Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

Determining the Real-World Value of Interventions in Field Research

Written by Dr Nancy Doyle.

Co-director of the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work, Dr Nancy Doyle is a Research Fellow at Birkbeck, Chartered Psychologist in organisational and occupational psychology, and the founder and owner of Genius Within CIC, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion.

Real world data is essential

Applied field research is really difficult – data can be messy and full of contradictions. I realised in my doctoral research that data from a large field study didn’t make sense. I wanted to flip open the ‘black box’ of coaching (Nielsen & Randall, 2013) to understand how being coached could improve the work performance of dyslexic adults in the workplace. My pilot studies had shown a large increase in self-rated and manager-rated performance (Doyle & McDowall, 2015). Support for dyslexic adults is much needed as they are at significant increased risk of career limitations, unemployment and incarceration than the general population (Jensen et al., 2000; Snowling et al., 2000). I wanted to find out how coaching changes their self-beliefs, their stress levels and their behaviour

Real world data is hard to collect

So, I had before-, immediately after- and 3-months after coaching data from 67 dyslexic adults, split into three cohorts of wait-list control, one-to-one coaching and group coaching. I had a working memory score, a generalised self-efficacy score, a stress indicator and a workplace behaviour score for each. Bonferroni corrections for multiple comparisons (Perrett & Mundfrom, 2010) were somewhat disabling. All my intervention group means headed in the same direction – up! But the three x time, three x condition, four x dependent variable with the 67 people (down from 85 at the start) was just not powerful enough to get a conclusive result. My control group had practice effects (grrr) which waned by the third interval but ruined the time 2 analysis. My one-to-one coaching participants had a sustained uplift from time two to time three and my group coaching condition went up at time two and then up again at time three. I was none the wiser as to how coaching might improve the difficulties associated with dyslexia at work.

Real-world data is messy

We considered if the measures were faulty. The strongest result had come from using backward digit span in the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale (Weschler, 2008). The group coaching condition had increased from an average of seven to eleven (the standardised score ranges from 1-19; the average is 8-12; practice effects are reported by the publisher to be 0.6). Yet this score was still not significant following Bonferroni corrections. The self-efficacy scores initially went backwards for the coaching conditions. We wondered if this was some sort of methodological artefact; or perhaps it reflected an increased self-awareness of struggles. However, they recovered by time three. Perhaps a more workplace-focused self-efficacy scale would be more effective? With the behavioural measures, these were designed by me and, though their reliability analyses were decent, we wondered if we should use an established scale of strategies. So, I decided to re-run the study. All studies were triple-blinded – testers didn’t know to which condition testees were assigned, coaches didn’t know test scores and I didn’t know which condition was which until after I had done the analysis.

You can imagine my delight, six months later, when I had almost identical results from my second cohort of 52 dyslexic adults (this time split into group coaching and control only). Control group practice effects at time two, persistent increases from the intervention group but not powerful enough to placate Bonferroni. So I undertook some ‘abductive reasoning’ (Van Maanen et al., 2007) to try and understand the results. This is when I noted a conundrum – a pattern in the data that shouldn’t be there if it was a straightforward null result.

Real-world people don’t respond in a homogenous way

Looking solely at the time three minus the time one scores (total distance travelled, or the “magnitude of the effect”) the means for each measure went in the same direction. Up for the intervention groups, slightly up for controls. But they were not correlated. How could this be? Why would there be consistency at the group level (as measured by the group means) analysis but no consistency at the individual level (correlation works by assessing the consistency of paired trajectories for each participant)? There is only one answer – the group means were masking significant disparities for individuals within each group. Now, this is where is gets technical. I tried a person-centred cluster analysis (Morin et al., 2018). In the working memory variable, I found distinct cohorts, a bi-modal distribution for the intervention group:

Some of them scored similarly to the control – a zero to small uplift, probably a practice effect. Others increased dramatically. In the other measures, I found a platykurtic distribution of improvement, some similar to the control, a bit ‘meh’, a bit more, increasing to quite reasonable and then quite large levels of improvement:

