, and this was linked to excessive brain activity in the caudate nucleus, a region that must fire correctly in order for us to control our habits.

Basic imaging work has long since established that the caudate is over-active when the symptoms of OCD are provoked in patients. That the habits the researchers trained in these patients in the laboratory also triggered the caudate to over-fire adds weight to the suggestion that compulsions in OCD may be caused by the brain’s habit system

The research team thinks these findings are not specific to OCD and that, in fact habits may be behind many aspects of psychiatry.

“It’s not just OCD; there are a range of human behaviours that are now considered examples of compulsivity, including drug and alcohol abuse and binge-eating,” says Dr Gillan, now at New York University. “What all these behaviours have in common is the loss of top-down control, perhaps due to miscommunication between regions that control our habit and those such as the prefrontal cortex that normally help control volitional behaviour. As compulsive behaviours become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less of a role in what we actually do.”

The researchers think this is the work of our habit system.

“While some habits can make our life easier, like automating the act of preparing your morning coffee, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs, and in the case of OCD, even our fears,” says Professor Robbins. “Such conditions – where maladaptive, repetitive habits dominate our behaviour – are among the most difficult to treat, whether by cognitive behaviour therapy or by drugs.”

Co-author Professor Barbara Sahakian adds: “This study emphasizes the importance of treating OCD early and effectively before the dysfunctional behaviour becomes entrenched and difficult to treat. We will now focus on the implications of our work for future therapeutic strategies for these compulsive disorders.”

Dr John Isaac, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust comments: “Research such as this marks a shift in how we understand Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition which affects hundreds of thousands of lives in the UK alone. Unravelling the underlying causes of OCD could lead to improved treatment of the condition, and may provide an important step forward in the management of compulsion in other forms, from binge-eating to alcohol abuse.”

Reference
Gillan, C. et al. Functional neuroimaging of avoidance habits in OCD. American Journal of Psychiatry; 19 Dec 2014

Misfiring of the brain’s control system might underpin compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to researchers at the University of Cambridge, writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

While some habits can make our life easier, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs, and in the case of OCD, even our fears
Trevor Robbins
OCD Letter Blocks

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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

The greatest gift

By ns480 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 23, 2012.

P.676-1985 William Blake Infant Joy, Songs of Innocence (1789) (detail)

Imagine the following scenario.  Joelle and Lucia are two women using the same fertility clinic. They are strangers and are never likely to meet. But they have one important thing in common: both have been unable to conceive.  Joelle has healthy ovaries; her partner has low quality sperm. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) offers them the best chance of pregnancy but it costs around £4,500. The clinic tells Joelle that she can “share” some of her eggs in exchange for a significant reduction of her treatment costs. Joelle undergoes hormone treatment and the 14 eggs that develop are shared equally between Joelle and Lucia, who is unable to produce her own eggs. Both women’s treatments are successful and each is delighted to be pregnant with the child they so longed for.

Now imagine a slightly different scenario. This time, Joelle’s eggs develop well and two are implanted but they do not develop into a pregnancy. She and her partner are disappointed. Lucia, however, does become pregnant using Joelle’s eggs and has a child.  How does Joelle feel in the knowledge that she may well never have a child while another woman has carried her egg to term and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a mother?  And how will Joelle feel in ensuing years while the child conceived as a result of her donation grows up and approaches his or her 18th birthday, at which point Joelle may or may not have a phone call from the child she has never known?

Controversy has surrounded the practice of egg donation ever since it began in 1984. Egg-sharing (sharing eggs by women within clinics), first introduced in 1998, has been particularly contentious.  While egg-sharing schemes initially supplied just a small proportion of the total number of donated eggs in the UK, today these schemes supply 60 per cent of the total. However, the demand for donated eggs still considerably outstrips supplies. This shortage has become more acute as a result of legislation passed in 2005 that removes donor anonymity and gives donor-conceived children the right to discover the identity of their biological parents at the age of 18.

An article published today in the online journal BioNews sets out the findings of the first ever comprehensive research into the experiences, feelings and attitudes of women who have taken part in egg-sharing programmes, either as donors or recipients.

The research, carried out by Zeynep Gürtin and Susan Golombok at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, in collaboration with Kamal Ahuja at the London Women’s Clinic, reveals a high level of empathy and reciprocity between women seeking assistance to become parents – and shines a light on the ways in which women navigate the emotionally-fraught process of undergoing fertility treatments. Some of its findings confound expectations about women’s emotions, especially in cases with mixed or negative outcomes.

