Category Archives: psychology

The Male Psychology Conference, 2019

Note added 6th August 2019: Videos of the talks are no available here.

There must come a time when I can no longer honestly say that this was the best conference to-date. But that time has not yet come. The landmark event since the last conference was undoubtedly the vote to authorise the new Male Psychology Section (MPS) within the British Psychological Society (BPS). Whilst you must be a member of BPS to join MPS, any interested person can join the Male Psychology Network (MPN), here. The creation of the MPS may mean that next year’s conference may be organised under the auspices of the BPS, it remains to be seen. This year was the 6th in the series, and the 5th attended by your correspondent. Over the two days there were some 25 papers presented, plus (for the first time) some parallel Workshop sessions. I cannot do justice to all the talks or I’d be bashing this keyboard for a week. I apologise in advance for any inaccuracies in representing the authors’ words. All the talks were videoed by the omnipresent Tom and will appear on YouTube in due course.

Friday 21st June 2019

Nicola Graham-Kevan (Uni. Central Lancs) spoke to the impact of intimate partner violence (IPV) on children. This is the third time I’ve heard Nicola speak (though the first time at this series of conferences), and she’s always a good turn.  She noted, and repudiated, the usual narrative that witnessing parental violence teaches boys to be violent and girls to be victims. Quote, “IPV is not a learning experience for boys, it’s an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience)”. Exposure to IPV can induce PTSD and multiple ACEs. One of the effects is “threat bias” in which, for example, an ambiguous facial expression tends to be interpreted as aggressive. (I was reminded of Roy Baumeister’s observation that “the most aggressive boys tended to see hostility and aggression when it wasn’t really there. They interpreted relatively innocuous and agreeable interactions as attempts to dominate others aggressively”). Nicola highlighted the distinction between PTSD and “complex trauma”, IPV also inducing the latter which may have symptoms which take many years to manifest. She noted that these symptoms have strong overlaps with those of ADHD. This led to a discussion of ADHD, which is diagnosed in boys about 5 times more frequently than in girls. She noted, however, that this may be an over-diagnosis in boys, female caregivers, teachers, etc., misinterpreting normal boy-behaviour as pathological. She also noted in the context of ADHD that there is a tendency to medicate boys rather than help them. Boys, she observed, also had a greater incidence of ACEs than girls, and substantially worse outcomes. The failure to target women’s IPV may be a neglected source of such ACEs. Finally, Nicola noted that the police are less likely to charge a woman with IPV than a man, and the CPS is less likely to prosecute, so the prosecution statistics are probably gender-skewed.

Andrew Briggs, “Passing fatherhood skills through the generations”. Andrew started his talk with two quotes: “I cannot think of any need in childhood so strong as the need for a father’s protection” (Freud), and “It depends what the mother does about it whether the father does or does not get to know his baby” (Donald Winnicott). The latter relates to the mother as gatekeeper, which invests power in the mother and renders the father powerless. I wondered whether this was the origin of matricentrism. Andrew summarised the unique father role as consisting of four elements: prohibiting, protection, differentiation & support. Prohibiting is to be seen as socialisation away from more naturalistic (anti-social) tendencies. Part of the protecting role is to protect the child from the tendency to form a symbiotic dyadic relationship with the mother alone. Andrew also emphasised the importance of rough & tumble play. He followed with a case study which involved a father who took on maternal functions but no one took on the father’s functions. The case included a cross-dressing boy. I wondered whether the upsurge in (apparent) gender dysphoria may be related to the current cultural suppression of the fatherhood role. Unfortunately I never managed to ask Andrew that question.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Under Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention). Whilst we have had MPs at this series of conferences before, getting a serving Minister to speak here was another significant milestone. Inevitably she referred to men being reluctant to seek help or talk about their feelings. No, they are not. The apparent reluctance depends entirely on where and to whom they have the opportunity to talk. There are ten meetings of the charity FNF-BPM Cymru every month in Wales alone (which represents less than 5% of the UK population) at which you could witness men talking about their feelings unrestrained and at length (not to mention Andy’s Man Clubs, Mankind Initiative helplines and CALM helplines). As another speaker emphasised later, men have to feel safe to speak. In a society which stands ever ready to condemn men and withhold empathy, the anticipated reaction is everything in determining whether men talk. However, the Minister did make reference to the significance of relationship breakdown in men’s mental health & suicidality, which is a step forward – mention of this elephant-in-the-room is still a no-go area for most politicians. I was pleased to hear Andy’s Man Club get a mention by the Minister. She also mentioned £2M being granted to the Zero Suicide Alliance, of which I had not heard before but is primarily a collaboration of NHS Trusts, plus many other member organisations. I’m guessing none of this will be used to elucidate the reasons for male suicide, based on past experience. I’m hoping work at Cardiff University might do so (watch this space). The Minister was challenged strongly in Q&A by an FNF member for the Government’s exclusion of FNF from the DV Bill Consultation. Getting an opportunity to throw these glaring biases at a Minister is rare, but at least she turned up, which is progress.