Group effect measures versus individual effects variance

But these were not the same people, which is why the correlations were not significant. In other words, some coachees had improved on working memory, some on levels of stress, some on self-efficacy and some on implementation of behavioural strategies. The coachees had taken what they wanted from the coaching, and not invested their personal development resources in the other mechanisms of change. The group level of analysis had wiped out variability in response-to-treatment and masked the impact of the coaching. This has implications for research, which is broadly dependent on the framework of null hypothesis significance tests. T-tests, ANOVAs, MANOVAs – all these depend on some sort of consistency within the group. Psychological research depends on isolating a potential variable, measuring it for each individual in a group, and crossing our fingers that the group will all behave in a similar enough way to achieve the hallowed ground of a significant p-value. But humans don’t behave in similar ways, even if they are broadly similar in age, diagnosis, employer, job role. I started wondering how many psychological approaches were ignoring the individual variability in treatment responses in favour of what works best for the dominant average, and ignoring the needs of those who don’t respond or respond negatively: mindfulness, I am looking at YOU (Farias & Wikholm, 2016).

Personalised pathways, group effect: meta-impact

We decided that there should be a way to understand whether or not an intervention has a good chance of working in some way for most rather than the one mechanism that will often work in the same way for many. To do this, I constructed a method for demarcating a significant improvement at the individual level which could be then re-aggregated at the group level across all the dependent variables. I deemed my participants to have improved if they improved to equal / more than one standard deviation above the average level of improvement for the cohort. This reduced the number of people who could be improved, marked a line in the sand for my platykurtic distributions and isolated the improvers in the bimodal distribution. When I had a binary yes/no score for improvers I could then add up how many improvers there were in the intervention groups and how many there were in the control groups. And bingo! The intervention groups produced significantly more improvers than the controls. This could be analysed using odds-ratio, ANOVA, t-tests or non-parametric equivalents (Doyle et al., 2022).

Going into my PhD viva with a novel statistical method of analysis was a risk. However, after a decent grilling, my examiners concurred that the method was empirically sound. Almuth and Dr Ray Randall, my external examiner, helped corral the study into a single paper. Getting it past journal reviewers was another matter! Those with statistical pedigree seemed affronted at the “arbitrary dichotomization” but offered several avenues for statistical exploration which I undertook, leading me to a place where I am way more familiar with mathematical reasoning than is comfortable for most social scientists! I enhanced the Maths and roped in a mathematician, Dr Kate Knight, to lay out the process in algebraic formulae. Job done? Nope. Those with field study experience loved the idea, but struggled with the Maths. Grr. Eventually, a multi-disciplinary journal, PLOSONE, found an editor and some anonymous reviewers who could see the pragmatic, realist need for expanding the methods available to field researchers and after a year of wrangling it was published on the 17th March 2022.

Real world data needs real world analytic method

What does this mean? My editor, Dr Ashley Weinberg, suggested that the meta-impact analysis of interventions has the potential to increase our understanding of psychological interventions in situ, giving boost to field researchers. There are still limitations. For example, we need to understand more about the cut-off point- the method needs to be replicated in tandem with qualitative study to explore whether it chimes with self-reports of experience and real world value. I know many research students and field researchers will empathise with my plight. There is a general sentiment in organisational psychology that we are hampered in research by participant attrition and low power, which leads us to design studies that have the most chance of a successful result, even though this limits us to basic designs or using large cohorts in ways that don’t match reality. My hope is that we can use meta-impact analysis to bring more ecological validity to our work as psychologists and embed nuance for individuals into study designs.


Dixon, R. A., & Hultsch, D. F. (1984). The Metamemory in Adulthood (MIA) instrument. Psychological Documents, 14(3).

Doyle, N., & McDowall, A. (2021). Diamond in the rough? An ‘empty review’ of research into ‘neurodiversity’ and a road map for developing the inclusion agenda. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, published.

Doyle, N.E., & McDowall, A. (2019). Context matters: A review to formulate a conceptual framework for coaching as a disability accommodation. PLoS ONE, 14(8).

Doyle, N.E., Mcdowall, A., Randall, R., & Knight, K. (2022). Does it work ? Using a Meta-Impact score to examine global effects in quasi-experimental intervention studies. PLoS ONE, 17(3), 1–21.

Doyle, N., & McDowall, A. (2015). Is coaching an effective adjustment for dyslexic adults? Coaching: An International Journal of Theory and PracticeCoaching: An, 8(2), 154–168.