The two-year study examined the attitudes, feelings and opinions of 86 women (48 egg-donors and 38 egg-recipients) undergoing treatment at the London Women’s Clinic – a private clinic that treats 1,500 women per year. Gürtin used detailed questionnaires with a variety of both multiple-choice and open-ended questions to encourage women to describe their innermost feelings on aspects of egg-sharing – that ranged from their motivations in signing up to programmes to their retrospective reflections on their experiences.

Opponents of egg-sharing have been concerned that these programmes may have a negative and harmful impact on the long-term welfare of the women opting to donate their eggs – for example that this group of donors, known as patient donors, might be financially motivated, that their consent will be compromised if they are otherwise unable to access much-wanted treatments, or that they might suffer psychological damage, especially if their own treatment ends unsuccessfully.

Clinics operating egg-sharing schemes offer substantially lower IVF costs to those willing to donate their eggs to other women receiving treatments – and sometimes waive donors’ fees altogether. However, The Cambridge University research suggests that much of the criticism levelled at egg-sharing, including concern about financial inducements, is ill-founded.  What emerged strongly from the study was that the desire to help others played a significant part in the women’s decision-making and that money was by no means the only factor.

It was clear that both donors and recipients had thought deeply about each other’s predicaments. For example, one recipient wrote: “Taking part in the egg-sharing programme made me feel most comfortable because the donor went through the whole procedure mainly for herself and not just for me. So any health risks she took mainly because she wanted to get pregnant herself.” A donor reported simply that: “It felt right to share – I give blood, I am on the organ donor list and registered on the bone marrow register.”

“The women’s motivations to share their eggs were multiple: their own desire to have a baby, the opportunity of accessing cheaper treatment and the chance to help someone else all played an important role in their decisions. Reassuringly, we also found very low levels of regret among egg-share donors. Contrary to expectations, donors whose own treatments were unsuccessful were not resentful of recipients who became pregnant. In fact, some were comforted by the thought that their efforts, though of no direct benefit to their own situation, may have benefited someone else wishing to have a child.” said Gürtin.

“Many of the feelings and opinions expressed in the questionnaire were moving to read. Donors and recipients clearly empathised strongly with one another, as fellow women experiencing fertility problems, and imagined themselves as part of a reciprocal relationship with this important stranger. It was also clear that every woman has a different way of dealing with the experience of seeking assistance from clinics – for example, some shared information widely with family and friends, others were much more private. We’re very grateful to all the women who shared their experiences with us in order to provide some empirical evidence in a field that is by its very nature highly sensitive.”

The study enabled Gürtin to build a picture of the demographics and background of egg-sharers – both donors and recipients. “When people think about women going through fertility treatment they tend to picture heterosexual couples having problems with conceiving, however the landscape of assisted reproduction is changing. Although it’s true that the majority of our respondents fit into that category, we found that 34 per cent of the recipients in our sample were single women.  Moreover, 27 per cent of donors were in lesbian relationships.  These women had already embraced the idea of using donated sperm and so the notion of giving eggs made sense to them in a way that one of them described as ‘obvious’ and another as a ‘no brainer’: the concept of donation was something they believed in,” said Gürtin.

“When we compared donors and recipients we did not find any significant differences in ethnicity, religion, educational levels and occupations. The one striking difference was that recipients tended to be older than donors – on average 11 years older – a factor that is directly related to the fertility characteristics of the two groups.  It was apparent that, for all the women, there was a highly nuanced balancing of the issues involved, whether practical and pragmatic or emotional and financial.”

Infertility affects growing numbers of women and is the second most common reason (after pregnancy) for women aged 20-45 to consult their GP. Treatments for infertility have seen huge advances in the past 30 years – and clinics offering IVF have proliferated. The shortage of donated eggs, the expense of treatments and long waiting lists, have led to a big rise in the numbers of British women seeking treatments overseas. It is thought that many would prefer to receive treatments in their own country.

After a lengthy review of their donation policies, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) last year announced a flat-rate compensation of £750 in order to encourage more women to donate eggs. It came in effect at the start of April. Gürtin said: “This move is clearly targeted at non-patient donors, and there was no discussion of whether or how egg-sharing within clinics should be increased. However, we think that with more information provision and more focus, egg-sharing schemes have the potential to meet an even greater proportion of the demand for donor eggs in the UK, in a way that is beneficial to both donors and recipients.”

The first comprehensive study of egg-sharing between women undergoing fertility treatment reveals striking empathy on the part of donors and recipients – and may dispel concerns about programmes that offer ‘benefits-in-kind’ in return for donated eggs.

Contrary to expectations, donors whose own treatments were unsuccessful were not resentful of recipients who became pregnant.
Zeynep Gürtin
P.676-1985 William Blake Infant Joy, Songs of Innocence (1789) (detail)

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