Appropriately, this was followed by Vince McGovern & John Barry, “Distress caused by family breakdown”. Vince told us his own personal story & about his activities supporting other fathers in child contact issues (most UK readers will be familiar with FNF’s Vince McGovern). John reported a small survey, with almost all male respondents, sponsored by FNF. This deployed a quantitative measure “PMI” (Positive Mindset Index). The issues which were found to correlate most strongly with (a negative impact on) PMI were family court and child contact issues.

Liz Bates (Univ. Cumbria), “Men & Their Experiences of DV”: Liz gave a good run through the contrast between the feminist gendered paradigm of DV versus the empirical evidence. She noted that women can be even more controlling than men, and have the ability to deploy “the system” against men, including false allegations. Another mechanism of control was the mother’s exploitation of her gatekeeping in respect of access to the children, especially after separation. Liz noted that the No.1 reason for men not leaving violent women is fear for the children. Another barrier to leaving is men’s feeling that it represents failure as a man or as a father. As with ancient Charivari (which Liz mentioned explicitly) “real men” are expected to control their wives, not the other way around. I wondered at this point whether the societal obliteration of respect for men, and hence of any male authority, is acting to increase their domestic victimisation.  Liz referred to the societal prejudice that women’s violence against men is somehow less significant than vice-versa. But she emphasised that she knew that the nature of men’s victimisation is very similar to that of women. She gave many quotes from male victims, some of which were really extreme (e.g., sexual torture). In terms of coercive control, deliberately engineered isolation of the target from his friends and family was a common strategy, as was gaslighting. Victimisation of older men (>60) was just as severe. Liz also made reference to the screening of male callers by many helplines, even those ostensibly for male victims.

Tania Reynolds, (Dept of Gender Studies, Univ. of Indiana), “Gender bias in moral typecasting (man-up and take it)”: Tania presented the results of several different studies aimed at elucidating if one sex is more easily typecast as a victim and one sex more typecast as a perpetrator. In one of these studies the participants watched an animation of abstract shapes (triangles) engaged in what could be interpreted as a harm situation, and were then asked to assign genders to the victimised or perpetrating “triangles”. I somehow suspect you’ve guessed the outcome. Over 5 studies (N=1538) the results consistently showed females associated more with the victim role and males more with the perpetrator role, even when the “people” in question were just triangles. The value of the latter was that all extraneous factors were eliminated. She concluded, “This cognitive bias may contribute to a general reluctance to respond to men’s suffering.” In other words, empirical evidence for the empathy gap.