Farias, M., & Wikholm, C. (2016). Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind ? British Journal of Psychology Bulletin, 40, 329–332.

Jensen, J., Lindgren, M., Andersson, K., Ingvar, D. H., & Levander, S. (2000). Cognitive intervention in unemployed individuals with reading and writing disabilities. Applied Neuropsychology, 7(4), 223–236.

King, E. B., Hebl, M. R., Morgan, W. B., & Ahmad, A. S. (2012). Field Experiments on Sensitive Organizational Topics. Organizational Research Methods, 16(4), 501–521.

McLoughlin, D., & Leather, C. (2013). The Dyslexic Adult. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

Morin, A., Bujacz, A., & Gagne, M. (2018). Person-Centered Methodologies in the Organizational Sciences : Introduction to the Feature Topic. 21(4), 803–813.

Nielsen, K., & Randall, R. (2013). Opening the black box: Presenting a model for evaluating organizational-level interventions. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22(5), 601–617.

Perrett, J. J., & Mundfrom, D. J. (2010). Bonferroni Procedure. In N. J. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Research Design (pp. 98–101). Sage Publications Ltd.

Santuzzi, A. M., Waltz, P. R., Finkelstein, L. M., & Rupp, D. E. (2014). Invisible disabilities: Unique challenges for employees and organizations. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(2), 204–219.

Snowling, M. J., Adams, J. W., Bowyer-Crane, C., & Tobin, V. A. (2000). Levels of literacy among juvenile offenders: the incidence of specific reading difficulties. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 10(4), 229–241.

Van Maanen, J., Sørensen, J. B., & Mitchell, T. R. (2007). The interplay between theory and method. Academy of Management Review, 32(4), 1145–1154.

Weschler, D. (2008). Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale version IV. Pearson.

More information: 



The Trouble with Freedom: Imagining America’s Future in Turbulent Times

Melissa Butcher, Professor of Social and Cultural Geography, shares insights into her latest research project ‘The Trouble with Freedom’, involving conversations with Americans across the USA on how they imagine America’s future.

In the last year I have listened to multiple speeches made by Donald Trump as part of his America First ‘Saving America’ tour of the United States, and the playbook has been much the same: a narrative of economic decline, humiliation on the international stage, record crime in Democrat run cities, the emasculation of ‘gender ideology’, and copious gasoline (at inflated prices) thrown on the bonfire of public education, followed by an overview of his achievements, and a call to supporters to keep the faith.

But Trump’s speech at the America First Policy Institute (AFPI, Washington DC, July 2022) was different. The narrative of decline and nostalgia for greatness was still there but most of the 90 minutes was dedicated to actual policy statements, with ‘Law and Order’ at its centre. Having spent the last year in conversation with a range of people from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions across America, I would have to concede that this is the best strategy America First Republicans could have devised. Violent crime, particularly in major cities, is rising[1], but more existentially, there is a general perception of disorder in America that ranges well beyond crime statistics. Even formerly ‘liberal’ strongholds like California are feeling the backlash.

A raft of pressure points on America’s cultural borders are causing them to buckle in ways that some argue is a necessary corrective, but others, particularly those identifying as ‘conservative’, are not comfortable with. As a global power in the 20th and early 21st centuries, America’s political, economic and social influence extended internationally, but the country now faces a series of challenges: competition from rising economic centres such as China; deindustrialisation and the shift to a digital economy; a democratic deficit with fractious governance; and polarised dissent in the face of ongoing racial injustices and shifting social norms, broadly dividing the country along generational, class, racial, rural/urban, and religious/secular lines.

These processes of internal and external change are generating questions about what it means to be American today, redefining American identity in a period of cultural flux, and highlighting a need for new forms of social cohesion as resurgent nationalism leads to exclusion and conflict. There are vanishing opportunities for contact that might generate the empathy and understanding necessary to narrow the gap between the extremes[2], and several authors, such as Stephen Marche[3], predict that it will end in tears, with another civil war on the horizon.

America’s political and social polarisation is exacerbated by divergence in core beliefs such as the American ‘master narrative’ of freedom. The historian Eric Foner has argued that freedom is a key organising principle underpinning America’s collective sense of identity. According to Foner, ‘No idea is more fundamental to American’s sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom’[4]. It is attached to a founding myth; enshrined in political discourse; and embedded within America’s global strategy, defending ‘the free world’ and promoting free markets internationally.

