'What's wrong with jazzing it up a little bit?'

January 5, 2007

Academic eyebrows were raised when forensic psychologist Kathy Charles appeared in The Scottish Sun commenting on a series of notorious unsolved crimes. In typical Sun style, she was compared to the fictional television psychologist Cracker, played by Robbie Coltrane. The paper styled her as "our own real-life Cracker... brains, beauty and female".

Her collaboration with a tabloid newspaper is all the more surprising because Dr Charles is still a research assistant at Glasgow Caledonian University.

"I am very junior, and I thought, if this gets read by Professor So-and-So, what will he think? But everything I said to The Sun , I checked out," she says.

Many academics are fearful of their work being dumbed down or misreported in the media, but Dr Charles takes a refreshingly relaxed attitude.

"Academics don't like the language tabloids sometimes use, but if the basic substance is correct and informative, I don't see anything wrong with jazzing it up a little bit.

"When such exercises are done carefully, they can be a great way to reach a large audience, yet working with the media so closely is often shunned."

The initial link with the media came through a forensic psychology evening class Dr Charles teaches at Glasgow University: one of her students knew the editor of The Scottish Sun .

Dr Charles's interest in her field was sparked as an undergraduate at Leicester University when she took Julian Boon's course on the psychology of love and destructiveness.

She won a PhD studentship at Glasgow Caledonian University, which she completed last April, investigating the links between teenagers' interests and the likelihood of their offending.

Her supervisor, Vince Egan, had studied unusual interest patterns in adult offenders, discovering links with an interest in cults, satanism, weaponry and body building, but there was no work on adolescents.

There were suggestions that an interest in Goth culture was suspect after the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado and the murder of Scottish teenager Jodi Jones by her boyfriend Luke Mitchell.

Dr Charles's research involved 700 schoolchildren at two non-selective mixed state schools. She had been attending a cookery evening class in which a fellow student was a teacher at one of the schools. "There I was, learning how to make red pepper soup, and this guy hands me half my sample.

Other people I know have sent out loads of letters and got nothing back. I would say to all PhDs, 'join a cookery class'."

Contrary to the speculation, she discovered that teenagers with occult or Goth interests might be slightly neurotic, but there was no link to offending.

What she did find was that competitiveness in seeking attention from the opposite sex was strongly linked to delinquency.

"The more keen (boys) were to attract females and to be the alpha male, the more offending they would get involved in, not just in terms of frequency but repertoire."

This also applied to girls, who might not be as physically aggressive as boys but would react spitefully to other girls who they felt challenged their status.

Dr Charles hopes to present her findings in detail to the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences conference in Germany in July.

Her work has shifted focus. Dr Charles's two-year research assistantship, part of a joint Glasgow Caledonian-Glasgow University project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, involves her investigating face recognition.

She hopes to discover what other qualities might be matched to people who have expertise in face-matching. This is of particular relevance to the work of the police and customs officials, who are expected to be able to identify offenders.

The general public's success in face-matching tends to vary from 50 to 95 per cent, Dr Charles says, and the police do not appear to be significantly better at the task, generally ranging from 60 to 100 per cent.

Misidentification proved fatal in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot by police who mistook him for a would-be suicide bomber, despite officers having a photograph of the suspect, Dr Charles says.

Yet research shows that humans are still better than machines at face recognition.

"People who are very good at it beat the computer every time. This is why we want to find out what other things they can do, or whether it's just a knack."


Leicester University

office assistant, making tea and smiling a lot

getting police officers involved with our research. I genuinely enjoy explaining research to non-academics

snobbery over how research findings are disseminated

Apart from having a permanent senior lectureship and a huge grant, I would like to have been responsible for making lasting links with groups outside the university

A grad student, a postdoc and a professor find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and out comes a genie who says: "I grant each of you one wish." The grad student says: "I want to be in the Bahamas with a gorgeous woman who sunbathes topless." Poof! He's gone. The postdoc says: "I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing with a hula dancer and a Mai Tai." Poof! He's gone.

"You're next," the genie tells the professor. The professor says: "I want those guys back in the lab after lunch."

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