Ben Hine (Univ. West London), “Attrition in Male Rape Cases”: “Attrition” is the term given to the reduction in the volume of cases of a given offence type as cases progress through the many stages of the criminal justice process. Hine was interested in the difference between attrition of rape cases for male and female victims. He noted that detailed data was hard to come by and had not yet extended the study to data on prosecutions and convictions. However, there were some substantial sex differences in the attritions at earlier stages in the process. Complaints by males were twice as likely as those by females to be “no crimed” (26.8% cf 14%) and three times as likely to be marked “no further action” (32% cf 11%). However, complaints by males were only one-quarter as likely as complaints by females to be withdrawn once made (15.2% cf 60%). But a rather greater proportion of male-rape cases which were reported to the police were referred to the CPS (23.2% cf 15%), noting that the proportion which the CPS decided to prosecute was not given. Hine noted that the system’s response to male victims was poorer than that to female victims, despite victim profiles being similar. [Aside: for attrition data as far as actual convictions, comparing the two sexes, see my forthcoming book].

Kevin Wright, “The Importance of Dads to Boys’ Development”: Kevin has had a long career including working with violent youths & gangs, amongst other things. He observed that many young fathers wanted to be a good father but had no idea of what that entailed, having never had a father themselves. He emphasised the importance of a child’s first few years of life as building blocks to socialisation. The years 8 to 12 are also a critical age as a boy tries to make sense of the world and tends to see his father as representing that outside world: no father, diminished connection with the world, poor socialisation. If Dad disappears, the child may feel he has done something wrong. Much of the failure of white working class boys in education is due to father absence, or father disengagement, giving the impression that education is not important. In terms of behaviour, the manner in which Dad handles stress tends to be copied by his children. A child who is not valued will tend not to value others. A boy who is not valued by his father will forever be striving for perfection, forever seeking approval from his father. If you want know just one thing that fathers should do to encourage their children’s education, it is to read to them – especially to boys.

Eric Anderson (Professor of Masculinities & Sport, Winchester): “Beyond Belief”. The irrepressible Professor Anderson opened by regaling the audience in passionate terms with his new found belief in The Lord – he just knew. So many millions of God-believers couldn’t wrong! Fortunately I know Eric too well to be taken in by his born-again conversion to theism. The audience, though, appeared a little tense: what sort of kook have we let in? Of course, it was actually a dramatic introduction to Eric’s apostacy from the religion of feminism. He repeated the first couple of minutes of his talk replacing “God” with “Patriarchy” – and an exhaling of relief was audible from the audience at its first instance. He referred to the great difficulty in overcoming the in-group mindset. This is even more difficult with feminism than theism. At least the latter openly admits that it’s a matter of faith, whereas feminism has latched onto the trappings of science to lend it spurious legitimacy. Patriarchy, he concluded, is just a big basket of nuts.

Martin Seager & John Barry, “Gamma Bias: the Cognitive Gender Distortion Matrix”. The conference hosts & organisers explained their concept of gamma bias. Alpha bias magnifies an effect, beta bias minimises an effect, whereas gamma bias is a combination of cognitive biases in which (i) benefits to men are subject to alpha bias but harms to men are subject to beta bias, and, (ii) beneficial effects to women are subject to beta bias whilst harms to women are subject to alpha bias. Their presentation was delivered via an animation which was excellent – very effective use of the medium.

Gijsbert Stoet “Global Gender Equality”: Gijsbert presented his work on BIGI (Basic Index of Gender Inequality) an alternative to the World Economic Forum’s GGGI (Global Gender Gap Index). I blogged on the original paper last year, so I’ll refer you to that piece. The most important aspect of GGGI which makes it a nonsense is that it ‘caps’ the measure so that any disadvantages to men are defined into non-existence. Gijsbert was gentler: he merely referred to it as an index of women’s empowerment, as opposed to an index of inequality. He made reference to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, in which the skew towards women’s issues was already very much in evidence. The conclusion from deploying BIGI was “in 91 (68%) of the 134 countries, men were on average more disadvantaged than women, and in the other 43 (32%) countries, women were more disadvantaged than men.” Men are the more disadvantaged in the more developed, richer, nations. One thing puzzled me: Gijsbert claimed that in the poorest countries women are educationally disadvantaged in comparison with men. Whilst this is exactly the popular narrative, the data I have seen does not support a significant difference (see here). However, in Q&A, Gijsbert informed us that he had used the raw education data from the Global Gender Gap Report. Hmm, I must investigate that data more closely – another thing for my ever growing list.