Yet there has always been more than one definition of this contested master narrative, and, therefore, of the United States. Freedom has been reshaped over time, with the boundaries between free and unfree moving beyond the absence of coercion to incorporate racialised, classed and gendered definitions, as well as aspiration, morality, law, religious, social, economic and political practices. As Tyler Stovall[5] outlines in his history of ‘White Freedom’ in America, some people have always had more freedom than others.

The contemporary battle for ownership of freedom is driven by the need to reconcile disorder that has emerged with recent ruptures in the American Dream. The idea of freedom embedded in consumer choice and the promise of an affluent future is disappearing in global financial crises and environmental collapse, the latter generally considered ‘nothing to worry about’ at America First rallies. Covid-19 mandates and vaccinations unleashed a Medical Freedom movement that has emphasised bodily autonomy despite risks to health (e.g. the right not to wear a mask, to not be vaccinated). That bodily autonomy does not now extend in many parts of America to the freedom to choose an abortion. Similarly, for some the freedom to own a semi-automatic rifle does not contradict support for the fall of Roe vs Wade in the name of preserving life. American culture leaps tall contradictions in a single bound.

The call to defend freedom features heavily in any America First rally, but what does freedom need defending from in 21st century America? Mostly, it seems, from an 18th century sounding ‘tyranny’, led by ‘leftists’/‘Marxists’/‘radical Democrats’/atheists/ a generic ‘evil’, and an unseen ‘globalism’ driven by the World Economic Forum and Big Tech elites amongst others. At the extreme end of conspiracy lies the imagining of a hidden global network readying itself to reset the economy in 2030 and enslave humankind. But this conspiracy is now part of mainstream political narrative in America. Trump’s AFPI speech announced his aim to not only ‘drain the swamp’ but to ‘root out the deep state’ by firing ‘rogue’, ‘incompetent’, ‘corrupt’, ‘unnecessary’ bureaucrats, who, in his view, blocked his political ambitions when in power. Trump references a ‘fifth column’ in his argument that ‘our biggest threat in this country remains the sick, sinister and evil people within’ … and then he name drops Nancy Pelosi. The global circulation of this populist rhetoric is evident in the UK as well: Boris Johnson referenced a ‘deep state’ conspiracy in one of his final speeches to the nation.[6]

What is unspoken at these rallies is the threat of demographic change that will see white Americans become a minority by 2050. This appears a more likely basis for the intense focus on defending ‘freedom’, particularly through the reinforcing of cultural borders in the teaching of history and the drawing of a hard line around gender. America First rallies, or any of the myriad of organisations that are part of a wider ‘National Conservatism’ movement (e.g. Turning Point USA, Moms for America, Look Ahead America, Advancing American Freedom, etcetera), rail against the miseducation of children who they believe are no longer taught a ‘proper’ version of American history and Judeo-Christian values on which they believe America is founded. Their vitriol goes as far as accusing teachers of ‘grooming’ children, and calling for the banning of books that reference race or sexuality in any way that might make parents feel uncomfortable.

While there is opposition on the ground to this politics, what is clear in conversations across the USA is that there is a sense of uncertainty in the future, not knowing if it will be a safe place physically, or existentially. There is ambiguity as power and culture shifts and people no longer know where the boundaries lie, getting things wrong in the process. There is a sense of powerlessness: no control over a pandemic, over China, over gas prices, no control over drought, and no stopping demographic mobility. There is no sense of control over the direction of change.

This discomfort is worked on by America First into a fever pitch of shame and humiliation, and years of research has taught me to never underestimate what people will do to avoid those feelings, including vote against what might be seen as their own interests. There can though be control over borders according to America First, in an America of ‘Law and Order’: a wall can be finished; ‘the homeless, drug addicts and dangerously deranged’, as described by Trump, will be removed to camps on parcels of land bought on the edges of cities; the death penalty will be introduced for drug trafficking; the unemployed will have to work; proof of citizenship will be needed to claim child tax credits; ‘illegal’ migrants will be sent back; the police will be given back ‘their authority, resources, power and prestige’, and Trump’s America will be ‘tough and nasty and mean if we have to’. Three times in his AFPI speech Trump explicitly called for more power to the President or Federal Government presumably led by him, in order to: have more ‘tools to combat unfair trade’; to override ‘weak mayors’ and ‘cowardly governors’; and to call in the National Guard to restore ‘order’ in cities he deems out of control.

Trump continues to shy away from making a formal declaration that he is running in 2024, perhaps waiting until after the mid-term elections in November, but it’s widely believed he will. Or if not him it will be his mirror image, possibly Ron deSantis, with less chaos and more focus. Whatever the timing, the Republicans under the guise of America First and national conservatism are sliding towards the removal of freedoms in freedom’s name.

Further information




[3] Marche, S. (2022). The Next Civil War: Despatches from the American Future. USA: Simon & Schuster.

[4] Foner, E. (1998). The Story of American Freedom. NY: Picador. p xiii

[5] Stovall, T. (2021). White Freedom: the Racial History of an Idea. USA: Princeton University Press.



More Vulnerable but Happier? A study of older residents in the first lockdown

The national lockdowns in 2020 affected people in different ways, depending on age, social habits and living situation. In this blog, Dr David Tross, an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography discusses the findings of a study of how the first lockdown affected their wellbeing.

The hands of a person joined together

Asked to record her feelings about lockdown during the first wave of the COVID -19 pandemic, Alice*, a 71-year-old divorcee living in Cheshire, describes it as ‘the longest and best holiday I have ever had’ while Catherine, a 60-year-old married retiree living in Essex, states: ‘if it wasn’t for this virus, I would consider this my ideal life-style’.

These are a few snippets from 24 written accounts of the first lockdown by older individuals, volunteers responding to a Summer 2020 of the Mass Observation Project, a longstanding social research initiative that generates written commentaries about a range of contemporary social issues from residents across the UK (my older sample are part of a broader age-based panel). While Catherine and Alice were unusual in being quite so enthusiastic about the experience of lockdown, the older age group is of particular interest sociologically because of a paradoxical theme emerging about the impact of the pandemic: despite being more vulnerable to dying or being hospitalised by COVID-19, older people’s wellbeing seemed less affected than that of other age groups. While overall levels of subjective wellbeing in the UK declined (unsurprisingly but still noticeably- given that this was the first national drop in the 10 years of measurement), older people’s self-reported levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression rose at a much lower rate than other age groups. The main losers? Young people, whose self-reported anxiety and depression tripled.

One explanation is about relative change to lifestyle. For my older cohort, it was the lack of fundamental change to their normal routine that characterised the majority of responses. As one put it, ‘’my life just seems to have trundled on regardless’ and her explanation, being retired and ‘not being directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic’ also illustrates a wider point. Provided you or others you knew hadn’t suffered from the virus, three key disruptions in the lives of many UK households: work routine, threats to income and home-schooling children, were not generally a factor for this group. Indeed, when prompted to describe changes in her routine, Catherine writes that ‘for the first time in our lives we now take a multi-vitamin every day’. With all due deference to the restorative powers of Vitamin D, this is not quite the seismic change the pandemic wrought upon many.

Another explanation is about relative expectations. Take loneliness. Despite having larger social networks and more frequent communication with friends and family, younger people self-reported as the loneliest age group in lockdown, surely underlining the discrepancy between the expectations of this age group and the reality (to take one example, students confined to their university halls). However, experiencing less disruption wasn’t always a lockdown advantage. In June 2020, an ONS survey indicated that almost half of UK working-age adults were reporting benefits of lockdown- not commuting, a slower pace of life, spending more time with family- precisely because of the forced but not necessarily unwelcome upheaval in their lives. Although many older respondents did write about enjoying popular activities of lockdown highlighted by the survey- gardening, walking, spending more time in nature, taking up creative hobbies- this was often only a slightly extended version of their pre-pandemic routines.

The boosterish narrative of lockdown was brilliantly satirised by the Financial Times opinion writer Janan Ganesh as ‘Oh! What a lovely curfew’. Decrying the tendency to ‘frame the lockdown as a disguised gift to the species’ as ‘tasteless’, he highlights that what ‘started out as twee high jinks about banana bread’ only reflects the deeper truth that there were winners and losers of lockdown, and socio-economic circumstances were one important dividing line.