Guy Madison, “Does Gender Equality Mean Equality for Men? Examples from Sweden”: The talk was largely focussed on gender differences in personality traits. Guy critiqued the “similarity hypothesis”. He referred to the sex difference in height (which is beyond any doubt) having an effect size of 1.9 whereas the effect size of sex in personality traits is even larger, 2.7. I hope I didn’t misunderstand that. (I think this was based on the Big Five personality traits – I have a dim recollection that the sex difference in the sub-traits is larger). Guy showed data from a large range of countries which showed the sex dependence of personality traits to be remarkably stable, thus indicating an innate, biologically based, difference. He presented data on the (now famous) “gender paradox” – which isn’t paradoxical at all, of course – and concluded that we really shouldn’t be enforcing equality of outcome. Couldn’t agree more.

Martin Daubney “AI & Men”: Martin has been a long-time contributor to this conference, but is now a newly elected MEP, which puts rather a different spin on his contribution. Always a passionate speaker, he talked about the results of the “Harry’s” survey which he assisted John Barry in carrying out. The relevance of AI is that they found that men were far more comfortable talking to an app than to a real person (3 times more). This is a learning point for charities attempting to engage with men. Quote, “Let’s not try to change how men talk, but the way we listen”.  

Saturday 22nd June 2019

Roger Kingerlee, “Male Friendly Intervention”: The talk addressed men’s reticence in help-seeking. A number of hypotheses were put forward to explain this, but I found myself wondering where the evidence was that there was something to explain. Are we trying to explain a Shibboleth? Men’s lesser use of GPs, for example, is partly due to women’s contraception, pregnancy and childcare issues, and the rest may be mostly caused by men’s full time working making access to GPs more difficult. No doubt there is a genuine gender effect as well, but perhaps far less in magnitude than often imagined in the case of physical healthcare. However, mental health issues were to the fore here. The aspect which Kingerlee emphasised was men’s sense of safety. If a situation was judged unsafe, then men’s instinct was not to reveal weakness. Men were also prone to be mistrustful as to what use others may put any information they may reveal. I found myself wondering who exactly men were worried about? Other men, or women? A question raised in Q&A was very pertinent to the issue of men’s perception of safety – not just in help seeking, but in any public action. The questioner referred to the topical event of MP Mark Field ejecting a female protester from the Mansion House during the Chancellor’s speech. His point, which was entirely accurate, was that men are becoming frightened to do anything, and the furore over Field’s “man handling” of the woman is the mechanism by which this fear is being generated. A woman in the audience responded, stating that in her view what the video showed was “not OK” (there’s a red flag phrase, for you). What she failed to appreciate is that had the protester been a man, no one would have cared two hoots – and in that case it would probably have been two or three men man-handling him out of the room, perhaps with far greater force. The issue here is that so many people are effectively insisting that women should be untouchable, and hence, by implication, allowed to do whatever they like without interference.

Ilyas Sagar-Ouriaghli, “Improving men’s help-seeking behaviour”: This followed the same theme as Kingerlee’s talk. The context was mental health issues. Right away he told us that only 36% of referrals are for men, but women are 58% more likely to receive treatment. Ilyas gave us 18 Actions which he proposed would help increase men’s accessing of mental health services, but I found myself wondering whether the problem was actually exposed by those initial data. Those two numbers appear to suggest that men who seek help are less likely to get any. Is that not the problem, or at least part of it? Ilyas, to his credit, implicitly recognised this, ending with an acknowledgement that clinical practice needs to change to suit men, not vice-versa.

Rob Hadley, “Is not being a Dad harder than being a Dad?”: “Life is a dash between two numbers” (I’m going to steal that line). Men are the second sex in reproduction. Hadley asked, “men are blamed for not accessing healthcare, but is it healthcare not accessing men?”. Quite. Poor paternity rights exacerbate men’s difficulty in combining breadwinning & childcare. Stay-at-home Dads are still not accepted by most of society. (Correct – as British Social Attitudes Surveys show emphatically). Childless men have poorer health, reduced longevity and tend to be socially isolated and lonely when older. I found myself wondering whether we can now add both men and women having no grandchildren to this issue?