Because, as the MO writers were penning their responses, it was already clear that one nation under lockdown had revealed two nations experiencing very different realities. One, living in affluent areas, in decent-size homes with access to gardens, furloughed from jobs or working from home and saving money; another, living in crowded accommodation in less affluent areas, disproportionately non-white, more likely to self-report as depressed and anxious, and, if still employed, having to take their chances with the virus in public-facing roles.

My writers belong mostly to the first tribe. They have gardens, own their homes and generally live in more rural and affluent areas of the UK. This may help to explain their relative lack of proximity to COVID deaths and hospitalisations. If they are lucky, then many acknowledged this. Take three indicative comments: ‘I felt so sorry for families in high-rise flats‘; ‘we have been very busy in our garden, it must be terrible to be in lockdown with nowhere to get out’; lockdown ‘is mostly easy, being retired, well off and a white woman’. These are the voices of privileges being checked.

While statistics tend to flatten the difference within social groups, qualitative research highlights the diversity of experience. Lockdown was a miserable experience for older writers whose culturally and socially gregarious lives were dramatically curtailed (limited space precludes exploring other negative factors, including those with health conditions whose treatment was disrupted). While Alice declared ‘it wouldn’t bother me if I never went to cinemas, restaurants and celebratory events again’, for others for whom these social and cultural engagements really matter, any benefits conferred by lockdown could not compensate for their lack. As one male retiree wrote, ‘I saved money but lost my social contacts’.

One significant loss was volunteering. The older writers broadly align with the demographics of what researchers have termed the ‘civic core’, the segment of the population who do the most volunteering and civic participation (including voting). This core is generally older, female, rural and live in less deprived areas. Over half of the cohort volunteered regularly pre-pandemic (compared to 25% of the UK adult population as a whole), and for some, the combination of service closures and personal vulnerability meant that they could no longer do so. ‘My friend and I who have worked together in Citizens Advice (CAB) and have done for many years, were over 70 and at risk and asked not to come’ writes one 80-year-old; ‘I have volunteered at CAB first as an adviser and latterly doing admin for over 45 years so this was a huge loss’. Another who organised events for other older residents in the village hall has moved some of these online but laments that this is ‘just not the same. I miss my social connections’.

The loss of volunteering opportunities also provides a more nuanced understanding of the unprecedented community response in the first wave of the pandemic. In what has been described as the largest peacetime civilian mobilisation in UK history, an estimated three million people in April and May of 2020 formed the vanguard of neighbourhood covid support groups delivering key medical services, food provision and support to vulnerable people across the UK. The Local Trust calls this as ‘an extraordinary response to the crisis, and evidence of a surge in community spirit’. And yet the spontaneous emergence of informal and locally focused covid mutual support groups ran alongside a sharp drop in formal volunteering, as charities and voluntary associations closed services and furloughed staff, or where older volunteers were too vulnerable to participate. This doesn’t mean that older people weren’t part of the bottom-up community response; some in the cohort took active roles. But it did mean that many older citizens who formed the bedrock of UK Civil Society were now, at the apotheosis of voluntary contribution, left without a contribution to make.

*names have been invented






How words can misfire in a foreign language. A look at the impact of our research on the role of multilingualism in psychotherapy

In this blog, Jean-Marc Dewaele, Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism in the Department of Applied Linguistics & Communication, discusses the origins of his research and why multilingualism needs to considered in the practice of psychotherapy.

Two women speaking

Two women speaking

Early experiences in life can shape future research interests, just as a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can ultimately trigger a typhoon across the world.  I remember standing in a little beach restaurant in Crete, aged 10, amid the sound of waves and the smells of thyme in the summer heat. I was with my new Greek friend. We communicated almost entirely in gestures because he did not know Dutch or French and I only knew a few words of Greek.  He had just convinced me to walk to the table where his dad was having an Ouzo, and firmly utter the mysterious word “μαλάκας”.  Little did I realise that I was about to call a colonel in the Greek army a “wanker”. I planted myself in front of the dad, looked him in the eye, said the word, and watched with astonishment as he went pale and then very red, before noticing his son smiling behind a pillar.  Though I have forgotten whether or not I was punished, I remember being amazed that a word that was gibberish to me could have such a powerful impact on somebody else.

This embarrassing episode triggered a research question that came to fruition thirty years later, as I embarked on a series of studies on the language preferences of multilinguals in communicating emotions.  I demonstrated that multilinguals’ first language(s) (L1) typically have more emotional resonance than foreign languages (LX), and that L1s are typically preferred to communicate emotions (Dewaele 2010).  The reason is that L1(s) are more embodied, having been acquired in early childhood, a period of intense affective socialization, when languages develop together with autobiographical memory and emotion regulation systems.  In contrast, LXs are acquired later in life and typically in a classroom, where words lack any rich emotional connotations, making those words feel uncalibrated and “detached”.  Although this perception may disappear after intense secondary affective LX socialisation, many LX users may occasionally struggle with emotion words and emotion-laden words.

The detachment effect of the LX has both positive and negative psychological consequences. LX users may feel inauthentic expressing their emotions in the LX, but its reduced emotional resonance can also allow them to talk about topics that would be too painful to discuss in the L1. Cook (2019) observed this in her interviews with refugees who had had been tortured in their L1.  Although some complained about feeling blunt and clumsy in English LX, they also considered it to be a liberating tool, which enabled them to bear witness to their trauma, and which contributed to the [re]invention and performance of a new self.

The insight that LX users may switch languages unconsciously or strategically in discussing their emotions was a central point of Dewaele (2010). It led Dr Beverley Costa, a psychotherapist who ran a counselling service that offered therapeutic support to Black, Asian and minority communities in the UK, to contact me. There began our joint interdisciplinary mixed-methods research into the problems facing both therapists and patients who are English LX users (Costa & Dewaele, 2012, 2019; Dewaele & Costa, 2013; Rolland et al., 2017, 2020).  It was the first research in the field to collect both quantitative and qualitative data from large numbers of multilingual patients and therapists in the UK, and thus marked a departure from the traditional approach in the field which was based on case-studies.  Statistical analyses and thematic analyses of interview data revealed that patients who are LX users in English sometimes struggled with expressing their emotions, and felt alienated when therapists ignored their multilingualism and multiculturalism, which are a central part of their identity. Many therapists were reluctant to allow other languages but English in the session for fear of losing control.  These fears were very much rooted in the monolingual ideology that dominates mental healthcare in the UK. There is very little training for therapists and counsellors to equip them to treat multilingual and multicultural patients.

In order to raise awareness about multilingualism, we have jointly presented our research to charities and service providers.  Costa trained over 3,640 British therapists between 2013 and 2020.  This training had a significant effect on the therapists’ beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding their multilingual patients. The sessions increased practitioners’ confidence about working with patients’ multilingualism, and how it could be a therapeutic asset in treatment (Bager-Charleson et al., 2017).  The techniques developed from our research are helping LX-using patients dealing with anxiety and depression more effectively (Costa, 2020).  The key points of our research have been incorporated into the core competencies for supervisors for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and in training programmes for clinical supervisors for the NHS at Universities of Reading and Southampton.

Bager-Charleson, S., Dewaele, J.-M., Costa, B., & Kasap, Z. (2017) A multilingual outlook: Can awareness-raising about multilingualism affect therapists’ practice? A mixed-method evaluation. Language and Psychoanalysis 6, 56-75.
Cook, S. (2019) Exploring the role of multilingualism in the therapeutic journey of survivors of torture and human trafficking. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Birkbeck, University of London.
Costa, B. (2020) Other Tongues: Psychological therapies in a multilingual world. London: PCCS Books.
Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2012) Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients. Language and Psychoanalysis 1, 19-40. Winner of the Equality and Diversity Research Award (2013) from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2019) The talking cure – building the core skills and the confidence of counsellors and psychotherapists to work effectively with multilingual patients through training and supervision. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 19, 231–240.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2010) Emotions in multiple languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dewaele, J.-M. & Costa, B. (2013) Multilingual clients’ experience of psychotherapy. Language and Psychoanalysis 2, 31-50.
Rolland, L., Dewaele, J.-M., & Costa, B. (2017) Multilingualism and psychotherapy: Exploring multilingual clients’ experiences of language practices in psychotherapy. International Journal of Multilingualism 14, 69-85.
Rolland, L., Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2020) Negotiating the language(s) for psychotherapy talk: A mixed methods study from the perspective of multilingual clients. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research