Mark Brooks OBE (Chairman of Mankind Initiative), “Male friendly services for DV”: I’ve heard Mark talk probably half a dozen times, but this was particularly good. Mankind Initiative now has a contract from the Home Office to deliver training to all police forces on how to handle DV against male victims. Mark gave us a quick run-through of the headline stats on DV which I won’t repeat fully as readers will be familiar with most of them. 11% of male victims compared with 7.2% of female victims attempt suicide. Mankind Initiative had 1400 male callers in 2018 and 500 female callers calling on behalf of a man (reading these stats approximately off a graph). The number of callers increased when the availability of the helpline was increased (to 2 staff). Despite that, 25% of callers were unable to get through. Hence, the indication is that demand is still exceeding capacity. Average call length 33 minutes. Over half had never told anyone before. 69% would not have called had the service not been anonymous. 97% involved a female perpetrator. Average age 43 (range 20 to 81). Average duration of abuse 6 years (longest 20 years). 64% involved physical abuse. 92,704 people had accessed the web site last year, with 198,221 page hits.

Alex Skeel’s story, “Abused By My Girlfriend”, is still on iPlayer as of 22/6/19 and was strongly recommended by Mark. He noted that whenever there was a documentary like this, or a DV storyline on a soap, the number of hits on the Mankind Initiative website soars. The Skeel story caused more than a tripling of hits the day after airing. The Mankind Initiative helpline is “manned” by women (in fact all their staff are women). Male DV victims have no difficulty talking to women. (I’ve never thought about this before, but I doubt that women DV victims would be so happy talking to a man – or am I wrong? Woman’s Aid and Refuge, of course, don’t give them that option in any case). Mark noted an increasing number of male survivors of DV are coming forward to offer to volunteer for the charity.

Mark then moved on to the political dimension, referring to the iniquity of male victims being hidden under the VAWG label in the CPS’s annual VAWG reports. Similarly, what message did it send that the mental health of men & boys falls under the Women & Equalities Select Committee? Mark had some hard words to say about the push to get the new DV Bill to include the statement that DV “disproportionately affects women & girls”, backed by the EHRC. But Mark reserved his most intense ire for the 1,384 members of the BPS who voted against having a male psychology section (cf. 2,829 in favour). He said he would like to ask each and every one of them exactly what their motivation could possibly be for voting down the creation of a male section when a female section already existed? I couldn’t agree more. Mark closed with a plea to get “our research” (referring to the whole audience) to the policy makers, the media & civil servants. It’s no good just sounding off into the usual echo chamber. Great talk.

Kerry Clark, “Enhancing Therapy for Men through using Male Tinted Spectacles”: The speaker was from a Midlands NHS Trust and was working with men in a secure unit. All-male clients, and almost all female psychologists. The potential for gender-based misunderstanding is clear, but it seems that they are trying to be more gender-specific. A telling comment was that the men fear that by “opening up” they might end up with a longer stay. This surely harks back to a previous speaker who emphasised the need for men to feel safe before they will talk – and, in this case, what they are afraid of is “the system”.

Deborah Powney (Univ. Central Lancs), “Bouncing back from DV”: This was a novel one. Usually one concentrates on the harms arising from DV. But Deborah’s talk referred to the compensatory consequences of having been a DV victim. (I can hear the screeches of outrage from here). The ultimately positive outcomes arsing from the adaption to trauma include positive re-appraisal of one’s self, greater strength and resilience, greater empathy, improved social connection and appreciation of life, and greater self-belief. However, first one has to achieve that improved state by overcoming the initial trauma. These observations apply to both sexes. In respect of men, Deborah was another to note that it’s not that men don’t reach out for help, it’s that therapies don’t meet men’s needs. An initiative which she is trialling in her native Cumbria is a “walking cure” (my words), and she’s looking for clients. It’s an intriguing idea. I guess you’ll need boots.

Caroline Flurey (UWE), “Experiences of men with rheumatic diseases”: This made a change – a discussion of physical health rather than mental health. Caroline reminded us of the distinction between osteoarthritis, which is largely a disease of old age (confusingly referred to by many people as “rheumatism”), and rheumatoid arthritis which is an inflammatory illness for which the first occurrence peaks in the mid-30s. Usually diagnosed as 30%/70% men/women, Caroline expressed the view that this gender skew is probably measurement bias. Her work focussed on men’s coping with the disease, which is painful and has no cure. Factor analysis showed two clear groups, firstly those who remain positive, keep active, adapt their activities to their new status, retain their independence and avoid getting angry. The second group exhibit anger, frustration and feel guilty that they can no longer do what they could do before (e.g., providing for others). They try to continue doing what they always did, but are frustrated by incapacity and fail to adapt, e.g., by changing exercise regimes to what can be accomplished. Not surprisingly, the latter group tend to have the more severe disease. Quote, “I’ve handed back my man card” summarised what some men feel in respect of the frustration of no longer being able to physically perform as they used to, and as a result feeling guilty and rather useless in their dependency (my words).  The purpose of the work is to inform development of tailored self-management advice for such men. In common with every study I’ve ever heard (usually in the mental health context), men were found to prefer assistance with practical matters rather than emotional matters. (I must add immediately that fathers struggling with child contact after separation badly need both types of support).

Miles Groth (via Skype), “Male friendly existential therapy”. Unfortunately the audio on the Skype connection was clipping so badly that I followed virtually none of this. One thing I picked up, though, was that the emphasis of the methodology was to focus on the present. This does contrast rather sharply with much of psychoanalytical obsessions with the distant past. The YouTube video will be accompanied by a transcript.

Eric Anderson (his second coming), “Increasing positive attitudes towards gay men”. The burden of Eric’s second talk was that homophobia in western countries has retreated into the past and is now largely a non-issue. This has been accompanied by a move to a mixed masculine-feminine persona by younger men today in the west, even those traditionally macho types who play team games. These are two aspects of the same phenomenon, according to Eric. I’ll not dwell on the details of Eric’s talk as it was essentially the same as the corresponding parts of his ICMI18 talk which is already available on video. It’s fair to say that his data on men’s “mixed masculinity” was more positively received here than the somewhat sceptical reception at ICMI18.

Julia Marotti (UCL), “Depressed boys’ experience with short-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy”: This was Julia’s MSc work and involved a small qualitative study of boys’ personal experiences of therapy for depression. She noted boys higher incidence of suicide than girls, but that boys are reported as suffering less often from depression. She stated that “research on boys’ help-seeking largely supports popular belief of their reluctance to ask for help”. Hmm. The conclusion was a need to listen to young male’s voices more to inform therapeutic services in effective engagement with this cohort. Fair enough.

Mahamed Hashi, “Listening to young black men”: Hashi has been shot and he’s been stabbed in his work with poor black youth in London. His message is to listen – including to “drill music” (drill = machine gun, and drill music refers to lyrics which promote violence against rival “gangs”, though Mahamed repudiated the notion of gangs as such). I agree that banning is certainly not the right approach. They are urged by the popular narrative to speak about their feelings. They find this applies only so long as they say the correct things. But this is not particular to black males. It applies to males generally. Disadvantaged they certainly are, but any claim that they are disadvantaged only by the State and by white society is too simplistic an interpretation (in my view). Their own communities also have agency and responsibility (my view, not necessarily the speaker’s).

The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health: Some authors gave a very brief introduction to the chapters they wrote, including several of the previous speakers and Belinda Brown (sorry, can’t recall them all). Being an academic book, it’s very expensive. Those in a position to do so should get their university library to order a copy: go here.

All told, a very pleasant way to spend a couple of days, in the company of an unusually large gathering of sensible people.